There are no such thing as monsters; parents are fond of reassuring their children of this truth.
Kantarou knows they are wrong; his best friend are youkai, those mysterious monsters that only he sees. These creatures keep him company where no one else will, because the other children refuse to deal with someone who believes in mystical beings. As he grows up, his tales of his youkai friends go from being something to amuse his human playmates to a burden. One day, he decides that he's just going to keep his mouth shut.
It is too late. By then, he is an experienced liar. Kantarou can spin tales that can enthrall, his innocent appearance belying the sharp, bitter mind behind his huge eyes. His reputation is shot, and he's not strong enough to fight against the mistaken perceptions of an "enlightened" world. He doesn't have that kind of courage.
He is five when he finds out that not everyone can see what he does. He plays with Kappa-kun, the one who taught him shogi. He doesn't find the game particularly entrancing, but Kappa-kun always was happy when they played, so Kantarou learns willingly.
His father, a tall man with a gentle smile and a nervous disposition, is amused at how well his son plays when he finally notices Kantarou sitting down by the river, a shogi board perched on the precarious riverside. Ichinomiya Watarou offers to play a game, and Kantarou obliges a bit grudgingly.
Though erratic, Kantarou has the basics down firmly. Watarou only can marvel at his son's skills. "You play very well, Kan-chan," he says, rubbing his son's soft white hair affectionately. He is proud of his son's intelligence; it is the type which might lend itself to a government position. "Have you been learning from your grandfather?" he asks.
"No, Kappa-kun's been teaching me!" Kantarou smiles at his friend, who is watching them happily.
This isn't the first time he's heard his son credit his imaginary friends with an achievement, but Watarou decides it's time his son start growing beyond that. "You shouldn't lie, Kan-chan," he chides gently.
"I'm not lying!" Kantarou replies, looking a bit hurt. He waves a hand at Kappa-kun, but his father sees nothing. "Kappa-kun is very, very good!"
"Kantarou, there's no such things as kappa." Watarou's voice is firm, and his eyes aren't as gentle anymore.
Kantarou looks helplessly at Kappa-kun, who merely smiles at him. "He can't see me, Kan-chan," the little green youkai says. "Very few people can see us."
"But-" It is a protest to both of them.
His father rises, and then pulls Kantarou to his feet. "Maybe we should see if your mother has tea ready?" he offers consolingly. Kappa-kun's smile is a bit sad, since he realizes exactly what kind of hardships Kantarou is going to go through.
His mother, a traditional woman who never really understood the Meiji Revolution, at least believes in spirits. It is ironic, since his father comes from such a notorious line of folklorists, but this is something Kantarou doesn't learn until much later. Even though she believes, she doesn't believe in his abilities.
He has many childish fears, of creatures that live in the crooks and crannies of the Japanese home, of the youkai he sees wandering the forest. He fears, most of all, the children who taunt him.
He decides if he makes youkai his friends, then they will have no cause to hurt him - and if they like him, then he won't need human friends. That is only partially correct; for oni, there is no friendship, only hatred and rage. He learns that much later, painfully.
When he is seven, he watches his father die slowly. He can see the oni that hangs over his father's shoulder a week before Watarou falls ill, but no matter how he tries to warn him, nothing is done. They call it a chest cold, but Kantarou knows the truth. The oni sneers at him tauntingly, and he is useless.
The oni laughs at his frail attempts to find a way to save his father. Watarou has grown thin, and finally takes to bed. "There's a man sitting on his shoulder," Kantarou tells his mother. He can't find the words to describe the sheer dread he feels.
His mother puts a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. "He's just sick," she says, worrying about the wracking cough which might mean Watarou has caught tuberculosis. If he that is so, there is little that can be done. "I'm sure he's going to get better."
Kantarou pushes her away. "It's hurting him!" he insists stubbornly. He watches almost impassively as his father suffers through another hacking fit. He knows the doctor's medicines won't work, not while that thing is there, smirking at his helplessness.
"The monsters can't hurt you," his mother reassures him. Her mind is elsewhere, worrying about life without a husband, about how she is going to raise a child alone. She offers her prayers to the spirits, but two days later, Watarou dies.
Kantarou doesn't cry. He knew it was inevitable.
There is much to be done, arrangements to be made, and a house to sell. His mother plans on going to Nagasaki, where her sister lives. Kantarou's disposition is handled hastily; a friend of the Ichinomiya family offers to take him on as a student.
When Kantarou hears about the offer to be apprenticed to one of the eminent folklorists of Japan, he eagerly agrees. He's not quite sure what a folklorist does, but he understands it will be a chance to learn more about his friends. He will learn how to deal with oni, and maybe prevent them from hurting anyone else. Perhaps he will even find a clue to the legendary oni-eating tengu.
His mother is dressed in her best kimono as she prepares to place him on the train which will take him to Tokyo. She hands him a packed lunch, makes sure he has the small bag of belongings, and smiles gently.
"You can change your mind and come with me," she says. She hopes he doesn't. She doesn't want to feel like she's abandoning her son, but it hurts too much to see his face, the face which looks so much like her late husband's.
"I'm going." He knows this is what his mother wants. Despite his desire to learn more about the tengu, he experiences a sudden, childish desire to stay with his mother. He hides it well, smiling at her and telling his first deliberate lie. "I'll be fine."
If Kantarou lies, it's because his parents lied to him first.