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Searching the Home of Mujina: For Glen Grant - Part 2

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The theme of the revengeful female spirit is still alive today in Japanese films. Probably the best-known recent example of a popular Japanese horror film in America is The Ring,1 (2002) which remakes the Japanese original for American audiences. The story contains a faceless female ghost with beautiful long hair that covers her face.  She is shown on a strange video and anyone who sees the video dies in a certain number of days. There may be some echoes of this popular Japanese type of revengeful ghost in the Hawaiian mujina, especially if people who see her later die.2 But the Hawaiian mujina is not described by witnesses as revengeful, only rude and frightening. Other types of ghosts and ghost stories must play a role in the formation of the faceless mujina in Honolulu.

It is not clear when the name mujina was attached to the Honolulu ghost, but the name has become an important part of her identity. Unfortunately, neither Hearn nor Grant tells us about the Japanese meaning of mujina. In standard Japanese, mujina refers to some kind of badger or raccoon-like animal. A related term is tanuki. These two Japanese terms originated from Chinese characters used to identify stealthy nocturnal mammals. In Chinese, 狢 (pronounced mujina in Japanese) originally means an old world badger, while 狸 (pronounced tanuki in Japanese) originally meant a mountain cat. But when the character 狸 first came to Japan, people were not familiar with mountain cats, so several animals were identified as tanuki. As a result, the definition of tanuki was very broad in the medieval period. In fact, a Japanese dictionary from the Heian Period indicates that tanuki (狸) can mean raccoon dog, weasel, or wildcat. Thus, in the early days in Japan, people could use mujina 狢 and tanuki 狸 interchangeably to refer to badger-like animals. The confusion over which name is appropriate for which animal still remains today.  The name mujina can mean either badger or raccoon dog depending on what region of Japan you are in (Komamiya, 1993).

The raccoon dog and badger have been considered as supernatural creatures of the night in Japan since ancient times. In Japanese folktales, mujina is not really a human ghost, but a supernatural animal that can change into a human being. The use of the term mujina to mean a shape-shifting animal spirit first appears in the early historical record of Japan known as the Nihongi (compiled in 711). The record states that during the reign of Empress Suiko (ca. 627), in the province of Michinoku (today’s Tōhoku region), there was a mujina who changed into a man and sang (Aston, trans. 1927, p.155). In a footnote to his translation, Aston identifies the mujina as “a kind of badger.” From ancient times mujina and tanuki are also closely associated with good luck and fertility. Today it is common to find statues of round-belly badgers with large testicles sitting on the front porch of people’s houses or restaurants.

The mujina and tanuki belong to a larger category of shape-shifting animals-spirits that are common in East Asia. These creatures are able to change into human beings and then back, often leaving a trail of mischief and trouble among the humans they encounter. But they can also bring good luck. The best-known example of this ambiguous trickster god is the fox spirit (inari), who is worshipped in special shrines identified by the bright red torii gates. Usually there are stone statues of foxes that stand in front of the shrine. Since these fox images are representations of servants of firming gods who promise rich harvest, people make offerings to these statues at shrines. But the fox spirit has been adopted to perform all sorts of boons in their lives.

There are many variations on the motif of shape-shifting fox spirit motif in East Asian literature, but one of the most important motifs involves a beautiful woman. In Konjaku Tales,3  there are three tales about this type of fox spirit. In one of these stories (no. 103), a beautiful woman asks men for a ride on their horses, but then suddenly disappears. In another story the beautiful woman marries the man and makes a wonderful family and home. But one day the man offends the woman and she returns to being a fox and runs away with her children, who become little foxes.  These foxy female stories go back to folktales in China.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) In 松江ツーリズム研究会

Not all stories about the trickster-god in Japan are about alluring women or even females. They can also be mischievous male spirits.  Lafcadio Hearn’s story is about a faceless woman and a faceless man near Kii-no-kuni-zaka on the Akasaka road in Tokyo. The story is consisted of two parts. One night an old man was hurrying up the slope and saw a woman crouching by the moat weeping loudly. In order to help her, he went up to her speaking gently. But she never replied and kept crying.  He then put his hand lightly on her shoulder and continued to console her.  Finally, the young lady turned toward him, dropped her sleeve from her face, and moved her hair with her hand. The man saw that she had no eyes, nose, or mouth. He screamed and ran away (Hearn, 1971[originally published in 1907]). The way Hearn describes this woman in the story is as “a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family” (p.78). In other words, she was well-bred woman and her presence did not fit the lonely road in the dark, which triggered the old man’s compassion.

After that, the old man ran into a soba stand where a merchant was busy making soba noodles behind the counter. Because of the old man’s great fright or maybe he was afraid of being considered as an idiot, he could not describe to the noodle-maker exactly what he saw. Then the noodle-maker turned to him saying, “Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” (Hearn, 1907, p.80). The man also had no face. The story ends with this terrifying duplication of the encounter with the spooky spirit. As one scholar explains, “Generally speaking, characters in kaidan tales do not realize they have been the victim of mischief until the very end of the story” (Reider, 2000, p. 272).

In Hearn’s story both spirits are noppera-bou (faceless). This is the main feature of his story written in English. But noppera-bou beings are not uncommon in Japanese folklore, especially in stories about some kind of monster, not a ghost. Where did Hearn get his story about faceless ghosts and why did he call it mujina? He says that he heard the story from a man that passed away around 1940. Probably the man called the two beings without faces mujina because he believed these creatures were transformations of shape-shifting animals. The Hearn’s work does not discuss this native folklore about mujina, while focusing on their facelessness. So it is natural that Grant assumed mujina refers only to a faceless ghost. 

Many Japanese scholars consider the prototype of Hearn’s “Mujina” to come from the collection of Chinese mystery tales called “A Horror on the Night Road,” compiled in the third century.4 The stories were taken from varied sources, so the range of images about ghosts and spirits is wide, including “the strange and scary to the funny” (Reider, 2000, p. 266). It is easy to mix up the various kinds of ghosts and spirits when telling the stories. In fact, when cultures retell a story into their own language, they can combine elements from different stories to make it more interesting. Mixing stories about the supernatural probably happened when the man told the story about the faceless ghost to Hearn.

Most stories about faceless supernatural beings in Japan are not called mujina. Reider (2000) explores the early development the faceless kaidan (怪談, tales of the strange and mysterious) in the seventeenth century’s Japan. In the Japanese collection entitled Collection of Miscellaneous Strange Tales (Kii zoutan shu 奇異雑談集, ca 1650s) there is a story about a man who has no eye, nose, or mouth, but has an alternative mouth in a wrong place on his head. He is a grotesque deity. But he is worshipped in the house as a living god in gorgeous clothes in a brilliantly decorated room because the family believes that he is a charm of the house for prosperity in the story (2000, p. 270). In this case, the faceless element in this story is not a cause of harm to the people but brings them luck. It reveals that this mysterious being has sacredness because he is very unusual. Perhaps he represents a deformed person. The story shows that faceless was somehow familiar motif in the Edo Period not only as a transformation of shape-shifting animals.

Even if there was no faceless Hawaiian ghost, it is possible that many influences on the Honolulu mujina come from inside Hawaiian or American culture. In his book, Obake Files, Grant (1996) introduces a story about a mysterious Big Island woman with beautiful black hair, whose face is impossible to see clearly. One day a man finished his business late in Hilo and headed back to Kona across the dangerous Saddle Road.  In the rain, he saw a young girl and stopped for giving her a ride. At first he thought she looked 16-17 years old, but after she sat on the front seat of his car, she seemed to get older and older. Finally he saw an 80-year-old Hawaiian female with the same beautiful black hair (pp. 58-9). In another story two drunken men gave a ride to an old Hawaiian lady who lit their cigarettes with the palm of her hand. They let her off at a taxi stand. Next day, they returned to the stand and asked the driver about the old woman. He remembered that they had come and pointed at his taxi, but he did not see any woman. The two men believed Pele saved their lives (personal story collected by Grant, 1996).5 Both these stories are about a mysterious woman, sometimes identified as Pele, who scares people but also may help them overcome some difficulty.

There are other features of the Hawaiian mujina that are common to American ghost stories and images of Japanese ghosts. For example, this ghost has no feet but appears to hover over the ground. Ghosts in American stories hover in many cases. It is, however, easy to find footless ghosts in Japanese folklore as well. A popular Edo painter, Ōkyo Maruyama, drew a footless ghost in the famous painting entitled Hankonkou-no-zu (反魂香之図) in 1733, although the earliest appearance of the footless ghost in Japanese drawings was in 1219 as a famous ghost of noble Michizane Sugawara who died in 909.6 Consequently, Ōkyo’s style is one of the representations of the ghost drawings of the Kyōhō Era in the Edo Period (1716-1735). By that time, ghost images were footless and had evolved extremely fierce features as compared to those in the late 17th century when ghost images still had feet (Ema, p.434 [Originally published in 1923]). Thereafter, images of footless ghosts became the norm.

To be continued...


1. Directed by Gore Verbinski. It is a remake of 1998’s Japanese horror movie.

2. Since the Grant’s newest collection of a story about the faceless-woman was in 1992, a four years after this Japanese film was released, it could be possible.

3. The Tales has 28 volumes today but author is anonymous and date is not certain, but today’s scholarly agrees after 1120 A.D. The volumes cover tales from India, China, and Japan.

4. The book was complied during 220-226 A.D. by Lin Shuguange. The original title, 捜神記. The story mainly features a man’s unexpected encountering to the monster twice on the night road. Especially, the second time the monster appears as a reliever (human) to the man after his first shock. Its composition is exactly the same as to the Hearn’s “Mujina.”

5. This story is also introduced in Chicken Skin TV series.

6. Tsutomu Ema (1923), a pioneering popular culture scholar, studied changes in the images of ghosts in Japanese drawings.

© 2011 Kaori Akiyama

culture folktales fox ghost Glen Grant hawaii Japan mujina obake stories pele tanuki