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Today there are all kinds of urban legends about people traveling to foreign countries, staying in hostels, and then waking up in a bathtub of ice with surgical stitches and missing a few internal organs. As much as that sounds like a product of modernization and the trend of global tourism, urban legends like this have existed for as long as people have traveled. Tōdaiki is a fun example of such a legend; although, it deals with dark magic instead of amateur organ harvesting…
According to Sekien, long ago, a government minister named Karu no Daijin was sent on a mission to Tang China. This was a period of great movement of culture and ideas between China and Japan, so nothing is strange about that. However, when the envoy failed to return to Japan long after they were overdue, the minister’s son, Hitsu no Saishō, began to worry.
Hitsu no Saishō traveled to China to search for his missing father. He traveled far and wide, and in one particular location he came across something he had never seen before: a tōdaiki—a candlestick fashioned out of a living human being! By some combination of strange drugs and sorcery, the man’s ability to speak had been removed. His body was covered in tattoos, and a large candle had been placed in his head. He had been installed on a fancy little stand like a piece of furniture.
As Hitsu no Saishō looked in puzzlement at the strange sight, the human candlestick began to shed tears. Unable to speak, the man bit into he tip of his finger until it began to bleed. He scrawled out a few characters in his own blood. Upon reading them, Hitsu no Saishō realized in horror: the tōdaiki was his own father who he had come to China to search for!
The people involved in this story are real. Hitsu no Saishō was the nickname of Fujiwara no Arikuni, a Heian period noble who lived from 943-1011 CE. Although the story about the tōdaiki is a fabrication, it’s an interesting example of where fact and folklore intersect. Because this early urban legend involved real people who were well known to educated readers, it gives the story much more weight. It’s not really any different from the story about George Washington and the cherry tree when you think about it… well, except that this one is far more terrifying!
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