A-Yokai-A-Day: Katsura-otoko

The full moon is this week, and it made me think of the old Japanese myth of the rabbit in the moon. I think a lot of people probably know that while in the West we see a man in the moon, in East Asian countries the usual story is that there is a rabbit in the moon who pounds mochi. While that’s true in Japan as well, what many people don’t know is that there is also a myth about a man in the moon in old Japanese folklore too. It’s not very long or detailed, but it’s a good story for those of you who might be out moongazing this weekend.

Katsura-otoko (桂男, かつらおとこ)

Katsura-otoko literally translates as “katsura man,” katsura being the loanword for Cercidiphyllum japonicum, a type of tree. This name goes way back to an ancient Chinese legend in which katsura trees grow on the moon. In this legend, there is a beautiful man who lives on the moon and who works every night pruning a giant katsura tree there. As he trims, the tree gradually gets smaller and smaller, which explains the shrinking shape of the moon as it wanes.

Katsura-otoko is supposed to be an incomparably beautiful man. He lives in the moon and gazes back down at those who gaze up at him. If you gaze long enough, it is said that the katsura-otoko will extend his hand and beckon, calling you towards him. With each shake of his hand as he beckons you, your lifespan shrinks. If you stare long enough at katsura-otoko, you may drop dead right on the spot!

It may seem strange that something so lovely as the moon is a life-sucking vampiric mimbo. Aside from the Chinese legends this originates in, there are some possible connections, too, in Japanese mythology. We in the West view the moon as feminine (thanks to Greek mythology, where Artemis is the goddess of the moon), but in Japan, the sun is feminine and represented by the Shinto goddess Amaterasu, while the moon is masculine and represented by Tsukuyomi. In one legend, Tsukuyomi murders the goddess of food, Ukemochi, and so there is a strong connection between the moon and death. Katsura-otoko isn’t related to Tsukuyomi in any way, but the connection is there, and may explain why this moon yokai sucks your life away for seemingly no reason.

That’s a real shame for those of us, myself included, who love moongazing… I know I have spent many nights gazing for hours at the bright moon, particularly in rural Fukui prefecture where you can clearly see the Milky Way streaking across the sky too. I wonder how many years the katsura-otoko has taken from me…


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