Mujina: a Japanese scary story

In the spirit of Halloween, let me share a famous scary story by Yakumo Koizumi, known outside of Japan as the Irish author, Lafcadio Hearn.1 I originally read this story in White Rabbit Press’s Graded Reader Series. The story, called Mujina (狢), is originally from Hearn’s Kaidan book which he wrote in 1904. The word mujina just means “badger”, but in Japanese myth, badgers, like tanuki, were mischievous and could use magic to trick and torment people. I’ve added diacritics, kanji and links to Wikipedia for your reference. Enjoy!

Mujina by Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo)
from Kwaidan (1904)

On the Akasaka Road, in Tōkyō, there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka (紀之国坂), — which means the Slope of the Province of Kii.2 I do not know why it is called the Slope of the province of Kii. On one side of this slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens; — and on the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace. Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset.

All because of a Mujina that used to walk there.

The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyōbashi quarter, who died about thirty years ago. This is the story, as he told it :—

One night, at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, when he perceived a woman crouching by the moat, all alone, and weeping bitterly. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped to offer her any assistance or consolation in his power. She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family. “O-jochū,” he exclaimed,3 approaching her,— “O-jochū, do not cry like that!… Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you, I shall be glad to help you.” (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.)

But she continued to weep,— hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochū,” he said again, as gently as he could,— “please, please listen to me! … This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you!— only tell me how I may be of some help to you!”

Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded:— “O-jochū!— O-jochū!— O-jochū!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochū!— O-jochū!”…

Then that O-jochū turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand;— and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,— and he screamed and ran away.

Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the old soba-seller, crying out, “Aa!— aa!!— aa!!!”…

“Kore! Kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! what is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”

“No— nobody hurt me,” panted the other,— “only… Aa!— aa!”…

“— Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”

“Not robbers,— not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman— by the moat;— and she showed me… Aa! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…

“Heh! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face— which therewith became like unto an egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.

Happy Halloween!

1 He is something of a hero to me, for his ability to go to Japan late in life, master the language, and write great stories like so many Irish authors of the past. :)

2 The road still exists today, and in some ways hasn’t changed much. There’s a nice link with photos here.

3 The term ojochū (お女中) was an archaic polite form of address used in speaking to a young lady whom one does not know.

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6 Comments on “Mujina: a Japanese scary story”

  1. Tornadoes28 says:

    Speaking of Kaidan and scary stories, I just watched the 2007 movie Kaidan. It was just ok but really not very scary.

  2. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha, I think “old” scary stories like Alfred Hitchcock and Hearn are not the frightening, gruesome stuff you see today. It’s more of a suspense-style scary, rather than something like The Ring or The Grudge (I hate both movies anyway). I prefer those myself. :)

  3. Tornadoes28 says:

    I never saw the Grduge and have no desire to. I like the original Ringu but not the American remake.

  4. Doug says:

    Definitely did not care for the Grudge. Very Japanese in a way, and well-done, but just not my thing. I prefer the more classic-style scary stories and such, but that’s just me. :)

  5. Stephen says:

    Another Author you could consider one day:
    Edogawa Ranpo, as you might guess he was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe (Say his name quickly if you still hven’t made the connection.)
    But the guy that always freaks me out is Kobo Abe
    No blood, no sharp objects; it is all in the mind…

  6. NellaLou says:

    Great story. Have enjoyed this genre for quite some time. Am currently reading Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari (in translation) written in the 1700s. The Chrysanthemum Vow is one of the more well known stories from that collection. The book jacket describes his work as “gothic” but it is more than that. Similar to the story you cite. There is a further undercurrent that challenges deeper levels.

    Stephen mentioned Kobo Abe-wonderful stuff. Also Junichiro Tanizaki can really make an impression. And Haruku Murakami can do a certain kind of psychological creepiness that just gives you shivers. It’s magic-realism with shadows.

    Am inspired Doug now to make a post on great Japanese literature. Thanks.

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