Hihi – No Laughing Matter

16 Oct

Hi blog.

Nature in Japan hasn’t been terribly friendly as of late.  It seems that if the climate isn’t trying to kill you, the geology is.

So, let’s take a break from nature per se and look at some folklore – which is often just a more primal interpretation of nature.

Enter the hihi…

My first encounter with the hihi was during a re-run of an episode of Hissatsu Shigotonin, sometime in late 1989 or early 1990.  What I didn’t know when I reached for my Japanese-English dictionary and found the definition of hihi as “baboon” was that the hihi is also the name of a mythological creature.

It never really entered my mind again until earlier this year when, thanks to the wonders of TV, a cartoon of an old tale also depicted the hihi.

The hihi (狒々, 狒狒 or比々) is of Chinese origin but has firmly taken root in Japanese folklore, where it has fused with legends of the sarugami and yamawaro.  It is depicted as a large to giant-sized ape or macaque.

Some commentators suggest the hihi is inspired by early descriptions of gorillas or orang-utans, while others point of fossils of primates larger than those extant today.

Descriptions vary – the Wakansansaizue describes the hihi as being black, whereas most popular depictions in ukiyoe, drama and TV are of a white-haired beast, although the red face and long, flapping lips are almost universal.  Some say that a snow monkey that reaches an extreme old age transforms into a hihi.

The hihi as depicted in the Wakansansaizue

Living in the deep mountains, they hunt wild boars but will also prey upon humans.  Most descriptions agree that the hihi will laugh before devouring a human – the laugh being the reason behind the name.  Stories of them catching and running off with women are staple fare of folk stories, kagura theatre and ukiyoe.  (Incidentally, the word hihi is also sometimes used as a pejorative for a lecherous old man.)

A hihi by Sekien.

Masasumi’s 1853 painting of a hihi.

The two most famous stories involving the hihi are of the semi-historical Jutaro Iwami (often identified as the real-life Kanesuke Susukita) and Shippeitaro (or Hayataro, as he is also called, depending on the region).

Both these stories are similar in plot.

In the former, the mighty warrior hears of a village that is forced by some mountain god to make a sacrifice of a maiden once every year.  Not believing that a god would be so evil, Jutaro decides to take the place of the maiden and hides in the offering casket.  Night falls and a hihi comes down from the mountains to collect his meal…

A composite of Tsukioka’s 1865 print of Jutaro Iwami about to ambush the hihi and other goblins.

Jutaro Iwami vanquishes the hihi in this 1859 woodblock print by Utagawa.

Iwami’s movie debut. A promotional poster for a 1917 film.

In the latter story, a maiden must be offered to a menacing mountain god.  A wandering priest hears of this and decides to investigate.  Hiding behind the shrine at night, he hears voices calling to each other.

“Is Shippeitaro near?”

“No, we have no need to fear tonight”

The priest goes off in search of Shippeitaro, envisaging him as a mighty warrior.  Imagine his surprise when he finds that Shippeitaro is a dog!

He borrows the dog, who hides in the casket in which the offering is to be made (some versions have a shrine building instead).  Night falls, shadows come down from the mountains and open the box.  (One would think that villians in Japanese folklore would wise up to this trick…)

The next morning the priest finds the bodies of dozens of monkeys and a giant hihi (some versions have three hihi).  The wounded Shippeitaro makes his way back home, but dies from his injuries.

There is a temple in Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, which claims to house the grave of Hayataro (as he is known in that region), and to also be his birthplace.

Curiously, this story was translated into English by one T. H. James in 1888, but she replaced the monkeys and hihi with phantom cats.  (Perhaps she thought that hihi wouldn’t translate well, and replaced them with the dog’s enemy in Western folklore.  In Japanese folklore, dogs and monkeys are antagonistic toward each other, and people who hate each other are said to have a monkey and dog relationship)

Just to tie all the folklore and nature back together again, the Shippeitaro/Hayataro legend claims the dog as being a “yamainu” (山犬).  This is a very vague term, and has been used not only to describe domestic dogs which have gone wild, but also wolves.  Some also suggest that it may be a separate creature altogether, possibly a domestic dog-wolf hybrid.

The wolf cult is a complex and fascinating topic, and I hope to write about it sometime.

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