Yearbook Japan, 2019, vol. 48, pp. 287–320

DOI: 10.24411/0235-8182-2019-10013

Evil forces in Konjaku monogatari-shū: Stories about demons, foxes, and other devilry

N.N. Trubnikova

Abstract. The purpose of the study is to clarify the concepts of good and evil in the Japanese tradition of setsuwa tales based on the Konjaku monogatari-shū (1120s).

The article compares the stories from 20th and 27th scrolls of the Konjaku. In both we are told about tengu, oni demons, foxes, wild boars, snakes, ghosts and other creatures, traditionally attributed to the evil spirits, mononoke. In the first case, the stories are set out from the Buddhist point of view, and in the second from the worldly, partly based on the Onmyōdō teachings. In their examples, we can trace two different answers to the question of what humanhostile forces are and how one should defend oneself from them. Malicious creatures fool people, increase deception in the world, which itself is an illussion. The evil is taken not from the point of moral principles, but rather from the point of the ceremonial rules: not as a vice that must be exposed, but as a danger from which it is possible and necessary to be protected. At the same time, in Buddhist stories, demons try to lead a person out of the right path, and those who are consistent and “straight” are able to resist them. In worldly stories, on the contrary, “straightness” as a lack of freedom in choosing a path turns out to be an attribute of evil, but a person is freer and can outwit the forces of evil by choosing workarounds. Ultimately, the danger lurks inside the person himself: the heavy karma leads to misfortunes in present life, and evil spirits essentially only execute punishments meted out according to the law of retribution, just as experts in rituals, Buddhist and secular, act only as mediators in finding well-deserved blessings.

Conclusion: contacts of humans with evil spirits in Konjaku are interpreted according to the doctrine of karma: as examples of retribution for good and evil. There are no creatures good or evil by nature, but there are connections between the living and the dead, humans and ghosts. Contacts with other worlds reveal the possibilities of choice, essentially the same ones that one has to face in everyday relationships with people; this is the instructive meaning of stories about evil spirits.

Keywords: Japanese Buddhism, Konjaku monogatari-shū, good and evil, evil spirits, demons, tengu, ghosts, foxes.

Author: Trubnikova Nadezhda N., DSc in Philosophy, leading researcher, School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration; professor, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University. ORCID: 0000-0001-6784-1793; E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Support: The paper is granted by RFBR, Project No 18-011-00558, “Konjaku monogatari shu” in the history of Japanese religious philosophy”.

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Contents of the issue: Yearbook Japan, 2019, Vol. 48.