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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Yofune-nushi and the sea monster

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Once upon a time, about 1320 A.D., a samurai named Oribe Shima was banished by a chieftan named Hojo Takatoki. He was sent to a small island called Kamishima, of the Oki islands. Oribe had a beautiful, eighteen-year-old daughter, whom he loved very much, and who loved him. Her name was Tokoyo.

Alone in her old home in Shima Province, Tokoyo wept night and day over the banishment of her father. Finally, when she could no longer stand the loss, she resolved to reach her father or die trying. Tokoyo was a very brave girl, and was experienced in matters of the sea. As a child, she would dive with the women of her village to collect awabi and pearl-oyster shells.

Tokoyo sold what she could and journeyed out to a place called Akasaki, from which the Islands of Oki could be dimly seen on a clear day. She tried to persuade the fishermen to take her to the Islands, but her money was nearly all spent, and they refused. Tokoyo, bold and valiant, found a small boat and sailed off to the islands by herself.

Once she landed, Tokoyo looked for her father, but could not find him. After several days, she came to a little cape of rocks, and she lay down to pass the night there.

She had only slept an hour before she woke up and heard a girl sobbing. She looked up and saw a beautiful girl of fifteen weeping, and a priest clapping his hands and mumbling “Namu Amida Butsu’s.” They were both dressed in white. The priest finished his prayer and led the girl to the edge of the rocks, and was about to push her over into the sea, but Tokoyo rushed to the girl’s rescue.

The man was not angry, but responded patiently to Tokoyo’s intervention. He explained to her that there was a mysterious dragon named Yofune-Nushi who lived in a cave deep beneath the Oki Islands. For decades, he had terrorized Oki’s small, coastal fishing village. Every year, on June 13th, he forced the people of the nearby village to sacrifice a virgin to him. He threatened to conjure up a terrific storm and destroy their fishing fleet if they did not comply. Fishing was the only source of income to these humble people, so they had no choice but to submit. It was this priest’s sad duty to superintend this ceremony, which Tokoyo interrupted.

Tokoyo, having a broken heart because she could not find her father, volunteered herself as a sacrifice to appease the serpent’s wrath, so that the girl could go free. The priest accepted her offer. Tokoyo took off the girl’s white robe and put it on herself. She placed a small dagger in her teeth and jumped into the water. The priest looked on with astonishment, the girl with thankfulness.

She swam downward in the clear water, which was illuminated by moonlight. She passed many silvery fish which swam around her. She discovered a cave which glittered with awabi shells and pearls. Within this cave was a wooden statue of Hojo Takatoki, the man who had exiled her father. She felt angry and tempted to destroy the statue, but then she thought it would be better to take the statue up to the surface.

As she readied herself for an ascent to the surface, she caught a glimpse of a horrible monster. It was in the shape of a snake, but with legs and phosphorescent scales. It was twenty-six feet long and had fiery eyes. It was Yofune-Nushi, the dragon which lived in the sea.

The unsuspecting dragon must have assumed Tokoyo was the virgin sacrifice. Bracing herself for combat, Tokoyo determined to kill the monster and save the village from this barbaric tradition once and for all. When Yofune-Nushi was within six feet of her, she moved sideways and struck out his right eye. Reeling away in pain, the stunned creature tried to move back to his cavern, but Tokoyo blocked his way. She struck him in the vulnerable underside of his neck, and he perished.

She carried the body of the dragon and the wooden statue to the surface. The priest and the little girl were surprised when they saw their brave hero return, for they had thought she had been eaten by the dragon.

The priest dashed down the rocks and pulled Tokoyo’s half-insensible form ashore. The virgin ran to the village and sought help, which arrived shortly. After Tokoyo had recovered, she was celebrated of the heroine of the hour. The priest reported the whole event to Tameyoshi, the lord of the island, who in turn reported it to Hojo Taktatoki.

Tatatoki had been sick with an unknown disease for some time. The recovery of the wooden statue made it clear that his sickness was caused by a curse. Now that the statue had been brought to the surface, the curse was over, and Tatatoki got better. To show his gratitude, he ordered the immediate release of Oribe Shima, who was confined in prison. He was reunited with Tokoyo and they lived happily ever after.

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NB: The story of the Yofune-nushi was recorded by Richard Gordon Smith in the book Ancient Tales and Folk-Lore of Japan, published in 1918. The Yofune-nushi and his requests for virgin girls and the slaying of the monster in its lair and the recovering of a treasure are reminiscent of the European dragon more than any Japanese counterpart. There seem to be no Japanese sources confirming the story, and Richard Gordon Smith himself points out in the preface of the story that he did not verify it and does not vouch for its authenticity.

Myths and legends about dragons

 
 

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