Magic in Japan – The Body of the People

Kuniyoshi, Ghosts of the Taira Clan

Kuniyoshi, Ghosts of the Taira Clan, 1840’s

In this case not necessarily the physical body – I’m thinking here of the cultural body and how that relates to the people. When we look at the extraordinary corpus of Japanese woodblock prints from the nineteenth century we are struck firstly by its hermeticism. This is a sealed culture (literally, until the 1850’s), and one where there existed a complete set of cultural values, mythologies and beliefs further into the modern age than with any other comparable modern culture. This floating world, balanced for so many decades on the cusp of magic and technology reveals the visible disintegration of the body (as culture) and the mind (the feelings) of the people.

Yoshitsuya, Hideyoshi and the Angry Sotetsu

Yoshitsuya, Hideyoshi and the Angry Sotetsu, 1864

The unique isolation of Japan in the early modern world allows us an insight into the disjuncture between life and spirit in western cultures. Japan’s intrinsic culture and belief – like Roman and pre-christian beliefs in the west was pantheistic. The Japanese believed that all things – objects, the natural world, buildings, villages – were invested with kami. Kami is a complex idea, the word is both noun and adjective and as a noun means a powerful being like a god or deity. As an adjective, kami might translate as holy or mystical – mysterious or otherworldly. For some people the term might just mean magic or magical. This mysterious phenomenon underpins every aspect of Japanese culture and explains many of the ritualistic practices of the Japanese way of life, but also the untrammelled superstition that runs through every myth, folktale and unofficial history of people and events in Japanese history. Without an understanding of kami, the meaning of ukiyo prints, of kabuki plays and of the iconography of Japanese art is lost or hidden. There is not the space here to begin to classify the orders of kami let alone their countless manifestations. Because the beliefs of Japanese religion – both Shinto and to a lesser extent Buddhist – are evolved rather than revealed (that is, revealed by a prophet, as in Christianity or Islam), the classification of hierarchies can be confusing and conflicting. Deities may for example have less kami, (and therefore influence) than mortals who have achieved mythological status over time or through the influence of sects, shrines, folktales or Imperial influence.

Kuniyoshi, Empress Jingo Kogo

Kuniyoshi, Empress Jingo Kogo

A good example of this is the Empress Jingo. Jingo (Jingu) is certainly a real historical figure but is imbued with the attributes of a goddess and famed for her conquest of parts of Korea in the 3rd century. Having fallen pregnant, she is said to have tied a girdle of stones to her waist and delayed the birth of her son by three years. In the case of Jingo we can see how fact and mythology become contained within the same myth. These fantastical stories, common to nearly every well known historical figure have become woven into the fabric of myth and magic, creating inseparable distinctions between fact and fiction. Less outlandish might be the very real and well documented, 12th century samurai warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune.  Yoshitsune has parallels with the English Folk hero Robin Hood; and his is a tragic and very famous story in Japan. His father was persecuted by the rival Taira Clan and Yoshitsune was brought up in a monastery. Legend has it that he was then taught the secrets of fighting by Tengu (mythical forest creatures) before taking up rebellion against his father’s old enemies. Yoshitsune is usually pictured fighting the warrior monk Benkei at Gojo Bridge. Benkei, known as a phenomenally strong man and warrior, has secured the bridge with the intention of relieving 1000 samurai of their swords. Yoshitsune is his 1000th victim. Yoshitsune, though slight, defeats the giant man using Tengu fighting skills. Benkei becomes his loyal protector and between them they lead an armed rebellion against the Taira, establishing Yoshitsune’s brother as the first national Shogun.

Kuniyoshi, Ushiwaka_Maru (young Yoshitsune)

Kuniyoshi, Ushiwaka Maru (young Yoshitsune)

In Yoshitsune’s legend there is historical fact, well attested by contemporary accounts; tremendous exaggeration – his famous eight boat leap, his fight with Benkei; and outright mythology – his education with the mythical forest creatures the tengu. Yoshitsune’s story is typical of the fabric of Japanese folk history and one that would have been very familiar with ordinary, superstitious Japanese. Ukiyo prints further embellished and reinforced the more colourful episodes of these histories with often lurid and miraculous scenes of fights with gigantic spiders, winged tengu, disembodied and gigantic heads of demons and terrifying monsters of the sea and forest. The religious belief in ghosts, demons and goblins has its roots in Chinese Daoism. The Japanese co-opted many of the characteristics of Daoist superstition into their own creation myths and to fill otherwise dull episodes in the lives of important

Yoshitaki, Bando Jutaro and an Oni Demon

Yoshitaki, Bando Jutaro and an Oni Demon, 1873

figures. Hence there are numerous accounts of warrior heroes fighting with tengu (forest goblins), oni (wild demons) and kappa (water devils) – these Chinese characters easily combining with the indigenous Shinto beliefs. As memories of the ancient past diminished, the popular superstition of more recent possessions and hauntings came to dominate popular culture and entered into the mainstream of woodblock prints and kabuki theatre.

It was not only heroes and magicians that preoccupied the Japanese populace: perhaps more immediate and more pressing were the kami associated with animals, place and objects, a powerful superstition that penetrates right to the modern age. Nearly every

Hiroshige, New Year's Eve foxfires at the changing tree, Oji, 1857

Hiroshige, New Year’s Eve foxfires at the changing tree, Oji, 1857

indigenous animal (and some that are not native) is associated with magical powers, either directly or indirectly. The most powerful are also associated with the Chinese zodiac. Special superstitions surround the fox, the hare and the badger. The most confusing of these is the fox, often seen in Japanese woodblock prints and on its own associated with magic, good, evil, deceit and shape shifting. The fox appears in some of the great art of Japan, as in Hiroshige’s haunting and masterful New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Oji – here associated with marsh gas fires thought to presage magical events. The fox in Japanese mythology can be immensely wise, acquiring nine tails by the end of its long life but also assuming the shape of travellers on the road and of beautiful and seductive women.

Hirosada, Kasa-obake

Hirosada, Kasa-obake


If all this were not enough to worry about, objects could also take on malevolent and mysterious lives to harass the innocent or the unwary. In Japanese prints vengeful spirits can occupy hanging lanterns or appear as great skulls in the snowy landscape. Even umbrellas were invested with their own soul at a certain age. These Tsukumogami, (Kami of tool) included any object of use that was more than 100 years old. This 10th century folk myth was given greater credence after it was co-opted by the proselytising sect of Shingon Buddhism and persists to this day in popular culture and quaint ceremonies carried out to console lost or damaged household objects.

Yoshitoshi, Hakamadare Yasasuke and Kidomaru Fighting

Yoshitoshi, Hakamadare Yasasuke and Kidomaru Fighting with Magic

Belief in Kami, in magic, in the supernatural has animated Japanese art for centuries. In the work of Kuniyoshi for example, his outstanding imaginative use of these myths contributed to his phenomenal success and the richness and vibrancy of his most arresting images (see top of page). So too in the work of his most gifted pupil Yoshitoshi. The print illustrated left of
Hakamadare Yasasuke and Kidomaru Fighting with Magic from 1887 is one of the finest of Yoshitoshi’s magical subjects. Conforming to the tradition of mortals with exceptional Kami, it illustrates a follower of the 10th century warlord Minamoto no Yorimitsu, fighting with what might be another aspect of himself by use of supernatural means: the upper figure transforming into a gigantic snake, the lower meanwhile invoking a cloud of tengu through incantation. The print has everything required of a folk history – magical creatures, sorcerers, historic characters, demons, terror and kami. This print was made twenty years after the great Japanese leap into the modern world, yet it would have been clearly understood by the large audience that it was designed for. Japanese culture was embedded in the natural world, in natural magic. This animism was also embedded in its official and Imperial history and in the official religions of Buddhism and Shinto. The distinctions that we habitually make between the real and the imagined simply did not exist in nineteenth century Japan. Thought, action and phenomena were intimately connected with the individual, and with their conscience and their contract with culture and society. Commerce, capitalism and communications severed this bond between town and country, between art (in its broadest sense) and life. What replaced this evolved belief system appears to be panic, alienation and industrialisation. Happily, these myths linger on in attenuated form. Casual research of Japanese mythology will these days lead to any number of manga and anime sites where the hybrid descendants of Yoshitsune, Benkei, Hideyoshi and Kidomaru are still wreaking magic and evil in the settings of junior high school and downtown Tokyo.

Manga Kidomaru

Manga Kidomaru


About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in ghosts, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized, yoshitoshi and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Magic in Japan – The Body of the People

  1. Pingback: Japanese Art, Religion and Mythology: The Body of the People | Modern Tokyo Times

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