Konjaku Monogatarishū

Konjaku Monogatarishū

is a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian Period (794-1185). The entire collection was originally contained in 31 volumes, of which only 28 remain today. The volumes cover various tales from India, China, and Japan.

The work is also commonly known by the name "Konjaku Monogatari"; since it is an anthology rather than a single tale, however, the longer title is more accurate.

Contents

The tales contained in the work are divided according to the region in which the tales take place. The first 5 volumes contain tales from India, the next five tales from China, and the remainder tales from Japan. The subject-matter is drawn from Buddhism and secular folklore.

All of the tales in the collection start with the phrase "Now long ago" (今ハ昔 "ima wa mukashi"). The Chinese-style pronunciation of this phrase is "Kon-jaku", and it is from this that the collection is named.

The Buddhist tales cover a wide range of topics, both historical tales about the development, transmission, and spread of Buddhism, and dogmatic tales which emphasize karmic retribution.

The folkloric tales mostly depict encounters between human beings and the supernatural. The typical characters are drawn from Japanese society of the time—nobility, warriors, monks, scholars, doctors, peasant farmers, fishermen, merchants, prostitutes, bandits, beggars. Their supernatural counterparts are oni and tengu.

Date and authorship

The work is anonymous. Several theories of authorship have been put forward: one argues that the compiler was Minamoto no Takakuni, author of "Uji Dainagon Monogatari", another suggests the Buddhist monk Tobane Sōjō, a third proposes a Buddhist monk living somewhere in the vicinity of Kyoto or Nara during the late Heian period. So far no substantive evidence has emerged to decide the question, and no general consensus has formed.

The date of the work is also uncertain. From the events depicted in some of the tales it seems likely that it was written down at some point during the early half of the 12th century, after the year 1120.

ignificance

Many of the tales which appear in the Konjaku are also found in other collections, such as ghost story collections; having passed into the common consciousness, they have been retold many times over the succeeding centuries. Modern writers too have adapted tales from the "Konjaku Monogatarishū": a famous example is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's "In a Grove" (well known in the West from Kurosawa's film Rashomon). Other authors who have written stories based on tales from the Konjaku include Jun'ichirō Tanizaki and Hori Tatsuo.

A cryptic line in Akutagawa's classic Rashomon says「旧記の記者の語を借りれば、『頭身の毛も太る』ように感じたのである。」(lit. "To borrow a phrase from the writers of the chronicles of old, he felt as if 'even the hairs on his head and body had grown thick'.") This is a reference to a line from the Konjaku Monogatarishū; figuratively the phrase means "He was scared, he felt as if his hair was standing on end".

Trivia

On the Radiohead 2006 wall calendar, April 16th is marked as "Konjaku Monogatari Sunday."


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