All good work is done the way ants do things, little by little
— Lafcadio Hearn, pen name Koizumi Yakumo
I have several times noted occurrences where Chinese history and culture intersect with ants (see here, here, here, here, here, here, or even here). However, finding myself in Japan, I realized that I know nothing about the place of ants in Japanese history and culture. Not surprisingly, it took me less than a minute to find something relevant: The Dream of Akinosuke.
This story follows the experiences of Akinosuke, a wealthy man who falls asleep under a tree in the presence of his friends, and has a remarkable dream. He finds himself the receiver of bountiful blessings, including being adopted by the King through marriage to a beautiful princess who bears him five boys and two girls, and becoming governor of a pleasant realm. However, misfortune befalls the man when his wife dies. After a period of mourning, he is called back by the king, only to awake just as he is departing.
After waking, Akinosuke discusses the dream with his friends, and learns that a butterfly floating near his head had been pulled into an ant’s nest, emerging only after he awoke. An insightful friend opines that “The ants might explain it. … Ants are queer beings – possibly goblins… Anyhow, there is a big ant’s nest under that cedar-tree.” After investigating, Akinosuke finds that the nest is laid out exactly like the kingdom in his dream, including the “King”. Furthermore, he finds, underneath a pebble, the body of a dead female ant.
All of this sounded very familiar to me, and for good reason – it is apparently based on the Tang Chinese story The Governor of Nanke, which I have discussed previously. Like in the Chinese story, Akinosuke has a dream, finds that his life of blessings ends in sorrow, and then finds an ant’s nest under a tree that represents the life in his dream. Furthermore, both stories mistakenly describe a “king” at the head of the ant colony, which is erroneous for reasons I discuss in the other post. However, the moral of the Japanese story is less clear, whereas The Governor of Nanke makes its message explicit in its closing poem:
The noblest emolument and position
Power to overthrow cities and lands –
The wise man regards these things
As nothing different from swarming ants.
All of this is, of course, further evidence that the ways of the ant have permeated all human societies.
(Depiction of The Dream of Akinosuke, from here)