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KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (Lafcadio Hearn) online

Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan


However, in Japanese belief, a butterfly may be the soul of a dead person as well as of a living person. Indeed it is a custom of souls to take butterfly-shape in order to announce the fact of their final departure from the body; and for this reason any butterfly which enters a house ought to be kindly treated.

To this belief, and to queer fancies connected with it, there are many allusions in popular drama. For example, there is a well-known play called Tonde-deru-Kocho-no-Kanzashi; or, "The Flying Hairpin of Kocho." Kocho is a beautiful person who kills herself because of false accusations and cruel treatment. Her would-be avenger long seeks in vain for the author of the wrong. But at last the dead woman's hairpin turns into a butterfly, and serves as a guide to vengeance by hovering above the place where the villain is hiding.

-- Of course those big paper butterflies (o-cho and me-cho) which figure at weddings must not be thought of as having any ghostly signification. As emblems they only express the joy of living union, and the hope that the newly married couple may pass through life together as a pair of butterflies flit lightly through some pleasant garden,-- now hovering upward, now downward, but never widely separating.


A small selection of hokku (1) on butterflies will help to illustrate Japanese interest in the aesthetic side of the subject. Some are pictures only,-- tiny color-sketches made with seventeen syllables; some are nothing more than pretty fancies, or graceful suggestions;-- but the reader will find variety. Probably he will not care much for the verses in themselves. The taste for Japanese poetry of the epigrammatic sort is a taste that must be slowly acquired; and it is only by degrees, after patient study, that the possibilities of such composition can be fairly estimated. Hasty criticism has declared that to put forward any serious claim on behalf of seventeen-syllable poems "would be absurd." But what, then, of Crashaw's famous line upon the miracle at the marriage feast in Cana?--

Nympha pudica Deum vidit, et erubuit. [1]

Only fourteen syllables -- and immortality. Now with seventeen Japanese syllables things quite as wonderful -- indeed, much more wonderful -- have been done, not once or twice, but probably a thousand times... However, there is nothing wonderful in the following hokku, which have been selected for more than literary reasons:--

Nugi-kakuru [2]
Haori sugata no
Kocho kana!

[Like a haori being taken off -- that is the shape of a butterfly!]

Torisashi no
Sao no jama suru
Kocho kana!

[Ah, the butterfly keeps getting in the way of the bird-catcher's pole! [3]]

Tsurigane ni
Tomarite nemuru
Kocho kana!

[Perched upon the temple-bell, the butterfly sleeps:]

Neru-uchi mo
Asobu-yume wo ya --
Kusa no cho!

[Even while sleeping, its dream is of play -- ah, the butterfly of the grass! [4]

Oki, oki yo!
Waga tomo ni sen,

[Wake up! wake up! -- I will make thee my comrade, thou sleeping butterfly. [5]]

Kago no tori
Cho wo urayamu
Metsuki kana!

[Ah, the sad expression in the eyes of that caged bird! -- envying the butterfly!]

Cho tonde --
Kaze naki hi to mo
Miezari ki!

[Even though it did not appear to be a windy day, [6] the fluttering of the butterflies --!]

Rakkwa eda ni
Kaeru to mireba --
Kocho kana!

[When I saw the fallen flower return to the branch -- lo! it was only a butterfly! [7]]

Chiru-hana ni --
Karusa arasou
Kocho kana!

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