Learned #14: Slug Life



Welcome to Learned, a resource for all of us who are trying to get to grips with the slug life. In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: The fine art of slug nomenclature.

  • What We’re Reading: An Introduction to Yokai Culture

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Kami, Yokai, and Kaiju, Oh My!

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

This week we're learning about namekuji, or, Japanese garden slugs.

Namekuji are common in Japanese myth and legend; in fact, I had run across them twice before in writing about Japan (here and here). Last week was the first time I encountered any in real life, however, and I decided to take a quick dive back into the world of Japanese folklore to see what made garden slugs so storied.

1. Mushi-ken

Here's a bit of trivia: Our modern version of Rock - Scissors - Paper has only been popular since the end of World War II when U.S. soldiers brought it back home from Japan. Prior to that, the most popular version of the game featured a toad, a snake, and a slug. Snake eats Toad, Toad eats Slug, Slug crawls inside Snake's head and kills him from the inside. Ah, the innocent joy of children's games!

But seriously, the game originated in China and, from there, spread to Korea and Okinawa, and from there to Japan. As the game spread and evolved* certain items were misunderstood or mistranslated. Which is how we get slugs eating snakes.

From Wikipedia:

the original Chinese characters for the poisonous centipede (蜈蜙) were apparently confused with the characters for the "slug" (蛞蝓). The centipede was chosen because of the Chinese belief that the centipede was capable of killing a snake by climbing and entering its head

For the record, here’s a Google image search for 蜈蜙. And here’s one for 蛞蝓. Hard to mistake one for the other once you see them in person, but…

2. Battlefield Marsh

Not pictured: centipedes, slugs, snakes, or warring deities.

Senjogahara Marshlands is a beautiful area set high in the mountains of Nikko. During the Fall, it's an exceptionally pretty spot and thousands of people go hiking in the area throughout the entire year. Anyone hoping to find a souvenir of an epic battle, however, is in for a disappointment. The only battle fought on the marsh was between two gods, over ownership rights for nearby Lake Chuzenji.

As briefly as I can state it: The god of Mt. Akagi and the god of Mt. Nantai both wanted the lake. After several battles, a lot of trickery, and the recruitment of other deities, it came down to a final battle between the two mountain gods. Akagi took the form of a herd of centipedes (slugs due to the same kanji / translation confusion as above), while Nantai took that of snakes. Contrary to the game, the snakes won and it is Mt. Nantai that holds possession of Lake Chuzenji.

Once again, once we know what we’re looking at, a herd of poisonous centipedes charging across a battlefield to take on a herd of snakes makes a lot more sense.

3. A Rainy Walk in the Woods

Everybody in Japan likes mushrooms. I mean, everyone.

Over on Steemit, I've been participating in the #WednesdayWalk challenge, which is exactly what it sounds like: a challenge to yourself to make sure you're getting up out of your chair and getting some exercise in. It's the kind of challenge I enjoy - one that forces me to do something I will have fun doing even when my lazy-brain or self-sabotaging-brain is telling me that it's not worth the effort. So, I've been taking the dog and the camera and making sure to get out into the world.

We’ve got a little wooded parkland near the house. It’s got a few tree stumps in it and I had noticed the mushrooms sprouting up all over the place, but this was the first time I had seen anything come to snack on the mushrooms. And while they certainly don’t look threatening enough to eat a snake’s brain nor to take on a herd of snakes, they don’t exactly look friendly, either.

It turns out, in Japanese folklore, Namekuji can:

  • acquire magical powers when the get old enough,

  • take on the appearance of people,

  • kill people and steal their souls just be touching them.

As if that weren’t enough, Namekuji get bigger with each stolen soul, which helps them in their favorite past time: sumo wrestling.

Back in our world, the Japanese Garden Slug, like I found out in the woods, is regarded with the same mixture of curiosity, irritation, and general acceptance as cicadas, bees, and frogs. In other words, they're not necessarily bad, but they're sometimes annoying, and, generally, they're just part of the Japanese landscape. Until they get up and walk…

See Also:

*By the late 1800s, several dozen versions of the game could be found featuring novel hand gestures and object sets. These were often developed in bars and brothels, so many versions of the game are really not suited for kids.

What We’re Reading:

An Introduction to Yokai Culture

by Komatsu Kazuhiko, Hiroko Yoda, and Matt Alt

My own reading of Japanese mythology has been superficial at best. I’m familiar with large tracts of it, but can’t claim expertise on any of it. Enter this book.

From the book’s description on the Japan Library site:

Each chapter explores a different facet of yōkai culture, from iconic creatures like fierce oni and haughty avian tengu to more abstract concepts like outsiders and boundaries. Early modern naturalists debating the reality of kappa; folklorists attempting to reconstruct the prehistory of Japanese society from spirit possession beliefs; literary scholars finding new perspectives on premodern Japanese gender roles in tales of fierce yamauba mountain hags; contemporary researchers applying the latest analytical techniques to Edo period ghost stories.

In other words, this isn’t just a few ghost stories, this is a summation of the root events, environments, and cultures that gave rise to a collection of ghosts and monsters that persist in the collective imagination to this day.

To add to the scholarly color, Kazuhiko Komatsu, the primary author is an internationally recognized folklorist and anthropologist, while Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the translators, have both written extensively about Yokai, Yurei, and other assorted Japanese tales.

If you’re interested in mythology, folklore, or Japanese history, this might be worth a read.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Pokemon is based on animism, the idea that every object around us, including intangibles like the sky, have their own deity inhabiting them. What's often left unsaid is that these kami are not so much mischievous as removed from human morality. In other words, they're not trying to do evil so much as their definition of evil is radically different from our own. Thus, some kami become yokai. And, just like Pokemon, you can collect them all.

Of course, not all yokai are monsters, but all kaiju are. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but all the kaiju have one thing in common - they also have a different morality from us mere humans. Really, we're just food to them.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.