The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past (今昔物語集)

The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku Monogatari Shu) is a collection of setsuwa (anecdotes). It has 31volumes. However, volumes 8, 18, and 21 are missing. It is not thought that they existed at the time of editing and were later lost but instead that they were left unedited or never existed in the first place. There are also many tales and sentences missing.

It is commonly called "Konjaku monogatari," but formally "shu" is attached to it.

It contains more than 1000 setsuwa stories about India, (the People's Republic of) China and Japan.

The name "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past" comes from the fact that the opening line of each anecdote starts with 'At a time now past.'


It is still unclear when and by whom "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past" was compiled.


Because there are traces of attempts to record setsuwa related to the Earlier Nine Years' War and the Later Three Years' War, large-scale wars that occurred in the late eleventh century (the titles of the setsuwa remain but the text has not survived), it is thought to have been compiled after the 1120s. On the other hand, it was in 1449 that "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past" was first mentioned in other materials.

The collection seems to have been compiled sometime between the 1120s and 1449, but it is believed that it came into existence sometime not long after the 1120s, during the regime of cloistered government by the Cloistered emperors Shirakawa and Toba, because there are no setsuwa against the backdrop of historical incidents such as the Hogen Disturbance, the Heiji Disturbance and the Jisho-Juei (civil war), which certainly would have been world-shaking, critical events for people living after the mid-twelfth century.

For this reason, "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past" is thought to have been lost for approximately 300 years after its compilation.


It is not known exactly who the author was. If one regards "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past" as a revised, enlarged and expanded version of "Uji Dainagon Monogatari" (Tales of the chief councilor of state from Uji), then it would seem that the compiler was the major counselor from Uji, MINAMOTO no Takakuni. That theory is generally discredited, however. Another opinion asserts that the author was a monk belonging to the Buddhist temples of Nara and Mt. Hiei. Concerning that assessment, there are various views: that it was written by a single monk for personal reasons, that it was written by several monks under the protection of Emperor Shirakawa, the emperor at the time, etc. There is also an eccentric theory that has MINAMOTO no Toshiyori, who wrote "Toshiyori zuino"(Toshiyori's Poetic Essentials), as the author.

However, these theories do not go beyond the range of speculation, and they lack decisive proof.


The former Suzuka family manuscript (a national treasure) in the possession of the Kyoto University Library, which usually called the 'Suzuka manuscript,' is the earliest surviving text. However, the Suzuka manuscript only preserves some of the volumes. Given that the paper of the Suzuka manuscript was produced during the same period in which the collection appeared, there is a possibility that it is the actual first, original text of "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past." The other books are thought to have been copied from the Suzuka manuscript and subsequently disseminated.


It is divided into three parts, Tenjiku (India), Shintan (China) and Honcho (Japan) with each part structured so that Buddhist setsuwa come first (including tales of reward and/or punishment for one's past behavior) and other setsuwa follow. The head of each part is generally the earliest setsuwa in the chronological sense.

As a rule, each tale starts with the opening line, 'Konjaku (At a time now past),' and concludes with, 'And so it is handed down' (but there are exceptions).
Apparently, people before the early modern period did not pronounce the title as 'konjaku monogatari' but as 'ima wa mukashi no monogatari.'

Two similar tales (sometimes three) are arranged in sequence (in the style of two stories per topic).

Original stories

It is thought that not all the tales in "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past" are original but have been taken from other books. Among the books used as sources are "Nihon Ryoiki," "sanboe" (Illustration of the Three Jewels) and "Honsho Hokke Genki." Other stories, such as "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," which is said to be earliest tale written in kana, were also included.

Additionally, many tales in the Honcho secular portion have no clear source. Some of the anecdotes might have been based or structured on oral history.


The original text (the Suzuka manuscript) is written in simple, mixed kanji-kana sentences (mixed Japanese and Chinese, in katakana, not hiragana), and the style is relatively free of decoration. Consequently, for a classical text it is relatively easy to read. Moreover, various kinds of onomatopoeia, etc., make the reader feel as if he or she is in fact there.
Ryunosuke AKUTAGAWA praised it as having 'a beautiful freshness' and 'a barbaric luster.'
With a light, easy tempo and plentiful narrative in colloquial language, its style is readily differentiated from typical Heian literature.

It was written under the policy, as far as possible, of making clear exactly what person from what region each story is about, leaving intentional blanks in the sentences when this was not clear, with the expectation that they would be filled in at a future date. For example, even if the source used for a tale begins with 'Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman,' and the exact names are unknown, when that source is included in "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past," it is written 'At a time now past, there was a man named [BLANK] from the country of [BLANK],' so that if in the future the information becomes clear, it can be added immediately. The use of so many deliberate omissions as an editing policy is a major feature of this particular setsuwa collection.

The Tenjiku (India) Section

Volumes 1 to 4 are Buddhist setsuwa. Volume 5 includes non-Buddhist setsuwa stories and tales of the Buddha's previous lives.

Volume 1 Tenjiku (the birth of Shakyamuni and his mythologized life)
Volume 2 Tenjiku (anecdotes from during the lifetime of Shakyamuni)
Volume 3 Tenjiku (Shakyamuni's enlightening of the people and his entry into Nirvana)
Volume 4 Tenjiku, after the Buddha (activities of the Buddha's disciples after his entry into Nirvana)
Volume 5 Tenjiku, before the Buddha (tales of the Buddha's life; setsuwa related to his previous lives)

The Shintan (China) Section

Volumes 6 to 9 are Buddhist setsuwa.

Volume 6 Shintan, Buddhism (the history of the introduction of Buddhism into China and its dissemination)
Volume 7 Shintan, Buddhism (tales of the merits and miracles of the Great Wisdom Sutra and the Lotus Sutra)
Volume 8 (Missing)
Volume 9 Shintan, filial devotion (tales of filial children)
Volume 10 Shintan, the history of the country (tales of the strange, found in Chinese history books and novels)

The Buddhist Honcho (Japan) Section

Volume 11 Honcho, Buddhism (the history of the introduction of Buddhism into Japan and its dissemination)
Volume 12 Honcho, Buddhism (the history and merits of public Buddhist assemblies)
Volume 13 Honcho, Buddhism (the merits of reciting the Lotus Sutra)
Volume 14 Honcho, Buddhism (tales of miracles from the Lotus Sutra)
Volume 15 Honcho, Buddhism (tales of monks that have passed on to the next life)
Volume 16 Honcho, Buddhism (tales of miracles by the Bodhisattva Kannon)
Volume 17 Honcho, Buddhism (tales of miracles by the Bodhisattva Jizo)
Volume 18 (Missing)
Volume 19 Honcho, Buddhism (tales of laypeople renouncing the world and passing on to the next life; tales of the strange)
Volume 20 Honcho, Buddhism (Tengu (long-nosed mountain spirits), passing into Hell and back, and tales of reward and/or punishment for one's past behavior)

The Honcho Secular Section

Volume 21 is missing, but given the order of arrangement it is thought that setsuwa related to the Imperial Family were intended to be in this volume.

Volume 21 (Missing)
Volume 22 Honcho (biographies of the Fujiwara clan)
Volume 23 Honcho (tales of great strength)
Volume 24 Honcho, secular (tales of art)
Volume 25 Honcho, secular (tales of battle, tales of bravery)
Volume 26 Honcho, tales of punishment and reward (tales of punishment and reward due to behavior in previous lives)
Volume 27 Honcho, ghosts and devils (tales of the monstrous)
Volume 28 Honcho, secular (humorous tales)
Volume 29 Honcho, villainy (tales of thieves, tales of animals)
Volume 30 Honcho, miscellaneous affairs (poem-tales, tales of love)
Volume 31 Honcho, miscellaneous affairs (additional tales of the strange and tales of the monstrous)


Because it was lost for a long time, it is difficult to say that it had any influence on medieval setsuwa literature such as "A Collection of Tales from Uji," which is representative of later setsuwa literature.

There are many modern novelists who have gained inspiration from "The Collection of Tales of Times Now Past." Among them, "Rashomon" (the novel) and "Nose" by Ryunosuke AKUTAGAWA, of the Taisho period, are famous.

[Original Japanese]