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Beliefs about bears in upland folklore

Folklore relating to the bear has been documented in Kyūshū, Shikoku, Chūbu and Tōhoku regions, (see for example, Chiba, 1969; Miyao, 1989, Gifuken Hōnyūrui Chōsa Kenkyūkai, 1993), but it is the culture of the matagi hunting communities of Tōhoku which is best-known. Matagi hunters and their communities subsisted by hunting, gathering and fishing as well as by dry-field agriculture over the short summer months. They followed strict rituals and protocol in preparation for, and during, their hunts, centering largely on the mountain deity. This section will examine beliefs and folklore relating to the bear throughout upland regions Japan, before turning specifically to the bear’s place in matagi

folklore in the next section.

Its association with the yama no kami is one important aspect of the traditional consciousness of the bear in upland areas. The bear was traditionally seen by upland hunters as one of the creatures of which the yama no kami is ‘owner’ or ‘guardian’.43 It was believed that when animals are hunted and killed, the yama no kami must be placated and thanked for letting the animals over which she/he has guardianship be sacrificed.44

In addition to this relationship of guardianship between the yama no kami and the bear, beliefs also developed regarding the bear being a messenger (otsukai ) or earthly form of the yama no kami, particularly in association with Shugendō and Suwa Shinkō (Suwa faith) (discussed below).45 This was especially so in the case of bears with unusual pelage, as noted below. This belief has been further overlain in some instances by Buddhist-influenced notions that the bear is an earthly form of Buddhist avatars.46 As Shinto and folk-religious belief systems were practised in a highly

syncretic fashion for many hundreds of years (particularly in the case of Shugendō, which is strongly associated with upland hunting culture), it is natural that bears would not only have been associated with the gods of Shinto or folk religion, but also with Buddhist deities.47

The crescent moon marking on the bear’s chest was regarded as having special significance in many upland regions.48 Hunting communities developed folklore to explain the mysterious marking. According to local folklore in Kitaurahara County in Niigata Prefecture, the white marking was left by an amulet given to the bear by the yama no kami: the amulet was wrapped in silk wadding which, when removed, left a white marking.49 In contrast, in some hunting communities, it was believed that the bears without the marking were the most sacred. In Akita Prefecture for example, matagi hunters called these latter individuals minaguro (all black) or munaguro (black chest) bears, and believed that they were the special messengers of the yama no kami, and therefore particularly sacred. If they accidentally shot such a bear, they reportedly offered the bear to the yama no kami and gave up hunting from that time on.50 In Nagano Prefecture, these bears were referred to as nekoguma (cat- bear) or yami (darkness), and similar beliefs and prohibitions against killing them existed.51

Miyao (1989) claims that both the bear’s marking and the bear itself were traditionally associated with rebirth and transmigration. Certainly, owing to the fact that it waxes and wanes, the crescent moon holds special significance in Japanese folk religion, Shugendō, and some Buddhist sects, for its association with rebirth, and therefore it is perhaps natural that these beliefs be extended to the bear also, particularly in light of its ability to be ‘reborn’ through hibernation.52 Miyao suggests that the phenomenon of the bear’s yearly ‘disappearance’ in winter and its subsequent re-emergence in spring with cubs, resembling as it does the cycle of rebirth, has influenced the Japanese cosmology, particularly in respect to a consciousness of transmigration. In fact, it is for this reason, he argues, that the Japanese recognised the marking on the bear’s chest as a crescent moon.53 While this supposed influence on the Japanese cosmology and spiritual belief system is a tenuous one, for which no evidence is provided, the association between bears and rebirth itself has been made in human societies in the northern hemisphere since pre-historic times, as was discussed in Chapter Three.54

Though the belief in the sacred nature of the bear and reverence for it was likely to have preceded the introduction and dissemination of Buddhism, the Buddhist-based decree prohibiting the killing of animals is likely to have brought a stronger moral dimension to existing beliefs. Upland hunting communities devised different strategies for dealing with the contradiction inherent in killing something revered as sacred: some, such as the Kiso area in Nagano Prefecture, imposed strict prohibitions on hunting.55 Many developed traditions for erecting memorial stones (see Figure 20), and special prayers and sacrifices to placate both the yama no kami and the bear’s spirit and to avoid

becoming subject to the bear’s tatari

(curse). 56 In particular, there are curses associated with pregnant bears: in the Sobo- Katamuki Mountains in Kyūshū, there is a saying, ‘Kill a pregnant bear, cursed for seven generations’ or such variations in consequences as, ‘…your family will no longer prosper’, or ‘…the hunter will be cursed and soon die himself’.57

There was also a belief among matagi and other Japanese hunting cultures that the killing of a bear in the mountains leads to a kumaare

or ‘bear storm’, as the bear’s spirit or soul has the power to affect the weather.58 This may stem from the fact that traditional ana-gari (den- hunting), which occurred in the spring, was generally carried out on fine, clear days when hunters could easily move around on the frozen snow. Spring weather tends to go through regular cyclical changes, and so the chance of a bear-hunt being followed by bad weather was relatively high. The frequency of this coincidence may have led to the belief about kumaare.59

The manner in which hunting communities dealt with the spiritual and moral conflict inherent in killing an animal regarded as sacred appears to reflect the relative importance of the bear to their subsistence lifestyle: those communities for which the bear was pivotal to subsistence devised ways to circumvent this moral conflict and continue hunting, though at the same time applying strict rules to regulate the manner in which hunting was carried out. In the Tōhoku region, for instance, where

matagi culture developed, species such as wild boar and deer, which were plentiful in the west of Japan, were less common: the only large animals which were available to hunt were serow and bear.60 So while ideas about the bear being sacred, or being associated with the mountain deity existed, the

matagi hunters developed complex and sophisticated rituals and even literature (the so-called matagi

foundation books, see Figure 22) to circumvent the problem this presented. In southwestern Japan, where other large mammal species were plentiful, (and proved less dangerous to hunt than the bear), it was a simpler matter to follow strict prohibitions on the killing of bears, and this pattern can be seen in Shikoku and parts of Chūbu. In Kyūshū, there are instances of hunters giving up hunting altogether after inadvertently killing a bear.61

Figure 20: Stone memorial erected to placate bears' spirits (Otsuchi-machi) (Source: Tōno Municipal Museum)

One faith which particularly emphasised the bear’s role as an earthly form or messenger of the

mountain god, is Suwa myōshin shinkō . The centre of Suwa myōshin shinkō is Suwa

Taisha , or Suwa Grand Shrine, which is located in Nagano Prefecture. This shrine is one of

the oldest shrines in Japan, and is mentioned in the Kojiki (A.D. 712). In ancient times the gods enshrined there were worshipped as hunting deities (and later, following the spread of wet-rice agriculture, as farming deities).62 Probably because of this ancient connection with hunting deities, the Suwa faith appears to have become popular among hunters, particularly from the end of the Muromachi Period (A.D. 1333–1573). One of its teachings was that the spirits of animals were ‘freed’ through their death to go to paradise (tenshōjōbutsu ).63 A faith which rejoiced in the belief that a killed animal would be reborn as a Buddha brought great solace to hunters, and it is natural that it gained a following among them.64

However, in apparent contradiction to its otherwise supportive moral stance on hunting (including the hunting of bears), the Suwa Taisha prohibited the offering of bears at the shrine. The Kamisha monoimirei (literally, ‘order on things prohibited by the upper shrine’), a decree issued by the shrine in the thirteenth century, lists five animals which were prohibited from being offered as sacrifices to the shrine. The first animal listed is the bear.65 This prohibition concerning the offering of

the bear has been explained by its designation as a messenger of the Kumano gongen (an

avatar of the Shugendōfaith). However, this being the case, the prohibition of the sacrifice of bears is inconsistent with the fact that the deer, which was the messenger for the Kasuga Myōshin ( ), an avatar of the Suwa shrine itself, was sacrificed in great numbers at Suwa shrine. Chiba suggests that it is more convincingly explained by a prohibition which existed among people of the Chūbu area (where the shrine is located) which pre-dates those associated with the Suwa faith and the decree.66 In any case, given this clear prohibition on the sacrifice of bears, it is ironic that the matagi hunters, to which bear-hunting was pivotal, ‘adopted’ the Suwa faith for its spiritually comforting teachings about tenshōjōbutsu. This may be another instance of the ‘practically religious’ tendencies of the Japanese—the use of, or adherence to, certain aspects of religion which suit the needs of the individual or community, while discarding or ignoring those which do not.67

As will be discussed in the following chapter on the bear in lowland culture, the bear is notably absent as a symbol or totem in religious traditions associated with lowland culture, unlike the fox or wolf, for example. Even in the upland areas, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, it features little in the iconography of the mountain-religion traditions such as sangaku shinkō (mountain worship) and Shugendō. When it does feature, it is usually in association with the founding legends kaisan engi of mountain temples or shrines.68 These kaisan engi were used as advertising tools by lower-ranking

Figure 21: An ō-ema (votive picture) of bears from a shrine in Iwate Prefecture, Tōno Museum. (Photo: C. Knight)

shrine priests and yamabushi who acted as professional ‘middlemen’ between pilgrims and the

Shugendō centres, organising pilgrimage groups and serving as pilgrims’ guides.69 Through the legends and miracle tales encapsulated in the kaisan engi, they sought to enhance the temple’s reputation and its attraction to worshippers by explaining the ‘wondrous happening’ (reii ) which led to the temple being founded.70 To illustrate their stories, scrolls and so-called ‘pilgrimage

mandalas’ (sankei mandara ) depicting pilgrimage sites were produced in great


The kaisan tales often take the form of a hunter (or hunters) following an animal into the mountains, and there witnessing the manifestation of a deity: examples of sacred mountains with such founding

legends are Kōyasan , Hōkidaisen , Hikosan , and Nikkōsan .72 Though

deer more commonly feature in these legends, there are a number of places in Japan where mountain temples are said to have been founded after a hunter followed (or was guided by) a bear into the

mountains. The Oyama Shrine , on the summit of Mount Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture is

one of the better known of such places. It is unclear when the Oyama Shrine was founded, but there is a mention of its founding in the Manyōshū anthology of poetry, dated 701. From ancient times, Tateyama was worshipped as one of the ‘three sacred mountains’, along with Mount Fuji and Mount

Haku.73 The Tateyama mandala ( ) illustrates one scene in the founding legend of Oyama

Shrine, depicting a wounded bear running from the hunter after being shot and injured by an arrow.74

Mt Hayachine Shrine near Tōno in Iwate Prefecture has a similar founding legend, though in this case featuring a deer. This legend relates that it was established by two hunters around A.D. 807, who followed a deer into the mountains and on witnessing the appearance of an avatar in a cavern on the top of Mt Hayachine, built a shrine there.75 The mountain subsequently became the

focus of a sacred mountain faith (reisanshinkō ) which was an amalgamation of an early form of mountain worship, Shugendō, and esoteric Buddhist teachings (mikkyō ).76 What is notable about the shrine is that it is one of the few places to have a religious artefact, though relatively recent in age, featuring bears. It is an ō-ema (large votive picture), which was gifted to the shrine in 1910 by three hunters from a village in the Tōno area (see Figure 21).77 While the significance of the bears in the ō-ema is not clear, the bear is not an unlikely motif given the shrine’s location in an area known for bear hunting, and given the shrine’s strong association with hunting generally, both in respect of its patrons and its founding legend.

In terms of its general attributes, the bear is connected with such characteristics as courage, strength, and perseverance in upland areas, particularly by hunters.78 It is also associated with motherly devotion: sows are admired for their maternal dedication and forbearance, connected both to their giving birth during the cold of winter, and the dedication required to nurture a tiny, blind and helpless new-born cub.79 Hunters have been reported to admire the dedication shown by the sow when, preceding the birth, she leaves the winter den to drink water from a nearby stream so that she is able to lactate.80

These images of the bear as couragous, strong and as a dedicated mother are demonstrated in Miyazawa Kenji's (1986–1933) short story, the ‘Bears of Nametoko’ (Nametokosan no kuma ), which is said to have been written based on an actual matagi hunter who lived in Iwate Prefecture at the time.81 In this story, the central character, a hunter, encounters a bear, which implores him not to kill it on this occasion, as ‘there are still things I've got to do’.82 Instead the bear promises to sacrifice itself in two more years, after taking care of these things. Though not stated explicitly, it is probable that the tasks the bear refers to are those of raising a cub to independence— certainly, the two year period would be consistent with this explanation. Another short story written

by Muku Hatojū (1905–1987), called Tsukinowaguma , explores the selfless courage

and maternal dedication of the bear, implicitly contrasted with the selfishness, short-sightedness and greed of human beings.This story was written in the wake of the Second World War, and it is likely that the author was reflecting on these human vices, which had come to the fore during this period of warfare and devastation.83 Both authors grew up in the northern Honshū region, where the matagi

tradition was strong, and it may be that this had an influence on their perceptiveness and admiration in regard to the bear.