A-Yokai-A-Day: Kanashibari

Today’s yokai is not so much a yokai per se, as a yokai-induced phenomenon. One thing I love about it is that it is similar to the medieval Western superstition regarding the same medical phenomenon: sleep paralysis. In Euoropean folklore, sleep paralysis was attributed to a demon visiting you in the night. Sometimes this was a succubus or an incubus (who also raped or impregnated you in the process), other times it was just a nasty little goblin who say on your chest, constricting your breath. You are probably familiar with the famous painting of sleep paralysis, The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Füssli:

Johann Heinrich Füssli - The Nightmare

Füssli’s The Nightmare

As someone who regularly suffers sleep paralysis (every time I sleep on my back, in fact), I appreciate the horror that would inspire someone to attribute it to demons. It’s a pretty scary, half-hallucinatory experience. For those of you who have never experienced, the best way to describe it is like being in a horror movie. Your mind is still half-dreaming, but your eyes are open and you are aware of what’s going on — only it’s all very surreal. You can see your room, but it looks like you are sinking deeper and deeper into your bed. You can hear, but the sound is distorted and even your own breathing sounds like the devil himself growling in your hear. You’re breathing, but you don’t feel like you are and so you panic, but because you are paralyzed it feels like you’re in a cage, bound up and unable to move. It’s such a neat, horrible, scary experience that about once a year I take a nap on my back just to try it out again… But anyway, on to the yokai!



Kanashibari (金縛り)

Literally meaning “bound up with metal,” kabashibari is the Japanese term for sleep paralysis; that phenomenon when REM sleep overlaps with waking consciousness, and your body is still paralyzed but your eyes are open, and the real and dream worlds mix together. Stories about kanashibari go back all the way to ancient times. Just as in the West, in pre-scientific eras it was attributed to a supernatural force enacted upon the body. What is interesting is that, unlike in the West, (where the conversation was dominated by the Catholic Church) it was not always attributed to the work of a demon. There are a number of legends about kanashibari, and each one points at a different reason for the phenomenon. Let’s look at a few of them:

The most common form of kanashibari comes from possession. Remember the inugami we looked at earlier this month, and how they can possess people? Well, when a person is possessed by kitsune, tanuki, or other tsukimono, aside from developing cravings for oily food or azuki beans in rice, they can also develop immobility and sleep paralysis. This could be overcome if a shugenja, a kind of priest, recited Buddhist sutras to drive out the possessing animal spirit.

The makuragaeshi, a kind of zashiki-warashi from Ishikawa prefecture, is also known to cause kanashibari. Victims wake up with a crushing weight on their chest and find the ghost of a small child sitting on their chest. It also likes to move your pillow from your head to your feet. It doesn’t really do anything more harmful than that.

Interestingly, kanashibari is not only caused by yokai. It can even be caused by humans. The tale of Kiyohime features one passage where the jealous princess is chasing after her lover Anchin. Trying to escape her advances, Anchin asks the priest at a Kumano shrine for help, and they are able to trap Kiyohime in kanashibari, giving Anchin time to flee. Eventually she breaks free of the spell and murders Anchin horribly, but that’s another story.

A more modern-era kanashibari urban legend (from the 1990’s) is the tale of Yojibaba, a schoolyard story (like the tale of Toire no Hanako-san). In this story, if you are in a certain spot of the school at 4pm, the blurry form of an old woman will appear. She is said to do any number of things depending on the school the story is being told at — sometimes she pulls kids into an extra-dimension limbo where nothing exists, sometimes she cuts them up with a sickle… and sometimes she inflicts them with kanashibari before doing whatever else it is she does. (There’s also a part where she traps you in a bathroom stall and asks you, “Red scarf or blue scarf?” If you answer red, she strangles you with a red scarf. If you answer blue, she sucks your blood out until you turn blue. If, however, you answer yellow, she’ll leave you alone. Of course that has nothing to do with kanashibari at all…)

Finally, my favorite kanashibari tale is a ghost story from Iwate prefecture. One night, this person woke up in the middle of the night with sleep paralysis. He suddenly realized that he was being dragged out from under his futon, as if to be dragged to the river and drowned! When he finally snapped out of the paralysis, he saw the shadow of a middle aged woman rising up into the ceiling — evidence of a yūrei, a Japanese ghost.

I love that third one because it reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Ju-On. If you’re not too easily scared, watch the scene below:

Sleep tight!

Do you like Japanese ghosts and demons? Are you a fan of strange Japanese horror? Then get my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons from Amazon.com today!

2 thoughts on “A-Yokai-A-Day: Kanashibari

  1. Pingback: A-Yokai-A-Day: Oiteke-bori | MatthewMeyer.net

  2. Pingback: A-Yokai-A-Day: Makura-gaeshi | MatthewMeyer.net

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