A ‘Killing Stone’ Broke in Japan. Is a Demon on the Loose?

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The split rock, which resides at a national park north of Tokyo, is known as Sessho-seki, or “killing stone.”Credit…Aflo Co. Ltd./Alamy Stock Photo

With so much wrong in the world. Should we suddenly be concerned about a nine-tailed fox demon that may be unleashed in a Japanese forest?

The solution is partly dependent on your knowledge of old Japanese mythology. A volcanic rock broke in two in February in Nikko National Park, roughly 100 miles north of Tokyo.

February 2022

According to a park guide. The boulder was around six feet tall and 26 feet in circumference when it was intact. It has long been linked to Japanese folklore. In which an evil fox spirit inhabits a “death stone,” or Sessho-seki in Japanese, rendering it lethal to humans.
Some assume that the fracture freed the fox, allowing it to wreak further harm. Others have concentrated on a happy ending to the legend. In one version, a Zen monk breaks the boulder into separate pieces. And coaxes the fox, she swears she will never hurt people again.

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The Nikko stone, shown intact in an undated photo, was designated a cultural asset in 1957. Credit: Getty Images

There are several theories on social media concerning what the shattering of the stone symbolizes for regular people. The Japanese news media does as well. “Is this a forewarning of a calamity or a favorable omen?” asks a recent story in The Asahi Shimbun’s popular publication.

Heightened interest in the fractured stone may be a sign of our times. Said Nick Kapur, a professor of Japanese history at Rutgers University. Who wrote a popular Twitter thread about it in early March.

“There’s a kind of millenarian sense in the air. An apocalyptic feeling, with the coronavirus and this war in Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “People are feeling like, ‘Ah, why is all this stuff happening now?’ And so maybe this stone cracking open at this particular time just touches a nerve.”

Kind of an antihero

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The mythology of the nine-tailed fox takes place in the 12th century. At the royal court of Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital. According to scholars, it first appeared in written writings in the 15th century.

Simple version

An actual historical character, retired emperor Toba, is entranced by a lovely and intellectual guest, Tamamo no Mae. When Toba becomes fatally ill, a royal astrologer realizes that the visitor is a disguised wicked fox. She runs into the forest. Where troops sent by the palace shoot her with arrows, turning her into a toxic rock.

Reality

In reality, Toba’s death triggered a succession crisis in Japan. Ushering in an age of samurai combat and military authority. “The narrative of Tamamo no Mae most likely sprang from the real world of palace politics.” Researcher Janet Goff noted in a 1997 study about foxes in Japanese culture.

Another version

The narrative is seen in old plays and illustrated scrolls. A Zen monk strolling past the stone when a lady tells him not to approach it. She claims that doing so will result in the death of any person, bird, or beast.
The lady acknowledges she is the stone’s spirit and vanishes into it.
She reappears when the monk hits and destroys the stone with his staff. And pledges never to hurt humanity again, then vanishes for good.

Professor Kapur explained that for centuries. The telling of the fox legend echoed a misogynistic trope of Japanese mythology. In which female characters were blamed for the downfall of dynasties. However, when the nine-tailed fox appears in current Japanese cultural products. In anime, manga, and even video games, she is represented more positively.

“There’s still a trace of wickedness there,” he remarked, “but she’s an antihero, maybe.”
“It’s fascinating to see how this character has evolved. From an unredeemed evil to someone you’d respect or want to befriend.”

‘A scary spot’

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Animals have died from hazardous fumes in the hot spring area near the stone, and local officials said the final rupture was caused by toxic gas and rainwater seepage. Credit…Getty Images

The broken stone in Nikko National Park was found in a woodland filled with sulfurous hot springs. For years, park rangers had photographed fissures in the rock. Local officials believed the ultimate breach was caused by poisonous gas and rainfall seepage.
“Because the stone is a government-designated cultural treasure. We cannot determine what to do independently,” said Riko Kitahara, a park administrator. “However, from a maintenance aspect, we believe it should be left because it split naturally.”

Tochigi Prefecture designated the Nikko stone as a cultural treasure in 1957. The national government established it as a beautiful place in 2014. It is claimed to be one of the numerous stones formed. When the Zen monk broke apart the bigger rock during his mythological meeting with the chastened fox spirit.

Matsuo Basho, a 17th-century poet. Referred to the stone when he wrote about seeing one that released noxious gases. And was surrounded by ground “covered with so many dead bees and butterflies that you can hardly discern the color of the sand.”

According to Masaharu Sugawara, an 83-year-old volunteer tour guide at Nikko National Park. The poet’s allusion to the stone has long been a tourist selling point.
He also mentioned animals that flock to hot springs around the rock. In the winter might be poisoned by poisonous vapors. “It’s a terrifying place,” he added, quoting Matsuo Basho.

Fox in our time?

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A depiction from 1849 of the fox spirit that is said to haunt the stone.
Credit: Utagawa Kuniyoshi

It is considered unfortunate in Japan to mention poor luck. So if people are concerned that the fracturing of the stone may bring bad luck. They are not be talking about it.

Many people, at least publicly, believe the fracture of the stone. Is a favorable portent rather than a harbinger of coming disaster. Some have even voiced optimism that it may be just what the world requires at this turbulent historical moment.

According to a recent Facebook post by a tourism group in the Nikko area, the splitting of the stone was an “auspicious foretoken,” and the nine-tailed fox might perhaps “tame the coronavirus and the current world crisis.”

Masaki Akutsu, an official in Nasu, a town near the park, told The Asahi Shimbun that he hoped the fox was released to help combat global warming. “This is the beginning of a new killing stone tale,” he explained. Masako Hitomi, 80, whose husband is a retired Shinto priest at a fox shrine in Nasu, said she accepted the scientific explanation for the stone’s fracture. At the same time, she claims that all of the recent bad news, including the conflict in Ukraine and the epidemic, has played a role in the stone’s fate. (A massive underwater earthquake off Japan’s Fukushima area coast, north of Nasu, killed at least three people and wounded more than 190.) “It broke carrying too many world issues,” she explained. “Because the stone bore the sins, I trust these terrible occurrences will cease soon.”

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