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Supernatural Abductions in Japanese Folklore
BY
CARMENBLACKER
Cambridge University
Part 1. THE THEME
The belief that children may in an unguarded moment be
kidnapped by a subtle and malignant enemy of supernatural
description is a fairly widespread one throughout the world. In
western Europe fairies and korrigans were widely credited with
powers of abducting babies, leaving in their place a hideous
changeling with a huge appetite and misshapen head. In Japan
a rather similar belief in supernatural kidnapping s~lrvivedin
many districts until modern times. A boy or young man who
unaccountably disappeared frorn his home was assumed to be
not lost but stolen, to be the victim of kamigakushi or abduction
by a god. If all reasonable search for hinl proved fruitless it
was concluded that some god or goblin had carried him off to
its own realm. In such emergencies the whole village considered
it a duty to turn out at sunset with lanterns, and to march round
in procession, banging loudly on bells and drunis and shouting,
"Bring him back, bring him back !"
If these measures failed to bring the child back within a
fixed period of time, the relatives could as a last resort request
a miko or white witch to recite appropriate spells. If these in
their turn did not prove efficacious within seven days the child
was given up as hopelessly lost.
Not infrequently however, as a number of stories both oral
and literary attest, the measures were fully justified by success.
Suddenly and without warning, the tales run, the child reap-
pears, deathly pale, in some oddly inaccessible place such as the
eaves of the local temple or the space between the ceiling and
the roof of his own house. For several days he lies in a dazed
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CARMEN BLACKER
stupor. Then he recovers and tells as best he can what has
befallen him. Sometimes he is a halfwit when he recovers and
is able to recount nothing of his adventures. But more often
he relates that a tall stranger appeared while he was playing
and carried him off. They had gone on a long journey over
mountains and seas, sometimes into underground passages and
caves, sometimes as far as the Great Wall of China, sometimes
as far as the sum and moon. At length he had begun to feel
lonely and homesick, whereupon in a trice he had found hiizlself
deposited in the odd spotwhere he was eventually discovered
by his relations.
Such stories have not only been handed doxvn in oral form
in many villages, but can also be found in strange profusien in
the written collections of tales in which Japanese literature has
been so rich since medieval times.
Let us look first at three examples recorded from oral
sources.
On the evening of September 30th 1907 a child in a village
in Aichi prefecture disappeared just as everyone was busy pre-
paring the white rice cakes to be offered to the god at a festival
the next day. When the celebrations were over and the child
still found to be missing, a frantic search was made throughout
the village. For some hours all efforts proved fruitless. Then
suddenly a loud thump was heard on the ceiling of the child's
own house. They climbed up to see what had caused the noise,
and found the child stretched out unconscious, his mouth covered
with white rice calie. When at length he recovered his senses
he told them that he had been standing under the big cedar
tree in the shrine precincts when a stranger had appeared and
taken him away. They had walked over treetops and gone into
many people's houses, where always there was a delicious feast
of white rice cakes to eat. Eventually he had felt himself
thrust into a narrow place, which turned out to be the ceiling
of his own house. The child afterwards became an idi0t.l
A similar episode occurred near Kanazawa in 1877. A young
man of about twenty suddenly disappeared, leaving his wooden
sandals under a persimmon tree. All efforts to find him proved
fruitless, until again there was a loud thump on the ceiling and
there, in the same cramped space, lay the young man with his
1. Yanagita Kunio, "Yama no Jinsei", Teihon Yanagita Kunio Sh.2,
IV, p. 77. The story was related to Yanagita by Hayaliawa KBtarB.
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SUPERNATURAL ABDUCTIONS IN JAPANESE FOLKLORE 1L3
mouth all green as though he had been eating leaves. He too,
on recovering consciousness, told a tale of an old man who had
carried him off and taken him to many distant places2
Another story from the Kumano district relates how on the
night of the 19th of the fifth month of the year 1808 a boy went
out to the lavatory and did no1 return. They searched every-
where in vain until in the small hours of the morning he was
discovered standing on the eaves of the go-down, his top hair
cut off and his clothes covered with cob-webs and ears of susuki
grass. For three days he slept soundly. Then he woke up and
told how a mountain ascetic had appeared, taken him by the
hand and flown up into the sky. They had flown a great distance
at an incredible speed, alighting now and then on various holy
mountains which he described accurately. He was enjoying him-
self very much and would have liked to see more places, but
was worried about his family at home and begged to go back.
From Kurama they had come home in one leap, and he had found
himself standing on the eaves of the go-down with the lanterns
of the search party flashing below.3
If the child does not some back within the required time in
response to the spells and the noise on the bells and drums, his
relations must look for signs which will indicate that he has
indeed been stolen by a god, and not simply been lost or drowned.
In Shinshfi province a sure sign that he has been stolen is to
find his shoes neatly placed together under a tree. In nearly all
districts a further proof of supernatural kidnapping is that he
should be seen again briefly and mysteriously once.
A child of five in a village in Bungo province cried so per-
sistently and exasperatingly one one night that his parents turned
turned him out of doors as a punishment. They heard his cries
growing fainter and fainter in the direction of the mountain,
until in alarm they rushed out to bring him back, only to find
that he had completely disappeared. Spells, drums and bells
were all of no avail. Nothing more was seen or heard of him
for ten years. Then a man called Sh8ichi happened to be walk-
ing in the mountains not far from the village. Suddenly he saw
2. Ibid., p. 78. This story was told to Yanagita by a man who was
a neighbour of the kidnapped youth, and whose own son had discovered
him under the roof.
3. Minzokugaku, 11, 9, p. 558.
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a frightful figure, seven or eight feet high and covered all over
with fur. Too terrified to move he watched it draw nearer and
nearer, until unexpectedly it enquired in a human voice where
he came from. Sh8ichi told it the name of his village. "That
is my old home", it said. "Do you remember hearing of a child
lost many years ago. I was that child". It gave Sh6ichi a cake
made of chestnuts and climbed up the sheer face of the rock as
lightly and nimbly as a bird. It was never seen again.4
Women as well as boys are apt to fall victims of kamigakushi.
They too may reappear mysteriously once.
A girl from a well-to-do family in Iwate prefecture was rid-
ing to her bridegroom's house on her wedding day. She seemed
to he taking a long time to cover the short distance, so they went
out to see whether she had met with an accident. They found
only a riderless horse. The girl had completely vanished. Some
months later on a winter's evening some villagers were chatting
in a shop, when suddenly a girl came in and asked for some
sake!. To their astonishment they recognised the missing bride,
but before they could speak to her she had paid for the sake! and
gone. They rushed out, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Of the fate of this girl we are left to guess. But ol: another
stolen girl, who lived as late as the mid 19th century, there came
strange and unexpected tidings. She had gone up the moun-
tainside to gather chestnuts and had not returned. Her parents,
concluding her to be dead, had her funeral obsequies performed.
But a couple of years later a hunter suddenly met her on the
slopes of a mountain called Goy8zan. She told him that she
had been carried off by a terrifying creature, and had been living
with him as his wife ever since. She was never given a chance
to escape, and indeed any minute cow he might come hack. He
was not unlike an ordinary man in appearance, except that his
eyes were a terrible colour and he was immensely tall. She had
had several children by him, but always he had declared that
because they did not resemble him they could not be his. In a
rage he had taken them all away and presumably killed them.
The hunter took her by the hand and began to hurry down the
mountainside. They were just approaching the village when
suddenly a fearfully tall man bounded after them through the
woods, seized the girl and carried her off. She was never seen
4. Yanagita, op. cit., p. 101.
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SUPERNATURAL ABDUCTIONS IN JAPANESE FOLKLORE 115
again.5
Who then are these mysterious kidnappers? They are clear-
ly of several kinds, some much more dangerous than others.
The old men in the first examples we quoted were undoubtedly
manifestations of the local Shinto deity, who had temporarily
'borrowed' the boys as mediums for receiving the offerings of
rice cakes laid out for them at the festival. The tall, hairy
creatures, on the other hand, from whose clutches it seems
difficult if not impossible to escape, were yamaotoko or 'mountain
men'. These mysterious, semi human denizens of mountains,
the belief in whom some Japanese folklorists think may have
originated in an ancient and unfamiliar race of mountain people,
are described fairly uniformly by woodcutters of various
districts. They are very tall, with glittering eyes and long hair
straggling down to their shoulders. Sometimes they are covered
with leaves or tree bark instead of fur. These creatures, it will
be noted. never take the child on entertaining journeys to strange
lands and mountains. They carry it straight back to their lair
in the mountains, there keeping it in strict durance as a servant
or catamite. Women, it will also be noted, are kidnapped only
by yamaotoko and for the sole purpose of becoming the wives
of the creatures. They are never taken on the magic j~urney.~
The most s~lbtleand fearful of all the supernatural kid-
nappers, however, is exemplified by tile mountain ascetic in our
5. Ibid, pp. 102, 109. Another version of this story, in which the
hunter retreats in terror without attempting to rescue the girl, is in
TBno Monogatari, story no. 7. These stories were taken down verbatim
by Yanagita Kunio in 1909 from an old man in the mountain village of
Tho. Three more stories of women victims of kamigakushi can be
found in this work, SBgensha edition pp. 119, 129, 131. In the first story
the woman was captured by a 'mountain man', and was seen years later
by a grass cutter on the mountain dressed in leaves. She sent messages
to her family, who at once came in search for her. But she was never
seen again. In the second story a beautiful girl was captured by the
'master of the mountain' and became his wife. Three years later she
suddenly reappeared in her home, announcing that she was so home-
sick that her husband had given her permission to visit her family for
a short time. She soon mysteriously disappeared into the mountains
again, but her family afterwards became very rich.
6. Other noted kidnappers are foxes, the goblin known as kakure-
za16 and the alarming spook called yadBkai. Some districts assign a
general name kakushigami, kidnapping gods, or kakushibaba, kidnapping
hags, to all these beings. See Yanagita, op. cit., pp. 74-6.
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