Oshirasama is the Japanese name given to a pair of dolls venerated in the folkloric worship of an agricultural spirit in Tohoku (the northern half of Honshu). The dolls are made from mulberry wood, one in the shape of a woman, the other in the shape of a horse. A photo of the dolls can be seen at <www.well.com/~tanno/Photo/tono/tono-01.htm> (on right).
The word itself is constructed from the Japanese word for the color white and the honorific "o-...-sama", literally "Lord White".
A legend from the area offers this story of the woman and the horse:
Once upon a time there was a poor farmer. He had no wife but did have a beautiful daughter. He also had one horse. The daughter loved the horse, and at night she would go to the stable and sleep. Finally, she and the horse became husband and wife. One night the father learned of this, and the next day without saying anything to the daughter, he took the horse out and killed it by hanging it from a mulberry tree. That night the daughter asked her father why the horse was not anywhere around, and she learned of the act. Shocked, filled with grief, she went on to the spot beneath the mulberry tree and cried while clinging to the horse's head. The father, abhorring the sight, took an axe and chopped off the horse's head, which flew off to the heavens. It was from this time on that Oshira-sama became a kami. The representation of this kami was made from the mulberry branch on which the horse was hanged.
Story number 69 in The Legends of Tono, translation by Ronald Morse of Yanagita Kunio's Tôno monogatari, a collection of folktales from the Tono area.
It seems that Yanagita Kunio collected this story from one Sasaki Kizen, a peasant from Iwate prefecture. In one of his own books of folktales, Sasake Kizen expands this story,
.. .he killed the horse by hanging it from a mulberry tree. But when he skinned it, the hide wrapped itself around the young woman and flew away. The young woman appeared in a dream and said she had become a horse-headed silkworm, and that her parents should feed it mulberry leaves to raise it, then sell the silk to live on. And in this way, the horse and the young woman became the Oshira-sama who is the god of silkworms.
Story number 115 in Sasaki Kizen's Kikimimi sôshi, translated by Norman Havens.
The description of the silkworm as having a horse's head and resembling a woman's body was commonplace in ancient sericulture. In the third century B.C.E., Hsun-tzu (Xunzi) wrote a georgic on silkworms the included the same description.
This folktale provides part of the inspiration for the 1982 movie The Legend of Sayo.
In Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, the Oshirasama is a silent hulking giant, said to be the spirit of daikon. This sumo-wrestler sized being has no character development, no real spoken lines, but displays a kind and protective nature. Miyazaki's Oshirasama seems to be a gentle giant not unlike Totoro.
Much information was gleaned from the following sources.
"A comparative mythic analysis of the development of Amaterasu theology", Kazuo Matsumura, translated by Norman Havens, published by Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University, <www.kokugakuin.ac.jp/ijcc/wp/cpjr/kami/index.html>.
"Comparative Reading of Kunio Yanagita's Tono Monogatari and Tetsutaro Murano's The Legends of Tono", Takayuki Tatsumi, published by The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic, University of Rhode Island, <www.uri.edu/artsci/english/clf/n5_a1.html>.