The first complete English translation of Orikuchi Shinobu’s masterwork, The Book of the Dead is a sweeping historical romance telling a gothic tale of love between a noblewoman and a ghost in eighth-century Japan. Orikuchi is often considered one of the fathers of Japanese folklore studies, and this is the most important novel of his career—and it is a book like no other. We are honored that The Book of the Dead, translated by Jeffrey Angles, appears on the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award in Prose.
An excerpt follows below.
In the shade of the hills to the north of the temple of Manhōzō-in was a hutlike hermitage that had been there for a long time—or at least that is what all of the people in the village believed. Several times it had fallen into ruin, and several times the villagers had fixed it up. There, inside the uninhabited hermitage, stood a statue of Kujaku Myōō. There were villagers in Tagima who occasionally identified the building as Yamadadera, “the temple of mountains and fields.” According to them, it was the oldest of the temple buildings, and early on, when it fell into disrepair, a
high-ranking prince had ordered Manhōzō-in to take over the site, and thus the grand monastery was constructed. Some said the order came from the palace in Asuka, whereas others said that the prince had made the decision on his own accord. In any case, the old, dilapidated building was relocated to the northern corner of the temple complex, where it was rebuilt on a smaller scale.
There was a belief among the yamabushi of Yoshino and Katsuragi that the hermitage was the place where Enokimi Ozunu had founded mountain Buddhism. Whether that is true or not, after the grand monastery of Manhōzō-in burned, the wild, overgrown place was used for religious practice over the next century until the monastery was rebuilt. It was amazing that such an ancient building remained right there in front of everyone’s noses.
The night had already grown deep. The vigorous splashing of the stream in the valley had grown loud in the silence. The water flowed down from between the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami.
It was dark inside the hermitage. In that area, it was uncommon for people to burn wood in a hearth, so when night fell, the local farmers would sleep or stay up and sit in pitch-blackness. But there was a deity housed in the hermitage. Lamps were lit in front of the statue throughout the night to keep the darkness at bay.
Still, the light that glimmered off the statue of Kujaku Myōō was so faint that it was hard to tell if the statue was even there.
A maiden was seated there as if she had forgotten all about sleep.
The high-ranking abbots of Manhōzō-in thought the first order of business was to send a messenger to the city of Nara. They were worried about what her father, Fujiwara no Toyonari, and his family must be feeling. Next, they had to atone for the sin that the young noblewoman had committed by entering the monastery grounds. Women were strictly prohibited from entering, and she had broken that cardinal rule. The temple had been reconstructed only recently, and so not long before, there were so many monks there that the whole place appeared to turn bluish black with the pates of their freshly shaven heads. It was natural for men to be there, but a woman should not be trespassing on purified ground. A simple donation of wealth or property couldn’t possibly atone for her actions. The abbots came to the conclusion that she would have to stay nearby and do quiet penance for an extended period of time. That very day, during the midday hours, the abbots had ordered a messenger to rush to Nara and deliver the news that the young woman had suddenly shown up and violated the sanctity of the monastic grounds.
Meanwhile, the maiden was told to stay in the hermitage. She was told that even if someone came from the capital to get her, she would have to stay there for days while she atoned for breaking the prohibition.
The floor was near the ground, but at least there was one—it wasn’t just dirt. On the other hand, the roof was extremely high and made of simple, ragged thatching. On one side where the wind had torn away the edge of the roof, the sky was visible, offering a view of the stars above. No sooner had she thought the wind had stopped than another gust blew in from the hole in the roof. Something fell, scattering around her—probably accumulated soot spilling from the thatching. For a brief moment, the light in front of the Buddhist statue burned more brightly.
The miserably unkempt space where she was seated was not the only thing the light illuminated. Two mats of woven rice straw were layered on the floor of rough-hewn boards—those mats were for her—but sitting across from her on the wooden floor against the far wall was an old woman.
Calling it a “wall” is perhaps less accurate than identifying it as what it really was—a hanging partition. Someone had hung an odd assortment of multiple layers of rice-straw matting from the rafters, and somehow they managed to block most of the wind. The old woman sat against the hanging partition as if affixed to it. For some time, she had been completely quiet. Not even a single cough left her lips.
The maiden, who was from a noble family, was accustomed to silence; she could go an entire day without speaking and still not feel lonely. Even if she had to stay there in the tiny hermitage in the shadow of the mountains, she could handle it—she wouldn’t let out even a single sigh. When she had been sent there to stay earlier in the day, she knew the old lady had followed her. Still, the old lady had been so quiet that the maiden had forgotten she was there. Right then, when the light flared up, it illuminated the old lady in the same color as the lamplight, and the maiden took in her appearance in a single glance, everything from her body to her face. The maiden had the feeling that she had seen her somewhere before. In fact, she felt warm, sociable feelings well up inside her. She had not met a single other woman since leaving home the previous night. It wasn’t impossible that at some point somewhere she had encountered the old lady seated in front of her. Still, the hunch that she had seen her before wasn’t the only reason the maiden was drawn to her.
When the old lady finally broke the silence, her voice wasn’t what the maiden had expected. It sounded sad and hoarse.
——My lady, you probably don’t know me. Still, would you like to hear what I have to say? I could tell you about things that happened before you were ever born. I’m an old lady, and I know such things.
Once the old lady had opened her mouth, she started speaking as if she might go on forever. It began to dawn on the maiden why she felt she might have seen the old lady before. There were always old women, around the same age as the one seated there, who came and went from her home—the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara clan. There was one, the old woman Nakatomi no Shii, who had come to the ladies’ room where the maiden lived; she entered the room unceremoniously and proceeded without any hesitation to regale them with old stories. The old lady seated there with her had the same countenance. It all made sense. The old woman Shii was one of the clan storytellers in charge of remembering and reciting history, one of only a small handful of storytellers left. Perhaps she was a storyteller for the Fujiwara clan or maybe for the descendants of Tagima no Mahito in the neighboring village of Tagima.
——The Fujiwara clan is now divided into four branches. But that was not the case back in the days of Kamatari. Even during the era of his son Fuhito, the clan was still unified. It was not long afterward that the clan separated from the Nakatomis. Members of the Nakatomi clan were still honored in the Fujiwara villages, but part of the family began to identify with the Fujiwara name.
——Over time, the Fujiwara lineage became involved with the court nobles and the regency. The Nakatomi lineage became associated with Shintō rites. For generations, they have been entrusted with protecting and maintaining shrines. But now is now; back then was back then. I want to tell you the story of a distant ancestor of the Fujiwaras, namely Ame no Oshikumone—the clan god of the Nakatomi family.
——Now the Child of the Sun is in the palace in Nara. Before that, the Child of the Sun was in the palace in Fujiwara, and before that in the palaces in Asuka. (*) Generations of rulers moved the palace within the province of Yamato, deciding upon a new location each time. Long ago, a miracle took place. It involved the Nakatomi clan god and his support, which has benefited generations and generations of rulers. Now, my lady, listen to what I have to say.
——This story took place ages ago in a generation far removed from us. Now, pay attention. As I said, Oshikumone was the distant ancestor of both the Nakatomi and Fujiwara clans. He searched throughout the entire province of Yamato, leaving no stone unturned in his search for the best water to prepare food, rice, and sake for the Child of the Sun. Back in those days, the water throughout the province smelled of minerals and was clouded with dirt, so it wasn’t worthy of being used in the sovereign’s food. Oshikumone prayed to the ancestral gods in the heavens above to teach him where he could find fresh water, but the province lay far below, and the gods couldn’t hear his prayers. Even the mountains were too far below the heavens for the gods to hear. But in the Aogaki Mountains, which border the province of Yamato, there stand the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami. Oshikumone climbed the mountain and stood on top among the clouds—a passageway into the heavens—and prayed. In response, the ancestral gods in the heavens above showed him eight places where the Water of Heaven flows out of Mt. Futakami. Ever since then, the Nakatomis have been coming here for years and years, generation upon generation, to gather the water that has been used to prepare the sovereign’s food. Now, listen carefully . . . .
This tale was part of the history of Tagima no Mahito’s clan. The storyteller spoke as if she were engaged in an ordinary conversation, but when she reached the part of the story about the miracle involving the ancestral god, she stopped abruptly.
The gurgling of the river outside seemed to have grown louder. Most likely, that was the sound of the distant ancestor of the Nakatomis and Fujiwaras as he gathered the water from the eight wells high on the mountain and sent it flowing down the slopes, crashing, swelling, and cascading over rocks. The maiden turned in the direction of the gurgling river and placed her palms together in prayer.
A few moments later, she turned back around. The old woman had drawn closer. When the maiden saw her in the dim light, she was filled with a fear that left her speechless. At the same moment, she also felt a special urgency, thinking the woman was pressing her for something.
A certain look had appeared on the old woman’s face—it was the same look that the old woman Nakatomi no Shii would get as she was about to launch into one of her tales. A spirit seemed to have possessed the elderly storyteller from Tagima, and she began to tremble slightly.
——Up high On the twin peaks
I climb And look
There is Asuka Where birds fly**
Sacred hills Where home lies
So many homes In sight
Rich roofs And gardens
And behold In the cluster of homes
The lodgings Of the Fujiwara minister
What I see So far in the distance
What I await With so much anticipation
Is it the virgin Who comes and goes?
Can I make Her noble ears hear me?
Mimimo no Toji With her bluish horse
I call to her And her younger sisters
So that just one Of her children
Her children’s children Just one maiden
Will come To be my wife
Up high On the twin peaks
In the shaded fields Of Futakami
Where the plants grow The thickets flower
Child scented Of ashibi
I cannot Quite grasp you
Stomping my feet Of ashibi***
I yearn for you Oh, Fujiwara maiden
When the old woman finished singing, she took a deep breath and slumped over as if exhausted. For some time, the only sounds came from the rustling trees and gurgling river.
* “Child of the Sun” (hi no miko) is an old-fashioned honorific phrase indicating the emperor. Before the imperial family established the capital in the city of Nara, in the year 710, the imperial family had moved its residence multiple times following the death of an emperor. It was believed that the death of an important figure brought about ritual impurities in a place, and continuing to reside in the place where a previous emperor had lived and died would result in an inauspicious reign.
** The name Asuka can be written with the characters meaning “flying bird”; hence the poetic description “Asuka, where birds fly.”
*** The first two syllables of the plant name ashibi (Pieris japonica) are a homonym for the word meaning “feet”; hence the association between feet and this shrub, which produces small white flowers in the spring.
Excerpt from The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu, translated by Jeffrey Angles.
Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953) was a Japanese ethnologist, linguist, folklorist, novelist, and poet. As one of the foremost early twentieth-century experts on Japanese folklore and Shinto, he has vast influence over modern intellectual discourse and many of his novels and collections of poetry are classics of Japanese literature.
Jeffrey Angles is professor of Japanese and translation at Western Michigan University. He is author of Writing the Love of Boys (Minnesota, 2011) and is an award-winning translator of dozens of Japan’s most important writers.
“Jeffrey Angles has given us a smooth, supple translation of this remarkable book, and thanks to him, Orikuchi’s glorious evocation of the distant past will live on in our contemporary world. The sounds of the ancient Japanese language may have disappeared, but in this translation, the text has been reborn with all the strength and grandeur of ancient societies everywhere.”—Hiromi Ito, author of Killing Kanoko and Wild Grass on the Riverbank