Fantasy Tropes in Japanese Folklore

Fantasy Tropes in Japanese Folklore

By Travis Heermann

Most people in the West who read medieval fantasy in all its sub-genres grew up on J. R. R. Tolkien, George. R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Michael Moorcock, and others; if we go back to the pulps we must include Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. The influences of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith cannot be discounted no matter what flavor of fantasy we prefer, light or dark.

How many of us can produce non-Western names in such a list? Natsume Soseki, Mishima Yukio, Koizumi Yakumo? Anyone, anyone? This last one is a bit of trick question, as Koizumi Yakumo is the Japanese pseudonym of author Lafcadio Hearn, a Westerner with a hodge-podge of nationalities who settled in Japan in the late 19th century. It is thanks to him that the West was introduced to the richness of Japanese folklore, Japan’s bizarre and frightening ghost stories; his vivid descriptions of daily life at that time are priceless. In Japan, Hearn is a household name, but typically only Japanophiles have heard of him here.

Our exposure in the fantasy literature of the West to other cultural paradigms is practically nil. While there are likely quite a number of fantasy writers who have been inspired by the cultures of the East, there are very few fantasy novels that include more than passing similarities. Having an Asian ninja-like character in the story does not count.

Western Fantasy Tropes

When we ask anyone the first things that come to mind when we say “fantasy novel”, the answers are likely to include:

  • Knights
  • Magic Weapons, most often swords
  • Dragons
  • Wizards/Witches
  • Dwarves and Elves
  • Other semi-human races such as orcs, goblins, hobbits, etc. or resemblances thereto
  • Medieval European-style cultures

I say “style” because Medieval Europe was never really as it is most often portrayed in fantasy novels, which are most often filled with idealizations that ignore disease, poor dental hygiene, fleas, poor diet, sanitation, infant mortality, and the utter brutality of life.

Nevertheless, these tropes are embedded deeply in the Western psyche. We keep telling and re-telling those stories of Arthur and his knights, the Crusades, barbarian invasions, questing heroes and damsels in distress, all in endless cycles of reinvention that include twists of modern influence to which we are most often blind. How can we really recreate the life of a medieval peasant while living in our nice, comfortable homes, with plenty to eat, clean clothes, general literacy, and a society filled with technological marvels and conveniences? A good writer certainly can, but all such niceties are often barriers to real understanding.

What happens when we step outside of the Western paradigm? More and more authors are recognizing the potential in other cultural traditions and finding rich ground for exploring the human condition from different angles.
As you may have gathered above, my passions and research have led me to Japan.

Japanese Fantasy Tropes

I’ll preface this section by disclosing that I’m not a folklorist or anthropologist, so I’m coming at this from a literature perspective. Those familiar with Chinese and Korean folklore may see some similarities with Japanese folklore, but delving into those is beyond the scope of this essay. (For you academically-minded folks out there, wouldn’t it be a fascinating cultural/folklore research project/master’s thesis/doctoral dissertation to explore the similarities and differences among Chinese, Korean, and Japanese folklore menageries? Hint hint, I would love to read it.)

Below is a short list of tropes that show up in Japanese stories, whether in old Brothers Grimm-style fairy tales or in modern films, anime, and manga.

The Knight – (“Wait, wasn’t that up there?”) Yes, it was. The samurai serves very much as an analog to the European knight. A warrior of great martial prowess, sworn to serve with loyalty, upholding (Japanese-style) justice, and defending the weak. Particularly prior to about the year 1600, the samurai was expected a master of all weapons, not just the sword, and also a master horseman. The chief differences between the samurai and the European knight can be found in the underlying values system and ideals of the Warrior’s Way, which is too exhaustive to detail here. A simple contrast would be the use of seppuku (or hara-kiri), a warriors-only means of committing suicide to remove the stain of dishonor not from themselves but to avoid dishonoring their lords or their families. One does not read many stories of European knights committing ritual suicide.

Cherry Blossoms – One of the great Japanese cultural tropes that have reached us even in the West is the cherry tree and its blossoms. In Japan, cherry blossoms have been a cultural event for over a millennium. In the spring, a wave of hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties, sweeps the country from south to north as the trees come into bloom. City and country are filled with delicate pink flowers lasting only a couple of weeks, and for that period the mood of the entire society changes to take notice. Cherry blossoms are ubiquitous in Japanese art, not only for their beauty but for their symbolism. In their breathtaking but painfully brief beauty, they represented the fleeting nature of the warrior’s life.

The Tortured Woman – If you’ve seen any Asian horror film of the last ten years, you’ve seen this trope on film–the female ghost with long, stringy, perhaps even prehensile, black hair. There are numerous types of ghost, spirit, and monster that can be collected into the representation of the Tortured Woman. The woman whose husband or lover (often not the same person!) left her, or died, or abused her, or whose child has died, or who died in childbirth. In short, a woman who died in the midst of terrible suffering.

If a person dies suddenly or violently, or without the proper rites having been performed, or if they are tortured by powerful emotions such as love, jealousy, hatred, sorrow, despair, desire for revenge, the person’s soul can return to the physical world as a yuurei (幽霊, lit. translation: dim spirit).

Japanese culture exhibits an aversion to extremes of emotion; powerful extremes are dangerous to the order of things, to hierarchy, and thus, dangerous to society iteself. As women are viewed as much more prone to emotional extremes, thus they are likely to return in such circumstances and become a figure of terror and peril for anyone close by.

Shape-shifting Animals – There are numerous types of animal oddities in the folklore menagerie, but the two most common types of shape-shifting animals are the fox and the tanuki. Both are portrayed as mischievous, capricious entities with human or greater intelligence, capable of shape-shifting at will into human or other forms. Statutes of both foxes and tanuki can be seen guarding the entrances to shrines and temples throughout Japan.

Foxes (kitsune 狐) grow wiser with age and their number of tails increases to a maximum of nine. Because of their powers and capriciousness, they are often the object of offerings. Foxes were also believed to be capable of possessing human beings and in some cases of great malevolence.

Tanuki are mammals indigenous to Japan, and are often called “raccoon-dogs” in English. Like kitsune, they have magical powers and shape-shifting abilities. A bizarrely amusing aspect of the tanuki is that the source of all of its magical powers is its enormous scrotum. Tanuki are often seen as cultivators of good fortune, with statues of them welcoming patrons into shops and restaurants, immodestly large scrotum and all.

Diabolical (Animated) Inanimate Objects – Japanese folktales are populated by hosts of inanimate objects that develop a spirit and a mind of their own. After a service life of about a century, household objects like tools, utensils, lanterns, umbrellas, etc. receive or develop souls, which were prone to anger or pranks if wastefully or thoughtlessly discarded. These objects are collectively called “tsukumogami” (付喪神). Such tales doubtless speak to the ideal of frugality, ‘waste not, want not.’

According to Warlords, Artists, & Commoners: Japan in the Sixteenth Century, Tsukumogami was the name of an animated tea caddy that was used to used to bargain for a peace with Oda Nobunaga, one of the great warlords who laid the foundation for unifying Japan.

It is curious that a samurai’s sword was often referred to as his soul. I don’t know if there is a connection, but I wonder if there might be, between lanterns that spontaneously develop sentience and weapons that are passed down through generations of samurai families.

Other Traditions, Other Paradigms

This list could doubtless be expanded with more study, but this is just a taste. I for one am enjoying the new ventures into Asian folklore growing more prevalent in speculative fiction. With nods of exception to Tolkien and Martin, I tired of dwarves-and-elves-and-dragons-oh-my some years ago, which is one of the chief reasons I started writing historical fantasy novels and stories set in Japan. As I compiled this list, I discovered how many of the above tropes found their way into my own writing.

As a professional writer, I have to ask to question: do Western audiences respond to these stories? Is there a market for them? Hard market research might prove me wrong, but anecdotally I can say I think the ubiquity of anime, manga, and the growing popularity of Asian horror films proves that there is a whole generation of readers and genre fans who are attracted to non-Western paradigms, like I was, way back when.

For a little over ten years, I have been working (among numerous other projects) on my Ronin Trilogy, a historical fantasy story set in 13th century Japan. The story behind how the Ronin Trilogy came about can be found here.

I now have a small request of you, dear reader. Until February 4, 2013, I am running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of the second novel of the Ronin Trilogy. Perhaps you have seen me around these parts before, and if so you already know that this is my first foray into independent publishing. If you have an interest in non-Western fantasy storytelling, in samurai, strange beasties, magic swords with an overarching historical backdrop, please go to my campaign here and consider contributing.

Thank you.

Editor’s Note: You can listen to our interview with Travis Heermann in Episode 177 and read our review of HEART OF THE RONIN. And, PLEASE, do support the SWORD OF THE RONIN kickstarter project if you at all can.

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  1. As I understand it, a willingness to die not only influenced a samurai’s seppuku but also their fighting tactics. I talked with a company of modern sword duelists, who noted that the Japanese fighting style maximized aggressive sword charges and minimized defensive measures. A samurai was expected to die for his lord, after taking down one or more adversaries on the battlefield.

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