Who Invented the Legless Japanese Ghosts?

One of the rakugo stories that I’ve always wanted to listen to is called “The Ghost of Ōkyo” (応挙の幽霊).

In this story, an antique art dealer came across a picture scroll by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), a famous realist painter from the Edo period (1603-1867), and sold it to one of his clients for 10 Ryo.

The client left 1 Ryo for the bond and went home to pay the remaining amount the following morning.

That night a beautiful ghost came out of the scroll, and she thanked the dealer for offering her sake and chanting a Buddhist sutra for her.

They enjoyed sake together, and the ghost even sang some dodoitsu poetry for him.

The morning arrived, but the ghost was still asleep, being exhausted from the previous night.

The client wondered why the scroll wasn’t delivered and asked the dealer.

The dealer answered, “I’d like to let her sleep a bit longer, sir.”

Now…

This is one of those stories that I probably wouldn’t perform myself as a lot could get lost in translation.

But what really fascinates me is that it is said Ōkyo invented the legless Japanese ghosts.

As you may know, it is traditionally believed in Japan that ghosts do not have legs.

That is why ghost characters in Japanese manga and anime are usually legless.

It is a widely accepted theory that Ōkyo was the one who was responsible for inventing the convention of legless ghosts.

If this is true, it is relatively a modern invention that is less than 300 years old.

On the left is The Ghost of Oyuki by Ōkyo.

Picture Attributions

The Ghost of Oyuki: Maruyama Ōkyo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yuurei: Brigham Young University, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What is a “Pillow” in Rakugo?

Can you spot his pillow? And… I wonder who the creepy man under the vase stand is…

Today I learned that the Māori word for a pillow is urunga, which also means “act of entering”, according to Te Aka dictionary.

I don’t know about you, but I found this extremely fascinating!

As some of you may know, the prologue for a rakugo story is called a makura (まくら, 枕), which also means a pillow.

Delivering a good makura is an art form.

You are allowed to talk about literally anything in it.

Some use it to explain some words or old customs that are now hard to understand.

Others use it to warm up themselves and the audience.

You can talk about what happened to you on your way to the performance.

You can make a political statement or even tell some dirty jokes if you wish (though you may lose your fans).

Some performers are so good at makura that they sometimes only do their makura without performing rakugo stories.

This is just my personal interpretation, but I’ve always thought it is called a “pillow” because it acts as the portal to guide the audience members to the dreamlike world of rakugo.

Just like a pillow is the portal to the dream world.

Like the Māori word urunga, makura is the entrance to the world of rakugo.

㊗️ Eishi is Now a Member of the English Rakugo Association!!!

Last month when I had a rakugo performance in Wellington, one of the audience members asked me if I was a member of the English Rakugo Association.

My answer was no…

He looked almost confused as I had just told them how excited I was that the association was established… by my very own master Kanariya Eiraku!

But I was slack at taking an action until my master himself invited me (this, by the way, is a bad thing in Japanese/ rakugo culture… as I didn’t take the initiative to discuss with him…)

Anyway… making a long story short, I have finally joined the association as of today!

For those who know me well, I am a bit superstitious when it comes to choosing the right timing to begin something new.

I began my training under Eiraku on my 40th birthday.

I especially asked him if I could start on that particular day.

Today 15 August is the 76th anniversary for the end of the WWII. By surrendering to the war, Japan began her new journey as a more peaceful nation.

The restrictions for rakugo performances were lifted, therefore rakugo came back fully.

Peace is a prerequisite for art to thrive.

As a reminder of this, I hereby became a member of the association as of today to promote rakugo further to the world.

By the way, I was given Special Membership B (which I don’t know much about but sounds cool) 😃

Weird Professions of Edo No.2: Ear Wax Remover

I have a confession.

I once was an ear cleaning addict until my specialist ear nurse rather strongly told me to stop using the traditional Japanese ear pick.

It is usually made of bamboo, and it often has a “fluff” made of bird feather on one end.

Traditional Japanese Ear Pick

If you are into Japanese film, manga, and anime, you might have seen that a couple cleaning each other’s ears (usually a man laying his head on a woman’s lap, getting his ears cleaned by the woman).

Somehow ear cleaning is considered an intimate act, even romantic, in Japanese culture.

By the way, my western wife doesn’t think it’s romantic and just tells me to stop using it, but this is another story.

Ear-cleaning being such an important part of Japanese life (slightly exaggerated), some people even made a full-time living from cleaning people’s ears during the Edo period (1603-1867).

In fact, the profession of Ear Wax Remover (耳垢取) is recorded in Kotto Shu (骨董集) by Samuru Iwai (岩瀬醒), which was published in 1814/ 1815.

Japanese life in Edo seems to have been much more laidback than how it is now.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Photo Attributions

Ear Pick: Mochi, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Kotto Shu: National Diet Library Digital Collection

Weird Professions of Edo No.1: Cat’s Flea Remover

I recently heard of a Japanese movie called “Flea Remover Samurai” (のみとり侍), which was released in 2018.

It is based on a short novel by Shigeo Komatsu by the same title (the original title uses a kanji for the word flea: とり侍).

The premise of this story is that the main character, who once was an elite samurai, resorts to the side hustle of removing fleas from cats to supplement his income.

But here’s a twist.

His real business is a male courtesan.

I’d love to watch the movie sometime, but did you know that the profession of flea remover (蚤取り屋) actually existed during the Edo period (1603-1867)?

As far as I know, they were not covert courtesans, though!

This strange occupation is sometimes introduced in rakugo, usually in a makura or a free talk before commencing rakugo.

According to what I have heard in rakugo, they wrapped up a flea-infested cat with wolf’s fur, which was warmer and more comfortable than the cat’s, so that the fleas abandoned the cat for the wolf’s fur.

It is said that they made enough money to make a full-time living.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Japanese Concepts of “Hare” and “Ke”

Onbashira Festival

If you have ever visited Japan, you probably know that we are quite mellow people.

Those dead quiet trains make us look well-behaved and civilised.

Yet, when it comes to festivities, we go overboard and know how to celebrate (not in the Latin American, Spanish, or Italian ways, but hey…).

Celebrations have kept Japanese civilisation going since time immemorial.

You may have heard of a festival called Onbashira Festival (御柱祭) where 16 fir trees (16-19 metre-long each) are pulled downhill by a group of people.

Every year, many people get injured and sometimes even die… but they still keep going regardless as festivals are crucial in Japanese life.

According to Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), a renowned scholar and folklorist, all our activities can be divided into two categories: Ke (け; 褻) and Hare (はれ; 晴れ; 霽れ).

Ke refers to the ordinary.

Things or activities that you do every day like family life, work, school, etc.

Hare, on the other hand, refers to things and activities that are out of the ordinary such as festivals and rituals like wedding, coming of age, and Shichi-Go-San.

It is the balance between these two kinds of activities that have maintained Japanese life.

Even though many people assume that ke is from the word kegare (impurities), but this is not the case.

The concept of kegare was only added in the 1970’s to this hare-and-ke dichotomy.

Working hard on the ordinary (ke) and looking forward to the out-of-the-ordinary (hare) is how Japanese have coped with our rather stressful social life.

Photo Credit

Si-take. at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reference

Onbashira

ハレとケ