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Monkeys and Foxes in Japanese Folktales

(c) Yoshi-Yoshi

Submitted to Mr. Francis Britto
English Composition
January 15, 2001

Fox and Monkey

Kunio Yanagita, the pioneer folklorist in Japan, says, "Japan possesses more legends than any other country in the world" (Eder 20). As Yanagita says, the Japanese likes folktales or legends very much. Japanese children have grown up listening to adults telling these stories which have come down in their region from old times. Folktales are stories which have been handed down for entertainment, and these stories are often imaginative and fantastic. The purpose of this research paper is to show how the Japanese viewed monkeys and foxes in folktales, because both animals are smart and have something in common. They are one of the most prominent figures in Japanese folktales.

In folktales, human beings, animals, and deities appear together and act as if they are in the natural, normal world. Many animals often speak with humans and act like humans, and they play active role in folktales. One of the most prominent figures of all animals in Japanese folktales is the monkey, because the monkey is the most human like animal. Monkeys are one of the native animals of Japan and have been living with the Japanese from ancient times. The characteristic of the monkey is rather ambivalent. The monkey is described as an evil, cunning animal. And at the same time, it is described as a good, sacred messenger of many deities and Buddha. Also the monkey is witty, humorous, and somewhat lovable. Ohnuki-Tierney, the writer of "The Monkey as a Mirror," wrote that the monkey was regarded as a sacred mediator, while it was regarded as a metaphor for an ugly human, a trickster, and an evil deity. The reason of this ambivalent character of monkeys is that they were a source of food when the way to obtain food still was hunting and gathering, but as the agriculture was introduced to the Japanese, monkeys became a nuisance to peasants because they made a havoc of crops. The Japanese view of monkeys has varied as the society has changed. But the Japanese didn't simply hate monkeys even after the introduction of agriculture, but they kept a positive image of monkeys and have had ambivalent feeling toward them (53-58).

The next change of society was the introduction of Buddhism. And it added the character of monkeys to the role of sacred mediator of Buddha. One of the example stories of this monkeys' character is about an old man who was mistaken by monkeys as Buddha. An old man put his lunch on a branch of a nearby tree and was pulling weeds of his garden. He kept working for many hours, so he became tired and lay down on the ground. Then a group of monkeys came and found the lunch he had intended to eat at noon. They ate it, but the man was tolerant and watched them eat. They saw him just lying and thought he was Buddha. So the monkeys brought him many offerings such as money and foods. When the old man's neighbor heard of his fortune, the neighbor imitated him. But he laughed at the monkeys when he saw them acting like human. So the monkeys found out he was a fake and dumped him into a river. Ohnuki-Tierney wrote that "[i]n this tale, monkeys act as mediators sent by deities who reward or punish humans depending upon their conduct" (51). Those tales that regard the monkey as the mediator or messenger of god have some aspects of religious or moral education, which show us some parts of the Japanese's folk religion.

In the tale of "Kurage No Honenashi" 'Boneless Jellyfish' the monkey is described as a witty, clever animal. In this story, a monkey was led to the palace of the dragon, which was under the ocean, by jellyfish, because the dragon's wife fell ill and the only medicine that could cure her was the liver of a monkey. But the monkey overheard that the dragon wanted to take his liver from the secret conversation of the dragon and jellyfish. So when the jellyfish came to ask him if he had a liver, he answered that he had but he left it in a tree to dry, and that if the jellyfish needed it, he would go back and fetch it. Then they went back to get the liver. And when the monkey came ashore, he jumped up the nearest tree and laughed at the jellyfish for his stupidity. The jellyfish could not climb a tree, so he dejectedly went back to the dragon. The dragon was furious about his failure and beat him. That is why jellyfishes have no bone today (Casal 28-30).

As the tale of "Boneless Jellyfish" shows, the monkey was thought to have the healing power, or it was seen as a scapegoat. People often placed monkey's figure besides the bed of sick child. Or they carried it as a talisman so that evil left from them. The Japanese word for the monkey is "saru," and "saru" also means "to leave" in Japanese. So people thought the monkey could make illness or evil to leave. But this word, "saru," does not indicate what "to leave," so it can also mean that good luck escape, from people (Ohnuki-Tierney 65). The figure of three monkeys (Mizaru, Iwazaru, Kikazaru. 'See no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil') was used as talismans against illnesses (Casal 33).

In the tale of "Sarukani Gassen" 'The Monkey and the Crab War', the monkey is described as a cunning and malicious animal. One day a monkey found a seed of kaki, Japanese persimmon, and he asked a crab to exchange it for the rice dumpling the crab had. The crab agreed and he planted the seed at his front garden. The persimmon tree grew up and up, and finally it bore a lot of fine persimmons. But the crab could not climb the tree, so he asked the monkey to pluck them for him in return for a share. The monkey climbed the tree, but the monkey ate the ripe persimmons up in the tree, and threw the crab green ones. So the crab became angry and when the monkey came down, he punished the monkey with his scissors (Seki 15-16). The persimmon is the symbol of autumn abundance, of fecundity and a happy family life, and of old and sweet age, because its color and shape are like the Sun. The monkey is the metaphor of cunning human mind. The rice dumpling means food and fertility. The monkey took the dumpling, which represents food, and made the crab plant the seed, which means preparation for the future. But the monkey stole the persimmon the crab raised with care. The crab continued to be disturbed by the monkey, but he patiently kept on doing what he had to do even despite of impediments. Therefore this tale can be interpreted as a fable of oppressed peasant and greedy landlord classes of feudal days (Casal 30-32). In this tale, the monkey is described as the symbol of greedy landlord.

Since the monkey is the most human-like animal, people saw the monkey as representing the undesirable side of humanity or humans, such as silliness, superficial wisdom.@The monkey was regarded as an inferior human. There is a tale showing the monkey as an inferior human. When a peasant was working at a millet field, a monkey came and offered help. The monkey asked the peasant to let him marry one of his daughters if the monkey could finish the job before dark. The peasant thought it was not likely for the monkey to finish the job, so he agreed. But the monkey worked very hard and finished it. The peasant regretted promising with the monkey, but he told his three daughters about the promise after he came back home. The youngest of the three agreed to become the wife of the monkey on condition that he gave her a mortar. The monkey came the next morning to take his bride home. The monkey carried the mortar on his back and they left her home. When they came to a bridge, the youngest daughter asked the monkey to pick a flower, which was almost out of reach. The monkey tried to take the flower, but he fall into the river because of the weight of the mortar he was carrying. This tale is an example of the monkey represent inferior human. Its teaching is that "one must not try to achieve beyond one's means, lest misfortune strike" (Ohnuki-Tierney 62).

In the famous tale of "Momotaro" 'The Peach Boy,' the monkey appears as one of the animals that helped Momotaro beat Oni, ogres, which lived in a neighboring island. The peach, from which Momotaro was born, symbolizes fertility, womb, reproduction, and marriage. In short, Momo, the peach, means femininity. Momotaro symbolizes life, and he was sent to save a childless elder couple, which represents perishing humanity. And three animals, a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, helped Momotaro in return for receiving millet-dumplings, which represent the life-sustaining element. The pheasant is the symbol of the soul and messenger of gods, and represents thought, and sentiment. The dog and the monkey are the symbol of fertility as well. The Oniashima, island of ogres, represent the island of death. Thus, this tale shows life and humanity beat the death with help of fertility and thought (Casal 36-40). There is a sequel to the story. Momotaro and the three animals brought home fortunes, and Momotaro married with a woman, and they lived happily ever after. Momotaro brought the nearly perishing family prosperity and offspring.

Another prominent figure in Japanese folktales is the fox. The fox cannot be separated from Inari, the god of the rice fields, because the fox is believed to be the messenger of the Inari, as the monkey is believed to be the mediator of Buddha. The fox has some similarities to the monkey in other aspects. That is, both of these animals often outsmart humans or other animals, and the fox is also one of the native animals of Japan and has lived with the Japanese from ancient times. But the fox is often associated with weirdness and mysteriousness compared to the monkey. Many folklorists admit that the peculiar character and behavior of the fox, for example, its clever-looking face and eyes, its nocturnal habit, its quick movement and cunning, gave the Japanese a mysterious impression. The fox in Japanese folktales can transform itself in whatever it wants. It can deceive humans into believing horse manure and such to be delicious foods. In many tales, the fox is described as a deceiver. There is an example of them. A man came across a fox which was transforming into a woman but revealing her tail. The fox told the man that she was going not to deceive the man but to deceive a Buddhist priest. And she told him to come along with her. The man came with the fox as he was told and looked at the sight of the fox deceiving the priest through a hole of a shoji screen. The fox was serving the priest horse manure as dumplings and horse urine as liquor. But when a passer-by patted the man's back, the man realized he was looking though a hole of toilet (Yoshino 93). The fox was often thought in association with manure or urine as this tale shows, since the fox was regarded as the spirit of rich ground.

The Japanese considered that the fox had many kinds of supernatural powers, and owing to these powers, the Japanese worshiped the fox. Later, the worship of the fox was mixed with Inari, the god of the rice fields, worship, which came from China. The reason why the fox was thought as the messenger of Inari is that foxes hunt rats, which eat rice stored in a granary. But this explanation seems insufficient. According to Yoshino, the author of "Kitsune,'the fox,'" the fox as the messenger of Inari originally came from China. The Chinese thought the fox was the symbol of the spirit of rich ground because of its yellow coat, since the Chinese think the color of futile ground is yellow. And the fox has similar shape as the Plow, the constellation that includes the polar star. The Chinese conducted agriculture according to the movement of the Plow. This is the reason the fox became the messenger of the god of Inari (65-68).

The fox often transforms a woman in Japanese folktales. These tales can be divided into two types. Some of these tales are the type that the fox cheats men. In these tales, the fox is cunning and malevolent. These characteristics were also imported from China. In Chinese folktales, the fox often turns itself into a woman and deceives a man. This Chinese view of the fox influenced on many Japanese folktales. And the other tales are the type that the fox marries with a man and has a child, but the fox has been unmasked and has to leave the child and husband. These types of tales are found in many area of Japan. In such tales, the fox has to leave her child because the true identity is revealed. After that, the left child succeeds in life and becomes famous or rich, or the child's family and his descendants have a succession of good harvests of rice and become prosperous. This is the common plot of those tales. The Japanese watched the fox's life and were attracted by its ritual of separation between the vixen and her cubs. When the vixen has to separate her cubs, she barks at them and even bites them seriously if she has to. The Japanese saw the separation of the mother and the child particularly emotionally. And the Japanese thought this habit as somewhat tragic and commendable. The Japanese have had ambivalent feelings toward the fox as toward the monkeys (Yoshino10-52).

People often say that folktales are the reflection of cultures. The intention of this paper is to study Japanese culture through the two prominent animals in Japanese folktales. As Mayer, folklorist who studies about Japanese folktales, wrote, "[w]hatever the conclusions scholars of the history or philosophy of religion may arrive at upon studying the folk tales, even the most casual reader cannot fail to catch a revealing glance of the soul of the common people" (15-16).

Works Cited

Casal, U. A. "Far Eastern Monkey Lore" Monumenta Nipponica 12 (1956): 13-49.

Eder, Matthias. "Reality in Japanese Folktales" Asian Folklore Studies 28-1 (1969): 17-25.

Hirose, Shizumu. saru 'The Monkey'. Tokyo: Houseidaigaku Shuppankyoku, 1979.

Mayer, Fanny Hagin. "Religious Elements in Japanese Folk Tales" Studies in Japanese Culture. Ed, Joseph Roggendorf. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1963. 1-16.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Seki, Keigo, ed. Folktales of Japan. Trans. Robert J. Adams. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Yoshino, Yuko. Kitsune 'The Fox'. Tokyo: Houseidaigaku Shuppankyoku, 1980.

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