Waking Up As A Cow: Japanese Myths And Legends
September 24, 2013

Waking Up As A Cow: Japanese Myths And Legends

Western countries have plenty of their own myths and legends, but so far my experience of Japan has made me think that myths and legends in this part of the world are a bit more nightmarish. If I were a child here and heard all of these, I think I’d be too scared to do anything. Maybe that’s why a lot of them choose the safe, static pursuits of reading comic books and playing video games.

One from Japan I heard recently was that if you lie down immediately after eating, you will become a cow. Admittedly, it’s true that lying down after eating isn’t a great idea, it can increase stomach acid and isn’t good for digestion. We also know that in the West though, and we don’t go so far as telling our kids that they’ll turn into livestock if they do it.

It gets worse, too. In Japan, if you cut your toenails at night, you won’t be with your parents when they die. I can’t think of any consequence of cutting toenails at night that could be so disastrous that it’s worth telling children that! In the West, grandmothers will tell their grandkids that if they pull funny faces and the wind changes, their faces will stay that way. Probably a reasonable, silly threat to stop kids from pulling faces at their elders; they’ll soon find out that it’s not true when their face simply doesn’t stay like that. In Japan, though, youngsters who think, ‘Ah, I’d better whip these toenails off, it’s gym class tomorrow – SHIT, I forgot about the dead parents thing,’ will have to wait probably decades in fear before finding out only at the bedside of a dying parent that it was actually all made up.

Then there are the ghosts, monsters and demons that hang around every part of a Japanese community. If you sit in the third stall from the end in elementary school bathrooms, you might meet Hanako-san, the spirit of a World War Two era girl. Depending on which version of the story you hear, you might just see her and be terrified, or she might pull you in and kill you. If you do manage to make it out of the bathroom alive, you need to be careful not to meet Kuchisake-Onna, the ‘Split Mouth Woman’, on the way home. She wears a trench coat and a surgical facemask. She will stop you in the street and ask if you think she’s beautiful. If you say ‘no’, she will kill you, but if you say ‘yes’ she will remove the mask to show you her horrifically mutilated mouth, split from ear to ear. At which point she will ask you again if you think she is beautiful, and obviously now you will say ‘no’, so then she will kill you.

Still, with Split Mouth Woman, you can see the advantages of the story in teaching children not only to avoid talking to strangers, but also to be wary of being smitten by attention and dishing out compliments too easily. Some good life learning for when they start getting drunk and going to bars. I still can’t think of a reason why they should be punished for being good enough to trim their own toenails, though.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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