At the feast, Toso was given a place of honor and immediately served cold miso soup. He tried to refuse, but was given no choice. Encircled by the boys, he drank it in one gulp. Alas, he soon began to feel sick and excused himself from the feast. When he crossed the threshold of his house, he collapsed. By the time Yosoidon reached his side, he was dead.

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The Case of Poisoned Miso Soup
in Olden Okinawa

Travels to Okinawa, part 1
(e-SoupSong 44: January 1, 2004)

ONCE UPON A TIME on the island of Okinawa there lived a poor orphaned boy Toso and his older sister Yoisodon. Yoisodon worked hard to keep them both fed with a roof over their heads, and she worked especially hard to keep Toso in school. She was so proud that he was smart and always at the head of his class, even though the rich boys at his school treated him with contempt.

One day Toso came home from school with a long face. "What's wrong?" she asked. "We are having a toy boat race tomorrow at school that our master will judge," he said, "but I know we cannot afford such a luxury." "Don't worry," said Yoisoden, "I will take care of everything."

The next day Toso showed up at school with a toy boat made of bamboo bark and fitted with a tiny cloth sail. Yoisoden had stayed up all night weaving it by hand. It was so light and well crafted that it easily beat the heavier boats of tin and wood that the other boys had brought. They, of course, were furious and plotted to kill the upstart Toso. One of the boys approached Toso: "We are planning a feast to celebrate your victory," he said, "come to my house tomorrow after school."

Toso was so pleased. But when he told Yosoidon, she looked grave. "Don't eat anything cold at the feast," she warned him. "Only eat dishes that are served hot."

At the feast, Toso was given a place of honor and immediately served cold miso soup. He tried to refuse, but was given no choice. Encircled by the boys, he drank it in one gulp. Alas, he soon began to feel sick and excused himself from the feast. When he crossed the threshold of his house, he collapsed. By the time Yosoidon reached his side, he was dead.

With tears flowing from her eyes, Yosoidon carried her dead brother to a closet and hid him there. Then she closed all the windows, locked the doors of the house, and began reading her brother's school books aloud in his voice. She knew the rich boys would be by to see if Toso was dead.

They showed up almost immediately. She could hear them outside talking in surprise that Toso seemed to be alive and well, and she waited patiently until they left. As she hoped, they returned to the feast and, thirsty from their exertions, served themselves the cold miso soup that apparently was wholesome. In no time, they were all dead.

Now Yosoidon disguised herself in her brother's clothes and went to the fields of a wealthy flower grower. "One of my rich clients wants to buy a treasure flower," she said in a boy's voice to the man's daughter who was working among the flowers. The girl looked up from her work and immediately fell in love with this handsome youth. Although she knew she should not show the flowers without being paid first, she brought an armful of mugwort to the youth. "This fuuchiibar is so expensive," she said, "because it is magic. I have heard it can undo poison in the dead." When she turned her back, Yosoidon plucked one of the flowers and hid it in her kimono sleeve. "I will come back when I have the money," she said, and hurried away.

Back home, she held the flower to her brother's white little nose and prayed. A few minutes went by, then suddenly Toso was breathing. He was alive!

Now Toso and Yosoidon returned to the flower grower's daughter to tell their story. She realized at once it was Toso she loved after all, and she took the brother and sister to her parents. The family welcomed Toso as their daughter's bridegroom and their new heir. They gave Yosoidon a good house close by, and they all lived happily ever after.


Pretty crazy story, huh? I've read a lot of "brother-sister" folktales in my day, but this one seems to have a lot of detail that just doesn't fit the usual patterns.


You didn't think I was going to spend 2 weeks in Okinawa and not read everything I could find about it, did you? Folktales of Okinawa, for example, from which this story is adapted. And George Kerr's Okinawa: The History of an Island People--one of the most fascinating and colorful works of history I've ever encountered. I do it great disservice by trying to summarize it in a few sentences. But here goes:

The ancient and independent civilization of Loo-choo (pronounced Ryukyu by Japanese) was set on a few tiny volcanic islands in the East China sea, stretching from Japan to Taiwan. It was settled in neolithic times, and King Shunten is credited with finally establishing a unified kingdom by the 12th century--one that incredibly persisted for 700 years despite Chinese, Japanese, and later European and American lust for it...not to mention frequent cataclysmic disaster from typhoon, drought, and epidemic. With no natural resources beyond the fish in the sea, its people became great traders, plying junks, sailboats, and dugouts from Java and Malayan ports through Siam and Annam up to China, Japan, and Korea. They prospered and turned their profits to making life beautiful. They studied arts and literature; they worshipped their ancestors in hand carved tombs through the offices of sacred priestesses; and they built an exquisite court at Shuri for their kings and nobles. Avidly kowtowing to China for its culture and its trade...and at the same time accommodating aggressive Japanese demands...they became famous for their courtesy, friendliness, sophistication, peacefulness, and morality. Consider the testimony of Dr. M'Leod, ship's surgeon of HMS Alceste, in 1816: "This island can also boast...a worthy, a friendly, and a happy race of people [displaying] a spirit of intelligence and genius." The same year, Captain Hall of HMS Lyra reported on the island to Napolean, exiled in St. Helena: "I replied that as far as we had been able to discover, they had never had any war, but remained in a state of internal and external peace. 'No wars!' cried he, with a scornful and incredulous expression, as if the existence of any people under the sun without wars was a monstrous anomaly."

Hall could not know that the end of this happy kingdom was already in sight. The Shimazu lords in southern Japan had "secretly" invaded Loo-choo/Ryukyu in the 17th century--hiding the affair from all outsiders, whose trade it wanted in spite of (because of) Japan being closed to the outside world--and had been sucking the little kingdom dry through "tribute" ever since. Now, in 1867, the Tokugawa shogun was overthrown, the emperor restored, and Satsuma, the Shimazu lord, suddenly found himself "voluntarily" handing over all his lands to the 15-year-old Emperor. Including Loo-choo/Ryukyu. The toothpaste was out of the tube: for the first time, the tiny kingdom was openly declared to be under Japanese control to a volatile, warmongering world. By 1879, King Sho Tai was forced to abdicate and relocate to Tokyo. "Ryukyu Kingdom" was now Japan's "district of Okinawa." A huge cadre of police arrived on the island to take civil control. In short order all the old patterns of life were shattered.

How shattered? All but 3 families of Okinawan nobles and gentry were summarily demoted to commoners: no more stipends or pensions; everyone had to figure out how to earn a living. Local dialects were replaced with Japanese language only. Land reform. School systems and local "associations" were created that taught obeisance to the Emperor, Japanese ways and manners, and physical health programs that formed the basis of future military drill schedules. Boys had their topknots cut and were required to put away their sashes, kimonos, and headbands and wear standard schoolboy uniforms. Men were expected to cut their seaweed-pasted topknots, discard their distinctive hairpins, and don Japanese style kimono with black sashes. Okinawan arts and crafts and history were replaced by Japanese arts and crafts and history. Okinawan ancestor worship that traditionally used divine priestesses to carry out its venerable rituals was hijacked by State Shinto. And let's not forget about sneering contempt. The newly imported population of Japanese teachers, police, merchants, and civil servants didn't much like these "country cousins" with their odd food, odd clothes, and odd ways. When the Okinawan Folk Art Association suggested at one point that the people of the Ryukyu Islands should remember their cultural traditions, it was rebuked by the governor and charged with stirring up sectionalism within the empire.


So let's take another look at that opening story, which was collected and published, I should add, by the Bank of the Ryukyus International Foundation in 1995.

Is it just me, or doesn't it all seem to somehow fall into place, once you know a little history?

Here we have a hero figure who is nurtured by an Okinawan divine priestess (almost always an older sister, since ancient times; 14-year-old Sho Shin, for example, became king in the 15th century when his eldest sister, chief priestess at the royal court, received a divine message indicating Uncle Seni should abdicate in his favor).

Our hero goes to school with sneering, rich kids who eat miso soup. These would be Japanese nationalists.

With the assistance of the divine priestess, he is able to win the contest. Of course! Traditional crafts will always be superior to manufactured goods. Plus the hero has all that great seafaring Okinawan blood in his veins.

He is killed by being Japanized--drinking miso soup, which was not part of Okinawan foodways. The divine sis tries to warn him. She is the keeper of fire on the hearth that symbolizes blood relationships and family continuity; she knows the curse of a cold hearth and cold food. But our hero is overwhelmed by the demands of courtesy...and by a superior force of boys--reminiscent of the 1609 Japanese invasion of Okinawa, when Satsuma sent a force of 3,000 warriors in 100 war-junks to conquer an unarmed kingdom.

Upon the hero's death, his sister moves fully into her priestess role--ministering to the body, shutting up the house, incantations, channeling. Then, still empowered by taking on the form of the hero, she acquires an Okinawan plant of great power (mugwort, or Artemesia, widely known for warding off poisons, curing rheumatism, fits, and epilepsy) and brings him back to life.

Then there's the wish fulfillment part. All those boys, dead: didn't they just deserve to hoist themselves on their own petard? And the hero marrying a fair daughter of Okinawan earth and becoming heir to it. And the priestess being properly installed at the end in her temple. Perfect! Who says folklore can't keep up with the times?

THE RECIPE (minus the poison and served hot to 4 people):

Japanese Miso Soup with Potato and Leek, or Jaigaimo To Negi No Miso-Shiru

  • 1/2 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered, then sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces and soaked in a bowl of cold water
  • 3 leeks, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cups dashi (diluted Hon Dashi granules are fine)
  • 4 tablespoons red miso
Bring the dashi to a boil and stir in the potatoes, cooking over medium-high heat until half done. Add the leeks and cook until they and the potatoes are tender. Skim off any foam.

Pour off 1/2 cup dashi and whisk the miso into it. Slowly stir back into the soup. Remove from heat just before the soup comes to a boil and ladle immediately into soup bowls, distributing the vegetables evenly. Serve at once. You don't want to let it get cold, if you know what I mean.

My very best wishes to all for a glorious 2004,
Pat Solley

Resources: Bank of the Ryukyus International Foundation's Folktales of Okinawa, 1995; George H. Kerr's Okinawa: The History of an Island People; Susan Sered's Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa, 1999
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NEXT MONTH: Soup from Loo-choo, Land of Propriety