Takehara Shunsensai 竹原春泉斎 (active c. early 19th century)
Tōkaen Michimaro 桃花園三千麿 (fl. 1808–1841)
Picture Book of a Hundred Tales
(Ehon hyaku monogatari ), vol. 1
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1841
Woodblock-printed book; ink and color on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003
On the right page appears the tale of Empress Danrin (786–850), wife of Emperor Saga (786–842). According to legend, she was extremely beautiful, and to her great distress, her appearance inspired lustful thoughts in countless men and distracted young Buddhist monks from their ascetic training. In order to enlighten her subjects about the Buddhist concept of impermanence, the empress decided to kill herself and demanded in her will that her corpse be left unburied at a random, anonymous crossroads.
Her order was carried out, and her corpse was left at a location later named Katabiraga Crossing, where it gradually decomposed until it was nothing but a pile of white bones. As the empress intended, those who passed Katabiraga Crossing reflected upon the transitory nature of all things, and monks devoted themselves ever more fervently to their spiritual training. Regardless of its historical accuracy, this story is closely related to the kusōzu (nine stages of decomposition), a topic discussed in Buddhist texts since the 6th century.
The left page discusses the fate of someone who eats other people’s food without permission. Upon death, the text explains, he or she is transformed into a kowai, a specter condemned to an eternity of hunger and forced to search through the trash of food stalls for rotten meat and other bits of discarded food. Here Shunsensai depicts the kowai, a drooling corpse with bloodshot eyes, about to devour a bowl of udon noodles.
As one might expect from its appearance, the name of this creature is said to have inspired the modern Japanese term for fear (kowai). Though not discussed in Picture Book of a Hundred Tales, the kowai, like the tale of Empress Danrin, has close connections to Buddhist doctrine. The spirits of avaricious people, known as gaki (literally, “hungry ghost”), are described in the Sutra of Meditation on the True Law (Shōbōnenjo-kyō, c. 5th century) and depicted in the Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts (Gaki zōshi, c. 12th-13th centuries).
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