Mandy Klein, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, will be exploring the fantastical worlds found in various Shiga folktales – and she invites you to join her on this journey! This month, she translates and discusses “The Fake Buddha Statue,” a story about a two priests deal with one mischievous tanuki.
Welcome to the first in a series of posts where I hope to share Shiga folktales from collections purchased at the gift shop within the grounds of Hikone Castle. I very much enjoy flights of fancy and tales of whimsical worlds, so it would come as no surprise to those who know me that I would choose to study Japanese by reading fairy tales.
In each of my posts, I will attempt to convey the overall meaning of the story, but I am by no means a professional translator or a particularly gifted storyteller, so I welcome any discussion or advice regarding my interpretations of either the Japanese linguistically or of the story itself.
Without further ado, I’d like to tell you one of my favorites from the collections that feature a creature familiar to most of us: the mischievous and wily tanuki. Tanuki are often translated from Japanese to ‘raccoon dog’ or something similar, but I personally prefer to preserve the original word in the text because I think it conjures a particular image that defies translation. Tanuki are real animals, though in most Japanese folklore, tanuki possess magical qualities such as shape-shifting and are said to be masters of disguise. Somewhat counter-intuitively, however, it is also said that they can be absentminded or gullible…
Shiga’s Shigaraki is known for exquisite pottery, including ceramic tanuki figures, pictured here alongside their very real animal counterpart.
The Fake Buddha Statue
Once upon a time, there was a temple called Shofukuji in the village Koga. One day, a Buddhist priest of the temple was invited to a memorial service in some village far away. A lot of sake was put out at the memorial service, so he was staggering as he walked back home along the dark road.
No matter how much he walked, he did not make it back to the temple. Somehow, his body was wound from head to toe in vines and before he knew it, his limbs were covered in gashes and a gift he had been carrying was gone!
After seeing the priest arrive back to the temple in such a state, a young Buddhist monk, Chinnen, said, “It was a tanuki that tricked you. Please leave it to me.”
The next night, Chinnen left the temple carrying a big sack.
He went to the scene of the incident the night before and called out, “Priest, where are you? You’re drunk coming home again, right? Please get into this sack, so I can take you back as usual.” Appearing out of nowhere, the priest silently got in the sack. Chinnen quickly closed it up and returned to the temple.
Then, at the front of the main hall of the temple, Chinnen and the priest opened the sack, and just then, the tanuki jumped out and ran here and there inside the main hall. There was nothing so quick and agile!
Even worse, the tanuki transformed into an Amida Buddha statue. The tanuki Amida looked exactly like the real Amida, so much so that they could not tell them apart.
Chinnen said to the priest, “Priest, isn’t it so that, when you pray to the Amida Buddha of our temple, the statue smiles and laughs?” and then began chanting the Buddhist prayer: “Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu…”
After a little while, one of the statues began to smile. “Priest, this one’s the tanuki!” said Chinnen, and he caught the smiling Amida. That is the story of the foolish tanuki.
Some thoughts on the story:
For some reason, I had been surprised to discover after living in Japan for a while that Buddhist monks/priests are permitted to drink. I suppose this comes from a general impression that people of the faith, whatever faith that might be, are often restricted in their activities to different extents. To completely destroy my stereotype, I have a fond memory of walking part of the way home from a typical Japanese drinking party with one of the Shinto priests that works at the shrine between Hikone Castle and Hikone Station. He lives at the shrine, completely separated from his family (they are also permitted to marry and have children, another challenged stereotype) who live in a different part of the prefecture, until he rotates out to another shrine after a few years.
This story does fall into the unimaginative but tried-and-true trope of the clever, young guy and the bumbling (drunken?), older man. Even Chinnen’s name has symbolic meaning, with chin珍 from rare, curious, unusual [珍しい・めずらしい] and nen念 meaning sense or feeling: quite literally, “rare sense,” a rare example of common sense. The older priest is never mentioned by name. Perhaps that is a lesson in itself.
Finally, if you had ever wondered before why the tanuki suit works the way it does in its first iteration in Super Mario Bros. 3 (crouching down temporarily transforms Mario or Luigi into a stone statue), wonder no more!
As a parting gift, here’s the original Japanese version: