by Blair Reeve
The genesis of my own story about haniwa resides in another—an ancient Japanese legend I came across in Tokyo three years ago.
My wife and I were living in Minato-ku at that time, planning for a family, although a year had gone by without success. This wasn’t a surprise. The doctor had told me in private, “Haruka is in her thirties. At that age, her chances are greatly reduced.” When I came across the legend – about a childless couple who are gifted a baby from the gods – it occurred to me that my wife, who had been getting pessimistic about her ability to conceive, might find hope, or at least consolation in this ancient legend from her motherland.
I discovered it in Dokushoya one day. I was finishing off a diploma in Japanese studies and needed to do some research on Buddhism in Heian-era Japan. The bookshop was in Ikebukuro, a regular haunt of mine with a good English section that included old history texts, so I caught a train across town to do some browsing. I remember scanning through the history shelves, my eye being continually drawn back to the bright red spine of a small volume called Mysterious Myths of Japan. I finally pulled it out, thinking if it were cheap, I would add it to my pile. I loved the weather beaten look of the cover, the perfume of stale incense hidden in the yellowing, dog-eared pages.
The book had been published in 1956 by a small printing outfit called The Tampen Press. It contained eleven tales, all of them translated into English by an American civil servant and part-time historian called Regimond Barclay. A short biography on the back flap states that Barclay was employed as an advisor in the field of educational reform for the Allied Council of Japan during the drafting of Japan's post-war constitution. He also played a role in the capacity of interpreter and translator while the Imperial University system was being reorganized.
According to Barclay's preface, two of the myths in his collection were transcribed directly from oral sources. One of them was a tale about Jizo Bosatsu, a godly guardian who protects stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses from eternal penance by hiding them in his robe from demon tormentors. The other was the one I wanted to show Haruka, 'The Potter's Tale.' The editor/translator says that this story intrigued him because it was the first and only time he'd heard a legend that spoke of the twenty-fifth emperor of Japan. Although historic information on this emperor was scant, “Buretsu,” says Barclay, “is an interesting case because his name was deliberately omitted from Japanese history textbooks before and during World War II.” Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me then that both the story and the name of its villain, Buretsu, were unknown to my wife. "You're going to turn into one of those gaijin who know more about Japan than most Japanese," she laughed. I smiled, but I couldn't tell if I was being made fun of or not.
My recent rummaging through Tokyo libraries has revealed that The Tampen Press was in operation for less than a decade after the occupation, producing only a handful of books before Barclay's death in 1962. Even though the original copyright is long expired, to forestall any notion of plagiarism, I include Barclay's preamble along with my reproduction of the tale, so that my reader be fully aware of its originating source.
The Potter's Tale: A Brief Introduction
By far the most ancient of myths in these pages, this tale tells the story of a childless potter – an expert in the crafting of funerary urns called 'haniwa' – who one day finds a little clay girl in the foothills of Miwayama. Readers familiar with Japanese legends will recognize similitude with the 'Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,' although whether 'The Potter's Tale' bears any prototypical relevance to the story of Kaguya Hime from the tenth century remains unverifiable: my sources have been entirely oral. The Potter legend was not transcribed by O no Yasumaro, the official compiler of the Kojiki (~712 AD). Rather, I am told that for centuries it was transmitted by word of mouth, accumulating both historical and conjectural embellishment whenever it passed through the lips of a scholar. It is probable that O no Yasumaro rejected the legend because of its connection with Emperor Buretsu who would later be described in the Nihon Shoki (~720 AD) as 'evil'. * Buretsu's questionable reputation did not serve the political motivations behind these two collections of myths and legends, the purpose of which was to link the reigning Emperor to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and thus legitimize the imperial line. It is my source, the Soto Zen priest, Daiun Sogaku Haradato, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for his cooperation and patience while I took notes in order to set the story down for the first time in English. Where it would unhelpfully encumber the tale's narrative flow, I have taken license to omit clan genealogical data, while at the same time making efforts to gloss certain aspects of culture and setting for the lay Occidental reader.
Regimond Barclay, March 1955.
* "He [BURETSU] worked much evil and accomplished no good thing. He never omitted to witness in person cruel punishments of all kinds, and the people of the whole land were all in terror of him." Source: Nihongi.
There was once a potter born in the village of Sakurai in the old Yamato province of Japan. Yamato was the seat of power in ancient times, back in the days when Shinto purification was a part of daily life and the mainstays of nature – the wind and rain, hills and rivers – were bursting at the skin with sacred spirits known as kami. These kami disliked insincerity and disorder. They blew the breath of life into everything.
In those days there were no prefectures, so the village of Sakurai, in the area once known as Kinai – the neighborhood of the capital, which would become Nara Prefecture in modern times – fell under the jurisdiction of one of the five Great Clans who held rule over much of Yamato. Sakurai was only a day's haul on mule and cart from the center of trade in the middle of the Nara basin.
The potter's name was Anjin, son of Mori. Mori had been a master potter in his day although Mori's artistry was not known beyond the mountains like that of his friend Ryuji. Both Ryuji and Mori dug their clay from the foothills of nearby Miwayama. The blue-gray clay was highly impure with iron, calcium and feldspar and required a very high hardening temperature. Mori's kiln was known as the hottest in the village of Sakurai and was capable of producing fine quality stoneware. Mori could fire his kiln up to the threshold of twelve hundred degrees because of the petrified woods he burned – wood which Anjin helped him collect from forests deep in the Yamato mountains. Mori had descended from a long line of potters who were among the first to switch from producing haji ware to Sue ware using the tunnel kiln and the wheel imported from Korea.
Anjin had been helping his father dig for wood and clay from the age of eight. He learned how to turn the wheel by ten and was firing the kiln by twelve. In those days Mori's chief skill was in producing urns and other simple pots for funerary purposes. When Mori was returning from a distant village one evening, he passed through a fog-filled marsh of scrub-bamboo. Bandits attacked his escort, stole his belongings and left him mortally wounded. Ryuji took Anjin as his apprentice until the boy was old enough to return home to work his family kiln and take care of his mother and sister. So it was that Ryuji cultivated in Anjin an artistry superior to that of his father, often encouraging the younger potter to experiment with forms above and beyond the utilitarian urns that had traditionally come from his family line. Through trips to the capital with Ryuji, Anjin paid close attention to other styles of stoneware. It was only natural that he would begin to imitate and then later develop his own style once he was in charge of a kiln.
When he returned home, the first task Anjin set himself was to create a beautiful haniwa in memory of his father. At first he made a long-bodied pot with short flaring rims but began adding indentations to suggest hips and neck. Eventually the pot took on the faint resemblance of a human body. He continued to develop the figure until it became tall and slender. Of course, he did not place the haniwa in his village burial ground – such a thing was unheard of for a lowly potter. Instead he kept it in a small recess on the slope that held his kiln as a memento and protector of his craft.
By the time Anjin had grown into a man and taken Yayoi for his wife it was common practice for local craftsmen to belong to potters' guilds and to travel to the capital in convoys for safety. Ideas and techniques were more easily dispersed and acquired. Thus it was that Anjin's creative nature led him to develop ever more humanoid haniwa. His geometrizing of natural forms drew both the attention of the Yamato retainers and the approval of chief priests. The new form was soon picked up and simplified by Anjin's guild and before long it became customary to produce cylindrical forms for royal burial instead of urns. While other guilds were still producing standard funerary urns, the Sakurai guild became employed in the service of the brothers Oke Oshi and Oke Ihasuwake – Great Kings of Yamato who ruled for thirteen years. The new haniwa were used like pillars to stabilize the ground and support the roofs of imperial tombs.
The reputation of Sakurai potters for their beautiful but durable urns coupled with Anjin's loyalty to the Yamato Clan ensured that his work was highly prized and that his wife and mother were well looked after. There was only one thing missing in Anjin and Yayoi's life – by the time Yayoi was thirty she had yet to bear Anjin a child. As the years went by Anjin began to accept that he would remain childless until old age reunited him with his ancestral kami in Takama-no-hara. Perhaps it was his heirlessness that fostered Anjin's creative side and encouraged him to experiment ever more boldly with his pottery. While Yayoi cared for her mother-in-law, grew mountain vegetables and nurtured a small taro plot, Anjin worked in his kiln perfecting the humanoid figure he had conceived of over thirty years earlier.
One day in spring, in his forty-fifth year, while digging for clay in a foothill behind Miwayama, Anjin heard a faint whimpering sound. It seemed to come from his barrow where the freshly dug clay lay in slick, wet clumps. He rifled through the contents and was shocked to grasp a baby girl no bigger than his fist lying amid the clay. Cradling her gently in his smooth hands, he carried her to a nearby stream to wash off the mud that had dyed her skin pale blue. But try as he might, the water made no difference. Her skin remained as pale and blue as the clay in which he'd found her. This was truly a miracle – one that Anjin recognized as the will of kami. He fashioned a sling from his shirt and wore it over his shoulder with the little girl pocketed in the fold, then packed his blades and trowels and hurried home.
"It is surely a gift from the gods," said Anjin, when he showed Yayoi the tiny pale blue bundle. "Dear Takara-no-nendoko," said Yayoi, clutching her amulet, "where did you come from and why is your skin so pale?" But her joy was tempered with foreboding.
Anjin reassured her. "Do not fear the will of the gods, my dear wife. We will raise her just as if you had brought her into the world from your own loins," and he proceeded to build a tiny cot in the corner of their dwelling for his step-daughter, who gurgled and cried like any newborn baby.
Within days, tiny Takara-no-nendoko grew to the size of a regular baby, though her skin retained its pale blue hue. Yayoi's fears began to subside. "Takara-no-nendoko, your step-father is right. The gods have rewarded Anjin for his hard work and loyalty to the Great King. We must raise you as our own child," and she clasped the girl to her bosom and wept. Both Anjin and Yayoi knew it was best to keep their daughter's existence a secret until they were confident that she would develop into a healthy little girl.
There were many things to worry about in those early weeks of parenthood. How would the community react? Would the village priest bless and purify the child? And worse – despite their conviction that the gods had delivered Takara-no-nendoko to them, both Anjin and Yayoi harbored the fear that some nearby chieftain might claim her for himself, or a priest declare her to be possessed of unclean spirits. As it turned out, the village community accepted Takara-no-nendoko with only a little curiosity and plenty of goodwill for the happiness of the aging couple.
The years drifted by peacefully. Takara-no-nendoko grew into a young woman of rare beauty. She fell naturally into the role of dutiful daughter, helping Yayoi pickle vegetables from the plantation, and later learning to cook and weave. Whenever the sons of Anjin's fellow guildsmen dropped by, she would shrink into the thatched recesses of the hut, feigning illness or hiding her beauty beneath drab arrayment. Of course, Anjin and Yayoi could not stop word spreading throughout the province about the potter's daughter with skin the colour of Miwayama clay.
Meanwhile, the Sakurai guild continued to flourish. When Anjin reached fifty-six – nearly twice the age Mori had been when his life was brutally taken – the artisan created his first fully humanoid haniwa – a funerary vessel replete with holes for eyes, nose and mouth. By this time, cylindrical haniwa had become the norm for all kinds of burials. It was through the blessing of the high priest of the court of Oke Oshi no Mitoko, later known as Emperor Ninken, that Anjin's humanoid haniwa were ordained as receptacles within which the soul of a deceased king could reside. When Oke Oshi no Mitoko passed away these haniwa were set up around his tomb as guardians. Their eerie appearance had a powerful effect on any onlookers who sensed the presence of spirits within. Even future grave robbers were kept at bay by their hollow stare. Before long, many artisans around the Nara basin were producing haniwa in various jugglings of basic sculptural forms – dancers and warriors, horses and birds.
Alas, Emperor Ninken's death finally brought the years of good fortune in Sakurai to an end. The new Yamato king, Ohatsuse no Wakasazaki no Mikoto, moved the seat of power west from the reed-covered moors and wet-rice fields of Tenri in Nara to Hatsuse in the Osaka district where sea fog and mountain mist mingled in the briny air. Imperial relations were soon cut off with Sakurai and its artisans were forced to turn their hand to the more easily fired red clay ware. Within a few years Anjin retired and Takara-no-nendoko began to take care of her parents. But word of the young maiden's unusual beauty and pale blue skin would eventually reach the ears of Ohatsuse no Wakasazaki, later known as Emperor Buretsu, who had reigned for eight years without wife or heirs.
"There is a special young woman in the village of Sakurai," his courtiers told him. "We have heard that she possesses a rare beauty. Her uniqueness is a fitting quality for the wife of a king. Your years are running thin. It is a terrible thing when an emperor leaves this world without issue." The Great King rose slowly, his figured robe flowing from his folded arms, and with eyes closed and head faintly bowed, he spoke.
"Have her brought to court at once. Bring also six of the most beautiful virgins of Yamato. All are to be trained as ladies-in-waiting. On the first day of spring, each woman shall wash my feet and if the one I choose to be the most suitable is this woman from Sakurai, only then shall I marry and have her bear me heirs." A skeptical smile formed on his hidden face.
The rituals were performed and an official envoy was quickly dispatched. When the envoy arrived at Anjin's dwelling, they demanded that Takara-no-nendoko return with them to Hatsuse. She pleaded with her father not to let them take her away. "It is impossible for me to marry," she said. "I am here to take care of my parents in their old age." When the Emperor heard of Takara-no-nendoko's refusal to come to Hatsuse it both angered him but fuelled his desire to meet such a haughty peasant girl. He called upon his chief retainers to provide clansmen who would use whatever means necessary to encourage Anjin to release his daughter for marriage.
Once again the envoy traveled to Sakurai, this time, with the Imperial archery in tow. Takara-no-nendoko did not want to cause trouble to the villagers who had kindly accepted her as one of their own. "Father, it would be a terrible thing for me to bring our village harm by disobeying the king." With tears flowing down their cheeks, Anjin and Yayoi bade farewell to their daughter. "If I am to be married, I will send for you to attend the ceremony," Takara-no-nendoko promised her foster parents. She hung her head sadly as she was carried along in a palanquin towards Hatsuse and the Palace of Namiki.
On the first day of spring the seven women were brought to the inner sanctum of the Court. When it was Takara-no-nendoko's turn to come forward, Emperor Buretsu knew at once that she was the woman his courtiers had told him about. Her pale eerie beauty raised within him a possessive jealousy more furious than any he had ever known. He instructed his high priest to conduct a secret marriage ceremony the very next day. Takara-no-nendoko was led to her chamber and locked inside to prevent her escaping. Despite the many fine luxuries surrounding her and the six ladies-in-waiting who were assigned to her personal aid, she pleaded with her captors to be allowed to return to Sakurai. When her energy finally left her, she laid her wet cheek down upon a pillow and fell into a deep sleep.
The following morning, the lady-in-waiting assigned to Takara-no-nendoko's sleeping quarters arose to wake her. With great fear she saw that the bed was empty. "Takara-no-nendoko is gone," cried the attendants as they raced across the courtyard. "She has disappeared." The King and his high priest were brought to Takara-no-nendoko's quarters immediately. The priest, noticing a small lump beneath the silken sheets of the bed, drew back the covering and found lying on the futon a two-foot-high blue-gray figure of clay with holes for eyes, nose and mouth made in the Sakurai style. The priest lifted the haniwa from the bed and handed it to Ohatsuse no Wakasazaki. Clutching the figurine in a panicked rage, King Hatsuse, High Priest Overseer, stared into the empty eyes of the haniwa willing Takara-no-nendoko back to life. But the haniwa's hollow gaze revealed only the truth of his powerlessness among gods and he sank to his knees, his own life-force slowly draining from his body. The heirless Ohatsuse no Wakasazaki no Mikoto died only a few days later at the age of fifty-seven. The haniwa was placed at the head of his tomb in the Imperial burial chamber.
When the story of the King's death reached Sakurai, Anjin and Yayoi visited the village priest for stream purification. Anjin knew that it would soon be time for them to join their ancestors. The new Yamato King, later known as Emperor Keitai, decreed that the production of funerary haniwa be returned to the village of Sakurai. Thus it was that the Sakurai pottery guild continued to produce Anjin's humanoid haniwa for another five decades. Before long, a foreign religion with imported rituals of life and mortality would arrive in Japan and succeed the age of the gods. Haniwa would remain largely forgotten for many, many centuries.
- The Sound of Breath Through Bamboo
- Kazushi Matana