Japan Station podcast: Simon Grey, Yokai, and the Japanese Rip van Winkle

Many thanks to Tony Vega for a delightful chat on the “Japan Station” podcast on August 26! You can listen to the podcast here (with links to the books and sites mentioned in the interview), or if you’re pressed for time, read an abridged transcript below.

TONY VEGA: Charles’s book is called Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts. Simon Grey is this boy from England in the early 1600s, and he has the ability to see ghosts. Unfortunately, he doesn’t enjoy this ability, it’s not a pleasant thing, so what he does to get away from the ghosts that he sees is he gets on ships. In the ocean, there are very few ghosts, usually. What happens one day, though, is he ends up on a ship, and through a series of events he winds up in Japan, and rather than ghosts, he can see yokai. So that leaves the whole adventure of him trying to get home and all that. It’s a fun book, it’s targeted for younger readers or just anybody curious about the whole phenomenon of yokai. Charles does a great job of including a whole bunch of yokai, so it’s a nice little primer into this world of Japanese supernatural creatures. So, of course, Charles and I talked about the book today as well as a bunch of other stuff, but one particularly interesting part in the conversation that I hope you stick around for, it’s pretty much right at the end the conversation, and that is about the Japanese folktale Urashima Taro. If you’re not familiar with the story, don’t worry, we run through it, and then Charles does a great job at deconstructing it and showing what the point of that story is, or rather, does it have a point? Anyway, you’ll see, so stick around to the very end for that.

Let’s just start with a pretty basic question, just in case somebody’s not familiar with what a yokai is, what’s a yokai? And then, how did you become interested in that, and then how did that eventually lead to the Simon Grey book?

CHARLES KOWALSKI: OK, well, yokai are…it’s not quite accurate to call them ghosts. They are monsters from Japanese folklore and you could say that ghosts, or yurei as they’re called, are a certain type of yokai, but more often it’s used to refer to just supernatural creatures of Japanese legend. There are hundreds of them, and recently, there’s been an explosion of interest in yokai in the English-speaking world. We have researchers and artists who have made it their life’s work to introduce yokai to an English-speaking audience, and there’s been, in recent years, quite a resurgence of popularity in Japan as well, particularly with the “Yokai Watch” franchise of anime and computer games and TV shows and all of that, which reached its peak in Japan a couple of years ago. So, yes, yokai are very much a presence in Japan.

TV: Perhaps some of the more famous ones that people are familiar with are like the kappa, right? Which is that frog-turtle that likes cucumbers? And then of course there’s the tengu, which are these bird-like creatures. Both of them are known for stealing children.

CK: That’s right. Although the tengu, to give them their due, will put the children back where they belong, with a thorough education in the martial arts.

TV: Yeah, they’re quite known for that too, for being excellent martial artists. Like you said, “Yokai Watch” really blew up several years ago, and then that really brought it back into the real mainstream. But then even, Pokémon was kind of drawing some inspiration from yokai, and they’ve been around here and there. But then how did you become interested? Because I’ve seen that you’ve done other books that seem to be very much like thrillers. Mind Virus seems to be along the Dan Brown sort of religious thriller kind of angle, but so how did you get into “let me do a book about yokai”? Where did that come from?

CK: Yes, well, if you looked at my previous work, that does seem a little out of left field. But I have to say, the inspiration for it was my son. At the time I got the idea for Simon Grey, he was six. We were visiting the States, and he was developing a bit of an interest in knights and chivalry. And I can tell you the precise moment: I was watching him on a bridge of a playground playset that his imagination had transformed into a castle, wielding a sword against an imaginary enemy, and thinking: Through his American side, you could say that he is inherited that European tradition, and through his Japanese side, he’s also an heir to the samurai tradition. Who is there in literature that could bridge those two for him? Could one, for example, write a story about, say, a boy from England who travels to Japan, is marooned there, and becomes a samurai? A bit of research showed me that not only could such a story be written, it had been written; that was the plot of Chris Bradford’s “Young Samurai” series right there. So I thought, “OK, well, that story is not for me to write.” But still, the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. And I also kept going back to “Yokai Watch,” which at the time was hugely popular among Japanese boys my son’s age, and thought, instead of the martial aspect, how about the yokai aspect, the supernatural aspect? So we could have a protagonist who was born with the gift of seeing the unseen world, the world of ghosts and spirits. And in order to be free of this gift, he likes to go on long sea voyages as a cabin boy, because when he’s surrounded by sea, he’s much less likely to see ghosts. So he boards a ship bound for Japan, but of course he winds up stranded in Japan, and the only way he has any hope of getting back to his home country is through the yokai.

TV: So going back to that whole thing about a Westerner becoming a samurai, there is a character who literally gets in with the Tokugawa Shogun, John Winter, right? He dresses like a samurai, he’s kind of in that world, but then I was reading the back of your book and it said he was inspired by William Adams, this actual Englishman who ended up going to Japan and becoming a samurai. And I was reading about him and I realized: Oh, this is the guy that book and the TV show from the 70s, Shogun, is inspired by! This is a very well-known guy, and I had completely forgotten until I was reading some of the stuff that you put in the book. Could you explain who this guy was, because he’s got a really interesting story?

CK: He was the first Englishman to visit Japan. He was working on an expedition for the Dutch East India Company and he came to Japan in 1600, he was one of the few sailors that survived on one of the few ships that made it to Japan, and he became, eventually, the personal advisor and interpreter to Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was given the rank of samurai, he was given a Japanese name, Anjin Miura, and essentially made a Japanese subject. He lived in Japan for the rest of his life. He’s buried in Hirado, which is where the English had a trading post in that brief time when the Simon Grey book is set, when the British had a trading presence in Japan. And one of the things that fascinated me about William Adams, I was reading Giles Milton’s book about him, “Samurai William,” to learn more about that era, and while he was in Japan, he married a Japanese woman and had two children, a son named Joseph and a daughter named Susanna. And what happened to them is one of history’s mysteries. Of course, they came of age right as the sakoku jidai, when Japan was closed off from the rest of the world, was beginning, so this is not exactly a time when having an English father or grandfather or great-grandfather was something to brag about! So nobody really knows what happened to them. And another coincidence: his Japanese wife’s name was Oyuki. It was, of course, a fairly common women’s name at that time, but also, another yokai story of the snow woman, the yuki-onna, when Lafcadio Hearn told that story he gave her the same name, Oyuki. And I thought that was such a coincidence. Now, without giving away too much of the story, suppose those two were actually one and the same? So that helped tie the historical aspect into the supernatural aspect in the way that I’ve done throughout the Simon Grey manuscript.

TV: That was really interesting. And then, when I was reading about Joseph and Susanna, and the fact that nobody really knows what happened to them, you can only imagine what these two children did. Did they eventually change their names and try to live in secrecy or something? To be named that, and to look probably not quite Japanese at that time, that must have been pretty weird.

CK: That’s why, I think, there have been numerous attempts to try to trace their descendants, but as far as I know, nobody has come up with anything.

TV: So what other sources did you go to? What other things did you research when you were writing this book?

CK: Of course, for the yokai aspect, I’m greatly indebted to the yokaiologists out there. Matthew Meyer, he’s written three books, he maintains the website yokai.com, he’s made a full-time job of researching yokai and delving into all these Edo-period folk tales and illustrations, and then his own illustrations in a more contemporary style but based on those sent introducing yokai to the Western world. Also, Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda, authors of “Yokai Attack” and “Yurei Attack”, essentially do the same thing but sort of in a more modern and more tongue-in-cheek way. They’ve written field guides to yokai, to help you identify them if you should happen to see one on your trip to contemporary Japan. One of your previous guests last month, Gaijin Goombah, one of his YouTube videos is “Yokai Watchers,” which he spun off “Yokai Watch,” he’s done a 20-minute capsule summary of the whole history of yokai. It’s really an amazing feat.

TV: Yeah, I think that’s the very first video in that series and it’s really good, it’s a really nice broad overview of the whole phenomenon. And I believe it’s in that same video where he talks about the hyakki-yagyo, which is of course in the title of the first Simon Grey book.

CK: Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts, yes. That’s my translation of hyakki-yagyo.

TV: So could you explain what the hyakki-yagyo is?

CK: In the yokai world, it’s the event of the year. It happens at a certain time in a certain place. In my version, it’s autumn in Kyoto, where all of the yokai get together for this wild night parade. And of course, any human who is foolish enough or curious enough to try to catch a glimpse of it, if the yokai happened to spot them, then of course he will be either killed or carried off to yokai-land. So trying to predict when and where a hyakki-yagyo would happen, so that everybody could give it a wide berth, that was one of the functions of the onmyoryo, which could best be described as Japan’s “Ministry of Magic.” It was an official branch of the Japanese government from the Heian through to the end of the Tokugawa period, up to the Meiji Restoration, and one of its earliest members was Abe no Seimei, the Merlin of Japan, Japan’s most famous magician. He is also mentioned in the story, and part of the story is set in the Seimei Shrine, where supposedly the chief priest is the great-great-great…grandson of Abe no Seimei. Actually, that was an invention of my own. I went to the Seimei Shrine to do some research and I was told that the descendants of Abe no Seimei very often worked in the onmyoryo, but the priests of the shrine were of a different lineage. So anyway, the hyakki-yagyo occupied a prominent place in Japanese folklore. And there’s still a contemporary hyakki-yagyo. If you go to a certain street in Kyoto, usually on some Saturday in October, there is a procession of yokai. I haven’t been there yet myself, but I’m looking forward to it at some point.

TV: So what are some yokai that kind of stood out to you, some that you like, or maybe one that, as you were doing the research you thought: Oh, I didn’t know about this one but I have to include this one somehow in the story?

CK: Yes, there are many yokai like that. But as for a favorite, when I was writing the story, and the one that I had the most fun with was the futakuchi-onna. That word futakuchi means “two mouths,” so in the usual place, she has a very small mouth and she’s got another big mouth in the back of her head. There are various interpretations of this story, but the one that I went with has her front mouth, which is very small, being very prim and proper, and eating grains of rice one at a time, and only saying those things which are socially acceptable for very high class women to be saying, and there’s the one in the back that eats everything in sight and says whatever is on her mind. I had a lot of fun with her. She will say something very polite and decorous, and then knock it down a second later by saying something that was completely unacceptable for any Japanese noble lady at the time to say. I think that women in many countries, and perhaps especially in Japan, would really identify with her because they’re under a lot of pressure to watch their mouth, in terms both of what goes in and what comes out. If that goes to extremes, then you might become a yokai who has this other mouth open up that makes up for everything that you’ve declined yourself in life.

TV: Pretty much across the board, yokai are like these cautionary tales, right? Like in the example of the kappa, if you let your kids just play in the river and you don’t watch them, they might get carried away by the river in real life, but in the world of the yokai, a kappa might come out and take them away, right? Same with a futakuchi-onna. If it goes to the extreme, then you might turn into this two-faced kind of person. So it’s really interesting. They seem like just like Pokémon kind of meaningless little creatures, but there’s a whole lot of interesting back story to them.

CK: Yes, as you say, many of them are cautionary tales, like the kappa is a good example. Another one is the Akaname, who also makes an appearance in the book, who loves to live in dirty places and to lick all of the corners that haven’t been properly cleaned. So that’s a cautionary tale: if you let your house or your bath get dirty, one of these might move in. So yes, some of them are cautionary tales, and some of them, like the futakuchi-onna, are social commentary or social satire.

TV: So when do you write, at night? You just say, I’m going to write how many hours at night before I go to sleep and that’s what I do, or what do you do?

CK: Well, that’s when I do most of my writing. I do most of my best work between midnight and 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. In the Japanese reckoning, that would be called the Hour of the Ox, and they say that’s the time when ghosts are the most active. So if you’re out of doors at that time, that’s would be most likely to see a ghost. So maybe, if I’m writing about yokai, that’s a very auspicious time of day to do it.

TV: It’s also free of distractions. Now it seems you’re putting out content pretty regularly. I mean you already put out two full-length thrillers, right? Mind Virus, and the other one is The Devil’s Son, and now you’re starting a young adult series, right? And you’ve already started work on the second book of Simon Grey?

CK: That’s right, the further adventures of Simon Grey will be forthcoming, hopefully next year.

TV: So are you thinking a third or fourth book might be coming? Do you already have ideas?

CK: I’m thinking that Simon Grey will be a trilogy. I have three books in mind for him.

TV: Just to tease a little bit but the second book seems to have a lot to do with the tale of Urashima Taro, right? It’s one of the most well known Japanese fairy tales or folk tales. Urashima Taro saves a turtle, and then the turtle, because he’s so grateful, takes him down into Ryugujo, the palace of the dragon, and then the queen entertains him and they have a wonderful party. And as a parting gift, she gives him a box, and tells him, “Don’t open it.” And he goes up to the surface, and he opens it, and of course nothing good happens. He ends up aging, like he turned into an old man instantly, and apparently he had been down there for a very long time, right? That’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

CK: Yes, it’s the Japanese equivalent of “Rip van Winkle.” He’s under water for a couple of days, but then comes up to find, depending on which version, either decades have passed, or even centuries have passed. And then, when he opens the box that has been given, all of the time that he’s been submerged catches up with him. But one of the things that’s always intrigued me about that story is that there’s a universal grammar to folktales, Japanese folktales and folktales from around the world, they do generally fit into a certain number of patterns, and the story of Urashima Taro breaks the mold. For any Star Trek fans, it’s the folkloric equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru scenario.

TV: OK, I’m familiar with that, but please explain.

CK:  Urashima Taro has no way to win. If you look at all of the choices that he makes in that folktale, there is no choice that he could possibly make that results in him being better off the end of the story that he was in the beginning. If you read Joseph Campbell, if you read about the hero’s journey, usually the protagonist goes on this quest, and then he comes back with some kind of treasure and some ability to grant gifts to the community. That doesn’t happen with Urashima Taro. Especially with other Japanese folktales, usually they follow one of two patterns. One is that the protagonist helps someone in need, whether it be freeing an animal from a trap, or sharing their food with a traveler, or restoring a temple or a statue of Jizo that’s fallen into disrepair, they do some good deed for which they’re given a magical reward. And then someone else, like a wife or a jealous neighbor or someone, sees that and tries to get the same reward by means of trickery, and meets with disaster. So that’s one very common pattern, and another pattern is called the “crane wife” type of story, where again, the protagonist helps someone in need, is given a magical reward with a condition attached, and then breaks that promise and meets with disaster. But in either case, you can see the protagonist is given a choice, and they made the right choice, or else you can see precisely where they made the wrong choice. Urashima Taro makes all the right choices, but there’s really no way he could have emerged from that story better off than when he began, other than to say to the turtle in the beginning, “No, thank you.” But even that, according to Joseph Campbell’s framework, would not have let him off the hook, because when the call to adventure comes, of course you can accept it or refuse it, but if you refuse it, it comes back again and again and again, and it keeps coming until you accept it. Because if you go on refusing it, there’s no story. So that’s why the story of Urashima Taro stayed in my memory. I share that interpretation with my Japanese students, and they look at me as if they’d never seen it that way before. And I ask them, what’s the moral of the story, and they’re always stumped. So in a way, without giving too much away, the second book in the Simon Grey series is sort of my attempt to redeem the story of Urashima Taro, to make some kind of sense of it.

TV: So then, Simon Grey part two, you’re looking at 2020 for release?

CK: I’m looking at 2020.

TV: Well, I have to say, I was very entertained by the book. I managed to get through it in a day, and it was a fun read. At the very end, I read the first chapter of the second book, and I’m very interested in what you’re going to do with this Urashima Taro-inspired side to the story. So I’d say yeah, definitely check it out, especially like you were saying, this is a great little entry point for a child, somebody that’s perhaps starting to get interested in Japan and these kinds of things. It’s a nice vehicle for that.

CK: I would hope so. That was my goal, to introduce Japanese culture with imaginative seasoning. Hopefully young readers will be so entertained that they don’t even realize they’re getting a history lesson.

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