“Stories of miracles, visions of hell, jokes, fables, and legends—these tales reflect the Japanese worldview during a classic period in Japanese civilization.”
Japanese Tales is a marvellous compilation of mythology, folklore, and fables depicting the early cultural, political, and social norms for Japan during the 12th through 14th centuries. I read this alongside a history book for premodern Japan, which made my experience with this title that much more enlightening.
Translated by the wonderfully talented Royall Tyler (translator of the complete unabridged The Tales of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu), all of stories retain an element of cultural integrity that made the reading experience equal parts dense, fascinating, and surreal. There are approximately 200 hundred stories within the pages and they all vary in length—some are half a page, while others are two or more pages long. They are broken down into sections by subject matter (e.g.: Buddhism, Dragons, Spirits, Music and Dance, etc.). The breakdown made it much easier for me to reference specific parts of history or mythos that interested me the most.
I read this straight cover to cover, which now that I’m finished, I do not recommend. The varying depth of each tale as well as the complexities of how they are expressed provide the reader with an awkward feeling. There is no consistency in the tales. I read one story about cheating spouses that was very simple in language expression, yet the one following it would require much more focus to understand due to a shift in tone and etymological usage. The varying degrees of intensity made it difficult for me to stay interested in reading the book for extended periods of time.
An aspect that I positively adored with Japanese Tales was the co-relation of mythology and fables, and how it influenced societal structures and social practices during the era. Particular tales of legendary monks shaped how the Japanese felt about monks as a whole in regards to Buddhist practices. Fables about nature and spiritual deities disciplined many ritualistic and shamanic practices that originated with Shinto. Plenty of tales of supernatural vengeance and tragedy provided life lessons and etiquette guidelines for interacting with your spouses or others within a community (a family community, or small town community), plus much more. These distinct narratives really brought the ancient and early Japanese societies to life around me, which was already heightened due to that history book I read as a companion.
While the reading can feel a bit murky with the fluctuating stories, Japanese Tales is an intriguing piece of literature for anyone interested in Japanese mythos and fables. I recommend reading the subjects that most-interest you rather than marathon-reading it as it may burn you out!
4 dragons out of 5.