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  • Excerpts from The Legends of Japan (1929)
  • Yanagita Kunio
    Translated by David Humphrey (bio)

Words Offered to the World Once Again

Japan is a country with an astonishingly vast number of legends. In the past, there were at least five or ten people who could tell one in any given locale. However, in recent years various new matters have arisen with which people must concern themselves, and the number of those who would happily listen to such stories has declined. Accordingly, having few opportunities to recall the tales, storytellers tend to forget or recount them incorrectly. These stories are too valuable to lose however, and I have therefore sought to write this book for the sake of young people who enjoy reading. There are numerous individuals who have informed me that in reading this book they have come to understand for the first time what sort of things legends are and in what manner they have been transmitted from the past.

There have also been those who have suggested that given the large number of legends in Japan, I should continue recording different stories, one after the other. However, this is something I cannot easily bring myself to do. Besides the fact that simply lining up numerous similar traditions does not readily make for interesting reading, I have not settled upon answers for those who would ask me to explain the stories. It is both mysterious and fascinating that versions of any given legend are scattered throughout Japan, while at the same time all believe that its events truly occurred in their own town or village. There is certainly some hidden logic to this phenomenon, but its truth has yet to be brought to light. Many more people, who share my desire to somehow discover that truth, will need to come forward and study these stories. In order to sow the seeds of curiosity on this subject, I have found it necessary to focus on rather unusual and rare topics, although they are not easy to find. At present, I am preparing the story “The Castle of White Rice” (Hakumaijō). I would also like to work, in the near future, on the legend “The Thirteen Mounds” (Jūsanzuka), but I wonder if a story such as this can elicit [End Page 137] the eager inquisitiveness of young readers. Regardless, simple yet vivid stories, such as those I have recorded in this book, are quite few in number.

Recently, I wrote another small book titled Legends (Densetsu, 1940), which considers the paths along which legends have grown and flourished in Japan. I believe the reader’s interest in this newer book is likely to be deepened just a little if he has read The Legends of Japan (Nihon no densetsu, 1929) as a youth and can recall even a portion of it. Yet, I cannot help but think that it would have been better had I written this first book in prose more simple and vigorous, so that it would have more readily remained in the minds of those who read for the facts. For this reason, in consultation with friends, I have made significant changes to the writing style [in this reprint edition of] The Legends of Japan. It would seem that until now Japanese prose has in general used difficult words that one rarely hears spoken. For things such as legends that have long been transmitted by the spoken word, I strongly believe that a different manner of expression is necessary, but, at the time of the book’s original publication, I had not yet devised such a system. In addition to the points raised above, I ask the reader coming to this book anew to be mindful of these changes.

(November 1940)

Foreword

What is the difference between legends (densetsu) and tales (mukashi banashi)? In order to answer this question, one might say that tales are like animals and legends are like plants. Because tales fly and wander in each and every direction, one can observe them in the same form wherever one goes. However, a legend puts down its roots in the soil of one particular region and grows there over time. Whereas one wren or bunting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2329-9770
Print ISSN
0913-4700
Pages
pp. 137-151
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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