Sunday, January 27, 2013

The folklorist and the mountaineer

Japan's most famous mountain book may have borrowed more from the father of Japanese ethnography than first appears

Hayachine is a mountain that sits “far from the smoke of human habitation” in north-east Japan. As reported in Nihon Hyakumeizan, it has a reputation for weird goings-on:

In another tale, a villager went to Hayachine to gather bamboo. As he was cutting great swathes into the bamboo grove, he found a gigantic man asleep on the ground. His sandals alone, woven out of bamboo and set by his side, were three feet long. The man was sleeping with his face towards the sky and letting loose great snores. Then there is the story of the burly monk who cast spells on people and the one about a giant who darted terrible bolts of fire from his eyes. All these tales of ghosts and goblins hint that Hayachine sits on a somewhat different plane from the normal world.

The tales were originally told by Sasaki Kyōseki, a native of the district, to Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), who wrote them up in Tales of Tōno (Tōno Monogatari), published in 1910. Sometimes called the father of Japanese ethnography, Yanagita gets just one mention in Japan's most famous mountain book. But it is an important one. "Tales of Tōno is one of my favourite books," writes Fukada Kyūya in the Hayachine chapter of One Hundred Mountains of Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan).

On the face of it, the hard-scrabbling Hyakumeizan author and the patrician Yanagita had little in common. Fukada was the son of a printer; Yanagita married into an upper-crust family, taking his wife's name. This made him wealthy enough, after spells as a bureaucrat and a journalist, to establish himself as a private scholar. His first post as a government official, with the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, took him all over Japan. It was during these business trips that he first became interested in recording local folk customs.

Taking his cue from his father, a physician who became a Shinto priest, Yanagita was conservative and patriotic. His interest in folk religion developed naturally from a youthful interest in kokugaku, the so-called National Learning that had helped to inspire the Meiji Restoration. In 1908, Yanagita himself got his chance to buttress the ruling institution, when he was appointed as Secretary to the Imperial Household Agency. In 1915, he served as Master of the Imperial Ceremonies for the coronation of the Emperor Taishō.

Conservative as he was, Yanagita was no narrow-minded chauvinist. He probably read more widely in foreign literature than any other writer of his day. While still a student, Yanagita studied Grimm's Fairy Tales, which drew his attention to folk literature. Later, the writings of British folklore scholars helped to provide a framework for his early researches. When he was sent to Geneva from 1921 to 1923 as a delegate to the League of Nations Mandate Commission, he took the chance to stock up on foreign ethnographic works, adding to an already impressively comprehensive private library.

He applied these studies in fieldwork through the length and breadth of Japan. While investigating remote dialects, Yanagita found that the oldest forms - in one case, the words for a snail - were preserved in the most remote districts. By extension, such places were where the most ancient and authentic customs and beliefs would be found. It was no coincidence that Yanagita chose Tōno, deep within the "Tibet of Japan" in remotest Iwate prefecture, as the locus of his first and best known survey of folk literature.

Yanagita's researches on festivals and ballads led him to conclude that ancestor worship, or more precisely worship of ancestral spirits, lay at the root of the Japanese people's religious sensibility. In his essay About our ancestors (Senzo no hanashi) written in the closing months of the second world war, he wrote that one of the key characteristics of Japanese religiosity was that the souls of the dead remain in Japan. That is, instead of going to the Pure Land or returning to nothingness, they congregate especially in the mountains near their village communities, there to watch over their descendants.

This essay is nowhere cited in Nihon Hyakumeizan. But the attention and respect paid to summit shrines, village festivals, pilgrimages and other rites and observances throughout the book suggest that Fukada Kyūya borrowed rather more than a handful of folktales from the father of Japanese ethnography. Such traditions sum up the people's relationship with their history and their surroundings - including their local mountains.

On at least one occasion, Fukada had the opportunity to hear Yanagita's ideas on rural traditions at first hand. The month after the young writer joined the Japanese Alpine Club in 1935, he and his wife escaped the summer heat by taking a room in a mountain hut on Kiri-ga-mine, a high plateau in Nagano Prefecture. For a week, their fellow guests included Takeda Hisayoshi, a founder member of the Japanese Alpine Club, Kogure Ritarō, a rugged explorer of the Japanese Alps and Chichibu, the poet Ozaki Kihachi - and Yanagita Kunio.

Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising to find a Yanagita-like respect for local customs and traditions in Nihon Hyakumeizan. Especially in Japan, mountains are embedded deeply into people's beliefs and rituals. After climbing Arashima-dake, one of his own local mountains, Fukada concluded as follows:

I noticed that the summit shrine contains several figures of Jizō, one of them sculpted in the first year of the Genji era (1864). Yes, I nodded to myself, this mountain has been revered and people have come up here to pay their respects for centuries.


Yanagita Kunio and Japanese folklore studies in the 21st century, Ronald A Morse (editor)

Yanagita Kunio: An Interpretive Study, by Kōichi Mori, in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2/3 (Jun-Sep., 1980), pp 83-115

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