Japanese Folktales: The Legend of the Haunted Furisodé

FURISODÉ

In his book of Japanese ghost stories, folk tales, and legends, In Ghostly Japan,” Lafcadio Hearn tells of an incident in a street of small shops selling mainly antiques and old goods.  He says, 

“Recently, while passing through a little street tenanted chiefly by dealers in old wares, I noticed a furisodé, or long-sleeved robe, of the rich purple tint called murasaki, hanging before one of the shops. It was a robe such as might have been worn by a lady of rank in the time of the Tokugawa. I stopped to look at the five crests upon it; and in the same moment there came to my recollection this legend of a similar robe said to have once caused the destruction of Yedo.”

A “furisodé” is a long-sleeved kimono often worn by unmarried women, indicating they are available for marriage. This minor event evoked in Hearn a memory of an extraordinary legend and the following is a retelling of that legend of the destruction of Yedo by a great fire.

THE SAMURAI DREAM

This legend tells how some two and a half centuries earlier, there lived in Yedo the city of the Shōguns, a lovely young woman. One day as she was attending a festival in the temple, she saw in the crowd the finest looking young samurai she had ever seen or imagined. In her awe of his beauty, she instantly fell in love with him. But, to her dismay, before she could learn his name and who he was, he became lost in the vast, ever-changing throng of people attending the festival. So she sent her servants to search for him or discover his identity, but they could find no trace of him.

Nevertheless, she found the image of the handsome young samurai had become burnt into her mind, remaining clear and lucid in every detail right down to his clothing. As it was a festival, he had been wearing their brightest and most colorful kimonos like herself and everyone else. The young men’s garments were no less gorgeous and colorful than those of the young women. However, it was the upper design of his kimono, the colors and the crest, that had particularly caught her eyes and remained bright and vivid in her mind and made her heart cry out for him. Now, as she considered it in her mind’s eye, it seemed all the more remarkable to the love-struck girl. As she pondered more and more upon the image, the idea grew that she would have a furisodé made to show she was ready for marriage. It would be of similar color and design, with the same crests, and of the same quality silk the samurai of her heart had been wearing. She would wear it around the town in the hope of attracting his attention to her and drawing him into her arms.

NAMU MYŌ HŌ RENGÉ KYŌ! (1)

With this very much in mind, she had a most beautiful furisodé, with long sleeves, made from the finest silk and decorated with the crest she had seen in the most gorgeous of colors and the height of fashion and elegance. Whenever she went out, she would wear it hoping to bring herself to the attention of the samurai of her dreams.   

She treasured it so much that when she was not going out, she would hang it in her room and imagine the form of the unknown samurai of her heart was with her.  In this dreamy fantasy, she spent hour upon hour for longer and longer. Sometimes she would pray her dream lover would appear and sweep her off her feet, and sometimes she would weep. In this way, between ecstatic fantasy and sad reality, she fluctuated, and she would pray to the gods and Buddhas that they may bring her the samurai of her dreams and that he would love her as much as she loved him. For this purpose, she repeatedly recited the mantra of the Nichiren sect, 

“Namu myō hō rengé kyō!”

It proved futile, and all to no avail, for she never again saw the handsome samurai of her dreams. She yearned and pined that he may come and cure her sickened heart, but he never did. Slowly, in lonely misery, pining for her dream lover, she slowly faded, weakened, and died. She was given a Buddhist funeral with all the rites. Her gorgeous furisodé that she had treasured and had been her hope of attracting her dream lover to her was given to the temple that performed the rituals, as was tradition and custom, to dispose of the deceased’s clothing as they saw fit to benefit the temple.

THE HAUNTED FURISODÉ

The furisodé had been made from the finest silk using the best dyes for coloring and showed no sign of wear or the tears that had flowed over it. Its style and design were of the most exquisite taste, and the priest sold it for an excellent price. The garment was brought by a girl of similar age to the lady who had imagined, commissioned, and worn it. Like its previous owner, she was a beautiful girl who wanted to show she was available for marriage. After wearing it for the first day, she fell ill with an unknown sickness and began to act very strangely. She claimed that day and night, a vision of the most handsome samurai she had ever seen appeared before her. It followed her in the day and would manifest before her eyes when she was out. At night it haunted her dreams, and she fell deeply in love with the samurai of her dreams. His vision possessed her, and she knew that for the love of her dream Samauai she would die. Sadly, that is what happened. She withered and failed and died for his love, and for the second time, the beautiful furisodé was given to the temple as custom decreed.

RETURN OF THE HANDSOME SAMURAI

The temple priest remembered selling the beautiful garment and thought no more than how sad events had turned out and sold again.   The buyer was another young lady about the same age as the previous owners who wanted it for the same reason. After wearing it for the first time, she complained of seeing a strange but handsome samurai who would suddenly appear nearby when she was out and would intrude upon her dreams. She talked of a handsome samurai whom she had fallen in love with. Although he would always appear close if she reached out to hold him, he dissolved into nothingness. She, too, fell sick, withered, and died unable to obtain the nourishment her dream samurai could give her.

After her funeral, the temple received the furisodé again, but the priest began to feel uneasy and troubled. Nevertheless, the furisodé was sold to another beautiful young woman hoping to attract a husband by wearing it. Like the others, she complained of visitations from a handsome samurai in her dreams and waking life. Like the previous owners, she withered and died, and after her funeral, the furisodé was given to the temple.

The date was the 18th day of the first month of the first year of Meiréki or 1655, and the priest stared at the garment in alarm and revulsion for he knew these tragic deaths were not just coincidence. He now believed the furisodé, although beautiful, was possessed by an evil presence.

THE GREAT FIRE OF THE LONG-SLEEVED ROBE – FURISODÉ-KWAJI

Thinking that destroying the garment would destroy the evil presence, he made a bonfire and cast it to the fire. The beautiful silk was quickly engulfed in flames, but to his astonishment and horror from the inferno, there sprang dazzling tongues of flame which took the shape of the invocation – 

“Namu myō hō rengé kyō!”

One by one, these letters leaped onto the temple roof like red hot sparks setting it on fire.  Sparks, burning embers, and flames spread to adjacent buildings, and a sea wind carried red hot embers to the roofs and walls of others in the vicinity. Soon the entire street was being consumed by flames, with the sea wind spreading it even further. It was not long before the whole neighborhood was burning and the city in danger of being consumed by the blaze. This was one of the most disastrous catastrophes in Japanese history and became known as the furisodé-kwaji,—the Great Fire of the Long-Sleeved Robe or the Great fire of Meireki.

O-SAMÉ

ONO-NO-KOMACHI, THE BEAUTIFUL POET,

As often happens, famous people who once existed in history become entangled in legends and folklore of historical events. For example, Komachi or Ono-no-Komachi lived over a thousand years ago and was and still is one of the most celebrated poets and beauties in the history of Japan. She was said to be the most beautiful woman of her era, and her poetry so fine it could move heaven and even bring rain in times of drought.

She was loved by many men, and many were said to have died for want of her love. Sadly, as she grew older, her beauty faded and withered along with her fortune, and she was reduced to wearing rags and begging in the streets. She was said to have died in poverty on the road to Kyoto. Because she was dressed in rags when she died, it was considered shameful to intern her in such a condition, and someone donated a second-hand summer robe to wrap her body in called a katabira. Her grave became known as “Place of the Katabira” (Katabira-no-Tsuchi) and was not far from Arashiyama.

And we can see, as so often happens all around the world, facts, events and real people, become embroiled and tangled up to form legends and myths that feed the fantasies of everyday folk – yet still there remains somethings that cannot be explained and cannot be put down to mere fantasies.

© 23/02/2022 zteve t evans



References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 23rd, 2022 zteve t evans


Ancient symbols: The puzzle of the Three Hares

Three hares sharing three ears,

Yet every one of them has two!

Ancient German riddle

Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral – Author: ZeframGFDL

An ancient symbol

The three hares is an ancient symbol that is found in many religious places, buildings and caves ranging from the British Isles, Germany, France and other parts of Europe to the Middle East and parts of China in the Far East.  In Britain the symbols are mostly architectural ornaments or found in church roofs and sometimes on ceilings of private homes.  In Europe they are found mostly in churches and synagogues.   It is also used as a motif in heraldry, jewelry, ornaments, tattoos and other works of art. It has been wrought in many different materials and can be thought of as a puzzle, a topological problem, or a visual challenge, and can be found in stone sculptures, wood carvings, paintings, drawings and metal work.

Threefold rotational symmetry

Essentially the motif consists of three hares, or rabbits, chasing each other the same way around a circle.  There is a threefold rotational symmetry with each of the three ears being shared by two hares.The ears form a triangle that appears  at the centre of the circle, where, instead of there being six ears visible, there are only three, even though individually the hares all show two.  Occasionally a Four Hares motif is found in some places which is a similar but shows four ears, instead of eight, even though all the hares have two ears, making a square in the center.

The Tinners Rabbit’s

In  the county of Devon and other parts of the  south west England the motif is sometimes known as the Tinner’s Rabbits. This refers to the trade of tin mining that was once an important industry in the area. The theory was that a tin miners trade association or union that used the Three Hares motif as its emblem was the patron to a number of churches.  This might explain its high proportion of representations in churches in the area.  However, the motif is also found in parts of England with no association with tin mining, though it could have represented some other association that patronized these churches, but the theory is not accepted by everyone and the truth remains elusive.

Sacred symbols

The symbol is similar to the triskelion the triquetra and the triple spiral, or triskele. The meaning of the motif is unknown today though it is believed to have a number of symbolic and mystical associations and was possibly something to do with fertility and the cycle of the moon in paganism.   Its presence in Christian churches is thought to symbolize the Trinity though this cannot be proved and the fact that it is found in so many different countries over such a wide distance it may in fact have more than one meaning or purpose depending on the culture where it is found.

Buddhist connections

The Three Hares motif seems to have spread from the Far East westwards between 600 AD and 1500 AD.  The earliest known examples comes from the Sui Dynasty of China where it was found in sacred caves used for temples from the 6th to 7th century.  From there the motif was believed to have become connected to Buddhism and possibly spread along the Silk Road to the Middle East and eventually to Europe.

A researcher named Guan Youhui, now retired from the Dunhuang Academy, spent 50 years studying the patterns and symbols that are found in the Mogao Caves.  He believed the Three Hares motif represent “peace and tranquility” while others think they may represent “to be”.

The Three Hares can be found in “Lotus” motifs and Mongol metalwork from the 13th century.  It has been found on a copper coin from Iran dated 1281 and on other artifacts from diverse origins.

The spread of the motif

TIt is a mystery to how the Three Hares motif is found over such a large range from China the Middle East, Europe and the British Isles.  Although the earliest examples are found in China it is unknown why it occurs in so many diverse countries.It is possible it  spread along the great trading route of the Silk Road to other regions of the world but it could also have developed independently in different places with different meanings attached to it.  In the first instance it may have incorporated in the design of silks and artifacts simply because it was a pleasing design or it had some special significance.  With the second instance the majority of the occurrence of the motif are found in churches and synagogues in Germany and England, implying some religious significance was attached to it.

Christian use of the Three Hares

The Three Hares motif is found in a number of churches in some European countries.  In  Lyons, France the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière   and in Germany, the Paderborn Cathedral display excellent examples of the use of the motif.The southwestern parts of England has the most examples and the Three Hares Trail can be followed to see them.  They are often placed on carved wooden knobs, or bosses in a prominent position in the ceilings or roof of medieval churches, giving weight to the idea that they had some special significance and not just the trade symbols of masons or carpenters. The Dartmoor area has a number of Three Hares motifs found in churches. A fine example of a carved wood boss can be seen on a roof boss in the church of St Pancreas, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, near Dartmoor, Devon.

In Christianity there are at least two possible reasons why it it placed in churches.  The first is that in ancient times the hare was believed to be a hermaphrodite that reproduced without sexual intercourse and in doing so retained its virginity.  As such it became associated with the Virgin Mary and its image used in illuminated manuscripts and paintings of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus.

The second reason is that the motif  could be representative of the  Holy Trinity.  The three ears from the three hares form a triangle in the centre of the motif possibly representing One in Three and Three in one.  Triangles and interlocking rings were quite often used to represent the Holy Trinity.

Intriguingly the Three Hares symbol is often found next to the so called Green Man symbol.  Like the Three Hares symbol little or possibly less is known about the Green Man.  It is speculated to be an Anglo-Saxon symbol though many people think it may be a far older originating Celtic times.   What it is doing in a Christian church is unknown.  Some speculate that the two together are meant to show the difference between the divine and the earthly nature of humans.

An ancient German riddle

Curiously the motif is found in many of the more well known wooden synagogues in the Ashknaz region of Germany dating from the 17th and 18th century along with the following riddle:-

Three hares sharing three ears,

Yet every one of them has two.

Coat of Arms of Hasloch – Public Domain

The meaning of the Three Hares motif

The hare is an animal that is involved in many myths and legends in many different cultures around the world.  The Three Hares motif can be found from Britain across Eurasia to China and was found in Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu cultures.   If there was a thread that linked them all together, or a common meaning attached to the motif, it is lost now but it is intriguing to find it in such diverse places.

Symbolism of the Three Hares

But there may be something that they may all have in common. The use of symbols or icons, or imagery helps make learning and remembering important information easier especially for people who cannot read or write.  The use of images is an invaluable aid for people in such circumstances as they convey meaning and information quickly and easily.  The paintings in the caves of Mogao Caves of China to the churches in the English countryside appear to be intended to convey some, but not necessarily the same message, or idea. The symbol of the Three Hares was at least one possible way that the information was conveyed.  What exactly the message was is not known but if one looks at the places and the cultures that they are found in it could be that ideas will naturally spring to mind.   Could it be that by looking at and thinking about the puzzle the beholder is being deliberately placed in a situation where they have to use their own knowledge and experience in combination with the location and culture the symbol is found in to make sense of it in the world that they find themselves in?

One last question

There is probably no right or wrong answer, but do you think The Three Hares symbol has a meaning; does it change with culture and location, or is it just an attractive image used for decoration?

© 06/05/2015 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright 6th May, 2015 zteve t evans