The Snow Woman

I live in Musashi country, and this story is as close as it gets to the banshee ghosts of UK’s moor country. In ancient times, travelers on foot to Edo (Tokyo) capital had to traverse mountain passes, valley marshland corridors, and they would have heard the eerie howling winds that I still hear on stormy nights in the “twister corridor” where I live today. And although snowfall is not as much as prolonged as in the Nagano inland areas, traveling through the Hakone mountain passes through Musashi land would have been an “atmospheric” and scenic journey (as it still is today) in the snow as captured in many woodcut prints and have spawned stories like these. The yuki-onna is a figure with a highly local flavour. I am glad Wildinjapan blogs about it for us to enjoy.

Wild in Japan

Hi blog.

It’s winter, my holidays are coming to a close and I still haven’t blogged anything.

To rectify this problem, let’s take a break from wildlife and look at some folklore that matches the weather (well, almost)

In a village of Musashi Province (1), there lived two woodcutters: Mosaku and Minokichi. At the time of which I am speaking, Mosaku was an old man; and Minokichi, his apprentice, was a lad of eighteen years. Every day they went together to a forest situated about five miles from their village. On the way to that forest there is a wide river to cross; and there is a ferry-boat. Several times a bridge was built where the ferry is; but the bridge was each time carried away by a flood. No common bridge can resist the current there when the river rises.
Mosaku and Minokichi were on their way home, one…

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Fujiwara Kiyokado, the tax-evading aristocrat who had a phobia of cats


Given all the recent campaign news about the US President-elect who bragged about evading taxes, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this wonderful ancient Japanese tale of the tax-evading aristocrat who suffered from gatophobia (ailurophobia) or the fear of cats. Fujiwara Kiyomado was eventually outwitted by a smarter governor. (The fear of cats is called gatophobia (Spanish etymology) or ailurophobia (Greek etymology).


A cat-hater

Long, long ago, there was in the capital a peculiar person named Fujiwara Kiyokado. he was an official of the department of finance and held the court rank of goi (fifth grade).

He was a great hater of cats and was so much afraid of these animals that he was nicknamed “Human Rat”. Half for fun, some of his friends would scare him by putting cats beside him. Even in the office he would run away abandoning his work at the sight of a cat. The officials of the department therefore called him “Cat-hating Kiyokado”.

Kiyokado was a rich man with large estates in Yamato, Yamashiro, and Iga provinces. But he would not pay taxes to the government of Yamato Province. In olden times, people offered bags of rice as taxes to the provincial governments. The officials of the Yamato government requested many times that Kiyokado pay the taxes, but he would not pay them.

One day Governor Sukegimi and his men got together to study the best way to make the cat-hater pay taxes.

“If we leave this matter unsettled, he will never pay the taxes. We must do something.”

“As he is a goi-holder, we cannot punish him merely for not paying. He is crafty enough to make some excuse for his neglect of payment.”

They were at a loss what to do with Kiyokado. All of a sudden the governor hit upon a good idea. Just then Kiyokado accidentally came to see the governor, who immediately had him shown into office and the door locked. The the governor began politely, “Dear Kiyokado, why don’t you pay the taxes? I have been strictly isntructed by the central government to collect them from you. I ask you to tell your estate managers to pay the taxes without delay.

“I am very sorry to trouble you, dear Sukegimi. I have been so busy that I was compelled to put taxes, I promise I will pay them in the near future.”

Although cat-hating Kiyokado apparently apologized to the governor, he cried in his heart that he would never tender a single grain of rice to the government. Governor Sukegimi however, was not deceived at all, for he was well aware of the cat-hater’s tactics.

“My friend Kiyokado, you cannot fool me this time. You promised me many times that you would pay the taxes, but you never kept your word. I do not wish to settle this problem today. If you will not accept my request, I will not let you out,” said Sukegimi.

“Please don’t get excited, Governor Sukegimi. Though I have said I would pay them in the near future, I promise you I will pay them in the near future, I promise you I will pay them by the end of this month. Is that satisfactory to you?”

“No, no, I cannot trust you.” The governor continued, “As we have been close friends for many years, I do not wish to have trouble with you. I will let bygones be bygones. Again I ask you to pay the taxes at once.”

Kiyokado, however, held out persistently. “As I told you, I am in no position to pay them right now. I have to talk with my managers about how to pay.”

The governor became excited by his indecisive attitude and cried, “Guards, bring them in!” Kiyokado, remaining calm, wondered what the governor’s men would bring into the room. In a minute, there was heard s meowing in the doorway, and a grey cat came in. She was followed by four others.

“Oh, cats! No, no. Take them out, please,” cried Kiyokado, with a tremble. He earnestly asked the governor, with joined hands, tot ale out the animals right away.

The cats came near the stranger, meowing, and one of them got on his lap while another jumped on his shoulder. A third took a sniff of the sleeves of his kimono, and others ran about the room.

Kiyokado was quite helpless. He looked pale, trembling with fear. At this sight, the governor thought that his tactics had worked well.

“Guards, take them out, he ordered. The cats were immediately taken out and tied with strings to the door post. Unable to move freely, they began a meowing chorus which immensely tortured the cat-hater. He was in a cold swear and felt more dead than alive.

“Well, dear Kiyokado. Do you still wish to put off the payment?”

“Oh, help me, Governor! I will do anything you want me to do. Please take them away!”

“All right. I will have them taken away. But before doing that, i must request you to write a letter to your estate managers. Tell them to pay the taxes today. If you fail to meet my request, I must tell my guards to bring in the cats again.”

“Oh, no! I’ll surely die of shock to death if I see them again. I will be very happy to write a letter.”

Whereupon the governor had brush and ink brought in for Kiyokado’s use. The cat-hater, thus pressed, had no other choice but to write a letter telling his managers to tender inmediately five hundred rice bags to the provincial government of Yamato.

This interesting story soon spread in the capital and people congratulated the witty governor on his splendid victory over the cat-hater.”


The above tale was recounted by NAITO Hiroshi in his compilation of “The legends of Japan” p. 81-84
The original source of the tale, however, is the Konjaku Monogari, with a retelling in the Noh play nekooji no daifu 猫怖大夫

The tale is also mentioned in Diego Cucinelli’s paper,
“Feline shadows in the Rising Sun: cultural values of cat in pre-modern Japan”, Ming Qing Studies 2013, pp. 435-448

The origins of Tanabata festival in Japan

Tanabata, also known as the “Star festival”, takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year, when the two star-crossed lovers, who are, incidentally according to legend, also the star deities Altair and Vega, usually separated from each other by the Milky way, and who are able to meet only at this time of the year. The festival can be celebrated on July 7th on either the Gregorian calendar or lunar one, depending on the region. This year, the lunar day falls on August 9th on the regular solar calendar. The festival event traditionally took place shortly after risshu or the beginning of autumn, which follows the end of the tsuyu rainy season.

Most Japanese are acquainted with the Tanabata story and festival from childhood, or from preschool classrooms where tanzaku (短冊)decorations are hung from a bamboo branches —  tanzaku are narrow strips of colorful paper or streamers which have a child’s goal or wish written on each strip. The tanzaku are often hung with other decorations, like on Wish Trees. The bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned after the festival, around midnight or on the next day They are a common sight in individual homes as well, and as seasonal decor seen in shopping malls, restaurants, public libraries and other communal spaces.

Tanzaku hung on bamboo

Tanzaku hung on bamboo Source: Wikimedia Commons


Origins of Tanabata

One of Japan’s five traditional seasonal festivals, or gosekku, Tanabata originated from China where it is known as the Qixi Festival which has a longer history dating back to the early 3rd c. A.D. and where it is traceable to Chinese literary references to the legend of romantic love between two stars named Kengyu (cowherd) and Shokujo (weaver girl), who are able to meet once a year on July 7th on the Chinese lunar calendar.

The legend arrived in Japan in the late 7th or by early 8th c. — evidence of this is found in the Manyoshu anthology which carries about 130 Tanabata poems. The Manyoshu or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” was compiled sometime after 759 AD during the Nara period 710-794 AD  (but the bulk of the collection represents the period between AD 600 and 759). Tanabata was first celebrated in Japan by aristocrats of the ancient imperial court in the form of poetry contests … the aristocrats would write verses as they gazed up at the stars.

During the Nara period, Tanabata is thought to have been transmitted in the form of a weaving festival for young women wishing to show off or improve their talents on the loom. Tanabata is thus associated with kikoden which was an event for women aspiring for excellence in weaving, or skills in singing and playing musical instruments.  This association is hardly surprising as the festival marks the meeting between Orihime (Vega), who is the gifted weaver star and patron of silk farming, and Hikoboshi (Altair), the hardworking cowherd who presumably, like many nomadic herders, plays an instrument.  According to the folktale, Orihime and Hikoboshi, began to neglect their duties upon being wed, thus incurring the wrath of the bride’s father Tentei, Emperor of Heaven (also the North Pole deity). The pair were consequently exiled to opposite ends of the Milky Way. They are, however, granted a meeting each July 7 so long as they both diligently fulfill their celestial obligations during the other days of the year.

The Chinese folktale then merged with the indigenous Japanese legend of tanabata-tsume, the tale of a celestial maiden who weaves clothes for the gods, as well as other native cultural aspects to produce a unique Chinese-infused Japanese tradition.

The festival likely also involved the transmission of calendrical or early timepiece devices and astronomical knowledge for the purposes of agriculture as the event centers on the stars Vega and Altair in the constellations Lyra and Aquila, respectively. See Renshaw and Ihara on this.

Only in the Edo period (1603–1868) did the star festival become observed by commoners as well. In the late 17th and 18th c, students of terakoya (temple schools) started attaching to bamboo branches the long narrow strips of paper called tanzaku. Only back then the paper bore their poems dedicated to Cowherd-Kengyu and Weavergirl-Shokujo instead of an individual’s wishes and dreams.  These traditional decorations and talismans including colorful streamers called fukinagashi that represent threads for those wanting to be better weavers and gossamer amikazari symbolizing wishes by fishermen for full nets…have since been handed down to present-day Japanese who celebrate the event with their offerings to the stars.

In the past, to ensure that wishes would be granted, ornament-laden bamboo branches were placed in rivers to be carried away by the current. Why bamboo? Bamboo is thought to have become a part of the tanabata tradition for its propensity to grow straight and tall, with upward stretching branches bearing wishes to heaven on the wind. The plant was also believed to ward off insects and was displayed to protect rice crops and symbolize hopes of a bountiful harvest.

In some regions, the event is also commonly thought to be merged with or associated with o-Bon rituals. One of the Tōhoku region’s most exhuberant celebrations, the Nebuta Festival, is also associated with the star festival. The parade of intricate illuminated floats in this event is thought to have begun as a purification ritual where participants got rid of their nebuta or sleepiness by rubbing against the bamboo branches released into the rivers and sea (or with lanterns) on the evening of Tanabata.


Sendai Tanabata (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sendai Tanabata (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0, )

The timing of Tanabata celebrations varies from region to region. When Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1872, the Star festival was marked as falling on July 7. However, many areas still rely on traditional reckonings to schedule festivities, with observances normally falling sometime in August. Because the 7th month of the year roughly coincides with August rather than July according to the formerly used lunar calendar, Tanabata is still celebrated on August 7th in some regions of Japan, while it is celebrated on July 7th in other regions.

Three of the largest Tanabata festivals are the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri in Miyagi Prefecture, the Shōnan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri in Kanagawa Prefecture, and the Anjo Tanabata Matsuri in Aichi Prefecture. The festivals are major tourist attractions.




A cultural history of astronomy by Steven Renshaw and Ihara Kaori

Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabata Adapting Chinese Lore to Native Beliefs and Purposes by Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara June, 1999

[An early version of this article appeared in Appulse; Bulletin for the Philippine Astronomical Society, Vol. 9, #8, August, 1996.

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

Hearn, Lafcadio (1905). The romance of the Milky Way, and other studies & stories. Houghton Mifflin and company.

Play the Tanabata song here.

Chinese legend adopted differently from area to area (Japan through the Five Senses series, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 2016) by Prof. Naoyuki Ogawa, Kokugakuin University

Tooth fairies, mice and teeth up on the roof

Source of image: Wikipedia

What do children do when their milk tooth (baby tooth) comes lose? The practices and customs concerning a milk tooth are surprisingly similar across the globe, and the myths and customs can be classified into similar motifs and types.

The Japanese today have a custom whereby if a child loses an upper tooth, he or she is to throw it in the dirt. If a lower tooth is lost, it is to be thrown onto the roof. The new tooth will grow towards the old one and will come in straight.

This is most similar to the customs of East and Southeast Asians, so the customs and myths may possibly have been disseminated by the neolithic agriculturalists and/or the (proto-)Austronesian dispersal.

Countries that share the throwing onto the roof motif, such as:

The Chinese (as well as Singaporean Chinese), whose children are to put their upper tooth at the foot of the bed and throw their bottom tooth onto the roof, which is supposed to ensure that the teeth are pulled in the opposite direction and to expedite the growth of a new tooth.

Taiwanese kids throw their teeth onto the roof

Indonesian kids must throw their tooth backwards over the roof and they must throw very straight or else their teeth won’t grow in straight

Both Vietnamese and Cambodian kids will throw a lower tooth onto the roof, and an upper tooth under the bed

Thai kids throw their lower tooth onto the roof and place their upper teeth under their beds or on the ground

[Note: There appears to be a commonality among Austronesian and Austro-asiatic peoples.]

The exceptions here are the Philippines, Malaysia and Korea. Filipinos hide the tooth in a special place and make a wish; Malaysian kids bury the tooth in the soil

As you go further south in East and Southeast Asia, other motifs dominate, such as a sacred or fertility tree, soil or watery theme

Oceania and Polynesia

Tree motif

Aboriginal Australians: The tooth is placed inside of the shoot of the pandanus plant, and when the pandanus plant grows into a tree, the tooth grow along upright too (cared for by the spirits of the pandanus tree)

Watery / throwing motif

Maoris of New Zealand put their tooth under their pillow to collect a gift, after which the tooth is thrown into the mighty River Waikato of the Waikato tribe.

As you go further north and northeast and northwest, i.e. across Eurasia, many countries share an animal motif and mainly the Mouse, the Dog or a Bird act as an active agent in bringing in good or bad teeth. In the New World, the Americas, there are mixed motifs among the tribes. Some tribes throw the tooth over / onto the roof, others place the tooth under their pillow, while many tribes offer the tooth to an animal helper. Interestingly, the types of sharp-teeth animals diversify considerably, and include the rabbit, beaver in addition to the usual Mouse, Bird and Dog participants. The Rat in particular, is a recurring motif – seen in Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco, Algeria, and Luxembourg.

Countries that share the animal helper motif include:

Koreans kids throw their teeth on to their roof and petition Blackbird to bring a new tooth.

New World

Animal helper

Shuswap and Yupik Indian kids mix their lost tooth in with some meat and then feed the mixture to a dog while saying, “Make my teeth strong.”

Cherokee Indians: Children run around the house with the lost tooth and then throw it on the roof while reciting this phrase four times: “Beaver, put a new tooth in my jaw!”

Argentinians put their teeth in a  glass of water. During the night a little mouse will drink the water, take the tooth and in exchange leave some coins or candy in the empty glass. (See Spain below – other Hispanic cultures, including Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia follow Spanish customs)

Mexico Teeth are left in a box on the bedside table in the hopes that the magic mouse El Raton will leave some coins or candy in exchange for the teeth.

Guatemala/El Salvador/Colombia: Teeth are put under a pillow, while waiting El Raton/rabbit to leave some money.

Venezuala: Tooth placed under a pillow so that it will be exchanged by a mouse for some coins

Brazil: The tooth is cleaned and thrown outside, while petitioning the birds to remove the tooth, and exchange it for a new one

Some Native Americans also see a burial in the soil or under a tree (the custom may include dancing around a tree) – likely fertility motifs include:

Navajo Indian children take their tooth to the southeast, away from their house. They bury the tooth on the east side (the east is associated with childhood) of a sagebrush, rabbitbrush, or pinyon tree.

Teton Indian The children bury their tooth in the dirt at the entrance to the lodge. Anyone who walks over the spot where the tooth is buried is said to grow a new tooth.

Dene Yellowknives have their mother or grandmother take their lost tooth, put it in a tree, and then have their family dance around the tree to make the new tooth come in upright as a tree.

Instead of an animal helper, a few tribes have a human intercessor, a grandmother or a saint:

Chippewa tribe: The lost tooth is charcoaled black and thrown to the west while petitioning grandma to help the permanent tooth to grow in strong.

Brazil The tooth is thrown out of the window onto the roof, while imploring St. John to bring a healthy tooth in exchange for the rotten one.

Throwing action/ roof / directionality motif

In Haiti The teeth are thrown on the roof, while petitioning Rat to send back an old tooth (reverse psychology, to trick the Rat into doing the opposite)


Eurasia / Central Asia

Animal motif / burial in a hole or in soil (fields)

Kazakhstan: The tooth is dropped under a bathtub, while petitioning Mouse to bring a new tooth

Kyrgyzstan: The tooth is rolled in bread, and left for an animal with good sharp teeth, preferably a Mouse, because a dog will produce ugly yellow dog teeth!

Russia: Teeth are left in a mouse hole in the ground

Mongolia as well as in much of Central Asia:  The tooth is stuffed into meat fat and fed to a dog (Dogs are regarded as guardian angels in Mongolia.) *(Bury it by a tree so that the new tooth has strong roots.)

Afghanistani kids throw their teeth in a mouse or rat hole in the hopes that the rodent will grant them a nice, strong tooth like the ones they have.

Tajikistan: Teeth are sowed in the fields so that children will grow up to be warriors

Animal / throwing / roof motif

Georgia: The tooth has to be thrown high up on the roof of the house while asking Mouse to take away the spoiled tooth, and replacing it with a strong healthy one

Moldova: The tooth is thrown on the roof of the house while saying “Crow, crow, coming from the mill, I am giving you a milk tooth, now you give me a bone one”

Slovenian children are visited by a mouse while they sleep. The baby tooth is replaced with candy.

France: tooth is placed under the pillow in exchange for a gift from Mouse (interchangeable with a Tooth Fairy)

Spain: The tooth is left under the pillow, and Rat will leave money or candy in return.

Pillow and tooth fairy motif – is the tooth fairy good or evil? Sometimes the animal can be an antagonizer instead of a helper-intercessor

Danish children put their tooth under their pillow and wait for the Tooth Fairy to come give them some money.

English children do the same, but during the Middle Ages, children were told to toss their teeth into a fire. This was partly for religious reasons connected with the Last Judgement and partly for fear of what might happen if an animal or some witch got them. It was believed that if the tooth were destroyed in fire the tooth could not be captured by a witch, who could then burn it and steal power from the child.  These days, the British people rely on the Tooth Fairy to snatch the tooth from under a pillow, leaving money behind. It is thus deduced that the fairy evolved from the tooth mouse, depicted in an 18th Century fairy tale, “La Bonne Petite Souris,” in which a mouse turns into a fairy to help a good queen defeat a mean king by hiding under his pillow and knocking all his teeth. The US and Canadians follow the tooth fairy customs.

Watery motif

Swedish children put their tooth in a glass of water.  In the morning a coin mysteriously takes the place of the tooth in the glass of water. In medieval Scandinavia there was a similar tradition, surviving to the present day in Iceland, of tannfé (‘tooth-money’), a gift to a child when it cuts its first tooth. In some parts of Norway (and Australia), the children also put the tooth in a glass of water.

Personal souvenirs

Lithuania: Teeth are merely kept as keepsakes

Austrians: The tooth may be turned into a pendant or key ring. But if the little tooth isn’t turned into a pendant or a key ring, it is thrown. Upper teeth are thrown under the house and lower teeth are tossed over the roof. (Germans don’t seem to have any tooth fairy customs)

 Note: Dr. Rosemary Wells, the curator of the Tooth Fairy Museum in Deerfield, Illinois stated that the tooth fairy is only known to exist in the United States and in countries with a similar ethnic background. (Canada and Australia) but Jennifer Walker gives us the following plausible explanation of how the Tooth Fairy tale originated with the Mouse tale:

“Years ago it was common practice for Europeans to bury baby teeth in the ground so that a permanent tooth would grow back in its place. In later years, especially those who didn’t have vast land at their disposal, baby teeth were buried in flowerpots. Eventually, even Europeans gave into the practice of the Tooth Fairy, who left money in place of the teeth.”

The Greek motifs diverge from European animal/tooth fairy ones, follow the Caucasus-Eurasian trail of roof traditions…

Greek children throw their teeth on the roof for good luck.  Then they make a wish that their adult teeth will be healthy and strong.

South Asia

Throwing / roof / burial / bird / mouse / sun motif

Indian kids will  throw their tooth on the roof and ask a sparrow to bring them a new tooth.  Other children in India throw their tooth at the sun, hoping for a bright adult tooth in return.

Nepali children are very protective of their lost tooth.  They believe that if a bird sees or eats their tooth, then a new one won’t grow in.  Their goal is to bury their tooth so that it won’t ever be seen or found and eaten by a bird.

Bangladeshi children throw their tooth in a mouse or rat hole so the mice will give the children strong white teeth akin to their own. And the animals usually leave a gift while at it.

Sri Lankan children close their eyes and petition the squirrel to take their tooth and give them a new one. And then they throw the tooth on the roof, running into the house without looking.

River (watery) motif

Pakistani children wrap their lost tooth in cotton, and then throw their tooth in a nearby river at sunset for good luck.

West Asia

In Turkey parents believe that their child’s lost tooth holds success within it their future.   If they want their child to become a great soccer player, they will bury the tooth in a soccer field.  If they wanted their child to go to dental school (what kind of parent would?!) then they would bury the child’s tooth around a dental school.

Middle East and North Africa

Aside from East and Southeast Asian countries throwing their milk teeth up high, Middle Eastern countries’ kids including those Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan and Egypt, are encouraged to toss their teeth up toward the sky. The tossed teeth tradition is thought to date back to the 13th century.

Egyptian children wrap their teeth in a tissue and take it outside.  They throw their tooth at the eye of the sun, asking the son to take their buffalo tooth and give them a bride’s tooth.  This is similar to most children in middle-eastern countries, who throw their tooth at the sun, hoping that it will give them back a tooth to make their smile brighter.

Omani children too face the sun and throw the tooth as far as they can syaing “Oh mighty sun, take this tooth, play with it, and do not forget to bring it back.’

Lebanese children throw their tooth into the sea or field while saying, “Oh sun, oh sun, take the mouse’s tooth and give me a gold tooth.” [Sun motif combined with watery or soil theme]

Libya: The tooth is thrown at the sun while saying ‘Bring me a new tooth” They are also told that this will give a bright smile because teeth come from the sun.

Sun + animal motif

Moroccan children place their tooth under their pillow at bedtime, and when they rise with the sun the next morning, they throw the tooth toward the sun while saying “I give you a donkey’s tooth and ask you to replace it with a gazelle’s tooth.” (Not saying so might beget the child donkey teeth.)

Animal motif only

Ancient Abyssinia (a historical nation in the northern part of today’s Ethiopia, northeast Africa): Children used to throw their lost tooth to a howling hyena asking the hyena for strong teeth.

Mid- and Southern regions of Africa

Roof combined with burial or with bird theme (Backmigration or admixture with Eurasians?)

Mauritania: The tooth is wrapped in a small piece of cloth and thrown onto the roof of the house. If when waking up early the next morning, the child should find a rooster on the roof, he or she can keep the rooster. The child is told that if he or she does not wake up early enough, he will not find the rooster.

Mali: The tooth is thrown into the chicken coop. The next day, the child will find a big fat hen and his mother will make him chicken soup.

Benin: The tooth is thrown onto the roof. If a lower tooth is lost, it will buried in a hole in the ground. It must be kept hidden from a lizard or the new tooth will not grow in.

Cameroon: The child throws the tooth over the roof while shouting “Take this bad tooth and bring me a new tooth.” Then the child hops around his house on  one foot and everyone laughs.

Unusual and anomalous customs in Africa

Throwing / roof / moon motif

Botswanian children throw their tooth on the roof and then ask the moon (rather than the sun) to bring them a new tooth.

Running away / stones motif

Nigerian children have an interesting tradition. A boy will hold his tooth and eight stones in his fist.  A girl will hold six stones and her tooth in her fist.  The child then closes their eyes, states their name, and counts to the number in the fist.  They then say, “Oh, I want my tooth back!” Next, they throw everything in their fist up in the air and run away as fast as they can.

Animal – Rat motif

South Africans leave behind the milk teeth in a slipper for the mouse to come and replace it with a gift. (as descendants of Europeans, their traditions cluster with the Europeans)

The sum of it is that a trajectory of mythical motifs and customary practices can be seen, and stories clearly stick around stubbornly, are fairly consistent and customs die hard, people carry their customs and traditions with them wherever they migrate to, passing them on from generation to generation. The customary motifs and practices also become mixed, presumably where admixed populations are found.

It might also be pertinent to note that Japan too has an ancient Tooth Fairy of sorts. A local custom of burying a tooth in the ground in supplication to the tooth kami was recorded in a passage, although this wasn’t dealing with milk teeth, but teeth in general, see p. 58 of A New History of Shinto by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen :

“… the Hakami Shrine located within the great Shittennoji templewithin Osaka. Hakami was a tooth kami whose cult required toothache sufferers to make a paste of soy beans and bury it in shrine ground. Supplicants prayed to Hakami to release them from pain, at least until those pasted beans sprouted.”


Sources and references:

Did you know that Japan has its own tooth fairy too? (Source: This blog)

Beeler, Selby B. Throw Your Teeth on the Roof; Tooth Traditions from Around the World

7 tooth fairy traditions around the world 

Lost tooth customs from around the world

Baby teeth – tooth fairy and worldwide traditions


TSUCHIGUMO: JULY KABUKI – 蜘蛛の絲梓の弦 – The Spider’s Web and The Stringed Catalpa Bow

Tsuchigumo means “ground” or “earth” spider in Kabuki and Japanese mythology.

The spider was synonymous in the ancient Kojiki and Nihon Shoki chronicles with local indigenous renegade clans. The symbol later evolved into the yokai supernatural folkloric proportions that we know today.

What was the origin of the tsuchigumo clan and where did the spider people come from?

These clans were found from Yamato Katsuragi to the easternmost parts of Japan, and were associated with mounds and caves or rockcut catacombs. They were thus either indigenous descendants of the Jomon, or another settled tribe of Eurasian or Southeast Asian origin. The Chu (Zhu) state- (Zhou dynasty period) people in Southeast Asia had a spider as their totem and Chinese character name.


Altaic shamans of Eurasia, in addition to deer and bird, sometimes also had the spider spirit as a key helper in their travels to the Underworld.

Japan has no tarantulas or really large scary hairy spiders unlike the ferocious Southeast Asian ones. It does however, have the Argiope which is a species also known as the Orb-Weaver spider (see Orb-weaver spiders of the genus Argiope (Aranei, Araneidae) from Russia and Central Asia by Tiunov and Esyunin). The Japanese Argiope sp. (aka kogane-gumo) characteristically spins its webs very low from the ground, trapping its bug prey while deterring mammals from coming close. A Joro-gumo orb-weaver spider who takes the form of a beautiful woman, and who can either drown or protect people from drowning, is still known from the folklore surrounding the Joren Falls in the Izu peninsula in eastern Japan. From Lappland to Central Asia, the spider was a divine or lucky emblem, but large hairy or venomous spiders were also best known to the Central Asians who associated spiders with caverns and holes in the ground, and for whom, the Latrodectrus or the black widow spider, or another species called the Argiope, commanded the respect of peoples across Eurasia. The spider is also said to be associated with the Orion or Corona Borealis constellation from ancient Eurasia across the Beringia to the Americas (construed as astronomy-related myths or folklore of the Blackfoot and Cherokee and other tribes and a totem for the Hopi tribe(see p 181~183 Gary R. Varner’s Creatures in the Mist and How grandmother named the clans (from Bruchao’s Native American Animal Stories) and spider deity or cultural hero of the Oglala Lakota; see also the Spider Nazca lines of Peru, see also Varner).

It is thus a moot point whether the clans were named for the local spider’s habits, for the indigenous descendants of the hairy Jomon, or the Satsumon, or whether they were so-named because spiders were already totemic identifiers of clans descended from the continental migrants. According to the ancient historian Motoori Norinaga in ancient Japan, Tsuchigumo was used as a derogatory term against aborigines who did not show allegiance to the emperor of Japan.

The opposing derogatory fearful and totemic benevolent depictions and descriptive use of the tsuchigumo spider icon might therefore possibly accurately mirror the historical animosity and antagonistic division between the warring factions of west vs eastern clans in ancient Japan. But who might these Tsuchigumo clans have been?

Katsuragi Hitokotonushi Shrine (葛城一言主神社 Katsuragi Hitokotonushi Jinja) was said to be the remains where Emperor Jimmu captured tsuchigumo and buried their head, body and feet separately to prevent their grudges from harming the living.

In historic Yamato Province, the unique physical characteristics of the tsuchigumo were that they were tailed people. In the Nihon Shoki, the founder of the Yoshino no Futo (吉野首) were written to be “with a glowing tail,” the founder of Yoshino no Kuzu (国樔) were stated to “have tails and come along pushing rocks (磐石, iwa),” presenting the indigenous people of Yamato as non-humans.

In Kita-ku, Kyoto, Jōbonrendai-ji, there is the Minamoto Yorimitsu Ason-no-tsuka (源頼光朝臣塚) deifying Yorimitsu, but this mound has been said to be a nest built by tsuchigumo. Also, in Ichijō-dōri in Kamigyō-ku, there is also a mound said to be built from tsuchigumo, where lanterns were discovered in an excavation and said to be spider lanterns, but those who received this immediately started to trend to receive great fortune, and became afraid of being cursed by tsuchigumo, so these spider lanterns are now dedicated to the temple Tōkō-Kannon-ji in Kannonji-monzen-chō, Kamigyō-ku. [It would therefore appear that many tsuchigumo were mound-builders, either engaged or enslaved to build the large Kofun mound tombs?]

In the Kojiki, the people of Osaka (忍坂) (now Sakurai city) were “tsuchigumo (土雲) who have grown tails.” In the Hizen no Kuni Fudoki, there is an article writing that when Emperor Keiko made an imperial visit to Shiki island (志式島, Hirado island) (year 72 in the legends), the expedition encountered a pair of islands in the middle of sea. Seeing smoke rising from inland, the Emperor ordered an investigation of the islands, and discovered that the tsuchigumo Oomimi (大耳) lived on the smaller island, and Taremimi (垂耳) lived on the larger island. When both were captured and about to be killed, Oomimi and Taremimi lowered their foreheads to the ground and fell prostrate, and pleaded, “we will from now on make offerings to the emperor” and presented fish products and begged for pardon.

In the Bungo no Kuni Fudoki, there appeared many tsuchigumo, such as the Itsuma-hime (五馬姫) of Itsuma mountain (五馬山), the Uchisaru (打猴), Unasaru (頸猴), Yata (八田), Kunimaro (國摩侶), and Amashino (網磯野), of Negi field (禰宜野), the Shinokaomi (小竹鹿臣) of Shinokaosa (小竹鹿奥), and the Ao (青) and Shiro (白) of Nezumi cavern (鼠の磐窟). Other than these, there is also the story of Tsuchigumo Yasome (土蜘蛛八十女), who made preparations in the mountains to resist against the imperial court, but was utterly defeated.

Nor were the tsuchigumo were confined to eastern parts: According to writings in the Nihon Shoki, in the 12th year of emperor Keiko (year 82 in the legends), in winter, October, emperor Keiko arrived in Hayami town, Ookita (now Ooita), and heard from the queen of the land, Hayatsuhime (速津媛) that there was a big cave in the mountain, called the Nezumi cave, where two tsuchigumo, Shiro and Ao, lived. In Negino (禰疑野), Naoiri, they were informed of three more tsuchigumo named Uchizaru (打猿), Yata (八田), and Kunimaro (国摩侶, 国麻呂). These five had great amount of allies, and would not follow the emperor’s commands.

By the 14th century, the period in which the Tsuchigumo Soushi (土蜘蛛草紙) was written, tsuchigumo appeared in the capital as yokai monsters. The commander Minamoto no Yorimitsu of the mid Heian era, known for the slaying of Shuten-doji, was brought by his servant Watanabe no Tsuna to go in the direction of Rendai field (蓮台野), a mountain north of Kyoto, where they encountered a flying skull. Yorimitsu and the others, who thought it was dubious, started to follow it, and arrived at an old estate, where there appeared various atypical yokai that agonized Yorimitsu and the others, and when dawn arrived, there appeared a beautiful woman who was about to trick them, but Yorimitsu, not giving it, cut it with his katana, and the woman disappeared, leaving white blood. Pursuing that trail, they arrived at a cave in mountain recesses, where there was a huge spider, who was the true identity of all the monsters that appeared. At the end of a long battle, Yorimitsu cut off the spider’s head (depicted in the woodblock painting above), and the heads of 1990 dead people came out from its stomach. Furthermore, from its flanks, countless small spiders flew about, and investigating them further, they found about 20 more skulls.

"Tsuchigumo Soushi" part eight to part thirteen

“Tsuchigumo Soushi” part eight to part thirteen

There are various theories to the story of the tsuchigumo, and in the Heike Monogatari, there is as following (they were written as 山蜘蛛). When Yorimitsu suffered from malaria, and lay on a bed, a strange monk who was 7 shaku (about 2.1 meters) tall appeared, released some rope, and tried to capture him. Yorimitsu, despite his sickness, cut him with his famous sword, the Hizamaru (膝丸), causing the monk to flee. The next day, Yorimitsu led his Four Guardian Kings to chase after the blood trail of the monk, and arrived at a mound behind Kitano jinja where there was a large spider that was 4 shaku wide (about 1.2 meters). Yorimitsu and the others caught it, pierced it with an iron skewer, and exposed it to a riverbed. Yorimitsu’s illness left him immediately, and the sword that cut the spider was from then on called the Kumo-kiri (蜘蛛切り, spider-cutter).The true identity of this tsuchigumo was said to be an onryō or vengeful spirit of the aforementioned local clan defeated by Emperor Jimmu. This tale is also known from the very fifth noh, “Tsuchigumo.” (Sources: Tsuchigumo)

What have we learnt about so far about the tsuchigumo? From all of the above accounts, the tsuchigumo earth spiders were clearly identified with opposing forces or groups of local native people that were being subdued by the Yamato rulers. They were often mountain inhabitants and they were associated with caves and rockcut tombs. They were “stone-pushers” and mound builders. There were also tsuchigumo who lived on distant remote islands.

Linked below is a blog post about the Kabuki retelling of the tale of the Defeat of the Ground Spider.

Kabuki Live

Katsukawa Shuntei - Defeat of the Ground Spider Katsukawa Shuntei – Defeat of the Ground Spider

The end of July has brought suffocating heat with it to the Northern Kantō. Much is happening as I pack for Sapporo where I begin my cross Japan journey with my love. I am excited as I am going to attempt to visit old kabuki theatres across the country on this adventure. Failing that I will try to see kabuki outside of the regular Tōkyō theatres. There will not be any  posting of live kabuki in August as I made the error in booking my flight before the Kabuki-za had released its opening day schedule. As the Kabuki-za is doing three productions a day in August, they have decided to begin their August program on the 6th rather than earlier in the month as I had hoped. I regret not booking later and making sure, but these things happen. I will still…

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MAY KABUKI – Megumi no Kenka (め組のけんか)& Waki Noboru Mizu-ni Koi Taki (Koi Tsukami) (わきのぼるみずき鯉たき:鯉つかみ)

The Ryujinmaru sword and the spirit of the Giant Carp in kabuki today.

Kabuki Live

The sunny days are upon us here in Northern Kanto, flowers and green as far as the eye can see. To celebrate the coming summer nights I decided to travel into Tokyo and spend a few days seeing kabuki. I was able to visit both the Kabuki-za and the Meiji-za for two full days of theatre. In the interest of space and time I will write to you about some of my highlights of both days. In this posting I will describe Megumi no Kenka (め組のけんか)The Fire Brigade’s Arguement, or The Quarrel of Megumi by Takeshiba Kisui (1847-1923) as viewed at the Kabuki-za. I will also highlight Waki Noboru Mizu-ni Koi Taki (Koi Tsukami) (わきのぼるみずき鯉たき:鯉つかみ) as seen at the Meji-za.

Yoshitoshi - A New Selection of Eastern Brocade Pictures Yoshitoshi – A New Selection of Eastern Brocade Pictures

The May performances at the Kabuki-za had several interesting rare plays and dances. Ichikawa Ebizo’s version of the dance The…

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