Watch Your Step: The Influence of Journey to the West on the “Ashiarai Yashiki” Yokai Story of Edo-Period Japan

The 18-century translator Nishida Korenori (西田維則, d. 1765; penname: Kuchiki sanjin, 口木山人) began publishing Japanese translations of stories from Journey to the West in 1758, ultimately publishing a total of 26 chapters before his death. Others picked up where he left off, including Ishimaro Sanjin (石麻呂山人) (ch. 27-39 and later 40-47), Ogata Teisai (尾方貞斎) (ch. 48-53), and Gakutei Kyuzan 岳亭丘山 (ch. 54-65). This incomplete version, known as The Popular Journey to the West (Tsuzoku saiyuki, 通俗西遊記, 1758-1831) was published in five instalments over 31 volumes. The first complete version of the novel, The Illustrated Journey to the West (Ehon Saiyuki, 繪本西遊記), was published a few years later in 1835 (Tanaka, 1988, as cited in Chien, 2017, p. 21). Shi (as cited in Chien, 2017) notes the translations “had a tremendous impact of spreading the story of Xuanzang far and wide in Japan” (p. 22).

One interesting influence of the novel on local Japanese folklore can be seen in a story from the Edo-period Seven Wonders of Honjo (Honjo Nanafushigi, 本所七不思議). [1]

1. The “Foot Washing Manor”

The “Foot Washing Manor” (Ashiarai Yashiki, 足洗邸; あしあらいやしき) (fig. 1) tells the story of a filthy, titanic foot that plagues a samurai night after night. Matthew Meyer kindly gave me permission to reproduce his version of the story, as seen on his website yokai.com:

Long ago lived a hatamoto (a high-ranking samurai) named Aji no Kyūnosuke. One night at his manor in Honjo, a loud, booming voice was heard heard. It echoed like thunder:

“WAAASH MYYY FOOOOOOT!”

Just then there was a splintering crack, and the ceiling tore open. An enormous foot descended into the mansion. The foot was covered in thick, bristly hair, and it was filthy. The terrified servants scrambled to gather buckets, water, and rags. They washed the foot until it was thoroughly clean. Afterwards, the giant foot ascended up through the roof and disappeared.

The following night, and every night thereafter, the same thing occurred. A booming voice would demand its foot be washed. A giant foot would crash through the roof. And the dutiful servants would wash it clean.

A few nights of this was all that Aji no Kyūnosuke could take. He ordered his servants not to wash the foot anymore. That night, the foot crashed through the ceiling and demanded to be washed as usual. When it was ignored, it thrashed around violently, destroying vast swaths of the mansion’s roof in the process.

Kyūnosuke complained to his friends about the nightly visitor and the destruction it was causing. They were very interested. One of them wanted to witness the event so badly that he offered to swap mansions with Kyūnosuke, and Kyūnosuke quickly agreed. However, after his friend moved in, the giant foot never appeared again (Meyer, n.d.).

This story shares many parallels with an event from chapter 97 of Journey to the West.

Fig. 1 – “The Foot Washing Mansion” (足洗邸) by Utagawa Kuniteru (larger version).

2. The Giant Foot in Journey to the West

For context, the four monks are framed for the theft and murder of a rich layman who had originally hosted them for a month in the Bronze Estrade Prefecture (Tong tai fu, 銅臺府) of India. Sun Wukong captures the real perpetrators but is forced to release the bandits for fear that Tripitaka will chant the band-tightening spell for killing them. However, imperial troops later capture the monks with the stolen items, making them look guilty. After allowing Tripitaka to be tortured (fulfilling one of the 81 predestined tribulations), Monkey escapes from the prison at night to affect his master’s release. First, he imitates the voice of the slain layman at his wake and threatens heavenly retribution if his widow, the person who framed the monks, doesn’t recant her false claims. Second, he imitates the voice of the deceased uncle of the city magistrate who imprisoned them and again threatens heavenly retribution if the official doesn’t reexamine the case. And third, at dawn he appears as a giant, disembodied foot (fig. 2) before the district-level magistrates and threatens to stomp the city and surrounding area into oblivion as heavenly retribution if they don’t put pressure on their superior to free his master:

Pilgrim flew out of the hall, and he found that it was beginning to grow light in the east. By the time he reached the Numinous Earth District [Di ling xian, 地靈縣], he saw that the district magistrate had already seated himself in the official hall. “If a midge speaks,” thought Pilgrim to himself, “and someone sees it, my identity may be revealed. That’s no good.” He changed, therefore, into the huge magic body [da fa shen, 大法身]: from midair he lowered a giant foot, [2] which completely filled the district hall. “Hear me, you officials,” he cried, “I’m the Wandering Spirit [Langdang youshen, 浪蕩遊神] sent by the Jade Emperor. I charge you that a son of Buddha has been wrongfully beaten in the jail of your prefecture, thus greatly disturbing the peace of the deities in the Three Regions. I am told to impart this message to you, that you should give him an early release. If there is any delay, my other leg will descend. It will first kick to death all the district officials of this prefecture. Then it will stamp to death the entire population of the region. Your cities finally will be trodden into dust and ashes!”

All the officials of the district were so terrified that they knelt down together to kowtow and worship, saying, “Let the noble sage withdraw his presence. We will go into the prefecture at once and report this to the magistrate. The prisoner will be released immediately. We beg you not to move your foot, for it will frighten these humble officials to death.” Only then did Pilgrim retrieve his magic body. Changing once more into a midge, he flew back inside the jail through the crack between the roof tiles and crawled back to sleep in the rack (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 335-336).

Fig. 2 – A modern manhua depicting Monkey’s giant foot confronting the district-level magistrates (larger version). Comic found here.

3. Comparison

Both stories involve a single, giant foot threatening high-ranking members of society within the confines of their living or working quarters. The former is a samurai, while the latter are district-level magistrates. The threat involves death and the destruction of property. Danger looms over the Samurai’s household as the monstrous foot demands cleaning, and when its wants are ignored, it destroys part of the building in a fit of rage. Monkey threatens to stomp everything (people and buildings) into oblivion if his demands for Tripitaka’s emancipation are not met. Also, the Japanese tale refers to the foot being “covered in thick, bristly hair” (Meyer, n.d.). This may be a reference to a furry monkey’s foot. [3]

Another version of the story involves a woman. Perhaps this is a reference to the widow from the novel.

Now, someone might question what foot washing and release from prison have to do with each other. The two don’t appear to be related at all. But Matthew explains: “‘[W]ashing your feet’ is also a Japanese idiom for rehabilitating a criminal. A culprit whose ‘feet have been washed’ can be said to have paid his debt to society” (Meyer, n.d.). This is indeed an actual ceremony performed by criminals wishing to cleanse themselves of their negative past and reenter society (Clark, 1994, pp. 122-123). So both concepts are intimately related. Someone who is released from prison can be said to have been rehabilitated, and this is symbolized in Japanese culture by the foot washing ceremony. Therefore, the monster in both versions of the Japanese tale is likely demanding the respective individuals do their part to help release/pardon a prisoner just like the Journey to the West episode.

Notes:

1) This page notes Honjo is “modern day Sumida ward in Tokyo”.

2) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “leg” (p. 335), but the original Chinese says “foot” (jiao, 腳). I’ve corrected this throughout the quote.

3) While the image above (fig. 2) shows Sun wearing shoes, the original Chinese doesn’t comment on whether his foot is covered or not.

Sources:

Chien, P. (2017). A Journey to the Translation of Verse in the Five English Versions of Xiyouji [Unpublished Master’s dissertation]. National Taiwan Normal University. Retrieved from http://rportal.lib.ntnu.edu.tw/bitstream/20.500.12235/95894/1/060025002l01.pdf

Clark, S. (1994). Japan, a View from the Bath. Germany: University of Hawaii Press.

Meyer, M. (n.d.). Ashiarai yashiki. Yokai.com. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from https://yokai.com/ashiaraiyashiki/.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (vol. 4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

2 thoughts on “Watch Your Step: The Influence of Journey to the West on the “Ashiarai Yashiki” Yokai Story of Edo-Period Japan

  1. I wondered about the giant foot in that chapter! It did make me think of the Ashiarai Yashiki, but I wasn’t sure which way the influence might have gone. Now that I re-read the entry, it’s clear that Journey to the West came first, since the Edo period began later than the novel’s publication date. I also wonder if the yokai legend doesn’t mention a body attached to the foot because readers were expected to get the reference. Fascinating work!

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