By Ronald A. Morse
In June 2010, there will be an international symposium in the small town of Tono in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Legends of Tono published in 1910 by the founder of Japanese folklore studies, Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962).
To kick-off the 100th anniversary celebrations, there was a book party for me in Tono on February 21, 2009 to mark the publication of my translation of The Legends of Tono: 100th Anniversary Edition (Lexington Books, September 2008). The book will be a centerpiece of celebrations through 2012, the date of the 50th anniversary of Kunio Yanagita’s death.
In 1910, Yanagita paid to have 350 copies of his short collection of folk legends printed. Like Grimm's Fairy Tales (1812), which he had read, his work was in a standard literary style that any Japanese could understand.
The immediate reaction to Yanagita’s work in Tokyo literary circles in 1910 was mixed and the book was not published again until 1935. In fact, it was really only after World War II, when there was a sense that the old rural traditions of Japan were being lost, that The Legends of Tono gained new prominence as literature and historical record.
In more recent times, The Legends of Tono has generated a broad spectrum of commentary. It has been compared to the Chinese revolutionary writer Lu Xun’s collection of fables from the 1920s and 30s, Old Tales Retold. The leftist Japanese writer, Ryumei (Takaaki) Yoshimoto wrote a Freudian interpretation of the work in his The Psychic World of Shared Fantasies (1969). Yukio Mishima, the famous nationalist writer and politician, has written favorably about the eerie literary qualities of the work. And in 1976, a popular writer also from the Tono region, Hisashi Inoue, poked fun at Yanagita’s work in his A New Reading of the Tales of Tono.
Today Tono City, in part because of The Legends of Tono, but also because of the Tono material in the Lonely Planet travel book for Japan, has become a popular domestic and international tourist destination. Over the years, Tono City has designed an impressive set of cultural facilities to support its popularity – an impressive library and museum complex, a new hotel where chanters recite the legends, a historical village, and a research institute. This month, the Japanese government also issued a commemorative stamp series of Tono landmarks and customs.
The mass media has also picked up on the stories and legends. In 2007, an award-winning animated movie directed by Kenichi Hara, Summer Days with the Kappa Coo used Tono as a setting for a good part of the film. The stories in The Legends of Tono are also currently being serialized in the popular manga magazine Big Comic. The artist, Shigeru Mizuki, famous for his renderings of ghosts and goblins, will display his original drawings in Tono in 2010.
Ronald A. Morse is a leading thinker and commentator on Japan and is the translator of The Legends of Tono: 100th Anniversary Edition.