Japanese literature: stories and folk tales
Short folk stories are a well-established tradition in Japan. Oral tales were written down during the sixth and seventh centuries and compiled in the early eighth century. The tradition of illustrating stories dates back at least to the tenth century. Classic tales and stories were written by men and women.
Japanese folk stories cover a wide range of subjects, and deal with the affairs of the court as well as the common people. They are often simple narratives, and many have a moral dimension or contain elements of Buddhist teaching. Some stories revolve around the effects of good and evil, or the tragic implications of a single ill-thought-out gesture.
Many folk stories are based on such characters as princes, warriors, monks, nuns, merchants or country farmers and workers, although they also include gods and demons or animals, fish, birds and insects. In some stories inanimate objects may come alive, and non-human characters can speak. This is less to do with what we call magic, but more a sign of the Shinto and Buddhist beliefs that spirits reside in all things.
Many short Japanese folk stories begin abruptly by introducing the main characters and location of the story. This helps the reader to recognise the first and settle into the tale quickly. The main events are often fantastic and extraordinary; some involve a journey and a decision to be taken along the way. In stories with a Buddhist influence, the traveller may be confronted with something that later turns out to be false: a caution against chasing illusions.
Frequently Japanese folk stories involve jealousy of another's possessions or circumstances, or the fulfillment of a wish - of a poor person to be rich, a rich person to be richer or more powerful, a childless couple to have a child, or a lonely person to be in love. At the end of the tale good deeds are rewarded by fulfillment of the wish and evil punished, with gods, demons or spirits intervening to ensure the appropriate result.