Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace, Heian Japan #4: The Demon of Rashōmon

I present the fourth in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Today, I'm cheating a bit. I'm going to discuss a legend, "The Demon of  Rashōmon" or "The Demon's Arm," that though it's set in the Heian period and involves a historical figure, most of the actual details were the result of accretion in later centuries. That being said, it's still a perfect story for my October "Spooky-Boo" Halloween-themed entries. There are many versions of this legend, so if you later encounter a slightly different recounting, it wasn't that I'm trying to lead you astray. Though, in a story involving the Rashōmon, different versions of the truth are almost appropriate (see this film if you have no idea what I'm talking about).

The legend takes us to the latter part of the Heian period in the year 974. In the capital, Heian-kyō, several people have disappeared. The vanishings are attributed to an oni (a demon or ogre) named Ibaraki that is threatening people who try to pass through the Rashōmon, a large gate in the southern portion of the city. Though efforts are made to deal with Ibaraki, no one is able to dislodge him.

Enter one Tsuna Watanabe (Watanabe no Tsuna in the older traditional Japanese naming style), a samurai. He's not just some random warrior, but a retainer of the Fujiwara-regent affiliated Yorimitsu/Raiko Minamoto. In other words, he's a fairly connected fellow. Not to stray from our legend, but this sort of levels of political and social interconnection defined much of the politics and social life during this period--lines and webs of loyalties.

Now, depending on the version of the legend, Tsuna  agrees to go deal with Ibaraki without much prompting or after being offered a bit of motivation (i.e., a wager). He camps out near the Rashōmon for several nights, but Ibaraki doesn't appear.

He's riding home from the gate one night when he encounters a beautiful girl (depending on the version, she may be in the rain). Now, actually, even absent the presence of Ibaraki, this is somewhat suspicious by the standards of the time. A wandering girl, if not a demon, could have been a variety of supernatural being (ghost, shape-shifting fox, et cetera), so Tsuna is a bit on guard. They talk and the girl manages to convince Tsuna she's nothing more than a beautiful girl.

After she invites him to her home, he tells her to get on the horse. They ride for a while. He turns around to look at her and sees her transforming into a demonic form. Now, depending on the version of the legend, the details slightly different. In some versions, he draws his sword, Higekiri, and cuts off an arm of the demon. Subsequently, the creature flees into the sky. In other versions, they actually have more a pitched battle, but in the end he still cuts off its arm.

Tsuna versus Ibaraki

Tsuna takes the arm as a trophy and returns home. There's no more sightings of Ibaraki and no additional disappearances.  It very much appears that the samurai has frightened off the demon.

Some time later Tsuna is approached by an elderly woman (in some versions she's an older female relative, in others she's his childhood nurse). They speak for some time, and he eventually decides to show her his demon trophy. As he opens up the chest where he's been storing the macabre souvenir, the woman turns into Ibaraki, snatches the arm, and flies away. Fortunately though, the demon never returns to the capital. Apparently having it's arm cut off once was enough.

Although this is a fairly straight-forward tale of man against the supernatural, and many details are later additions, it does still allude to some interesting sociological aspects of the later Heian period. As I've stressed in previous entries, the much of the standards of the era were defined by aristocratic bureaucratic elites who prized educational, beauty, and art--and not so much a good sword arm. Tsuna Watanabe is an  example of a man gaining a lot of renown during the Heian era for his martial valor and not his more artistic or political sensibilities. Given his the years of his life (953-1025) spanned later years in Heian period, one could argue that this is reflective of the changes already slowly occurring in Japanese society that would lead to the rise of the warrior-lead shogunate.

The ghost story itself is instructive as well. Even if details were added in later periods, it's a good example of the type of thought process that often accompanied what we would now instantly just recognize as crimes conducted by humans. Often when a mysterious crime occurred, people would attribute it to some sort of supernatural entity. As daily life was also defined by a huge number of practical superstitions and taboos (which I'll delve into in a future date), it was natural for people to see magic behind everything that occurred rather than attribute the evil to mundane, if wicked, people. In one famous case, a decapitated head was found in the Imperial palace. The violence of the act already necessitated a lengthy period of spiritual cleansing; it's attribution to malevolent supernatural entities didn't help matters.

Now this isn't to say that the people of the Heian period never accepted the simple, classic villainy of humanity. A review of period diaries indicates that there was a mix of relative levels of superstition. It's just that in a world where ritual and superstition permeated the culture, it was an easy leap from something like serial disappearances or serial murders to the supernatural.

Sometimes things just weren't all that tranquil or peaceful in the Age of Tranquility and Peace.

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