Japanese Folktales: The Dream of Akinosuke – Ants, Dreaming Humans and the Butterfly Soul

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Ants, Butterflies and Dreaming Humans

Insects and humans are a strange mix and yet in In Japanese folklore the human soul sometimes appears as a butterfly. Maybe it is something about the way they flutter from place to place or the fact that they have gone through metamorphosis to transform into a such a beautiful creature.  When we look deeply into the populous and industrious colonies of ants many people see a microcosm of a human cities and society. Indeed, from above our cities often seem to be teeming with myriads of ant-like creatures.

In reality the idea of humans being insect-like in any way may seem absurd except in our dreams in which reality can be suspended, twisted and turned on its head and time has a completely different duration. In such dreams we may believe ourselves to have lived for years in a certain place but awake to be told that we have only been asleep for a few minutes. But what if when we return from the dream to the waking world we find evidence that there may indeed be some basis for the idea we actually existed in our dream – what then?  

Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale originally called, The Dream of Akinosuke, from a collection of tales, called Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn which has some strange things to say about ants, butterflies and dreaming humans.

THE DREAM OF AKINOSUKE

There once lived in the district of Toichi in the Yamato Province of old Japan a goshi named Miyata Akinosuke.  These were feudal times and in such times goshi were a social class having certain privileges. They were soldiers and freehold farmers who owed their position and allegiance to an overlord. Akinosuke was just such a man and as a freeholder he had a very beautiful garden with an ancient and spreading cedar tree.  He was very fond of his tree and during the hot, sultry days of summer he liked to recline and relax in the coolness of its shade. 

One hot afternoon he was relaxing in the shade of his tree with two of his fellow goshi.  They were having a very pleasant time drinking wine and conversing amicably on different topics and enjoying each other’s company.  Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the warm sultry afternoon or maybe it was both, but Akinosuke grew very drowsy. He grew so sleepy that he asked his friends to excuse him while he took a brief nap.  Teasing him they told him the wine had gone to his head, but agreed to excuse him and he lay down at the foot of his beautiful cedar tree and very soon he was dreaming a dream like no other.

The Procession

In this dream he saw a great and grand procession of people coming over the crest of a nearby hill and he stood up to get a better view. It was indeed a very grand procession the likes of which he had never seen before.  There were very many men and women all dressed in the finest of silks carry banners and flags and marching to the beat of a drum. There were so many in the distance it looked like a long line of ants coming over the hill.

At the heart of the procession was a carriage that was borne aloft proudly.  Akinosuke watched and was surprised to see that it was making directly for his dwelling.  As it drew nearer he could see that the carriage was richly decorated with silks of blue and gold and obviously carried someone who must have been very important indeed. The procession proceeded unerringly to his gate and stopped.  The carriage door opened and a tall, thin man dressed in the most exquisite finery got out. In a mostly stately way he approached the surprised and bemused Akinosuke, who awestruck, bowed low while the visitor greeted him thus,

“Most honorable Miyata Akinosuke you see before you an envoy and servant of the King in Tokyo.  I am commanded to greet you in the name of the King and put myself entirely at your service. He has commanded me to inform you that he seeks your presence at his palace and has tasked me to escort you into his esteemed presence.  Therefore, please enter this most honorable of carriages that he has sent for this purpose and allow me to be your personal guide to his royal presence.”

With that the messenger stood aside holding the carriage door open, gesturing for the bewildered Akinosuke to step inside.   He wanted to make some kind of fitting reply but was too astonished and overwhelmed.  Instead, he meekly obeyed and stepped into the carriage and his guide sat down beside him.  With a word of command the carriage proceeded to the King’s palace. 

The Palace

They traveled at surprising speed and within a short time were outside the palace gates.  The envoy announced he would go and inform the King of Akinosuke’s arrival and he was to wait here until sent for. Presently two noblemen wearing the purple silks and caps of high rank arrived.  They greeted him with all due respect and escorted him through a most beautiful garden, the vastness of which appeared to extend in all directions for many miles.

At last they entered the palace and Akinosuke was shown into a most splendid reception room with many ornate carvings and works of art upon the walls.  He was seated in a place of honor while two servants brought him food and drink. After he had taken refreshment the two nobles in purple bowed low and speaking in turns said to him thus,

“It is our duty and pleasure to inform you that the reason you have been brought here is because the King, our most noble master, desires greatly that you become his son-in-law.  It is his greatest wish that this will happen today. Therefore, you will marry his daughter the August Princess this day. When the time comes we will escort you to your wedding, but first we will provide you with appropriate apparel for such a splendid and important ceremony.”

Having finished their speech the two nobles went over to a great gilded chest and lifting the lid drew out various items of clothing.  These were of the finest and richest silks and styled for royalty and were indeed most suitable for the bridegroom of a royal wedding.  After he was dressed in the very finest of fashions befitting such a special occasion he was led into a hall where the King and his highest dignitaries and nobles awaited the arrival of Akinosuke.

The Marriage Of Akinosuke

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Akinosuke saluted, bowed and  knelt before the King who greeted him graciously and spoke to him thus,

“You have been informed that it is my desire that you will become my son-in-law and the husband of my only daughter – the August Princess.  We shall now proceed with the wedding.”

With that he clapped his hands and the sound of joyful music filled the  hall and a long line of beautiful ladies of the Royal court appeared. Solemnly they escorted Akinosuke to another hall where his bride awaited dressed most beautifully for her wedding.

The wedding hall was huge and richly decorated and despite its size it was barely big enough to seat all of the guests who swarmed everywhere.  Everyone stopped and bowed as he entered escorted by the ladies of the court and he took his place kneeling on a cushion facing his bride. In her gorgeous silk wedding dress the color of the bluest summer  sky she looked indeed the August Princess. 

The marriage rites were performed with great ceremony and dignity and afterwards the newly married couple were escorted to a special suite of apartments especially prepared for them.  The King and all the guests were overjoyed and Akinosuke and his wife radiating happiness received many wonderful presents and the blessings of everyone.

Although they had not met each other before or heard of one another in the past, Akinosuke and his wife were very happy together enjoying the company of each other.  The days passed joyfully and presently Akinosuke was summoned to appear before the King.  He feared he had done something wrong but instead the King spoke to him thus,

“The island of Rashi lies in the southwestern part of my realm and I have decided to appoint you the Governor of Raishu in my name.  The people of the island are very loyal and peaceful but their laws have never been brought into alignment with the laws and customs of my realm. I am entrusting you with this task and with improving their lives and social condition as much as is possible.  It is my desire that you rule them with kindness, justice and wisdom. All the preparations for the journey and your arrival have been made and you will leave in the morning.’

The Island of Raishu

The next morning Akinosuke and his wife left the palace with a great escort of nobles, palace officials and courtesans who accompanied them to the harbor.  There he and his wife boarded one of the King’ s own ships to take them to  Raishu and take up the governorship of the island. They had a good wind and fair weather and soon arrived safely in the harbor of the island to find the people had all come out and were lining the shores to welcome them.

After a warm reception from the people Akinosuke began his governorship and put his heart and soul into the task.  In the first three years he reformed the laws to align with those of the King in Tokyo. He was lucky to have the help of wise counselors who knew the people very well.  This helped him considerably and he never grew tired or bored with the task. When it was all complete he found he only had a few active duties to carry out and most of these were of a ceremonial nature.

The island was very fertile and grew all the crops the people needed and they also fished the seas.  The weather always seemed to just right so there was never famine or starvation. The people were hard working and peaceful never broke any laws so there was little for him to do.

Akinosuke lived and ruled on the island for another twenty years making twenty three in total and in that time he was happy.  He grew to love his wife and she him and they were very close and happy together. She bore him seven fine children – five strapping sons  and two beautiful daughters.

In the beginning of the twenty fourth year of his governorship his beloved wife fell sick and died.  Akinosuke was grief stricken but as tradition required he made sure she was buried with all the dignity and ceremony befitting her status.  He had her buried on a beautiful hill with a fittingly splendid monument raised over her. Unfortunately and understandably her death had left him devastated and he no longer cared for himself or wanted to live.

After the customary period of mourning was complete a ship sailed in from Tokyo bearing a royal messenger from the King.  The messenger hastened to Akinosuke to deliver a message of condolence directly from the King telling him thus,

Return Home

“The King our lord and master sends his deep condolences to you and your children.  You have worked hard and done a splendid job on Raishu but it is now time you returned to your own country.  Have no fear for your seven children for they are also my grandsons and granddaughters and I will look after them.”

Akinosuke on hearing this order submissively prepared to leave the island.  When all was made ready for his departure and all necessary rituals and ceremonies were completed he said goodbye to his children,  councilors and officials and was escorted in a grand procession to the harbor where he took the ship for home.

The ship sailed out of the harbor into the blue sea and towards the blue sky of the horizon.  Akinosuke turned to look at the island in a last farewell and watched as it’s shape turned to blue and then, grey and vanished forever from his sight – and at this point he woke up to find himself lying in the shade of the cedar tree in his very own garden. For a moment or two he was dazed and bewildered and rubbed his eyes.  Looking around he saw his two friends sitting nearby drinking wine and chatting happily to each other and he cried out loud,

“How strange this is!!”

His two friends looked over to him and laughed when they heard him.  
“Ha!” laughed one, “Our friend, Akinosuke has been dreaming!  Tell us your strange dream my friend.”

” I think the wine got the better of him,” teased the other, “but do tell us!”

Therefore, Akinosuke told them his strange dream and how he had spent  over twenty three years living on the island of Raishu in the realm of the King of Tokyo.  He told how he was married and of his children and finally how his beloved wife had died. 

The Butterfly

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His two friends were astonished at his tale and insisted he had only been asleep for a few minutes at the most.  One of them told him that while he had been asleep they had witnessed a very strange thing and he spoke thus,

“While you were asleep we saw a very strange thing happen. A small yellow butterfly appeared and  fluttered and hovered over your face for a brief moment or two.  We watched and saw it settle on the ground beside you as you lay close to the cedar tree.  Almost immediately an exceptionally large ant rushed from a hole by the tree and seizing the butterfly ran back down the hole carrying it with him.

Just before you woke we saw the same yellow butterfly crawl out of the hole and flutter up to hover before your face before suddenly vanishing.  I do not know where it went but it was gone.”

The second nodded in agreement and then he spoke,

“Maybe it was our friend Akinosuke’s soul.  I thought perhaps it flew into his mouth but even if it was our friend’s soul it does not explain the dream.”

The Realm of the Ants

“Maybe the ants explain it,” said the first, ” they are peculiar beings and there is a large ant’s nest by the hole of the tree.”

Akinosuke jumped up and cried, “Let us investigate!” And rushed off to fetch a spade.

On his return he set about gently clearing the soil away to carefully reveal that the nest had been excavated and built in the most surprisingly complex way.  The huge population of ants that lived there had turned the colony into a miniature world with some similarity to that of humans. There were tiny buildings made from straw, clay and stems that gave the nest the look of scaled-down versions of human towns and cities.

In the very center of the colony was a structure larger than all of the others which contained a swarm of small ants appearing to work around the body of one very large ant that had a black head and pale yellow wings.

Akinosuke cried,

” Look! There is the King in the palace of Tokyo that I saw in my dream!  How amazing and extraordinary! If that is so, the island of Raisu should lie somewhere to the southwest – and there it is by that root … now can I find the green hill and the tomb of my beloved wife – Yes, there it is – how remarkable!”

Looking closely, Akinosuke saw the small hill in the nest and on top of the hill was a worn polished pebble very similar in shape to the monument he had placed over the body of his wife.  Gently lifting up the pebble he was astonished to see covered in clay the dead body of a female ant.

The End

Ants, Humans and the Butterfly Soul

There are some people who see parallels between ants and humans.  Such philosophers see similarities in the two societies while comparing the differences.  The cities humans build and live in are seen in parallel with the ant colonies and the two societies compared.  In human cities the swarms of humans may all appear to be busy working for the greater good of their society. However, on closer inspection it is found that this is so only as far as it does not encroach upon their own selfish needs and desires which may be at odds with the well-being of their society and even their own butterfly soul.

Ants are seen to be regimented and industrious giving up or not possessing such selfish needs and desires working entirely for the good of their society.  These same philosophers argue that humans with their selfishness damage the good of their society while the ants give up the wants of the self in favor of maintaining the good of their society and their butterfly soul – assuming ants have any kind of soul at all.   Therefore, they claim ants are superior to humans and their society further evolved.  Such philosophers are not renowned for their sense of humor, but personally I always think it one of the greatest of human attributes, though I am not sure ants have one. I wonder though, what do you think of these strange matters of ants, dreaming humans and the butterfly soul?

© 23/10/2019 zteve t evans

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Copyright October 23rd, 2019 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: Yuki-Onna, the Snow Woman

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In Japanese folklore, Yuki-Onna or Snow Woman, is a yōkai, which is  a kind of demon, spirit or supernatural monster.  There are many different Japanese folktales and traditions that feature Yuki-Onna and accounts of them vary from region to region. Presented here is a retelling of a story called Yuki-Onna, from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn.

Yuki-Onna

Mosaku and Minokichi were two woodcutters that lived in a village in Musashi Province. Mosaku was an old man and Minokichi was a lad of eighteen years of age and his apprentice.   Everyday they would walk the five miles to the forest to find wood and on the way they were obliged to cross a river.   The river was wide and in good weather could be swum but after heavy rains the current was too strong so they would use a ferry boat to cross to the other side.  There had been several attempts to build a bridge but on each occasion as soon as the river rose its fast flowing current washed it away, therefore people who wanted to cross had to use the ferry.

One winter’s day and Mosaku and Minokichi had gone out as usual and used the ferry to cross the river.  They spent the day gathering wood and as it was growing dark they realized a snow storm was approaching and made their way back the the river. Unfortunately when they arrived they found the ferryman had taken the boat to the other side of the river and gone home.  

The Snow Storm

The snow storm hit them and as it was no weather to swim they took shelter in the ferryman’s hut nearby. It was small and cramped but as the snow came down they thought themselves lucky to have such shelter at all. Unfortunately there was no smoke hole or brazier to light a fire in, nevertheless locking the door  they settled down to wait out the night covered only in their overcoats.  

At first they were quite comfortable and expected the storm to pass over quickly.  To begin with the heat from their bodies began to warm up the as the small hut and Mosaku fell asleep quickly.  Minokichi could not sleep and lay listening to the howling wind outside. He could hear the snow crashing against the hut and the roaring of the river as it began to rise.  The rickety hut began to creak and groan under the full force of the snowstorm and suddenly it grew very, very cold. The apprentice began to shiver and despite the cold he too fell asleep.

He was sharply awoken  with a start by a snow hitting his face. Opening his eyes in surprise he saw the door had been forced open.  Outside the snow had eased but was still falling and the ground had a thick white covering which glimmered strangely under the moon and stars.  

The Snow Woman

In the snow-light he was shocked to see that there was someone else in the hut apart from his master and himself.  He saw it was a woman who was dressed all in white and bending over Mosaku was blowing her breath upon him. It streamed over his face like bright white smoke.  Seeing Minokichi stir the woman turned and began stooping over him, lower and lower and lower.   He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t. He tried to move, but he couldn’t.

All he could do was watch in fear as her face drew nearer and nearer until it almost touched his and he could feel her cold breath.  He saw she was very beautiful but he was afraid of her eyes. She stooped over him looking at him for awhile and then she smiled and whispered softly,

“You are young.  You are so pretty!  Minokichi, tonight I intended to do with you as I have done with your companion.  Have no fear, I feel pity for you and I will not hurt you. You must never speak of what you have seen again, not to sun, moon, stars, not to anything. If you ever tell another person, even your own mother or another living being about what you have witnessed tonight I will immediately know.  I will come for you and I will kill you. Do not say you have not been warned!”

For a few terrible moments she gazed into his eyes, then she straightened up, turned and walked out of the hut and into the snow and was gone.  To his relief the spell that had held him transfixed was gone.  He jumped up and looked quickly out of the door but could see no sign of her, not even her footprints and the snow was thick on the ground.   He closed the door making sure it was secure wondering if he had been dreaming and the wind had blown the door open.

Turning to Mosaku, his master he was shocked to see that the old man had not moved through it all.  He called to him but there was no answer, He touched his face and it was as cold as ice. He shook his body but it was stiff and lifeless and realized his master was dead.  With nothing else he could do he settled down to wait out the night.

In the morning the storm was gone and the ferryman had crossed the river.  On entering his hut he was surprised to see the unconscious figure of Minokichi and the body of his dead master.  He promptly gave aid to Minokichi and managed to revive him but there was nothing he could do for Mosaku who was now frozen solid.

Recovery

With care and over a period of time Minokichi recovered in full from his ordeal.  The death of his master and his encounter with the Snow Woman had left profound mark on him.  He spoke nothing of these to anyone not even his mother took care of him. Eventually he grew fit enough to resume woodcutting to make a living.  Every morning he would walk to the river alone and cross over to the forest and collect bundle of sticks that he would take back and with the help of his mother sell.  

Time passed in this way and some twelve months later one winter evening he was walking home with his bundle of sticks on his shoulder.  He was walking fast wanting to get home when he caught up with a girl who was travelling in the same direction as he. She was very tall and very slim and also very pretty.  As he was striding past, so as not to unduly alarm her, Minokichi called out a friendly greeting.  She returned the greeting in a friendly way but Minokichi was struck by the sound of her voice which sounded  very pleasant to listen to like that of a songbird. He slowed to her pace and walked beside her and as she seemed amenable to conversation he began chatting with her.  

O-Yuki

He told her his name and she told him her name was O-Yuki and that recently she had been bereaved of both her parents.  She was on her way to Yedo where she had relatives and hoped they would help her find a place in a rich family as a servant.

He was absolutely intrigued by the girl and the more they talked and traveled together the more beautiful and entrancing she became to him.   They chatted easily together of many things and laughed along together. As they walked along and at last he asked her if she was betrothed. She blushed and laughed but told him that she was absolutely free.

In return she asked if he was engaged or married and he told her that he too was free and only had his aging, widowed mother to support.  Somewhere between them unspoken but in their minds were thoughts of an “honorable daughter-in-law”.  Both silently considered and they walked on in silence. but there is an old  saying,

“When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.”

The more they walked together the more they liked each other. When they reached the village lived Minokichi politely asked O-Yuki if she would like to rest and take refreshment at his home for awhile and meet his mother.

O-Yuki blushed and after hesitating agreed.  His mother made her very welcome and made her sit down and rest while she made her a hot meal.  O-Yuki was so polite and agreeable that his mother asked her to stop the night and take a break from her long journey. The next morning as she was preparing to leave his mother came to her and persuaded her to stay for a  few days saying she really enjoyed her company. Of course this pleased Minokichi greatly and it came to pass that O-Yuki never left and was gladly accepted into the household as “An honourable daughter-in-law.”

An Honourable Daughter-in-Law

Indeed, O-Yuki became something of the perfect daughter-in-law and when Minokichi’s mother died five years later her last words poured nothing but love and affection upon her son’s wife.  O-Yuki gave her husband ten beautiful children all, slim tall and as handsome as she.

All of neighbors and local people saw O-Yuki as a wonder.  Unlike the local women who grew old early through hard work and poverty she remained as young, fresh and beautiful as she been the first day she had met Minokichi even after giving birth to ten children.

Minokichi loved her dearly and one night after the children had gone to sleep he sat watching her sewing by the light of a lantern and said,

“Watching you sewing with the lantern light reminds me of a very strange experience I had when I was a young lad of eighteen.   In all of my life I have never met anyone as beautiful as you and as white and perfect as you, except once and she was very much like you.”

Without looking up or taking her eyes from her work O-Yuki said,

“Oh … Tell me about her.  Where did you meet her?”

Minokichi thought for a minute recollecting his memories of the experience. Then he told her everything that had happened the night Mosaku and he had taken shelter from the snow storm all those years ago.  He told her all about the mysterious Snow Woman and how she had smiled and whispered to him and about how Mosaku had frozen to death that night and said,

“In all of my life, either awake or asleep have I ever seen a person as beautiful as you.  However, this … Snow Woman … was not … could not have been human and I was terrified of her she was so white … pure … perfect … yet terrifying! Sometimes I think it was all a dream or a spirit of the snow.”

Sudden Change

O-Yuki snarled and flinging away her sewing jumped to her feet.  Stooping over him where he sat in shocked silence at her sudden change she lowered her face to his and shrieked,

“Do you not see that it was I … I … I! … It was I!  I told you that I would find you and kill you if you ever said another word about what happened that night.  If not for our children I would kill you here and now! Listen and remember! If you do not take good care of them. If they come to any harm through you – I will return and I will kill you.  Do not say you have not been warned!”

As she shrieked her voice became thin and wailed like the wind as she slowly dissolved into a pure, white mist that spiraled up and around the roof beams and left through the smoke hole, shrieking into the night and was never seen again.

© 04/06/2019 zteve t evans

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Copyright May 4th, 2019 zteve t evans