Saturday, January 3, 2009

Legends of Tono by Yanagita Kunio

It is almost 100 years ago that Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) wrote his famous "Legends of Tono" (Tono Monogatari) and to celebrate this the 1975 translation by Ronald A. Morse has now been republished in a beautiful expanded version. It is an excellent translation that captures the terseness and realism of the original. In addition, there are several introductions: a new one by the translator, and previous ones by him and Richard Dorson about the author, the book and its significance. There is also an extensive new bibliography and the text has been enhanced with some well-chosen photographs.

Yanagita Kunio was one of those privileged persons who married a well-to-do partner and could spend most of his life dabbling in his hobbies: literature and (increasingly as a real vocation) folklore studies. The early (1910) Legends of Tono stands on the borderline of these two activities: it is excellent literature but also a precious record of peasant life in the rural Tono area.

I would not in the first place call it legends, though - as Dorson says in his introduction, many of the 119 short pieces are rather "memorates," i.e. "remarkable and extraordinary experiences told in the first person." Although two fairy tales have been included as well, many of the records are not even stories, but flimsy pieces of things heard or seen. That makes the book all the more interesting as a real account of the world of Tono - both things seen and unseen... much space is taken up by the fear for the supernatural.

We find the mountain god and deities who guard the home, such as oshira-sama; goblin's like kappa and tengu; weird behavior by monkeys and wolves; cases of kamikakushi, strange disappearances of people; and the superstition that whoever gets rich, the choja, must have had supernatural assistance. But there is also a story of a son who murdered his mother, a real and shocking happening.

We also can see Yanagita's fascination with mountain folk religion start in this book. The "memorates" were told to Yanagita by Sakai Kizen, a young native of Tono whom he met in Tokyo. Subsequently, Yanagita also visited the area, riding on horseback through the villages.

Countless memorates like the above must have existed, but they have been wiped out with the brains that contained them. Thanks to the record Yanagita Kunio so carefully took only those about this small northern group of villages and market town of Tono have survived. It is no surprise that Legends of Tono is by far the most popular among the hundreds of scholarly books Yanagita wrote. The town of Tono now lives off these legends - it has based its tourist industry on them.