Ninmenju人面樹
にんめんじゅ

TRANSLATION: human face tree
ALTERNATE NAMES: jinmenju
HABITAT: mountain valleys

APPEARANCE: The ninmenju is a strange tree which bears flowers looking like human heads. These heads cannot speak, but they do smile and can even laugh. In the autumn, they bear face-shaped fruit which tastes sweet and sour.

INTERACTIONS: If a person laughs at the tree, the head-shaped flowers will laugh back at that person. If they laugh too strongly, the heads will wilt and fall off the trees.

ORIGIN: The ninmenju is an example of folklore that has traveled over great time and distance to become what it is.

Ninmenju first appears in Japan in the Edo period encyclopedia Wakan sansai zue, which documents animals, plants, and yōkai from both inside and outside of Japan. The description is paraphrased from the Sancai tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609. Sancai tuhui describes ninmenju as originating in the foreign land of Daishi-koku (大食国). Daishi was the Japanese pronunciation of the Ming Chinese name for the Islamic world, which came from the Persian word tāzī. Tāzī was the Persian word for Muslims, derived from the Tayy, an Arabic tribe which flourished under the Abbasid Caliphate.

The waq waq tree of Islamic folklore is very similar to the ninmenju. This tree was described as bearing fruit shaped like humans and animals. The fruit could speak, but would die a few days after being picked. These trees grew on the mythical island of Waq Waq in the land of Zanj, an area in Africa near present-day Zanzibar. Legend has it that Alexander the Great had his death foretold by one of these trees. The waq waq tree may be the same tree from Daishi-koku that the Sancai Tuhui refers to. Through trade between Ming China along the Silk Road, it is possible that this Arabic myth is the model for what eventually became the ninmenju.