I mentioned the other day how the great Toriyama Sekien was a big fan of inventing yokai that poked fun at the red-light districts and the priest class of his day. (Readers may have noticed the sheer number of priest yokai in Night Parade — most of these originated from Toriyama.) Today’s is another priest, from Toriyama’s book The Illustrated Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, published in 1776.
Unfortunately very little is known about this yokai. Toriyama Sekien’s illustration came with not a single word of description other than the name. From its name, we can glean a little bit of information; the word ao 青 means blue or green, and can denote immaturity and inexperience (just as green does in English). Another well-known yokai — ao-nyōbō — uses this color in a similar manner. In fact, as Toriyama’s original illustration was black-and-white, it may even be that he never intended this yokai to be colored blue or green, but rather just meant it as a mockery of what he saw as a corrupt and unskilled priesthood (bōzu = priest). Nonetheless, thanks to its name, it is usually depicted in a sickly shade of ao.
The fact that ao-bōzu has only one eye draws a strong parallel with another yokai, the hitotsume-kozō. He also bears a strong resemblance to the one-eyed hitotsume-nyūdō.
There are a few local legends from various regions about ao-bōzu:
The most well-known legend comes from Shizuoka. It is said that ao-bōzu appear on spring evenings at sunset in the wheat and barley fields. The transition from night to day is a popular theme in the tradition of in’yō magic (known as ying yang in Chinese). Further, the still blue-green leaves of the young barley also have powerful connections to in’yō sorcery. Children who go running and playing through the fields in the evening might be snatched up and taken away by an ao-bōzu summoned by this bizarre magical energy. Thus, good children must go straight home after school and not go tramping through the fields!
Another famous description comes from Okayama. There, ao-bōzu are said to be blue or green giant priests who take up residence in uninhabited homes. Sometimes this results in them moving into inhabited homes while their owners are away, resulting in a big surprise when the owners return! These ao-bōzu are generally depicted with two eyes instead of just one. This version of the ao-bōzu is popularized in yokai karuta cards.
In Yamaguchi and West Japan, they are considered minor deities. They appear before humans on the road and challenge them to sumo matches. Because these ao-bōzu look only as big as children, many a person has foolishly accepted the challenge, only to find himself flung to the ground with god-like strength and potentially lethal speed. Because of the similarity of this story with the hitotsume-kozō of East Japan, there are theories suggesting a connection to the ancient ghost religions of old Japan. In these shamanistic proto-religions, one-eyed monsters were often fallen gods and bringers of evil, sent to do the bidding of larger deities. They could be kept at bay with woven baskets, or other objects with many holes, which the monsters viewed as hundreds of eyes and kept away out of fear or jealousy.
In Kagawa and Shikoku, they appear late at night to young women and ask them, “Would you like to hang by your neck?” If the woman says no, the ao-bōzu disappears without a word. However, if she ignores him or says nothing, he attacks her with lightning speed and knocks her out. Then he hangs her by the neck!
Because there are so many different accounts, and because there are so many different kinds of nasty priest yokai, it’s impossible to tell which, if any, are the real ao-bōzu, and which are variations of other kinds of yokai. Maybe they all are. Maybe an ao-bōzu is simply any unskilled priest who turns from the path of his teachings and falls into wickedness, transforming into a yokai. In any case, if you happen to see a one-eyed blue priest, you should probably stay away!
Are you interested in yokai? Can’t get enough of strange Japanese culture? Then you should check out my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, on Amazon.com and learn the story behind over one hundred of these bizarre monsters!