Folklore Fun! Japan

For my first focused Folklore Fun post (say that five times fast!) I decided to feature Japan! I had some preexisting familiarity with the culture and was interested to see what I could find in WPPL’s catalog. I uncovered a fascinating variety of material.

Of course, the first place I looked was in J398.2, the Dewey Decimal number for assorted folklore. It was there I found I Am Tama, Lucky Cat: A Japanese Legend. Growing up, I would see this iconic kitty all the time in local shops and at celebrations, and I had a ceramic one as a piggy bank. (Mercifully, it opened at the bottom so I didn’t have to smash it whenever I needed a few dollars!) However, I usually just called it “the lucky cat” or the “waving cat,” and I didn’t know why it was such a popular figure. I was enchanted when I read I am Tama, learning that the maneki neko, as it’s called, is actually beckoning, not just waving. This book tells the story of the maneki neko’s auspicious origin.

In the same section, I found The Funny Little Woman, a retelling of one of Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese stories. A fearsome oni (ogre) is the central threat to the perpetually giggling protagonist, who follows her runaway dumpling into the oni’s territory. Like many folk tales, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Nevertheless, this rendition takes readers on a journey through a treacherous underground landscape, and its Japanese-inspired artwork won a Caldecott Award in 1973.

Once I finished up in the 398.2s, I wasn’t sure where to look next. As it turns out, I didn’t have to look at all! A surprising reference to Japanese folklore fell right into my hands. The recent update for Animal Crossing: New Horizons had just gone live, and my friend was telling me all about the new features and characters on her island. While players were collectively celebrating the return of a beloved coffee pigeon or something, another new character had settled in without much fanfare: Kapp’n the sailor. He’s marketed as a turtle to Americans, but the minute I saw him I knew he was a kappa–you can even see it in his name! Kappa are a common troublemaking creature of Japanese legend who live in rivers and occasionally eat people (or steal their souls via rectum). The smooth head and scraggly ring of hair is a dead giveaway.

Kapp’n isn’t the only mythological creature in Animal Crossing; Tom Nook himself is living a double life. The star of Nintendo’s successful game isn’t a raccoon, as he’s known in the States. Tom and his nephews are actually tanuki, an animal of legendary status in Japan. Tanuki are known as mischievous shapeshifters, often using leaves to help their disguise. The prominent leaf imagery of Animal Crossing is another nod to tanuki magic. Japan’s shapeshifting trickster kitsune also appears in the game as Redd, the shifty bootlegger fox. In terms of folklore, tanuki and kitsune are attributed many of the same powers and characteristics, but tanuki are a bit more benign, while kitsune can be malicious.

As I thought about Kapp’n, Tom Nook, and Redd, I realized I could look up specific creatures and names from Japanese folklore. Finessing the catalog search led me from the juvenile nonfiction into an entirely different genre… YA fantasy novels. I’ll admit I was surprised. In my voracious fantasy-reading years, I can’t recall a single book that draws on Japanese folklore. It’s refreshing to see new diversity in such a well-established genre.

Meanwhile, the flourishing graphic novel industry has given rise to a new type of storytelling, and there I found some artful folk-inspired stories. Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter follows modern travelers as they visit ancient places. This story creatively blends photography and illustration while emphasizing the humanity of folk stories. It is eerie in a peaceful way. On the other hand, Ichiro takes a Japanese-American boy and forcibly hurls him into a world of demons, monsters, and gods. He must come to terms with his family’s past… if he can make it home alive. Raw an compelling, Ichiro brings folklore to life for the protagonist and readers alike.

Of course, I can’t feature Japan without mentioning anime! InuYasha chronicles a modern girl’s adventures in the historical Warring States period of Japan. She and her friends encounter all sorts of creatures as they look for shards of a sacred jewel. A young kitsune and a helpful tanuki are among the ensemble.

Finally, I must highlight MomotarĊ, the quintessential Japanese tale. Born from a peach, MomotarĊ befriends a number of animals and defeats an island of fearsome oni. The traditional tale is available digitally on Hoopla, while a Percy Jackson-style adventure by Maragret Dilloway can be found digitally on Libby. Arguably one of Japan’s most ubiquitous fairy tales, no Japanese folklore collection is complete without it.

I am encouraged to see that Japanese folklore has found its way into so many types of media. Like the shapeshifting tanuki, it may adopt a new form, but its spirit remains unchanged. I hope these folklore-inspired works will draw you into the rich culture of Japan.

Tanoshinde yonde ne! Have fun reading!