This is a story from the days of the Manila-Acapulco trade route — a story of a beautiful Japanese urn brought by a Manila trade galleon from Japan to Mexico by way of the Philippines.
No one knows how the urn ended up on the galleon. Perhaps it was stolen from a temple or cemetery and sold to a Spanish sailor as a souvenir. All we know is that when the galleon arrived in Acapulco, one of its crewmen, short of funds, sold the urn to a local shopkeeper.
The urn was lovely, white with painted cherry blossoms. The shopkeeper showed it to a friend of his, a sailor on shore leave.
“It’s heavy,” the sailor said. “Let’s open it and see what’s inside.”
And so they opened it and discovered that it was full of ashes, and bits of human bone. It was a funerary urn.
Horrified, the two friends brought the urn to a nearby church, to have the ashes interred. But the priest refused to take it, because the ashes weren’t Christian — they were the remains of a heathen. At a loss for what to do, the shopkeeper asked his friend to dispose of the urn. The sailor agreed, planning to bring the urn with him on his visit to his home town of Atoyac (about three days walk from Acapulco) and bury it there.
But the road was dry and dusty, the sun was blazing, the urn was heavy. By the end of the second day the sailor couldn’t carry it any further. He saw a large cactus patch by the side of the road, and decided to leave the urn there.
He walked as far into the cactus patch as he could, wrapped the urn in his serape and set it down. He knelt and said a prayer for the dead person, and an apology, too, because he felt guilty for abandoning the ashes. And he was sad at the thought that this person’s family would never know where his or her remains lay.
After finishing his prayers, he crawled back out and continued on the road to Atoyac. He looked back once — still feeling guilty — and as he did, a horrible yowl, like a large angry cat, sounded from the cactus patch.
A puma! It must have a den among the cacti. The sailor made the sign of the cross and thanked heaven for his lucky escape, then hurried away.
Days passed, weeks, months. People spoke of the haunted cactus patch on the road between Acapulco and Atoyac. A great fireball floated up and down the road around the cactus patch at night. Then it would vanish, and immediately a screeching and yowling, like that of a large puma, would be heard. And sometimes, too, people would hear the wailing and crying of a woman.
It wasn’t a puma. On nights when the moon was full, or nearly so, some claimed to see a gigantic cat, three times larger than a puma — with not one, but four tails! The morning after the nights when the demon-cat appeared, some poor traveler would be found, dead and mangled on the road by the cactus patch. No one would travel that patch of road after dark, or even step outside their house.
No one knew what to do. They prayed to the Christian God, they prayed to the gods that were there before the Spanish, but nothing helped. Finally, the villagers went to their curandera (folk healer, shamaness), asking her to look for answers in the spirit world.
That evening, the curandera chanted herself into a trance, with all the villagers looking on. After a while, her chanting stopped, her eyes rolled back in her head. She began to speak in a strange voice, in a language no one could understand:
“Watakushi no haka, doko ni arimasu ka? Watakushi wa sabishii desu!…” My grave, where is it? I am so lonely!…
The voice went on (though no one could understand the words). “Where am I? Where are the pine trees, the bamboo and the mountains? This place is so dry, so hot and windy. It smells so odd, the people look so strange. Am I in Hell?”
Eventually, the curandera came out of her trance, exhausted. But she understood now that it was the spirit of a woman from far away (where, she couldn’t say) who became the cat-demon out of anger and frustration at being so lost. The curandera told the people that they had to find someone who had traveled the world, who could speak the woman’s language and find out what to do.
The villagers sent an envoy to Acapulco, to find someone to help them. Poor man! Everyone took him for a superstitious ignorant hick — or a drunkard. But finally, in a dingy cantina on the waterfront, he found an old sailor, someone who had traveled many times to Korea and Japan and China — someone who didn’t laugh at the man from Atoyac.
“Japan,” the sailor said when he heard the tale. “In Japan, they have a split-tailed demon cat. And the word for “four” in Japanese — shi — is also the word for death. The four-tailed cat is a Death Cat. I speak Japanese. I’ll try and help you.”
So they went back to the village, and not a moment too soon, since several other travelers had been killed in the meantime. After speaking with the curandera, the sailor took a lit torch and sat down on the edge of the road at twilight, by the cactus patch.
A large, flickering, blue fireball appeared from the cactus patch, and darted about the sailor’s head. It circled back and forth for a while, then vanished. It its place was a gigantic cat with four long tails, eyes glowing in the torchlight.
“Who are you?” the sailor shouted in Japanese. The cat, surprised, stared back at him.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’ve come to ask you why you are terrorizing the people who live here.”
The cat yowled. “I hate this place! I hate these people! I want to go home! It’s their fault I’m here, and I’ll punish them for it!”
And in a rage, the cat leapt at the sailor, but he held her back with his torch. Round and round they went. Every time the cat lunged, the sailor held her off with the flame. He slowly retreated into the cactus patch, to protect his back. The cat was too big to follow him in; she prowled at the edge of the cacti, looking for an opening. And the sailor’s torch was dying down….
But he held her off until the dawn, and as the sun came up over the horizon, the cat faded away with one last frustrated yowl….
On a hunch, the old sailor went even deeper into the cactus patch, where he found the urn, still wrapped in the tattered remains of the serape. The sailor carried the urn back to the curandera‘s house. Together, they took the urn to the priest of the village church in Atoyac.
“We have to bury it before sundown, or the demon cat will come back, and we’ll be in trouble.”
The padre agreed. They dug a plot in the church cemetery, and put the urn in a box to be buried. All the villagers came to the burial; and with the priest they prayed that the poor woman’s soul would find peace, so far away from home.
They carved a tombstone for the grave, and on it they wrote:
The Japanese Woman
So Far from her Homeland
Rest In Peace
The demon-cat was never seen again.
And every year, on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), when the villagers go to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of their departed relatives, the Japanese woman is not forgotten. They wash her tombstone, too, and cover her grave with marigolds. She has no relatives near her, so the entire village is her family.
But if you walk by the cemetery of Atoyac after twilight, sometimes you hear the sound of a woman sobbing from inside the cemetery walls. They say it’s the ghost of the lonely Japanese woman, weeping for her lost Japan.
- This retelling is based on the story “The Japanese Woman” from Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest by Alfred Avila. The book implies that the stories are traditional oral folktales handed down from grandmothers and aunties, but I’m pretty sure Mr. Avila made this one up himself. He was born in Los Angeles to Mexican parents, grew up near the “Little Tokyo” neighborhood of LA in the 1930s and ’40s, and in the ’50s joined the Navy, serving mainly in Korea and Japan. In 1957 he married a Japanese woman and eventually returned with her to Los Angeles.
I like this story because its cross-cultural folkloric aspects line up so nicely with my interests, and with my upbringing. It’s not traditional Mexican folklore, or traditional Japanese folklore either; like Mr. Avila himself, it’s 100% Californian.
- The Japanese split-tailed cat demon is called the nekomata. Usually it has only two tails. It’s said to come about when a regular house cat lives too long; then its tail will split in two, start walking on its hind legs and — yes — sometimes start eating people. The “turning into a demon out of rage” thing isn’t associated with nekomata, as far as I know, though it does have precedent — for example, the story of The Lady Aoi.
- The fireballs, or will’o the wisps, are called hitodama; they are supposed to be the souls of the newly dead.
- I always think of Dia de los Muertos as November 2 — All Souls’ Day — though I think it’s generally thought of as encompassing the period from Halloween to All Souls’ Day (October 31 – November 2). Officially in the Catholic Church, it’s the time to remember “the faithful departed” and unofficially it’s a time when the dead are closest to the living. Wikipedia tells me that in Mexico (where the customs of Dia de los Muertos originate), the festival was originally associated with Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld.
- I’m sure yurei is the wrong word to use in the title; oni maybe? Yokai? But yurei translates in my head as “ghost”, and the poor Japanese lady seems more like a ghost than a demon or a monster, to me.