Writer Rafe Martin and illustrator Tatsuro Kiuchi detailed the folktale “Green Willow” in the book “Mysterious Tales of Japan.”
Legend has it that a samurai named Tomotada set out on a quest for his master and met a young girl named Green Willow along the way. Green Willow and her parents lived in a small hut hidden by three willow trees. They offered Tomotada haven for the night.
He and Green Willow fell in love and later married. One morning Green Willow screamed, “My tree! They are cutting my tree!” and then fell into Tomotada’s arms. She turned into a pile of golden willow leaves. Tomotada adopted a nomadic Buddhist lifestyle, wandering Japan’s hillsides and meditating.
At the end of his life, Tomotada discovered three willow tree stumps, two old and one young, in the field where he and Green Willow met. He prayed over the stumps and built a hut in their memory.
In the spring, a green willow shoot sprouted and Tomotada tended to it until the end of his life. His bones joined the earth, and a willow shoot grew in his place.
According to the book, “The trunks of the two willows grew together. The branches intertwined. Down under the earth the roots found each other in the darkness and embraced.”
Stories like this connect people not only with each other, but also with cultural history and their selves. The character Green Willow and her parents are literally connected to the trees in their front yard.
Tomotada falls in love with the graceful Willow, and comes to love nature after she dies. It’s only after he loves and loses her that he recognizes his true purpose in life. Like Tomotada and Green Willow, our ancestors have stories to tell. Through trials and tribulations they have learned and gained wisdom.
The oral tradition of folk tales began in families, small villages and tribes. These stories were passed down through generations and are an inexorable link to our past. Minute details of their historical context remain. Each story has the teller’s DNA in it.
When hearing and telling these stories, we begin to understand the era in which they took place and the values our ancestors held. Thanks to social media, stories can now be more widely read. Movie theaters have replaced the storytelling circle and Facebook has replaced traditional family meetings.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern folktales are called “urban legends.” These stories are just as fantastical, but grounded in a modern setting. Think about the legendary Mothman or Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster — all of these creations evolved from alleged eye witness accounts, video footage and photographs like older folktales evolved from eye witness accounts, scrolls and paintings.
Any art form will perpetuate itself throughout the ages. It will be molded to fit whatever setting is necessary for people to experience it. Through this evolution the storytellers and listeners begin to understand just what brings people together and what brings people closer to their selves. There’s nothing quite so powerful as clinging to a mystery, but the mystery of folktales lies not in how mysterious they are — it’s that they’re not mysterious at all.
The story of Green Willow is a Buddhist allegory about man’s need for connection. According to biological anthropologist David Daegling stories of Bigfoot-like creatures have appeared in indigenous folklore for generations, but only in 1958 did Bigfoot hit the world stage. The Loch Ness Monster was reportedly first seen in 1933. The Mothman first appeared in a Point Pleasant, W.Va., newspaper November 1966.
In 1958, the prosperity that post-World War II America experienced took a sharp downturn in the Recession of 1958. Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, ushering in a new era of revolution. In 1966, the Vietnam War was hitting its most brutal stages. All of these tales come at a time of change, and the stories of old are no different.
When faced with great change and ensuing mystery, people look for a reason to continue on. These stories, no matter what form they come in, give people something to search and hope for. Maybe the Mothman, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster do exist. Maybe somewhere in Japan, Tomotada and Green Willow are embracing under the earth. No matter what, these stories have and will exist as long as people are around.