DISCUSSED: Cruel Monkeys, Mauled Wrestlers, Fish Brides, Seductive Ogres, Dismembered Kappa Babies, Fierce Tengu, The Rice-Growing Peasants of Japan’s Low Lands

On November 4, 1908, Kunio Yanagita, a thirty-three-year-old government bureaucrat and self-taught anthropologist, met Kizen Sasaki, an aspiring writer from the tiny village of Tono, in northeastern Japan. The two were introduced by a mutual friend who felt they would enjoy each other’s company, since Yanagita loved hearing ghost stories and tales of the weird, and Sasaki, then twenty-two, enjoyed telling them. Tall and bespectacled, Sasaki had dropped out of medical school after two years to study history and literature, and spoke with a thick Tohoku accent which Yanagita initially found difficult to understand. Over the course of the following year, Sasaki enthralled the older man with story after weird story, all set in and around his hometown of Tono, a place teeming with spooks, demons, and mysterious “mountain men.” The area’s forests, Yanagita discovered, were home to all manner of fantastical beasts, from vicious, grudge-holding wolves to red-faced goblins who kidnapped and impregnated the local townswomen. Small household idols sprang to life and lent a tiny hand with the rice harvests; monkeys, cruel and lecherous, routinely pelted the villagers with stones and nuts.

The human residents of Tono were equally peculiar, and quite unlike the typical rural folk—tight-knit, loyal to home and kin—that one expects to find in such places. Where generosity was called for, they were tightfisted. When bravery was required, they retreated in fear. In one of Sasaki’s stories, a local wrestler is mauled to death by a wolf while his friends stand idly by, unmoved by the man’s piteous cries for help. In another, an entire family dies after eating poisonous mushrooms; the next morning, their relatives come from near and far to make off with all of the family’s possessions, down to the jars of miso paste in the kitchen. In nearly every story, the villagers’ actions are motivated by greed, fear, lethargy, self-interest, or meanness. It’s not only that the villagers of Tono sometimes don’t make the right choice; it’s how astonishing, how befuddling, their wrong choices can be. In one story, a hunter is toasting rice cakes over a fire and receives a visit from a large man he does not know:

The stranger entered the hut and gazed in wonder at the toasting rice cakes. Then, unable to resist, he reached out, took some cakes and ate them. When all the cakes were eaten, the stranger left. Thinking the man would come back again the next day, the hunter placed some white stones that resembled the rice cakes along with the cakes over the fire. The rocks became quite hot. The stranger came back as expected and ate the rice cakes as he had done the previous day. Then he put a hot stone into his mouth thinking it was a cake. He charged out of the hut in shock and disappeared. It is said that the hunter later found the man dead at the bottom of the valley.

What sets these stories apart from similar ghost stories and fairy tales—besides, of course, the mystifying actions of their protagonists—is that all of the events in them actually happened, or so said many of Sasaki’s contemporaries. These were not “once upon a time” tales, but real events witnessed in the recent past by people familiar to many in the village. Scattered throughout Sasaki’s stories were the names of real Tono-ites, from Old Oto, the town drunkard, to Yanosuke, an accomplished hunter and flautist. In some cases, Sasaki vouched for the veracity of the witnesses. “Marukichi,” he said of one, “is a very modern and intelligent person and he is not the kind of person to tell a lie.” Sasaki also gave approximate dates for many of the events in his stories.

In 1910, after selecting 119 of Sasaki’s most intriguing tales and traveling to Tono to visit some of the places mentioned in them, Yanagita published Tono monogatari (The Legends of Tono). “Kizen is not a good storyteller,” Yanagita wrote in the book’s preface, “but he is honest and sincere. I have written the stories down as I understood them, without adding a word or phrase.” It was an odd thing for Yanagita to have said about his young colleague, not to mention ungracious. Sasaki certainly knew a lot of stories of all different sorts, and had a way with the single, creepy detail, and if his accounts sometimes ended abruptly, what of it? For many of them, this abruptness—indeed, their very brevity—only added to their eeriness.

Yanagita had 350 copies of the book produced at his own expense, and gave nearly all of them to family and friends. (The writer also published two other books that year: Nochi no karikotoba no ki, a record of hunting terms used in southern Japan, and Ishigami mondo, a compilation of letters written about small roadside gods.) A few of Yanagita’s friends wrote reviews of Tono monogatari, but the book attracted scant literary or commercial attention at the time, either in Japan or abroad.

Today, however, Tono monogatari is considered a classic throughout Japan, and has inspired two films and a popular manga series. Its author (Yanagita, that is, not Sasaki) is heralded as the father of Japanese folklore studies, while the town of Tono has done a lively business as a destination for “folklore tourists” the world over, who are guided to various sites mentioned in the book where ghosts appeared and demons trod. While other collections of Japanese spook stories have come and gone since Yanagita’s time, his is still the only one to draw all of its tales from a single town and storyteller. The novelist Yukio Mishima, no slouch when it came to the creepy and unsettling, praised the stories for their coldness, their tonal flatness, their “unforeseen ghastliness, like when someone starts to talk and then suddenly stops speaking.”

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the book’s publication. To commemorate the event, Lexington Books has released a new edition of Ronald Morse’s English translation, first published in 1975, with maps, archival photos, and an updated preface. In June 2010, the town of Tono will host an international symposium, where scholars and fans will celebrate the area’s tales and legends, and the two men who brought them to the world.

So what is it about Tono monogatari—a critical and commercial bust when it was first released—that so intrigues readers now? Were the spooks and demons of Tono real? And why is nearly everyone in the stories so very, very mean?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Robert Ito has written for the Village Voice, Salon, and the New York Times. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Hyunu, and his son, Ezekiel.

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