Asian Ethnology 81 1&2 | article Hikketsu no monogatari (A Tale of Calligraphy Brushes) A Humorous Medieval Instructional Tale—Annotated Translation, with Translator’s Introduction

Noriko Tsunoda Reider

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Otogizōshi happyaku bikuni shira bikuni raccoon dogs military households humor customs and manners

Hikketsu no monogatari (A Tale of Calligraphy Brushes, 1480) is a medieval instructional fiction that reveals the practices and rituals of military households as well as customs and manners of the late fifteenth century. The tale is extremely rare among more than four hundred existing otogizōshi in that the author as well as its completion and copied dates are known. While the tale is didactic and adopts a question and answer format, it is simultaneously humorous, with the main characters being a long-lived nun called shiro bikuni (literally “white nun”) or happyaku bikuni (literally “eight hundred nun”) and a pack of proper-behaving racoon dogs (tanuki). The legends of happyaku bikuni exist all over Japan. Many legends tell of a young woman from Wakasa Province who unknowingly ate a mermaid’s flesh, which kept her forever youthful in appearance. She decided to become a Buddhist nun. After eight hundred years she returned to Wakasa, and there she entered a cave to live the remainder of her time and expire. According to Tokuda Kazuo, Hikketsu no monogatari is the first literature that documents a happyaku bikuni legend. Hikketsu no monogatari is a treasure house of what to know and do (or not do) in medieval Japan, some of which still applies to present-day Japanese society. The present translation is, though partial due to the limited space, the first English translation of Hikketsu no monogatari.