Thursday, January 14, 2010

"What are you?" or, Beware the tengu!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

One thing that surprised me and rocketlass and our traveling companions when we visited Japan last winter was how few obviously non-Japanese people we saw. Even in Tokyo, an absolutely enormous, internationally important and connected city, we would frequently be the only non-Asian faces in sight, even in huge crowds. Obviously, many of the Asians in the crowd could easily have been Korean, Chinese, etc., but even allowing for that, and for a more homogeneous base population, the contrast with major cities like London and New York was striking.

In the course of telling about his years as a crime reporter in Japan, Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein writes quite a bit about how people reacted the fact that he obviously was not Japanese, despite his job and his command of the language. The most amusing response comes when he meets the children of a cop who later becomes an important source, and, eventually, a friend. The two young girls start by asking, "What are you?", and it gets better from there:
"You're obviously not human."

"He might be human," her sister said.

I didn't know how to respond to this line of conversation. "Why do you think I'm not human?"

The little sister answered immediately. "You have pointed ears and a nose so big that you can't be human."

"Well, then," I asked, "what am I

Little Sister came closer and stared up at my face. "You have a big nose and pointed ears and big round eyes too. You are pretending to speak Japanese like a human being. You must be a tengu."
A tengu is a demon--but, the older sister points out, tengu have red skin rather than pink, which ultimately leads the girls to decide that their visitor is merely half-tengu, half-human.

All of which, I suppose, is better than being mistaken for a mujina.

{I don't think the statue above is actually of a tengu, though he does seem to be stomping on some sort of demon, whom he has defeated somehow by writing.}

1 comment:

  1. Levi,

    I lived in Japan for three years. The sense I got was that the canonical tengu looked like this.