When I now hear the name, Claire Youmans, a smile stretches across my face. Pronounced, (you-mans), as in You Man, the species of man, woman kind, and all kind. Author of the Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy, Claire has managed to do just that, speak to humanity. There we sat on the side of a cliff overlooking Century City to have our 15 minutes plus conversation, Claire a native of Seattle, comfortably approved and made herself right at home
After a long history of being an Attorney for both American and International clients, Youmans naturally began to explore social customs, and their applications outside of the US. A mother and lover of culture, Claire published several adult books, started a family, engaged in sports like, skiing, sailing and eventually adapted to California lifestyle. The Joshua tree area offered a private sanctuary for Claire’s creative energies to flow and came to inspire her desire to delve further into art and culture. As Claire, a practitioner of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, began to develop a deeper understanding of Japan, a chance encounter with famed play-write, writer director, Yukita Kusunoki, gave Claire the opportunity to test her talent. Kusunoki , who garnered acclaim for the play, “The Great” and the award-winning “Journey to Mt. Fuji”, Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy characters gave Youman’s the idea to extend their personalities into her series of children’s book. Kusunoki tapped into a multi-dimensional aspect of the Meiji era a part of vital Japanese history and brought its folklore forward in time. The Toki-Girl and her brother the Sparrow-Boy are a legacy to this colorful and socio-political time of the Meiji era,which began from September 8, 1868 through July 30, 1912.
During the mid-1850’s Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay, now known as Tokyo. As Youmans explained, the Commodore insisted that Japan open its doors to free trade. At that time during civil and cultural unrest in the area, the Emperor of Japan took over the government and kicked out the shogunate. With open ports and an influx of foreign trade, the Meiji era became one of the highlights of Japanese culture. In 50 years, Japan went from a decaying society to a 20th century powerhouse to be reckoned with. “Most American folklore based on the traditions of Western Europe gives credence to a monotheist worldview. This view has some very strict rules, which have evolved into some cultural stereotypes that are reflected in our fairy tales.” A perfect example of this, Claire says is the soon to be released movie, Into the Woods: an updated version of “Little Red Riding Hood”.
There is not a lot of that in Japanese folklore, which has its roots in Shinto and Buddhist culture.”
“Shinto is an indigenous religion considered by some as a negative animism and the argument is about the calling it a religion at all, Youman further stated. Shinto and Buddhism together form a type of folklore that presents itself as a plethora of native elements like demons, trolls, and animals that can turn into humans”.
Our question and answer session led us into the why the fascination of Asian culture and specifically American men’s love of Asian women. Youman’s extensive background in publishing gave her just the right amount of know how to put the Toki-Girl, Sparrow-Boy series into motion. With an ever -increasing interest in developing projects that are fun, inspirational and with Japanese tradition in mind, Youman’s Toki-Girl Sand The Sparrow-Boy series are congruent with the story telling of the Meiji era folklore and history of Japanese. Western civilization has brought many changes to the face of Japan. As Youman says, the Japanese don’t walk around in kimonos anymore, those are only worn for special ceremonies now.
Traditionally women are left to lead from behind. Women’s rights were curtailed during the Edo period, and they were not allowed to own property. A lot of their power was taken away more than any other time in their history. Both women and men are expected to function within a certain sphere, Youmans said and within that sphere, you were god like. Women want to serve you and wait on you. On the other hand the men put women in a place of not having to deal with worldly issues, such as politics and war.
In general, Asian culture references a viewing of oneself from a point of continuum, wherein the individual is a part of a continual stream of life. Included in that stream are ones ancestors and descendants. This is very different from Western concept. Thus, Buddhism offers the concept of re-incarnation however; in Western culture, we view a life stream, as a single lifetime that offers the reward of an afterlife. The similarities of the cultures are on the surface as the Japanese even now hold to traditional values, which include Confucianism, brought over from China and filial piety, both mainstays in Japanese culture. A Toki, as Claire explained,” is not pretty. It has a long bird like hooked beak for a nose. They are an endangered species and still have a big nesting ground on Sado Island. In the 1880’s-1910, if you remember, history, women wore these hats made from beautiful feathers. Toki, were hunted for their feathers so that the feathers could be used in production for services and goods. The notion of the extended family is a part of the ability of children in such case as the Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy having lost their parents are able to survive because of this connection to an extended family. “ www.tokigirlandsparrowboy.com.
So if you haven’t read the first volume, hold on to your feathers, the 2nd one should be worth its weight in gold.
The Toki (Japanese Crested Ibis) goes by the scientific name Nipponia nippon. In the past, this magnificent bird could be seen in all parts of Japan, but due to overhunting and environmental pollution in the early 20th century, its number plunged until only few remained. The Toki is now on the verge of extinction. In 1952 the species was designated a Special Natural Monument, and in 1960 it was listed as an internationally protected species. Despite strenuous efforts at captive breeding, there is only one surviving native-born example of the species in Japan; this is a 25-year-old female bird named Kin, which is cared for at the Toki Preservation Center on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture.
The bird believed to have died out everywhere except in Japan, in 1981 it was confirmed that 12 specimens were living in China. Breeding efforts paid off and the population increased year by year, to 85 birds as of July 1996. Japan and China have also been working closely to conserve the bird. For example, Japan received a male ibis on loan, in exchange for the training of Chinese breeding experts and the provision of equipment and materials for China. Unfortunately, Midori, the sole surviving native male Toki, died in April 1995.
When fully grown the Toki stands about 75 centimeters (29.5 inches) tall. Its head and legs are red, and at the top of the head are feathers that, when they stand up, form a crown-like crest. Covered with a veil of pinkish white feathers the bird is very colorful. At the Toki Preservation Center the staff are still working hard to prolong the life of the last remaining example of this species. Source for information on the Toki-Bird can be viewed at http://web-japan.org/atlas/nature/nat19.html
Oni (demons) and yurei (ghosts) have played a role in Japanese culture for thousands of years, and stories of new spirits continue to be told today. Much of this list is comprised of hannya, which in Noh theater are women whose rage and jealousy turned them into oni while still alive. Here are just a few tales of demons, ghosts, and women you don’t want to mess with.
Kiyohime was a young woman scorned by her lover, a monk named Anchin, who grew cold and lost interest in her. Realizing he had left her, Kiyohime followed him to a river and transformed into a serpent while swimming after his boat. Terrified by her monstrous form, Anchin sought refuge in a temple, where monks hid him beneath a bell. Not to be evaded, Kiyohime found him by his scent, coiled around the bell, and banged loudly on it with her tail. She then breathed fire onto the bell, melting it and killing Anchin.
- YUKI-ONNA (SNOW WOMAN)
There are many variations of this popular Japanese tale. Yuki-onna is usually described as having white skin, a white kimono, and long black hair. She appears in snowfall and glides without feet over the snow like a ghost. She feeds on human essence, and her killing method of choice is to blow on her victims to freeze them to death and then suck out their souls through their mouths.
- SHUTEN DŌJI
Shuten Dōji is described as more than 50 feet tall with a red body, five horns, and 15 eyes. There’s no need to fear this demon, though. In a legend from the medieval period, warriors Raikō and Hōshō infiltrated Shuten Dōji’s lair disguised as yamabushi (mountain priests) to free some kidnapped women. The oni greeted them with a banquet of human flesh and blood, and the disguised warriors offered Shuten Dōji drugged sake. After the demon passed out, the warriors cut off his head, killed the other oni, and freed the prisoners.
- YAMAUBA (MOUNTAIN OGRESS)
Also originating in the medieval period, yamauba are generally considered to be old women who were marginalized by society and forced to live in the mountains—who also have a penchant for eating human flesh. Among many tales, there is one of a yamauba who offers shelter to a young woman about to give birth while secretly planning to eat her baby, and another of a yamauba who goes to village homes to eat children while their mothers are away. But they’re not picky; they’ll eat anyone who passes by. Yamabuas also have mouths under their hair. Delightful!
In another tale of a woman scorned, Uji no hashihime prayed to a deity to turn her into an oni so she could kill her husband, the woman he fell in love with, and all of their relatives. To accomplish this, she bathed in the Uji River for 21 days, divided her hair into five horns, painted her body red with vermilion, and went on a legendary killing spree. Besides her intended victims, anyone who saw her instantly died of fear.
Tengu are impish mountain goblins that play tricks on people, featured in countless folktales and considered purely evil until about the 14th century. They were originally depicted as birdlike, with wings and beaks, though now the beak is often replaced with a comically large nose. They are known to lead people away from Buddhism, tie priests to tall trees and towers, start fires in temples, and kidnap children. Many legends say the tengu were hypocritical priests who must now live the rest of their lives as mountain goblins as punishment. Locals made offerings to the tengu to avoid their mischief, and there are still festivals in Japan dedicated to them today.
A revenge story made popular by the famous kabuki drama Yotsuya kaidan, Oiwa was married to a rōnin (masterless samurai) named Iemon; he wanted to marry a rich local’s daughter who had fallen in love with him, and, in order to end their marriage, Oiwa was sent a poisoned medicine. Though the poison failed to kill her, she became horribly disfigured, causing her hair to fall out and her left eye to droop. Upon learning of her disfigurement and betrayal, she accidentally killed herself on a sword. Her ghostly, deformed face appeared everywhere to haunt Iemon. It even appeared in place of his new bride’s face, which caused Iemon to accidentally behead her. Oiwa’s spirit followed him relentlessly to the point where he welcomed death.
- DEMON AT AGI BRIDGE
This story begins as so many horror stories do: With an overly-confident man who boasted to his friends that he didn’t fear to cross Agi Bridge or the demon rumored to reside there. As oni are known for their ability to shape-shift, the demon at Agi Bridge appeared to the man as an abandoned woman. As soon as she caught the young man’s eye, she transformed back into a 9 foot green-skinned monster and chased after him. Unable to catch the man, the demon later changed into the form of the man’s brother and knocked on his door late at night. The demon was let into the house and, after a struggle, bit off the man’s head, held it up and danced with it before his family, and then vanished.
- KUCHISAKE-ONNA (SLIT-MOUTHED WOMAN)
In an urban legend from 1979 that swept through Japan, Kuchisake-onna wears a surgical mask and asks children if they think she is beautiful. If they say yes, she takes off the mask to reveal her mouth slit from ear to ear and asks the question again. The only way to escape is to give a noncommittal answer, such as “you look OK.” Barring that, you can distract her with certain Japanese candies. But if the children say yes again, she will cut their mouths to make them look like her.
- AKA MANTO (RED CLOAK)
With a demon for just about everything, why shouldn’t the Japanese have a few for their bathrooms? Aka Manto, one of the more popular demons, hides in women’s bathrooms. In one version of the story, Aka Manto asks women if they would like a red cloak or a blue cloak. If the woman answers “red,” Aka Manto tears the flesh from her back to make it appear she is wearing a red cloak. If she answers “blue,” then he strangles her to death. Unfortunately, if you encounter Aka Manto, there may be no escaping: Some versions of the story say if you don’t answer or if you pick a different color, he will immediately drag you to hell.
Additional Sources: Japanese Ghosts & Demons: Art of the Supernatural; Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present; “How the Demon at Agi Bridge in Omi Province Ate Somebody,” from The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales.
October 29, 2014 – 2:00pm