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Ueda Akinari's Jasei no in: A Japanese tale of the white snake

Japanese writer Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) published a collection of short stories in 1776 titled Ugetsu monogatari, one of which, Jasei no in, is a retelling of the Chinese “white snake legend” (J. hakujaden), in which a young man marries a beautiful woman who turns out to be a snake demon in disguise.

Written in literary Japanese, Jasei no in employs a style called wakan konkō 'mixed Chinese-Japanese.' In wakan konkō writing, Chinese graphs are glossed with Japanese phonetic graphs representing “native” Japanese expressions rather than borrowed Chinese pronunciations. The text is full of allusions to classical Japanese literature, but is also a retelling of the colloquial Chinese story Bainiangzi yongzhen Leifengta from the 1624 Jingshi tongyan (J. Keishi tsūgen) compiled by Feng Menglong. Both Bainiangzi and Jasei no in contain plots that begin and end in nearly the same way, and the latter contains clear references to the Chinese text. However, Akinari blends the Chinese white snake legend with the Japanese Dōjōji legend (J. Dōjōji densetsu), which also features a lustful woman, Kiyohime, who turns into a snake to kill the Buddhist monk Anchin, who spurns her.

A crucial difference between the Feng Menglong story and the Akinari adaptation is the characterization of the snake woman. In the Chinese, Bai, the snake woman, appears human, but grows more and more suspicious as the story progresses, until she is discovered to be a snake in disguise. When she is captured, her life is spared because of her lengthy spiritual cultivation (Ch. xiūliàn). However, Manago, her Japanese counterpart, is suspicious from the moment she appears, and is never described as having undertaken meritorious spiritual activity. When combined with the character of Kiyohime, the snake woman appears more dangerous, and more inhuman. Therefore, Manago is far less sympathetic a character than her Chinese counterpart. Even so, Manago may function as a representation of a human woman.

Plot summary of Jasei no in

Toyoo, the third child and second son of Ōya no Takesuke, a wealthy manager of fishermen, lives in Miwagasaki in Kii Province with his parents and older brother. Coming home from studying with a Shinto priest, a southeasterly wind blows rain, so he borrows an umbrella and takes shelter under a fisherman's hut, where he is joined by a beautiful girl not yet twenty, Agata no Manago, and her maid, Maroya. Toyoo, a lover of all things courtly and refined, assumes Manago is from the capital. He learns she lives nearby and loans her the umbrella, agreeing to come back for it.

Manago appears in a dream in which they meet at her home and spend the night together. He rushes out without breakfast, but cannot find anyone who knows the location of the Agata house. Maroya appears and leads him to the house. Manago claims she is a widow with no one to keep her company. She proposes marriage to Toyoo, and after some hesitation, he accepts. She gives him a precious sword. The next morning, Toyoo's brother sees the sword. His family doesn't believe it was a gift and suspects theft. The sword turns out to be stolen from Kumano Hayadama Shrine. Toyoo's father turns him in, but Toyoo maintains he received the sword as a gift. The authorities have never heard of the Agata family. Toyoo takes them to Manago's house, which has turned into an utter ruin, inside and out. They find Manago, but she disappears in a clap of thunder, leaving the treasure. Toyoo is imprisoned for 100 days until freed by his family.

Toyoo moves with his sister to Tsubaichi in Yamato Province, into the house of Tanabe Kanetada. Manago and Maroya appear in a group of pilgrims visiting Hatsuse Temple. Manago convinces Toyoo she is innocent, and that her disappearance was only a trick. With her femininity she charms his hosts, and they are married by Kanetada. In the third month, Kanetada invites the pair to travel to Yoshino. Manago refuses, claiming chronic dizziness illness triggered by walking and crowds, but finally relents. During a meal by a waterfall, an old man from the Ooyamato Shrine calls out Manago and Maroya as demons. They flee into the water, which boils, and a sudden torrential rain falls. The old man explains that Manago is a lustful snake demon. He claims Toyoo has lost his manliness (J. masuraogokoro) and is thus in mortal peril, and orders him to quiet his heart.

Toyoo returns to Kii and marries Tomiko, daughter of the steward of Shiba (J. Shiba no shōji). On their second night together she is possessed by Manago, and the maid Maroya appears. Manago threatens to kill Toyoo, who faints. Tomiko's father enlists the help of a famous priest, but the priest is attacked by the white snake. His skin turns red and black and hot as fire, then he dies. Manago threatens to kill everyone. Toyoo begs Manago to take him where she likes, but spare Tomiko. She agrees. However, Tomiko's father objects, and goes to Dōjōji to fetch Hōkai, a renowned Buddhist. Toyoo uses a kesa (Buddhist robe) received from Hōkai to capture Manago, then Hōkai and his disciples come, capture Manago and Maroya in an iron bowl and bury both outside Dōjōji.

Affinity with the Dōjōji legend

Dōjōji is a pilgrimage site on the Kii peninsula in Komatsubara, famous for the legend of Anchin and Kiyohime, or the “Dōjōji legend.” Among other sources, the legend is found in the Konjaku monogatari shū, and the nō play Dōjōji. In the Konjaku monogatari shū, the handsome monk Anchin and an older monk spend that night at a man's home. That night, the man's daughter Kiyohime sneaks into Anchin's room, crawls into bed and awakens him. Like Bai and Manago, she claims to be a widow, and proposes marriage. Anchin does not consent, but she pesters him, so he promises to come back after three days. When he does not return, Kiyohime asks around and finds he has left town. In her rage, she dies, and emerges from her room a giant snake. She finds Anchin hiding in the temple bell and—weeping tears of blood—burns him alive. She flees into the river. The older monk dreams of Anchin turned into a giant snake as well, so he copies the Lotus Sutra (J. Hokekyō) until he has a second dream in which Anchin and Kiyohime appear as humans and thank him for helping them achieve reincarnation as higher beings through Buddhism.

The inclusion of Dōjōji by Akinari in the plot of Jasei no in is a deliberate tie to this legend. Unlike Manago, who is a snake by nature, changed into a human, Kiyohime is a human by nature who is changed into a snake.

Comparison with Bainiangzi

The stories follow the same course until the protagonist (Xu Xuan/Toyoo) marries the snake demon. First, the protagonist encounters a beautiful woman in a sudden rain, loans her an umbrella not his own, and comes back to get it, only to find that no one has heard of her. The maid appears and brings the protagonist to a fancy house, where the woman claims she is a widow, proposes marriage, and gives him something valuable. A family member recognizes the valuable item as stolen and turns the protagonist in to the authorities, who send an expedition to the woman's house, which has become a ruin. When a bold man among them confronts the woman, she disappears in a thunderclap, leaving behind the stolen goods. The protagonist spends time incarcerated, then moves to live somewhere else, only to have the woman find him again. He rebukes her, but she blames the theft on her late husband, charms the protagonist's hosts, and moves in with them. She and the protagonist are later married, and live happily.

The stories also share an ending. A priest tries to catch the snake, but fails. The protagonist, on the verge of giving up, is given a Buddhist robe by another renowned Buddhist priest. He uses the robe to subdue the woman. She and her maid are made to show their true forms by the priest, then sealed inside a jar and buried in front a monastery.

Nevertheless, even when the plots of Bainiangzi and Jasei no in coincide, Bai and Manago are very different characters. Bai is recognized as spiritually accomplished, but must be punished for violating the order of heaven by seducing a human. Manago is denounced as a “beast” with a “lascivious nature” (Ueda 2007: 173), and like Kiyohime, her inability to control her lust leads her to kill.

When Toyoo first meets the snake woman, it is the “end of the Ninth Month” (Ueda 1974: 245) (late October or early November), in contrast to early April in Bainiangzi. Jasei no in contains many more clues to arouse the suspicion of the audience. A sudden rain falls, and a beautiful a young woman, with no male attendant, of whose family Toyoo has heard nothing, says she has lived nearby for years without his knowledge. Chamber's translation reads, “One day late in the ninth month, the sea was remarkably calm, with no trace of wind or wave, when suddenly clouds appeared from the southeast and a gentle rain began to fall” (Ueda 2007: 160). Similarly, in the Chinese, “all of a sudden, clouds gathered in the northwestern sky, and a fog closed in from the southeast” (Yang & Yang: 476). Typical of Akinari's wakan konkō style, “southeast” is written with the Chinese graphs for dongnan 東南 'east-south [southeast]' and glossed tatsumi in Japanese, for tatsu '[Chinese Zodiac] sign of the dragon; east-southeast' and mi 'sign of the snake; south-southeast.' According to the editors of the Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshū (1973), the dragon-snake meeting point in the southeast direction (J. hōgaku) was believed to be the place from which spirits entered the human world. Therefore, Akinari's 18th-Century intended audience would interpret the sudden southeasterly rain as concealing the entrance of Manago and Maroya.

Toyoo takes shelter under a hut, and is soon joined by Manago. When Toyoo first hears Manago's voice, he turns to look (J. ayashi to miru ni) in a manner described by Chambers as “curious” (p. 160; J. ayashi). The Bungaku Zenshū editors maintain that Akinari purposefully uses the term ayashi 'suspicious.' Just as Xu Xuan “could not help feeling attracted” (Yu 1978: 357; Ch. bù miǎn dòng niàn) to Bai, Toyoo's “heart leaped” (Ueda 2007: 161; J. suzuro ni kokoro ugokite) at the sight of Manago. However, in contrast to Bai's entirely white mourning attire, Manago wears a “kimono printed in fine colors with the distant-mountain pattern” (Ueda 2007: 160). Zolbrod notes that this pattern is mentioned in the classical poetry collections. This allusion establishes Manago as much a character of Japanese antiquity as the “Madam White” of Bainiangzi.

Toyoo assumes Manago is on a pilgrimage to Kumano, like Anchin in the Dōjōji legend. He says, “If such a noble beauty lived around here, I surely would have heard of her before this” (p. 161). However, Manago says she is not from the capital, but has “been living near here for many years” (p. 161). As Toyoo “surely would have heard of her before” (p. 161), that he has not is very suspicious. If we assume the Hangzhou of Bainiangzi is much more populous than Miwagasaki, that Xu Xuan has never heard of Bai is not surprising, but for Toyoo—a lover of “courtly things” (J. miyabitaru koto)—to have never even heard mention of someone like Manago is improbable. Moreover, she does not have a male attendant, which makes Toyoo uncomfortable. Presumably that would also strike the audience as strange.

When Toyoo returns home, like Xu Xuan he dreams of the snake woman. When Xu Xuan “finally fell asleep, the events of the day reappeared in a dream, stirring up amorous passion” (Yang & Yang 2005: 478). However, Toyoo “dreamed of going to Manago's house” (Ueda 2007: 162), where they eat and drink, and “finally, shared the same pillow and talked [of their love]” (J. tsui ni makura o tomo ni shite kataru). The dream sequence in this passage parallels the later passage in which Toyoo visits in Manago in real life. That the dream foretells what is to come makes Manago appear all the more like something not of this world.

Toyoo, “in his excitement… forgot to eat breakfast and left the house in high spirits” (p. 162). Therefore, it is plausible he still does not realize Manago is not human when he “asked for the house of Agata no Manago, but no one had heard of it” (p. 162). In Bainiangzi, Xu Xuan asks around for hours before the maid appears, “coming from an easterly direction” (Yang & Yang 2005: 479). Toyoo, too, finally meets Maroya, who comes “from the east” (Ueda 2007: 162). Though the narration in Bainiangzi never indicates whether Xu Xuan finds Bai's house strange, Toyoo, on entering Manago's home, finds it ayashi 'suspicious; strange; out of the ordinary.' The narration notes that Manago's house is “not the home of any ordinary person” (Ueda 2007: 163). When they drink together, Toyoo thinks he must be about to awaken from a dream, but that the encounter is really taking place is all the more ayashi.

Just as Xu Xuan receives stolen money from Bai, Toyoo receives a stolen sword. However, Toyoo's brother Tarō spots the sword immediately and interrogates Toyoo, and while no one in Bainiangzi questions the existence of “the younger sister of Officer White [Bai] of the imperial guards” (Yang & Yang 2005: 483), when Toyoo claims he received the sword from the widow of a man named Agata, Tarō says, “Strange [ayashi]. I have never heard of an assistant to the governor named Agata. Since our family is the village head, we could hardly have failed to hear of the death of such a person” (Ueda 2007: 166). Moreover, when Toyoo is interrogated on suspicion of stealing the sword, the authorities say, “We have never had an assistant named Agata” (Ueda 2007: 167). As in Bainiangzi, at Manago's house a neighbor says, “I have never heard of a person by that name” (168), and the exterior of the house has become a wreck. In Bainiangzi, the neighbors say the house has been frequented by ghosts for five or six years since the family died of disease. Bai never mentions how long she has lived in Hangzhou. However, in Jasei no in, the house is said to have been empty since three years prior—exactly the time Manago claims she came to Miwagasaki.

In Jasei no in, The interior of the house is far more dilapidated than in Bainiangzi. Therefore, Manago's later explanation is less believable. In Bainiangzi, the interior is furnished as Xu Xuan reported, though on the upper floor a “coat of dust three inches thick had settled on everything” (Yu 1978: 362). However, in Chambers' translation of Jasei no in (Ueda 2007: 168):

The house was even more dilapidated than the exterior… the pond had dried up, and even the water weeds had withered. A giant pine, blown over in the wind, lay ominously in the drooping thicket on the wild moor. When they opened the shutters of the guest hall, a reeking gust of air came at them…

Inside, where “an inch of dust had piled up,” they find Manago sitting “amid the rat droppings” (168). In Bainiangzi, when they approach Bai they hear “an earsplitting crack, like a bolt out of the blue” (Yang & Yang 2005: 484). Likewise, in Jasei no in it is “a clap of thunder as violent as though the ground itself were splitting open” (Ueda 2007: 168). At this point in both tales, the audience is expected react like the onlookers, and conclude the woman is a non-human.

While Xu Xuan is forcibly ejected from Hangzhou, Toyoo chooses to leave Kii and live with family in Yamato after his imprisonment. Presumably, he is imprisoned in the ninth month and released before the new year, then moves to Tsubaichi without telling anyone outside his family, as he “would be ashamed to mingle in society” (Ueda 2007: 169). Nevertheless, Manago reaches him within two months of his release. While Bai does not explain how she found Xu Xuan, Manago claims that the incarnation of Kannon at Hatsuse Temple brings them together again.

After appearing to split, the two stories converge again in this scene of reunion. The protagonist calls the snake woman a demon in front of a crowd. Addressing Xu Xuan's hosts, Bai defends herself: “Can I be an evil spirit [gǔiguài]? My dress has seams, and I cast a shadow under the sun” (Yu 1978: 363). Akinari borrows these lines for Manago: “If I were some kind of monster [ayashiki mono], could I appear among this crowd of people and, moreover, at noon on such a tranquil day as this? My robes have seams; when I face the sun, I cast a shadow” (Ueda 2007: 170). Even the mirrored structure of the final lines is copied in the Japanese. However, the difference between the reunion scene in each story is the attitude of the snake woman. In Bainiangzi, Bai pretends she is not interested in pursuing Xu Xuan further, and three times claims she will leave after finishing her explanation. She feigns reluctance, and only at the urging of her maid and Xu Xuan's host does she agrees to stay. In contrast, Manago begs Toyoo to take her back, weeping and using femininity to ingratiate herself. In Chambers' translation (Ueda 2007: 171):

[Manago:] “How could a woman have stolen those many sacred treasures? That was the doing of my late husband's wicked heart. Please consider and try to grasp even a dewdrop of the love I feel.” The tears streamed down her face. Now suspicious, now sympathetic, Toyoo could think of nothing more to say. Kanetada and his wife, seeing Manago's reasonableness and feminine demeanor, no longer harbored the slightest doubt

The audience would not have shared Kanetada's reaction. Bai claims, “I arranged [shǐ rén] to have garbage piled up at my door and silver placed on the bed. I also asked the neighbors to lie on my behalf” (Yang & Yang 2005: 486). The outside of the house could easily be trashed by neighbor(s), leaving the inside as Xu Xuan remembered. In contrast, when Toyoo asks why she was discovered in “a house befitting a demon [oni]” (Ueda 2007: 170), Manago claims, “I approached the old man next door [tonari no okina]… and persuaded him to transform the place quickly into a house in the wilderness [nora naru yado]” (p. 170). That one old man could spread dust and rat droppings on the ground, drain the pond, and fell a tree all in one day is beyond belief. Reider (2002) notes that while Kanetada says “surely such things could not occur in this day and age” (p. 171), for Akinari and his audience “such things” as spirits and demons were not beyond the realm of possibility.

After the protagonist and the snake woman are married, the plots diverge. Suspicions about Bai continue to mount. That Daoist charms have no effect on her suggests she may be human, but she humiliates the Daoist with superhuman telekinesis. The truth about her is not revealed until the story's end. In contrast, Manago is soon revealed to be a demon. Fleeing the accusation into a waterfall and boiling the water at her touch cannot be explained away, and she never attempts it.

In Bainiangzi, Xu Xuan is arrested, sent away, and reunited with Bai for a second time. Li Keyong tries to rape her and discovers her true form. Confronted by the Buddhist priest Fahai (Hōkai's Chinese counterpart), Bai and her maid dive into the West Lake. Xu Xuan is pardoned and returns to Hangzhou, but finds Bai there already. His brother-in-law also sees her true form. Having outed Manago as a demon, Jasei no in does away with all of those plot elements and instead has Manago possess Tomiko. That Tomiko reminds Toyoo of Manago foreshadows the snake woman's reappearance, introducing a theme of jealousy absent in the Chinese. Manago, more otherworldly than Bai, is given a motive to be more dangerous. Xu Xuan just happens to walk under Bai's eaves; Manago's reappearance via spirit possession is more shocking and strange, and whereas Bai scares off the snake catcher with no one else around, Manago shows her true form in the steward's house and kills the snake catcher in front of everyone. In the destructiveness of her obsessive lust Manago becomes more like Kiyohime. After the snake catcher's death and Toyoo's surrender, Dōjōji is mentioned for the first time.


Though the plots of the stories wrap up in the same way, the nature of the snake woman differs. The Chinese text seems most concerned with Bai's categorical status—whether she is human or not is the most important question. Campany, quoted in Ueda (2007) writes that Chinese tales of the strange are concerned with “humankind's taxonomic place among other kinds of beings” (p. 15). Bai claims she has spiritually advanced beyond the level of snake, and Fahai validates her “thousand years of spiritual cultivation [qiānnián xiūliàn]” (Yang & Yang 2005: 504). The Daoist charms designed to reveal demons don't affect her, and though she threatens death, in the end she maintains “I never took a life” (p. 503). In contrast, in the world of Jasei no in, a relationship between a human and a non-human is unacceptable, and according to Chambers, it is “precisely the character's inner natures… that concerned Akinari” (p. 15). At the waterfall, the old man tells Toyoo that Manago is an ancient “giant snake [orochi]” with a “lascivious nature [saga wa midari naru]” and that “out of lust, inspired by your beauty, it has attached itself to you and led you astray” (Ueda 2007: 173). In contrast to Bai, Manago is lustful by nature, and causes two deaths—nothing good can come of association with her.

That said, Manago acts the part of a perfect woman for Toyoo, so she may represent real women for the audience. The central moralizing section of Jasei no in has the old man chastise Toyoo for his lack of “manliness” (J. masaogokoro), which he has lost in his attraction to the womanly shape of Manago. Aozukin, the next story in the Ugetsu monogatari, has a character who hears several strange stories reply, “But all these stories are of women; I have never heard one of a man. It is, after all, because of their perverse nature [saga no kadamashiki] that women turn into shameless demons” (Ueda 2007: 194). Unlike Bainiangzi, Jasei no in contains no moralizing epilogue, though Chambers notes that Aozukin—a story celebrating the triumph of Buddhism over lust—may function as one. The audience of Jasei no in should have come away with the lesson that lust corrupts, and that lust's manifested body of is that of a woman.

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