Japanese Tales

As we often mentioned, the Japanese world of folklore is a very rich one.

In order to understand their captivating imagery and storytelling, we have to get a grasp on the stories that created these characters and myths in the first place.

We go to the roots, not to the fruits.

From Good reads:

Here are two hundred and twenty dazzling tales from medieval Japan, tales that welcome us into a fabulous, faraway world populated by saints and scoundrels, ghosts and magical healers, and a vast assortment of deities and demons. Stories of miracles, visions of hell, jokes, fables, and legends, these tales reflect the Japanese worldview during a classic period in Japanese civilization. Masterfully edited and translated by the acclaimed translator of The Tale of Genji, these stories ably balance the lyrical and the dramatic, the ribald and the profound, offering a window into a long-vanished though perennially fascinating culture.”

“Just over half of the 220 tales come from Konjaku monogatari shu, with selections from Uji shûi monogatari representing roughly another quarter of the total. The remainder vary greatly in their origins: several examples each from other setsuwa collections, but also a story or two from such diverse sources as the surviving fragment of the eighth century Tango fudoki; the early fourteenth century emaki, Kasuga gongen genki; the undated Nara hon, En no Gyôja, and the Tamon’in nikki, described as a “massive diary of a series of monks at Kôfukuji, covering the years between 1478 and 1617.”

Though the primary audience for this collection is surely not Japanese literature specialists, one of the pleasures of the book for such readers is the combination of the familiar and the unexpected its pages contain. Tyler picks up a good tale wherever he finds it; his knowledge of a broad range of medieval popular religious narratives subtly enriches his choices; his appendices enable the specialist to find his sources and see just what he has done with them; the chosen tales are translated with verve and polish; and the result seems a labor of love.


Tyler’s concise and lucid introduction includes a fine section, “The Sources,” in which he discusses the qualities of setsuwa bungaku, its long history as written literature as well as its relationship to the modern folktale, the highly literate nature of the readers and compilers of setsuwa collections, and the individual mark each compiler left on his anthology. In shaping his own


Hell Scroll (地獄草紙, jigokuzōji)

How do we learn what Japanese subjects look like, if we want to respect the original aesthetics? We dig into old material, straight to the source.

One of these documents is the Hell scroll.


Wikipedia says: ‘The Hell Scroll is a scroll depicting seven out of the sixteen lesser hells presented in Kisekyō (“Sutra of the World Arising”). Six of the paintings are accompanied by text, which all begin with the phrase “There is yet another hell”, following a description of what the sinners depicted did to end up in this particular hell.’

From the E-museum’s description:

“The Buddhist concept of the Six Paths of Transmigration (J. rokudô) became popular at the end of the Heian period (794-1185) as the Heian court began to lose its power and social anxiety increased. The hells are one of the six realms to which a person is consigned after death as a result of his or her deeds during this life. The Hell Scroll (J. Jigoku zôshi) is an illustrated handscroll depicting the suffering of sinners who have fallen into this realm.

This scroll, which depicts four subsidiary hells within one of the Eight Greater Hells, was kept in the storehouse of Anjû-in Temple in Okayama Prefecture. It depicts murderers, thieves, adulterers, and so forth, who have fallen into the Hell of Cloud, Fire, and Mist. The naked men and women are in agony as they burn in an enormous fire. The writhing flames are vividly and effectively rendered with concise lines and black and vermilion tones. The painting probably caused its viewers to shudder with fear and foreboding, encouraging them to embrace the desire to be born into the Pure Land.

The text, a mixture of Chinese characters (J. kanji) and Japanese phonetic script (J. kana), is based on Chinese sutras written in Japanese style. It is thought that this scroll, together with the illustrated handscrolls of the Hungry Ghosts (J. Gaki zôshi) and the Extermination of Evil (J. Hekijae), is part of the Paintings of the Six Paths (J. Rokudôe) stored in the treasure house of Rengeô-in (commonly known as Sanjûsangendô) Temple, which was built by cloistered emperor Goshirakawa (1127-1192, r. 1155-1158).”