The Beliefs and Deities of Japan

INARI, the Rice god

Inari, the god of Rice, is sometimes shown as bearded man, but there seems to be confusion as to Inari's sex, for the deity is also known as a goddess. The messenger of Inari is the fox and the god or goddess is depicted as a fox, too, on occasion. Inari is regarded as the patron of sword smiths and, in more recent times, of traders generally.

The god of the Rice Fields comes down from his mountain home in the spring and returns in the autumn, and this may have some connection with the old Shinto belief that mountains possess spirits or gods. The mountain cults have no part in this book, but the very shape of some of the Japanese peaks suggest a phallic symbol, and these symbols do play a part in the rites of such cults. The gods of the Roads, too, are associated with the phallic cult, but there may be no real connection. When Izanagi left the Land of Yomi he was subsequently chased by Eight Thunders--this, before he performed his ablutions--and he threw a staff on the road and in their path, saying they should pursue him no further. Sticks are used in the phallic cults in that the stick is the shintai of phallicism as well as of roads. A shintai is an object in which an invisible deity can incorporate itself to contact believers.

The seven gods of Luck

The seven gods of Luck or Good Fortune are naturally very popular among the Japanese.

Hotei is a peculiarly Buddhist one. His distinguishing feature is a huge stomach, below which his garments sag. This does not symbolize greed. On the contrary, it is a symbol of contentment and good nature and the protruding abdomen is believed to be symbolic of Hotei's large soul. He has inner resources, typical of one who has successfully acquired serenity through Buddhist wisdom.

Jurojin is the god of Longevity. He is always shown in the company of a crane, a tortoise or a stag--each representing contented old age. He has a white beard and generally carries a shaku, a sacred staff or baton on to which is fastened a scroll containing the wisdom of the world. Jurojin also enjoys sake, but in moderation. He is never a drunkard.

Fukurokuju (or Fukurokujin) has a very long and narrow head, and the luck he typifies combines longevity and wisdom. His body is exceedingly short and his head is often shown as being longer than his legs. He evidently did not originate in Japan, for in his earthly life he is said to have been a Chinese philosopher and prophet.

Bishamon is sometimes regarded as the god of Wealth, but that is Chinese Buddhism. The Japanese have included him in the group of gods of Luck and he is always shown dressed in full armor, carrying a spear. But he is no Hachiman, for in his other hand he carries, in typical Buddhist fashion, a miniature pagoda. These two objects show that he is intended to combine missionary zeal and the warrior attributes.

Daikoku is the god of Wealth. He is also the guardian of farmers and is a good-natured and cheerful god. He carries a mallet which can grant wishes made by mortals and he sits on a couple of rice bales, with his non-vegetable treasure slung over his back in a sack. Rats are sometimes shown eating rice from the bottom of his bales: Daikoku's good humor and wealth are such that he cares not at all.

Ebisu, another god of Luck, is a hard worker. The example he sets is one of honest labor. He is the patron of tradesmen and fishermen, but only the fishing aspect of his activities is depicted for he carries a fishing rod and also a tai, sea bream.

And finally there is Benten, the only goddess among the seven. ... the myths surrounding her are many. She is associated with the sea and many of her shrines are either by the sea or on islands. This association is often shown in her pictures and statues, when she is riding or is accompanied by a sea serpent or dragon. She also represents the arts and general feminine deportment. Her favorite musical instrument is thought to be the biwa, a string instrument not unlike a mandolin in shape.

Pots for hire

Badgers are often, though not invariably, found to be malicious in folklore. There was a badger called Dankuro which lived in a cave. When a nearby castle had been captured (in a conflict between men, not animals) Dankuro went there and collected a large supply of cooking utensils. This curious form of loot Dankuro would lend to humans, for use at family celebrations. It was made very clear by Dankuro that if the pots and pans were not returned to its cave, it would never lend them out again, which it did without payment or reward. When one of the borrowers did fail to return a bowl, Dankuro not only stopped lending out the goods from the castle, but caused much destruction in the fields around and then set fire to a pile of firewood at the entrance of the cave. Dankuro and the pilfered cooking utensils were never seen again.

Richard M. Dorson in his Folk Legends of Japan describes the Dankuro story as a variant of the one about the kappa who attacked a horse, trying to pull it down into the pond in which it lived. The horse tried to kick itself free and in doing so the water was spilled from the kappa's head, and its strength was gone. But it clung on and was dragged back to the horse's stables. The owner was furious with the kappa, but forgave it on the understanding that it would lend bowls to him without a fee, whenever he wanted to entertain. So bowls were always to be found in the stable yard the night before a feast was planned and removed again from the yard when they had been used. But a neighbor stole one set of utensils after the owner of the horse had put them outside, having finished with them, and thereafter the kappa never produced any of its sets again on hire or on loan.

The badger and the rabbit

Robert J. Adams, the translator of Keigo Seki's Folktales of Japan, states in the head note to the story Kachi Kachi Mountain that there are some eighty-eight versions of the story in Japan. It includes three common motifs: of the badger being malicious, of humans being able to converse with the animal kingdom and of an animal transformation. A man caught a troublesome badger, Dankuro, and, having tied it up, asked his wife to make soup of the animal. The badger pleaded with the woman to let it loose, promising to help her with her cooking. She was beguiled by its entreaties and unbound it, whereupon it killed her, took on her physical appearance, dressed itself in her clothes and proceeded to make soup of her carcass. Still in the guise of the man's wife, the badger presented its captor with the soup which the man ate with relish. Only then did the animal turn back into its real form. It mocked the unhappy man for having eaten his own wife and then ran from the house.

A rabbit who had long been friendly with the couple heard of this fearsome trick played on the man and determined to take revenge on the badger. It persuaded the badger to carry a bundle of sticks up a mountain. The rabbit climbed behind and set fire to the bundle.

The badger heard the sound of burning twigs, but was assured that the sound was that of the Kachi Kachi bird. There is no such bird: the word is onomatopoeic for clicking or snapping. The badger was severely burned, but again was mocked by the rabbit which put a paste of hot pepper on its already painful back, ostensibly to help its healing. The White Hare of Oki was similarly tricked, though not for the sake of vengeance. But the rabbit had still further punishment in store. The gullible badger was persuaded into building a boat of clay. In this it set out to catch fish, while the rabbit accompanied it in a more stoutly constructed craft. As the clay softened and the badger tried to escape from its disintegrating boat, the rabbit struck it with an oar and killed it, leaving its body to float away down the river.

Malicious cats

The cat can be as malevolent as the badger, as is evidenced by the behavior of one towards a young boy, although it did not use such refined mental torture. The boy used to hunt daily with a bow and ten arrows only. One day his mother persuaded him to take an extra one, saying he might be in need of it. He shot nothing all day and as the moon rose, he indulged in the very Japanese custom of moon gazing. it is not uncommon for people to give moon-watching parties--to sit and contemplate as the moon rises. As he sat there, he noticed a second moon appear in the sky. He suspected this to be a demonic moon and shot all his arrows at it in swift succession. Ten rebounded, but the last one caused the second moon to emit a fearful screech and there followed a crash in the undergrowth.

The boy, probably form curiosity rather than bravado, ran to the place and found a huge dead cat lying there, with the eleventh arrow in its body.