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East Meets West: Little Red Riding Hood Versus Japan’s Okuri-Inu

East Meets West: Little Red Riding Hood Versus Japan’s Okuri-Inu

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Throughout history the dark of the night has always brought fear. The quiet forests, roads or paths were a place where imagination would run wild as to what goes bump in the night. In the West, Little Red Riding Hood was the story created to warn travelers about what could be prowling in these desolate and unprotected places. In Japan, the wood walker’s wolf companion came in the form of the Okuri-Inu.

The Okuri-Inu And It Similarities to the Big Bad Wolf

Through research and understanding we learn more about culture and the verbal communications of tales and stories that transcend time. As these stories “ travel,” we see the details change when they reach different areas, but the messages stay the same.

Both the Okuri-Inu and its similarities to the Big Bad Wolf show fear of the unknown , though there where many legitimate reasons for travelers to fear being alone, even when travelling a well-known path lit by moonlight.

"A traveler without observation is a bird without wings." – Saadi Shirazi.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, like the Japanese Okuri-Inu folktale, is a warning about what appears okay but isn't at all. (whateverittakes / Adobe Stock)

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, like the Japanese Okuri-Inu folktale, is a warning about what appears okay but isn't at all. ( whateverittakes / Adobe Stock)

Many will tell you something is out there. In Europe’s Little Red Riding Hood tale, it was known as the Big Bad Wolf. In Japan it was known as the Okuri-Inu (the sending-off dog) or often enough as the Okuri-Okami (the sending-off wolf).

Both tales are revered in their respected culture and have granted many both joy and warning upon hearing them, as early cultures used story telling as a form of communication: by offering advice that the roads ahead were filled with dangers, or comforting children and adults during the night to ease their worries.

Japanese Yokai spirits, including the Okuri-Inu or Okuri-Okami, are many and not all are evil, per se. (antto / Adobe Stock)

Japanese Yokai spirits, including the Okuri-Inu or Okuri-Okami, are many and not all are evil, per se. ( antto / Adobe Stock)

The Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf

While having a surprising number of similarities, both tales hail from two vastly different continents. They both deal with a person walking alone on a trail who meets a dog/wolf and depending on their actions the outcome is survival or death.

Take the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. This tale, originally from ancient Greece or Rome, tells the story of a young virgin who is to be sacrificed to a wolf-cloaked being or wolf-like creature. Often the wolf-like entity appears in the story with different names and disguises to deceive the little girl. The girl is then saved from said wolf by a passing hero.

Later interpretations that led to the well-known tale of today came in the 17 th century in the Italian fairytale book, La Finta Nonna (The False Grandmother). This version was told all over Europe and would later ultimately become translated and interpreted into the tales of the Brothers Grimm . While this story was told and retold by various individuals across Europe and even across the modern world today, its message is clear: beware of those you meet while walking alone on trails or in the forest.

Others put a further spin on the story, like Jake Zipes (editor) in his book “ The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood .” Zipes, with extensive research of his own, through multiple tellings and retellings raises the idea that the story has deeper significance:

“A tale like Little Red Riding Hood was my case and point. Its unique history can reveal to what extent the boundaries of our existence have evolved from male fantasy and sexual struggles for domination.” [Mentioned within the preface and expanded upon throughout the book.]

His studies argued the tale had sexual meanings as well, and he believed that while being a cautionary tale the wolf was a predator in more ways than one. His study was met with controversy, however, as it seems to go beyond the main idea that the original story was created around.

Little Red Riding Hood is still a popular story and is told to children of all ages as a bedtime story. It is no longer only or solely used to convey the dangers the “listener” might face on dark paths . Instead, it is used today to jump start children’s imaginations and help them enter the world of storytelling. That is not to say that the tale holds no merit today but only that in today’s world a wolf would not come and devour you dressed up as a grandmother.

The Okuri-Inu tale in a Japanese painting. Notice the samurai tripping on the tree root. (Matthew Meyer / Yokai)

The Okuri-Inu tale in a Japanese painting. Notice the samurai tripping on the tree root. (Matthew Meyer / Yokai)

The Tale of the Okuri-Inu in Japanese Yokai Spirit Tales

While there are hundreds of mythical yokai spirits that walk the “fairytale” or “mythical” forests and roads of Japan, one which was feared in the early days of the country was without a doubt the yokai (spirit) Okuri-Inu.

While limited information is known, “ The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits ” by Matthew Mayer, describes the Okuri-Inu as a supernatural hound that inhabits dark mountain passes or lonely forest roads.

These yokai hounds (or wolves) follow the traveler “step by step”’ and wait for them to trip and fall. Then they pounce and devour their prey. When a person falls on the trail, they trick the spirit by pretending they had fallen on purpose, or by pretending to be tired. The traveler is safe until they fall again. If they are able to safely reach their destination, they wash their feet and appease the Okuri-Inu by thanking it and offering food to the spirit dog (or wolf).

A “closeup” of a Okuri-Inu as depicted in an ancient Japanese painting. (竜斎閑人正澄 (Japanese) / Public domain)

A “closeup” of a Okuri-Inu as depicted in an ancient Japanese painting. ( 竜斎閑人正澄 (Japanese) / Public domain )

Japanese yokai spirits are not all inherently evil. As its name states, the Okuri-Inu walks behind the traveler and due to its ferocious nature inadvertently protects the traveler. Whether you are killed on the trail or make it to your destination, the dog (or wolf) is your companion on the journey.

While there is no Little Red Riding Hood in the Okuri-Inu tale, it is still used as the same cautionary tale for travelers and children when they are traveling alone. In modern-day Japan the term Okuri-Okami is used to describe predatory men who go after younger women. It is here that the tale remains relevant to this day as it still proposes that there is something or someone on the road you travel that will be the wolf that stalks you.

While not the original intention of this tale, much like the Little Red Riding Hood it too was changed to reflect the time period. While the Okuri-Inu is only spoken about rarely in modern Japanese society, it is still a yokai that has withstood the test of time and was one that helped bring a form of meaning to the lonely, dark nights on a path alone.

A pack of grey wolves. (AB Photography / Adobe Stock)

A pack of grey wolves. ( AB Photography / Adobe Stock)

The Symbolism of the Wolf In Japan And Europe

The image of the wolf in eastern Asian folklore was often used as the villain in these tales, not just because they were a powerful force of nature that were difficult to understand, but also because the lack of understanding of the species led to great fear, which was the premise of these stories.

In the Japanese Shinto animistic religion, wolves were messengers of the gods and while not used in the same way as Western fairytale wolves, are still considered teachers of valuable lessons.

On the website, themedievalhunt.com, a writer describes how hunting wolves was a common occurrence in different lands across Europe as humans pushed further and further into wolf territories. They describe it as a form of pest control.

Wolves were also hunted for their pelts, to protect livestock, and, in rare instances, to protect travelers and townsfolk who enter dark forests. Wolf traps were elaborate. Europeans would put trap doors over a pit or placing fencing strategically to corner the animal. The wolf would be tricked into going into the trap.

In “The medieval hunt” website and in other sources it has been stated that this practice had been used for many years in human society, as they expanded further into the territories where wild, dangerous beasts still thrived. 

Through later studies from various wildlife organizations over the years (like the World Wildlife Federation), it has been established that wolves rarely interact with humans and generally run with their pack.

All the same, over the centuries these kinds of tales have taught children of the many dangers they could face when alone in dark places. And even in modern times these tales continue to teach us similar things.

These tales have also given us insights into how our ancestors saw the world as well as the power that nature holds over us. And that the natural world can be as dangerous as it is inspiring. The tales of Red Riding Hood and the Okuri-Inu are but two of these warning stories, but none the less they remain the most famous within their respective cultures.

As both fairytales began to be told in more modern societies, the Big Bad Wolf becomes the predatory male on the hunt. (IvanSkvortsov / Adobe Stock)

As both fairytales began to be told in more modern societies, the Big Bad Wolf becomes the predatory male on the hunt. ( IvanSkvortsov / Adobe Stock)

Comparative Lessons Learned

These two stories are indeed quite different, but the similarities are hard to dismiss. The Big Bad Wolf is much like the Okuri-Inu as it traveled behind Red Riding Hood for a time before tricking her to “fall” or travel out of her path, which caused the events to take place.

The wolves in these stories are often seen as the villain as they were an unknown force, one that brought misfortune. Today, thanks to the research of biologists we know this is not how wolves behave anywhere.

But back in the days of our ignorance, they were feared and often used as a teaching tool for young children to scare them and teach them to pay attention to their surroundings. And, above all, to be careful and to not just trust everyone they meet, as not everyone is who they appear to be.

From the persuasive pictures used within Red Riding Hood and the Okuri-Inu, it can be concluded that it is not just on trails that you should be cautious. There is a wolf-like or beastly side to some humans, especially men in this case, you might meet in isolated places.

Take for example Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. She was devoured by the wolf in the story but because the wolf dons the grandmother’s nightgown to trick the girl, it can be safe to assume the message is that you should be cautious and aware of the dangers in your own home.

That same warning is also found in the tale of the Okuri-Inu. While the story does not have a wolf entering the house, it does make note that when you return home you should perform a ritual to offer thanks for safe passage. If you don’t, the dark “dog” may continue to follow you until the spirit ultimately catches you.

Beware of dark places and beware of those around you who may appear safe but are not: these are the messages in fairytales like Red Riding Hood and the Okuri-Inu. (bonciutoma / Adobe Stock)

Beware of dark places and beware of those around you who may appear safe but are not: these are the messages in fairytales like Red Riding Hood and the Okuri-Inu. ( bonciutoma / Adobe Stock)

Final Thoughts

In modern times, these stories are still being told to children the world over, in their original oral story form or retold in movies and video games like “ Hoodwinked” and “ The Wolf Among Us ,” as well as in Japanese manga and comic books throughout the world.

The telling of these stories helps to engage the listeners’ imagination and was a way to describe the world as they knew it as best as they could. It is also a way to bring generations together as well as being a way the community told stories around the fire, among family, and even among friends. This was a way to share time together. Telling stories has been a staple in family tradition to this day. These two stories are a part of that history and survived the test of time to bring imagination to life and to explore the world through storytelling.

The fear of wolves has become a staple in our society. It is one of the few animals that walks this earth that humans view as a fearsome prowler of the night but also a noble beast of the forest.

Native Americans revere the wolf as a protector. In Rome, the wolf was a symbol of their origins in the story of Romulus and Remus.

The wolf for centuries has captivated the imagination of humans the world over. It is a symbol of cooperation (the pack hunts and travels together) and also of the loner (the lone wolf). And it is still the “supernatural” beast that hunts you on your journey on dark, remote unknown paths.

Top image: A modern almost Japanese “manga” depiction of Little Red Riding Hood, where the enemy is a big bad wolf or quite possibly a bad man. Source: Roman / Adobe Stock

By Vincent Corigliano

References

Kaell, Johan, 2017. The Wolf Hunt . The Medieval Hunt Website. Available online:

https://themedievalhunt.com/2017/03/04/the-wolfhunt/

Meyer, Matthew, 2015. The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits: An Encyclopedia of Mononoke and Magic Yokai (Kindle editions)

Okuri inu. Available online:

http://yokai.com/okuriinu/

Zipes, Jack (Editor), 2017. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood , Kindle Edition.

Comments

Hadn’t thought about the inaccurate way we portray wolves. It is wonderful that we can learn about nature, and that helps us be kinder to our fellow creatures, but we still can enjoy our deep and frightening stories. Thanks very much for teaching about this cross-cultural set of stories.

 

-_Adam

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