The kanji for kudan is composed of two characters: hito (人, lit. "human"), and ushi (牛, lit. "cow" or "bull").
"Like the Kudan"
Throughout Western Japan, the idiom "like the kudan" (件の如し kudan no gotoshi) began to appear on deeds and official documents. The phrase indicated that "As the prophecy [of the kudan] is always true, so too is the information in this document." However, while the description of the kudan did not appear until the late Edo Period, the idiom "like the kudan" has been documented since the Heian period. It appears on page 128 of the early 11th century book The Pillow Book. For this reason, the relationship between the phrase "like the kudan" and the yōkai is considered an anachronistic one.
Traditionally, the kudan is depicted as having the head of a human and the body of a bovine. Subsequent depictions have occasionally switched these elements and placed the head of a bovine onto the body of a human.
During the period of post war reconstruction which followed World War II, another rumour similar to that of the kudan started to appear. Instead of a human-faced bovine, the creature spoken of was a kimono-wearing woman with a cow's face, referred to as ushi-onna (牛女, lit. "cow woman").
The most widespread interpretation of the kudan comes from the Edo period, in which it is described as a creature which—despite being born from a cow—has the ability to use human speech. The creatures invariably die just a few short days after their birth, yet in that time they are said to coincide with some major event. Sometimes these events bring various misfortunes such as poor crop harvest, natural disasters, or sickness, only for the kudan to die when the event has come to pass.
They are also said to issue prophecies of things to come. These prophecies typically depict bleak happenings such as war. A kudan was rumoured to have predicted Japan's defeat during World War II. Despite this, pictures and talismans of the kudan are still seen as good luck charms due to their association with honesty.
From the Edo period through Showa period, there have been several reported sightings throughout Japan, though they are most often reported in Western Japan. The earliest recorded appearance of the kudan comes in 1827 from Tateyama in Etchū Province (now now part of Toyama Prefecture). Originally, the creature was referred to as Kudabe (くだべ).
Pickers of wild plants came across a monster with a human face in the mountains calling itself "Kudabe". The creature predicted that "many would fall victim to an epidemic plague within the next few years. However, if a person were to carry and look upon a drawing of [the Kudabe], they would be spared". This then became something of a tradition, and amulets containing pictures of the Kudabe became very popular. Similarly, amulets containing pictures of the Jinja-hime (神社姫, lit. "Shrine Princess")—an omen associated with cholera outbreaks—were believed to save people from cholera.
The earliest pictorial example of a creature referred to as kudan was reported on an engraved tile in 1836. According to the tile, in "December 1836, in Tango province, a monster with the face of a human and the body of a cattle called "kudan" appeared on Kurahashi Mountain". The engraving also stated that "a kudan also appeared in December of 1705, and a good harvest followed. Any who wore an amulet depicting the kudan experienced great family prosperity even in times of sickness, and large harvests in times of famine. Indeed, it is an auspicious beast! Because the kudan is an honest beast, it is customary to write "like the Kudan" at the end of every act and deed". At this time, the Tenpo famine was at its peak, and so it is believed that this report was intended to "give people hope of a good harvest".
On June 21, 1909, a Nagoya newspaper reported a sighting of the kudan. According to the article, a calf had been born with a human face a decade before in a farmhouse on the Gotō Islands. It reported that "It died only 31 days after its birth and prophesied a war between Japan and Russia." The calf was later stuffed and put on display in the Yahiro Museum in Nagasaki. The museum has since closed and the calf's whereabouts are unknown.
From the Meiji period to the early Shōwa periodp, objects referred to as "stuffed kudan" started to appear in "spectacle huts". In his book From Hoki to Oki, Lafcadio Hearn makes mention of these huts and travelling entertainers who would spread rumours of the kudan legend. According to this report, a travelling entertainer in 1892 brought a stuffed kudan aboard a ship bound for Mihonoseki. However, due to the unholy nature of the beast, the gods sent strong winds as punishment and the ship was unable to land at Mihonoseki.
The theory about the kudan being a benevolent wish-granting creature subsided during the Shōwa period and was replaced by greater emphasis on the kudan's wartime prophecies. A kudan appeared in 1930 in a forest in Kagawa Prefecture, prophesying: "Soon, there will be a great war. You shall win, but you will later be struck down by plague. However, those who eat red beans and tie yarn around their wrists within 3 days of hearing this prophecy shall not fall sick." In 1933, this rumor reached Nagano Prefecture and quickly spread, with elementary school students spreading it further by taking red bean rice into school for their lunches. However, the content of the rumor changed. Instead of a kudan, the prophecy was attributed to a snake-headed beast, sent by the deity of the Suwa Grand Shrine in Nagano Prefecture: Mishaguchi.
During World War II, many rumors were spread about prophecies regarding the war and air raids. In 1943, a kudan was said to have been born in a Geta shop in Iwakuni. This kudan predicted that "the war will end next year, around April or May." It was then reported in the spring of 1945 in Matsuyama that "A Kudan has been born in Kobe. He says that 'anyone who consumes red beans or bean cakes within three days of hearing this tale shall escape the air raids.'" The rumours quickly circulated throughout Matsuyama.
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