I have posted these images before but someone who bought the originals asked to know the story behind them. The images are based on an old Japanese folk tale. I copied out the version I originally took inspiration from, (the first version presented here, taken from 'Folk-Lore Record Vol.1' published by the Folk-Lore Society in the late 1800s) and then found another version floating around and some other connected variations, which I thought may be interesting to see.
In the good old time, when young gentlemen were proud of the knowledge of fencing, and, not like those of this degenerate age, effeminate rakes, who spend their time dallying with dancing and singing girls, it was the custom for the young cavaliers to travel about and meet renowned swordsmen in order to practice manly accomplishments, become expert, used to hardship, and gain health and vigour.
One of these students, who was roaming about the northern province, one night lost his way in the hills, and, becoming, weary and foot-sore before he could find a habitation, joyfully espied a little wayside shrine, which he found was only just large enough to permit him to sleep inside. In the middle of the night he was aroused by a great noise made by a gathering of cats, which he could see by the faint light of the rising new moon were gamboling and evidently enjoying themselves. He fancied he could hear voices repeatedly saying, "Don't tell Shippei Taro: Don't let him know," - and then the cats would dance about with great glee. Being tired, and withal a little afraid, he did not dare disturb their frolics. In the morning, feeling very hungry, he was anxious to find the nearest house, so followed the first path he met with, which, showing signs of recent footsteps, gave him hope; but before he has gone far he heard cries of women, their voices sounding if they were in great distress. Hurrying on, he came to a young girl crying bitterly, and seated on a bundle of firewood, which she had evidently been sent to gather. She told him that every year it was the custom to offer a sacrifice of a young maiden to the mountain god, that it had fallen to her lot for this year, and that in two days she would be the victim offered up. Further inquiry convinced him that this had something to do with what he had witnessed the night before. He accompanied her to the village, and, giving her the best encouragement he could to cheer her up, hurried on, and after satisfying his cravings with a hasty meal made inquiries about "Shippei Taro." This he was told was the name of a fine hunting-dog belonging to the Prince, who had left it in the care of an agent while his master was away at court. So off our hero trudged, and, telling the agent his story and fears, borrowed the dog. Fortunately this agent was a learned man and had been one of the most active of the disciples of the tenets of Haji-no-Tsukune, who was renowned in history for having substituted clay figures for living sacrifices.
Now it was the custom to put the victim in a cage, so the student took the dog to the vicinity of the shrine, and, secretly communicating to the girl and her mother his intentions of attempting a rescue, watched his opportunity to substitute the dog for the girl. The following night the cats again assembled, and this time an enormous tom-cat, who seemed to be leader, appeared the most active. The student could hear voices, and to his astonishment heard the cats talking about and glorying in their anticipated feast, for it seems they would devour the poor girl as they had always done the former victims.
The student at last let loose Taro, who first seized Master Tom-cat, and made short work of him and scores of others. It turned out these were ghouls in the form of cats, so the student's enchanted sword was made to do good work in seconding Taro's brave work.
The student, imitating the great ancestor of the emperor, Susa No, claimed the pretty maid as his wife, and the story becoming widely known, greatly contributed to the abolition of this hideous custom,
A young warrior wandering in the northern province one evening lost his way in the mountains ; and reaching at length a small secluded shrine, where there was only just room for him to lie down, he took shelter within it and soon fell fast asleep. About midnight he was awakened by a noise. Peeping through the interstices of the timber walls of his refuge, he espied a troop of cats engaged in a wild, unnatural dance by the light of the moon, and yelling in fiendish tones. As he kept perfectly still in his hiding-place and listened, he could distinguish, incessantly repeated amid their shrieks, the words : " Don't tell Shippei Taro ! Keep it secret ! Don't tell Shippei Taro ! " The midnight hour passed away, and with it the mysterious cats, leaving him in peace for the rest of the night. In the morning he found a path leading to a village. As he drew near he heard a sound of weeping, and entering the nearest hut, he inquired what was the matter. He was told that the mountain-spirit required the sacrifice of a maiden every year, and the very next night was the appointed time. On further inquiry he learnt that the shrine he had just left was the scene of the offering, and that it was customary to place the victim in a cage in the immediate neighbourhood. Recaling the incidents of the past night he next inquired who Shippei Taro was, and was told that Shippei Taro was the name of the great dog belonging to the chief officer of the prince who lived not very far away. To this personage accordingly he went, and asked for the loan of the dog for the following night. After hearing his story the dog's master consented and handed over Shippei Taro to the stranger. To arrange with the girl's parents to keep her safely at home, and to put Shippei Taro into the cage in her stead was the next business. Having accomplished these things the youth betook himself to the shrine and awaited what would happen. At midnight when the moon had risen over the mountains the cats returned in full cry led by a gigantic black tom-cat, in whom our adventurer without difficulty recognised the dreaded mountain-spirit. The tom-cat approached the cage with hideous shrieks of delight and danced around it. At length he opened it and peered in, searching for his victim. In an instant Shippei Taro leaped upon him and held him with his teeth, while the warrior with one well-aimed blow put an end to the brute. Turning then on the other cats, hound and man speedily put them to flight and destroyed not a few. The rout was complete ; and from that time no more human sacrifices have been offered to the mountain spirit.
A. (a) A girl is offered as sacrifice to village shrine every year; (b) every 0.~116 who comes to live in a village temple is killed; or (c) a koz6 of a temple is killed. A traveler (or sum?[rai) who stays overnight at the shrine or is praying to the deity of the shrine, overhears someone chanting "Sizippei-Taro is the only one whom I fear." (a) Traveler goes in search of the one called Shippei-Taro. He finds a dog of the same name and comes back with him to the shrine. The dog destroys the evil spirit, who turns into his real form of a monkey (cat. rat, or badger). The dog also dies from injuries in the fight. B. (a) Every year a girl is offered to village deity, or (b) a girl is sacrificed when prayers are said for a rich harvest. Traveling samurai (traveler, or hunter) goes to shrine in place of girl, and destroys evil spirit (monkey, cat, or serpent).