Japanese Folktales: The Soul of the Mirror

Matsumoto Ichiyō (cropped) [Public domain]

The concept of animism where objects are believed to have a soul, spirit or consciousness is found in many religions, past and present around the world.  The following is a retelling of a story from The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies & Stories by Lafcadio Hearn that he called The Mirror Maid that features this idea.

The Mirror Maid

The story is set in Old Japan in the period of the Ashika Shōgunate.  When the sacred Temple of Ogawachi-Myōjin, at Minami-Isé fell into a state of disrepair,  Matsumura Hyōgo, the Shinto priest of the temple begged Lord Kitahataké who administered the district for funds for repairs.  Unfortunately due to war and other difficult circumstances Lord Kitahataké could not provide such funds. Therefore, Matsumura went to Kyōto and appealed to the great daimyō Hosokawa who had influence with the Shōgun.

Lord Hosokawa was sympathetic he could not authorize the funds without the permission of the Shōgun but promised to bring the problem to his attention.  He advised the state of the shrine would need to be investigated and an estimate of the expense and a plan of work would have to be provided. Therefore he warned that in might take considerable time and he advised Matsumura to remain in Kyōto while the matter was dealt with.  

Matsumura rented a house and sent for his family and servants. The house was situated in the old Kyōgoku quarter of the city and was old, imposing and rather daunting.  It had been unoccupied for some time and had a dark and inauspicious reputation.  Situated on the northeast side of the garden was a well in which several preceding tenants of the house had been found dead in its water.  Not surprisingly, an air of mystery and suspicion hung over the house and dark words were whispered about it. Matsumura took no notice of the reputation of the house and well.  Being a Shinto priest he had no fear of evil spirits and so he soon became settled and comfortable in his new residence.

The Well

In the summer there came a time of drought and no rain fell on Kyōto and the surrounding area for months.  The lakes, rivers and wells dried up and the land became as bare and as dry as a bone. The only well which still bore water in Kyōto and the surrounding area was the one situated in the garden of Matsumura which remained full to the brim.  

The water was cold and clear with a hint of blue but it was good and plentiful and always available.  People came from all parts of the city and surrounding area to beg for water. Matsumura allowed each and everyone to draw as much as they pleased.  Many people came to draw water but still the well remained full to the brim.

One morning  Matsumura had a shock.  The corpse of a young servant who had been sent to draw water by his master from the far side of the city was found floating in the well.  It was apparent he had been a fit and active young man and it was not thought likely he had slipped and fell into the water. 

Although Matsumura searched diligently he could find no clue as to how the young man could accidentally have drowned.  There was no sign of a struggle or reason to believe he had been deliberately murdered either. Furthermore, after speaking to his master and family he could find no reason for such a young man to commit suicide.  His imagination exhausted he remembered the dark reputation of the house and began to suspect some unknown evil had manifest.

The Maid in the Well

Matsumura stood looking at the well wondering what to do.  He thought perhaps he should have a fence built around it to stop people going near for their own protection.  As he mulled over these thoughts he became aware of a sudden movement in the water which startled him. It was as if there was some living thing in the water moving around under water.  

The movement stopped and as the ripples settled he became aware that there was the face of a young woman in the water.  She appeared to be around nineteen or twenty years of age and was very beautiful and was engaged in the activity of coloring her lips red as was the practice of females in those times.  At first he could only see her face in profile and she seemed unaware or unconcerned by him watching.  Slowly she turned her head to face him and as she did she smiled at him looking deep into his eyes.

Matsumura was frozen to the spot and began to experience a strange shock that shot through his heart.  He became dizzy as if intoxicated with wine and all he could see was that strange, smiling, face while all around was darkness.  Very white and very beautiful was the face, as white and as beautiful as the moon. 

It seemed to grow whiter and even more beautiful as he stared.  He became aware with sudden alarm that he was being drawn down, lower and lower, into the darkness towards that face and those red lips. Desperately he tried to master himself and break the spell and with one last supreme effort he succeeded to close his eyes shutting out the vision. 

When he opened his eyes again he found he was on his knees with his face close to the surface of the water. One more second and he would have suffered the same fate as the servant who had been drowned.  He was glad to find the light had returned and went back to the house. Understanding the danger from the well he ordered that it be fenced in and no one should be allowed near.

Rain Storm

A few days later the drought was broken by a massive thunderstorm.  While lightning flashed and thunder roared rain fell in torrents on the parched city and land.  For three days and three nights the rain fell hard and fast. The river rose higher than it had ever risen before and carried more force than it had ever carried before.  All along its course bridges were overpowered and washed away and along its banks water burst across the land flooding fields and homes.

On the third night of the raging storm, at the Hour of the Ox, there came a knocking on Matsumura’s door and the voice of a woman could be heard outside begging to be let in.

The Appearance of Yayoi

Matsumoto Ichiyō (cropped) [Public domain]

The experience Matsumura had suffered by the well immediately came to his mind and he forbade his servants to answer the door. Instead he went himself to stand by the door and called out,  “Who can it be who is out on a night like this and rapping at my door?”

A female voice answered, “I beg your pardon and ask for your forgiveness. My name isYayoi and I have something that is of great importance that I must say to Matsumura Hyōgo and no one else. Please, I beg of you to let me in that I may deliver my message .”

Matsumura opened the door a little and looked out.  He saw the same beautiful female face that he had seen smiling up at him from the water in the well.  Now she was not smiling but had a sad forlorn expression.

“You cannot come in,” he told her sternly, “You are not human, you are a creature from the well.  Why do you drown and kill innocent people?”

To the surprise of Matsumura she answered in a musical voice like the tinkling of rare and precious jewels which he had never heard before.  She said, 

“This is exactly the matter that I wish to talk to you about for I have never wanted to harm humans. Long ago in the most ancient of days a an evil dragon became the Master of the Well which is why it was always full. Long ago I fell in the well.  He was more powerful than I and he made me to his bidding, forcing me to lure people to their deaths in the well.  

However, time does not stand still and things change according to the will of the gods.  The Heavenly Ruler has ordained that the dragon must leave the well. He will dwell in the lake in the province of Shinshū known as Torii-no-Iké and will never again return to this city.  He left for his new home tonight which is why I am now free to beg for your compassion your aid.

I ask that you have your servants search the well. They will now find it dry with the departure of the dragon despite the rain .  At the bottom of the well you will find my body. I urge that you do this as soon as possible and you can be sure that for your compliance you shall enjoy my benevolence and reward.”

With her last words she vanished before his eyes.

The Mirror

The storm finally died out just before dawn.  As soon as it was light Matsumura ordered his servants to search the well which was dry just as Yayoi had said it would be.  Although they searched they found no body. All they found were a few very old hair ornaments such as was used by women in ancient times and a mirror.  The mirror was of curious style and shape but had become encrusted with grime and mud. 

The absence of a body puzzled Matusmura to begin with but then he realized his error.  He remembered that mirrors are weird things with weird properties and every mirror had a soul that was its own and the soul of a mirror was female.

Carefully he cleaned it up treating it with great care and reverence.  When he had cleaned all the encrusted grime from it he saw that it was indeed a rare and beautifully made piece of very ancient origin.  On its handle and back were beautiful designs and some lettering some of which he could not understand but he could make out some letters that appeared to spell out  “third month, third day” appearing to relate to a date.  

He realized that in years gone by the third month was the Month of Increase and called Yayoi. Then he remembered that the third day of the third month was the Festival that was still called Yayoi-no-sekku the creature from the well had called herself Yayoi.  This led him to the conclusion that the ghostly creature from the well was actually the Soul of the Mirror.

With this concluded he treated the mirror with even more reverence and care having it carefully cleaned again and re-silvered so that it was like new.  He ordered a case to be made using fine wood and quality craftsmanship to make and decorate it. Then he prepared a special room to keep it in and carefully carried it there and put it in its designated place of honour.   That evening as he sat before the box contemplating upon the recent events Yayoi appeared before him.

The Soul of the Mirror

He was stunned that she looked even more beautiful than before but now there was a softness to her light like that of a summer moon.  She greeted him courteously and respectfully and said in her sweet, musical voice, 

“I have come to thank you for saving me from an eternity of sorrow and loneliness.  I can confirm that you are indeed correct in thinking that I am some kind of spirit.  Yes, I am the Spirit of the Mirror – its very soul as you have guessed.

During the rule of the Emperor Saimei many long centuries ago I was brought to this residence from Kudara. Here I dwelt until the rule of the Emperor Saga and was presented to the august Lady Kamo, Naishinnō of the Imperial Court. From that time I became an heirloom of the House of Fuji-wara until the time of the period of Hōgen.  During the period of the great war I laid forgotten for many, many years.

In those days the Master of the Well was an evil dragon.  He had once lived in a lake that once covered this whole area.   A government order came for the lake to be filled in to make land for the building of houses.  The dragon could not stop the lake being filled in and took up residence in this well.  

After I had fallen in I was helpless against his power and he forced me to lure people to their deaths.  Now that the great god has ordained he must take up residence in a far away lake I am free.

Nevertheless,  I have one last favour to ask of you.  With all my heart I beg that you offer me to the Shōgun, the Lord Yoshimasa. By descent he is related to my former possessors and it would be fitting I should return to him as he is their heir.

If you would do this great kindness for me – it is the last I shall ask – it will bring you great good fortune.

Now I have to give you a warning.  This residence is in danger and you must evacuate the premises as soon as possible. Tomorrow this house will be totally destroyed.”  

The Prediction Fulfilled

As soon as Yayoi had finished speaking she bowed and vanished. Matsumura heeded the warning and moved his family and servant to another house in a distant part of the city immediately.  The next day a violent storm arose and lightning struck his former residence several times destroying it completely. The rain fell in torrents and washed away the remnants of the shattered building but Matsumura and his family were safe.

Soon after Matsumura asked for an audience with the Shōgun Yoshimasa and was fortunate to be granted one.  This gave him the opportunity to present the mirror to the great lord and to give him a written account of the marvellous history of the august piece. The Shōgun was delighted with this ancient gift and was intrigued by its strange history.  In gratitude he gave Matsumura many expensive presents and also allotted ample money for the refurbishment of the Temple of Ogawachi-Myōjin making the prediction of Yayoi, the Soul of the Mirror come true.

© 05/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 5th, 2020 zteve t evans

6 thoughts on “Japanese Folktales: The Soul of the Mirror

  1. Very interesting! I wonder if it’s typical in Japanese folklore for mirrors to personified as female? Yayoi doesn’t quite sound like an example of the ungaikyō tale, and the only other Japanese mirror spirits I’ve seen have been from manga, where they tend to be male and trap girls like in Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro series.

    • I wondered that but in the version this is based on Lafcadio Hearn says, “for every such mirror is a weird thing, having a soul of its own,—and the soul of a mirror is feminine.” This story has strong influences from the Shinto philosophy which I know little about. I wonder if if rather than male or female it refers to something like Chinese Yin/Yang? I really don’t know. I know nothing of Manga but the Yayoi Festival is still held but in April though calendars may have changed. The modern Japanese are the descendants of the Yayoi people. Thanks for your thoughts which are interesting and greatly appreciated!

  2. Pingback: Via Under the influence!-Japanese Folktales: The Soul of the Mirror – Fang and Saucer

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