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Thunder myths in Japan

Last night we had a magnificent thunderstorm in Tokyo, so today: a post about thunder! I've also discovered that there's a thunder temple in the shitamachi, but I'm going to keep you in suspense. I'll try to get there today, provided it stops drizzling, but it probably justifies its own post. Meantime …
  
Raijin (雷神)

The god of thunder is called Raijin, Kaminari-sama or Raiden-sama, and he loves to eat the belly buttons of children. When there's thunder, parents tell their kids to hide their navels so that Raijin can't kidnap them.

Quakes, thunder, fire and father

Traditionally the Japanese feared four things in ascending order of severity: 地震··火事·親父, jishin (earthquake), kaminari (thunder), kaji (fire), oyaji (father). The father was the most terrifying because in old days he had complete control over his household. (I can hear men sigh with longing, "When did it all go wrong?") I've also seen a slight adaptation: 地震··火事·大山風. The first three terrors remain the same, but oyaji/father is replaced by ooyamaji, an old word for typhoon.

Instead of showing you a photo of a scary dad, here's some cute underpants for a scary dad:

Photo credit: http://cuw.jp/

The thunder bird

The Japanese word for the rock ptarmigan is raichō (雷鳥) or thunder bird. Its Latin name is Lagopus muta japonica.

The bird is rarely seen, and only on high mountain peaks (Yarigatake, Mitake and Norigatake are famous thunder bird mountains), but it's regarded as a good omen. It's not clear why it's called a thunder bird, but one story goes that the bird is so sacred to the mountain gods that lightning will never hit a tree that's been touched by it. That's why mountain climbers camp under trees where the bird was spotted (which is a pretty bad idea, if you ask me).

A more prosaic explanation is that the bird inhabits the high mountains where thunder originates.

Print of a thunder bird by Toshi Yoshida

A word that protects you against thunder

This is old folklore, but you still come across the custom to call "kuwabara, kuwabara" when there's thunder or any sign of an approaching calamity. Why? Once upon a time a thunderbolt fell into a well in the village of Kuwabara. The villagers put a strong lid on the well and refused to let the thunderbolt out until it had promised that it would never harm their village again. To this day, no lightning has ever struck the village.

I've come across conflicting information about the location of the village, but apparently the story originally took place in present-day Kuwabara-chō (桑原町) in Izumi-shi, Osaka.

Incidentally, kuwabara also means mulberry field, but the thunder belief has nothing to do with mulberries.

Kyōgen about thunder

Kyōgen (狂言, literally mad words or wild speech) is a form of traditional Japanese comic theater that is performed as an intermission between Noh acts. Unlike Noh's über-serious, impenetrable, exceptionally codified dramas, kyōgen's primary goal is to make its audience laugh.

There's a kyōgen play called Kaminari. One day, during a storm, the thunder god Kaminari accidentally fell from his clouds. He tumbled to earth and almost fell on a travelling physician. When he heard that the man was a doctor, he demanded to be treated for his wounds. The physician applied acupuncture several times, while the god howled in comical pain. When the god was cured, he offered the physician a gift. "Nope," said the physician, "won't do me no good. Rather cause no damage with thunder for the next 3000 years." The god protested that it was impossible, and finally they agreed on 800 years.

I found a video of the kyōgen on YouTube. It doesn't allow embedding, but you can watch it here. I end this post with a screen by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, depicting Raijin the thunder god (left) and Fūjin the wind god (right).

Image from Wikipedia

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