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A Story of Oki Islands

A Story of Oki Islands


THE Oki Islands, some forty-five miles from the mainland of Hoki Province, were for centuries the scene of strife, of sorrow, and of banishment; but to-day they are fairly prosperous and highly peaceful. Fish, octopus, and cuttlefish form the main exports. They are a weird, wild, and rocky group, difficult of access, and few indeed are the Europeans who have visited them. I know of only two--the late Lafcadio Hearn and Mr. Anderson (who was there to collect animals for the Duke of Bedford). I myself sent Oto, my Japanese hunter, who was glad to return.

In the Middle Ages--that is, from about the year 1000 A.D.--there was much fighting over the islands by various chieftains, and many persons were sent thither in banishment.

In the year 1239 Hojo Yoshitoshi defeated the Emperor Go Toba and banished him to Dogen Island.

Another Hojo chieftain banished another Emperor, Go Daigo, to Nishi-no-shima. Oribe Shima, the hero of our story, was probably banished by this same Hojo chieftain, whose name is given to me as Takatoki (Hojo), and the date of the story must be about 1320 A.D.

At the time when Hojo Takatoki reigned over the country with absolute power, there was a samurai whose name was Oribe Shima. By some misfortune Oribe (as we shall call him) had offended Hojo Takatoki, and had consequently found himself banished to one of the islands of the Oki group which was then known as Kamishima (Holy Island). So the relater of the story tells me; but I doubt his geographical statement, and think the island must have been Nishi-no-shima (Island of the West, or West Island [102:1]).

Oribe had a beautiful daughter, aged eighteen, of whom he was as fond as she was of him, and consequently the banishment and separation rendered both of them doubly miserable. Her name was Tokoyo, O Tokoyo San.

Tokoyo, left at her old home in Shima Province, Ise, wept from morn till eve, and sometimes from eve till morn. At last, unable to stand the separation any longer, she resolved to risk all and try to reach her father or die in the attempt; for she was brave, as are most girls of Shima Province, where the women have much to do with the sea. As a child she had loved to dive with the women whose daily duty is to collect awabi and pearl-oyster shells, running with them the risk of life in spite of her higher birth and frailer body. She knew no fear.

Having decided to join her father, O Tokoyo sold what property she could dispose of, and set out on her long journey to the far-off province of Hoki, which, after many weeks she reached, striking the sea at a place called Akasaki, whence on clear days the Islands of Oki can be dimly seen. Immediately she set to and tried to persuade the fishermen to take her to the Islands; but nearly all her money had gone, and, moreover, no one was allowed to land at the Oki Islands in those days--much less to visit those who had been banished thence. The fishermen laughed at Tokoyo, and told her that she had better go home. The brave girl was not to be put off. She bought what stock of provisions she could afford, at night went down to the beach, and, selecting the lightest boat she could find, pushed it with difficulty into the water, and sculled as hard as her tiny arms would allow her. Fortune sent a strong breeze, and the current also was in her favour. Next evening, more dead than alive, she found her efforts crowned with success. Her boat touched the shore of a rocky bay.

O Tokoyo sought a sheltered spot, and lay down to sleep for the night. In the morning she awoke much refreshed, ate the remainder of her provisions, and started to make inquiries as to her father's whereabouts. The first person she met was a fisherman. 'No,' he said: 'I have never heard of your father, and if you take my advice you will not ask for him if he has been banished, for it may lead you to trouble and him to death!'

Poor O Tokoyo wandered from one place to another, subsisting on charity, but never hearing a word of her father.

One evening she came to a little cape of rocks, whereon stood a shrine. After bowing before Buddha and imploring his help to find her dear father, O Tokoyo lay down, intending to pass the night there, for it was a peaceful and holy spot, well sheltered from the winds, which, even in summer, as it was now (the 13th of June), blow with some violence all around the Oki Islands.

Tokoyo had slept about an hour when she heard, in spite of the dashing of waves against the rocks, a curious sound, the clapping of hands and the bitter sobbing of a girl. As she looked up in the bright moonlight she saw a beautiful person of fifteen years, sobbing bitterly. Beside her stood a man who seemed to be the shrine-keeper or priest. He was clapping his hands and mumbling 'Namu Amida Butsu's.' Both were dressed in white. When the prayer was over, the priest led the girl to the edge of the rocks, and was about to push her over into the sea, when O Tokoyo came to the rescue, rushing at and seizing the girl's arm just in time to save her. The old priest looked surprised at the intervention, but was in no way angered or put about, and explained as follows:--

'It appears from your intervention that you are a stranger to this small island. Otherwise you would know that the unpleasant business upon which you find me is not at all to my liking or to the liking of any of us. Unfortunately, we are cursed with an evil god in this island, whom we call Yofune-Nushi. He lives at the bottom of the sea, and demands, once a year, a girl just under fifteen years of age. This sacrificial offering has to be made on June 13, Day of the Dog, between eight and nine o'clock in the evening. If our villagers neglect this, Yofune-Nushi becomes angered, and causes great storms, which drown many of our fishermen. By sacrificing one young girl annually much is saved. For the last seven years it has been my sad duty to superintend the ceremony, and it is that which you have now interrupted.'

O Tokoyo listened to the end of the priest's explanation, and then said:

'Holy monk, if these things be as you say, it seems that there is sorrow everywhere. Let this young girl go, and say that she may stop her weeping, for I am more sorrowful than she, and will willingly take her place and offer myself to Yofune-Nushi. I am the sorrowing daughter of Oribe Shima, a samurai of high rank, who has been exiled to this island. It is in search of my dear father that I have come here; but he is so closely guarded that I cannot get to him, or even find out exactly where he has been hidden. My heart is broken, and I have nothing more for which to wish to live, and am therefore glad to save this girl. Please take this letter, which is addressed to my father. That you should try and deliver it to him is all I ask.'

Saying which, Tokoyo took the white robe off the younger girl and put it on herself. She then knelt before the figure of Buddha, and prayed for strength and courage to slay the evil god, Yofune-Nushi. Then she drew a small and beautiful dagger, which had belonged to one of her ancestors, and, placing it between her pearly teeth, she dived into the roaring sea and disappeared, the priest and the other girl looking after her with wonder and admiration, and the girl with thankfulness.

As we said at the beginning of the story, Tokoyo had been brought up much among the divers of her own country in Shima; she was a perfect swimmer, and knew, moreover, something of fencing and jujitsu, as did many girls of her position in those days.

Tokoyo swam downwards through the clear water, which was illuminated by bright moonlight. Down, down she swam, passing silvery fish, until she reached the bottom, and there she found herself opposite a submarine cave resplendent with the phosphorescent lights issuing from awabi shells and the pearls that glittered through their openings. As Tokoyo looked she seemed to . see a man seated in the cave. Fearing nothing, willing to fight and die, she approached, holding her dagger ready to strike. Tokoyo took him for Yofune-Nushi, the evil god of whom the priest had spoken. The god made no sign of life, however, and Tokoyo saw that it was no god, but only a wooden statue of Hojo Takatoki, the man who had exiled her father. At first she was angry and inclined to wreak her vengeance on the statue; but, after all, what would be the use of that? Better do good than evil. She would rescue the thing. Perhaps it had been made by some person who, like her father, had suffered at the hands of Hojo Takatoki. Was rescue possible? Indeed it was more: it was probable. So perceiving, Tokoyo undid one of her girdles and wound it about the statue, which she took out of the cave. True, it was waterlogged and heavy; but things are lighter in the water than they are out, and Tokoyo feared no trouble in bringing it to the surface--she was about to tie it on her back. However, the unexpected happened.


She beheld, coming slowly out of the depths of the cavern, a horrible thing, a luminous phosphorescent creature of the shape of a snake, but with legs and small scales on its back and sides. The thing was twenty-seven or eight shaku (about twenty-six feet) in length. The eyes were fiery.

Tokoyo gripped her dagger with renewed determination, feeling sure that this was the evil god, the Yofune-Nushi that required annually a girl to be cast to him. No doubt the Yofune-Nushi took her for the girl that was his due. Well, she would show him who she was, and kill him if she could, and so save the necessity of further annual contributions of a virgin from this poor island's few.

Slowly the monster came on, and Tokoyo braced herself for the combat. When the creature was within six feet of her, she moved sideways and struck out his right eye. This so disconcerted the evil god that he turned and tried to re-enter the cavern; but Tokoyo was too clever for him. Blinded by the loss of his right eye, as also by the blood which flooded into his left, the monster was slow in his movements, and thus the brave and agile Tokoyo was able to do with him much as she liked. She got to the left side of him, where she was able to stab him in the heart, and, knowing that he could not long survive the blow, she headed him off so as to prevent his gaining too far an entrance into the cave, where in the darkness she might find herself at a disadvantage. Yofune-Nushi, however, was unable to see his way back to the depths of his cavern, and after two or three heavy gasps died, not far from the entrance.

Tokoyo was pleased at her success. She felt that she had slain the god that cost the life of a girl a-year to the people of the island to which she had come in search of her father. She perceived that she must take it and the wooden statue to the surface, which, after several attempts, she managed to do,--having been in the sea for nearly half-an-hour.

In the meantime the priest and the little girl had continued to gaze into the water where Tokoyo had disappeared, marvelling at her bravery, the priest praying for her soul, and the girl thanking the gods. Imagine their surprise when suddenly they noticed a struggling body rise to the surface in a somewhat awkward manner! They could not make it out at all, until at last the little girl cried, 'Why, holy father, it is the girl who took my place and dived into the sea! I recognise my white clothes. But she seems to have a man and a huge fish with her.'

The priest had by this time realized that it was Tokoyo who had come to the surface, and he rendered all the help he could. He dashed down the rocks, and pulled her half-insensible form ashore. He cast his girdle round the monster, and put the carved image of Hojo Takatoki on a rock beyond reach of the waves.

Soon assistance came, and all were carefully removed to a safe place in the village. Tokoyo was the heroine of the hour. The priest reported the whole thing to Tameyoshi, the lord who ruled the island at the time, and he in his turn reported the matter to the Lord Hojo Takatoki, who ruled the whole Province of Hoki, which included the Islands of Oki.

Takatoki was suffering from some peculiar disease quite unknown to the medical experts of the day. The recovery of the wooden statue representing himself made it clear that he was labouring under the curse of someone to whom he had behaved unjustly--someone who had carved his figure, cursed it, and sunk it in the sea. Now that it had been brought to the surface, he felt that the curse was over, that he would get better; and he did. On hearing that the heroine of the story was the 'daughter of his old enemy Oribe Shima, who was confined in prison, he ordered his immediate release, and great were the rejoicings thereat.

The curse on the image of Hojo Takatoki had brought with it the evil god, Yofune-Nushi, who demanded a virgin a-year as contribution. Yofune-Nushi had now been slain, and the islanders feared no further trouble from storms. Oribe Shima and his brave daughter O Tokoyo returned to their own country in Shima Province, where the people hailed them with delight; and their popularity soon re-established their impoverished estates, on which men were willing to work for nothing.

In the island of Kamijima (Holy Island) in the Oki Archipelago peace reigned. No more virgins were offered on June 13 to the evil god, Yofune-Nushi, whose body was buried on the Cape at the shrine where our story begins. Another small shrine was built to commemorate the event. It was called the Tomb of the Sea Serpent.

The wooden statue of Hojo Takatoki, after much travelling, found a resting-place at Honsoji, in Kamakura.


^102:1 Since writing this, I have found that there is a very small island, called Kamishima, between the two main islands of the Oki Archipelago, south-west of the eastern island.

Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan, by Richard Gordon Smith, [1918], at sacred-texts.com

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