One of the classics of Japanese folklore
Much of what we know of Japanese folklore might have been lost forever if it were not for two authors, Lafcadio Hearn and Kunio Yanagita. Both were avid collectors of the mysterious tales of weird and imaginative creatures that were passed down as oral folklore but never written down. Both did their work at the start of the Meiji era, a time when, in the name of modernization, the government and scholars of Japan were actively attempting to wipe out the beliefs and superstitions of previous eras which were thought to be embarrassing to a country entering the modern age.
“The Legends of Tono” (Japanese title “Tono Monogatari”) is the most famous of Yanagita’s works, collecting the narratives of the small town of Tono in Iwate prefecture, as told to him by local resident and storyteller Kizen Sasaki. The stories collected in “The Legends of Tono” include some of Japan’s most famous monsters like the kappa and the child-ghosts zashiki-warashi. Along with Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things and Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, “The Legends of Tono” is one of the most classic and important books on Japanese folklore.
A surprisingly small book for one that carries so much weight, there are exactly one hundred and nineteen legends spread out over fifty-eight pages. Many of these legends are only a sentence in length, and often there are three to four different legends on a page. Some of them are a bit longer, maybe a paragraph or two, and typical of Japanese folklore they do not tell a complete story but rather just describe an odd circumstance or the history behind some strange stone or tree local to a certain village. Many explain customs of the time in Tono village, and the movements of household gods and festivals. Some are sexual cautionary tales, and other frights designed to keep people in their proper place for fear of punishment. Yanagita’s style was to record the legends in a straight-forward manner without decoration and little elaboration.
However, packed inside Yanagita’s short sentences is an ocean of depth, one that is almost impossible to know just through a quick reading. Indeed, in Japanese there are annotated versions of “The Legends of Tono” that go on for four hundred pages or more digging into each of Yanagita’s terse sentences as if mining for gold. His simple and direct writing style would become a massive influence on author Mishima Yukio (The Sailor who fell from grace with the sea) who considered “The Legends of Tono” to be the finest-written work of Japanese literature.
There was more to “The Legends of Tono” than simple folklore gathering and writing however. This was a book with a political agenda. Yanagita was protesting against official histories at the time, which concentrated only on the rich and powerful and ignored the lives and hopes of the millions of poor peasants who, in the words of someone with similar inclinations, “did most of the living and dying” in Japan. Yanagita did not want to see the stories of these people lost to the tides of time, and so he gathered them up and wrote them down for future generations.
This “100th Anniversary Edition” celebrates the original 1910 publication of “The Legends of Tono.” It reprints the 1975 translation prepared by Yanagita-scholar Ronald A. Morse. Morse includes a preface to the 100th Anniversary Edition, the original forward to the 1975 edition written by Richard M. Dorson who had actually worked and studied with Yanagita, and a new introduction discussing the relevance of Yanagita’s work today. These three introductions add a bit of bulk to the publication, and some background on Yanagita and his relevance.
Morse also includes a “Guide to English-Language Writings on Kunio Yanagita and “The Legends of Tono”” in the back of the book for those interested in pursuing further study on the man and his works.