By Robert Ito
On November 4, 1908, Kunio Yanagita, a 33-year-old government bureaucrat and self-taught anthropologist, met Kizen Sasaki, an aspiring writer from the tiny village of Tono, in northeastern Japan. The two were introduced by a mutual friend who felt they would enjoy each other’s company, since Yanagita loved hearing ghost stories and tales of the weird, and Sasaki, then 23, enjoyed telling them. Tall and bespectacled, Sasaki had dropped out of medical school after two years to study history and literature, and spoke with a thick Tohoku accent which Yanagita initially found difficult to understand. Over the course of the following year, Sasaki enthralled the older man with story after weird story, all set in and around his hometown of Tono, a place teeming with spooks, demons, and mysterious “mountain men.” The area’s forests, Yanagita discovered, were home to all manner of fantastical beasts, from vicious, grudge-holding wolves to red-faced goblins who would kidnap and impregnate the local townswomen. Small household idols sprang to life and lent a tiny hand with the rice harvests; monkeys, cruel and lecherous, routinely pelted the villagers with stones and nuts.