Once upon a time, there was a nice man who lived in the heart of rural Oita.
Kitchomu, that was is name, loved New year celebrations. Each year, he eagerly waited for this joyful time, brightening the long, dim winter days.
One year, as Kitchomu has come down his fields to shop in the village in anticipation of coming feasts, a ruckus down the street came to his ears.
Children voices were ringing, some crying, other swearing loudly.
Alerted, the man hastily purchased his things, packed them in his wide satchel, and quickly ran toward the growing commotion.
– Well, well, what is going on here?
As one, a flock of children flooded him like a rising tide. A little boy with a runny nose latched unto his hand and mewled:
– Bad, bad doggie!
Kitchomu looked at what they all pointed.
In front of the back gate of a big mansion, a wild looking dog stood fiercely.
Under his white fur, powerful muscles rippled. The dog caught Kitchomu staring and he bared gleaming fangs.
The little boy was still holding on his hand tightly as he sniffled loudly. An older kid haughtily chimed in:
– He has dropped his play-drum. And now that fleabag thinks its his!
Kitchomu throw a look at the dog. Indeed bewteen his thick paws laid a brightly colored pellet drum.
The man had a soft heart and could not stand a sad child. He squatted down and, drying the boy’s tears and snot, he lovingly said:
– Come on, come on, there is no need to cry. I’ll get your toy back, alright?
Kitchomu rose back to his feet. Then, trying to make himself as harmless as possible, he carefully approached the stormy animal.
Cooing softly, the man slowly extended a hand toward the white dog:
– Good boy, see: I don’t want to hurt you. Just stay still and…
In a flash, the dog had pounced, his wide teeth clapping only a breath away from Kitchomu’s fingers. The man swiftly retreated.
– My, aren’t you a feisty one!
Scratching his head, Kitchomu decided to change tack. He opened his stachel, grabbed one of the rice cakes he had purchased for the coming New Year, and threw it to the dog.
The animal did not even give the sweet a sniff. From his plain disdain, it was obvious he had been well-trained to accept food from his masters’ hands only.
– Strong and disciplined, how lucky your owner must be! But your behaviour doesn’t help me, brave puppy…
The children were still all gathered there, looking expectantly at Kitchomu. The man pondered for a while. The white dog, as for him, yawned widely and lazily laid upon the toy.
Kitchomu finally had an idea.
Foraging in his satchel, he took one cautious step, then another. As he approached, the dog sat up, a low rumble rising in his chest.
Behind the man, children were whispering anxiously, wondering what plan he had in mind.
Suddenly, as the dog bared his fangs, preparing to leap, Kitchomu took out a round, metallic object from his satchel and brandished it right in front of him like a shield.
Transfixed, the dog fell quiet, eyes round, tongue falling comically out of his mouth.
He puffed his fur indignantly, but gone was the all his fierceness. The animal now looked a tad sideways, giving half-hearted growls.
Taking advantage of the beast’s confusion, Kitchomu quickly seized the pellet drum laying in the dirt and hastily moved away.
The children let out high pitched cheers. As the little boy cradled is lost-toy against his chest, the older kid asked in bewilderment:
– Say uncle: how have you done to tame that fleabag?
Kitchomu let out a fox smile and showed what was laying in his kimono folds.
– A mirror!
The white dog had caught his raging reflexion and thought it was another dog, equally fierce and strong.
It takes a true guardian to take another one down.
This kinda cute and simple story is full of symbolism surrounding the popular figure of inu hariko (paper mache lucky white dogs). Perfect to prepare for the coming New Year, as Japan will enter Earth Dog year next January 1st. On a side note, the official lunar year will start on February 16th.
Inu hariko, as figurines or ema boards, are supposed to protect expectant mothers during pregnancy. But they are above all handed to infants during their first shrine presentation (miyamairi). Playing fierce guard dogs, inu hariko fend off evil threats, as do the objects they often carry on their back – such as the dendentaiko, a kind of pellet-drum like rattle supposed to scare illness away thanks to the noise it makes.
It is funny to note the only thing able to scare today’s guard dog is another auspicious item, the mirror. Mirrors in Japanese culture are very important objects : one of the most prized artifacts of the country is the Yata no kagami, a mirror supposed to have helped to lure the goddess Amateresu from her cave.
Mirrors are seen as window to the soul. Prone to exorcise evil, they also have a special place in shinto shrines were they symbolize kami. They are also sometimes positioned so they reflect the people praying below… hence showing their true self?