A-Yokai-A-Day: Makura-gaeshi

If you have trouble sleeping at night, I recommend you don’t read any further, for this yokai strikes you when you are most vulnerable: asleep in your bed!

Makura-gaeshi (枕返し, まくらがえし)

Todays yokai is a variety of zashiki-warashi (of which there are many varieties). Like yesterday’s yokai, it is a bit of a prankster, although occasionally it can do a little more evil than simple pranks. It’s name means “pillow flipper,” and it is named for its primary activity; folks who sleep in a room haunted by a makura-gaeshi often wake up to find that their pillow has been switched and is now at their feet. They also like to run through ashes and leave dirty footprints around the room. For the most part, that is the extent of this yokai, making him a somewhat charming, if annoying, yokai.

However, while most stories about makura-gaeshi present them as harmless pranksters, there are a few stories that describe scarier powers… Some are said not just to flip the pillow, but to actually lift up and flip the sleeping person! Others even pick up the entire tatami mat one is sleeping on and bounce it around.  And others are said to sit on your chest while you sleep and press down hard, squeezing the wind out of you and causing kanashibari, or sleep paralysis. While each region has different variants on the makura-gaeshi, the most dangerous legends hail from Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture, where it is said that someone who sees a makura-gaeshi dies just afterwards!

While having your pillow stolen may seem like a silly way to die, it is connected to ancient folk superstitions and black magic. Long ago, dreaming was believed to be an act very close to death. The human soul fled the body and could travel on Earth or in different dimensions while one slept. Oftentimes special incense would be burned solely for the purpose of traveling to other worlds while sleeping. However, this act is dangerous, as if the body is moved while asleep, the soul will not be able to find its way back to it, and the person will die. Even the mere act of flipping a pillow changes the situation enough that a dreaming soul might not be able to return to the body. (This phenomenon comes up in other yokai tales too, and is even one of the only known ways to kill a rokurokubi.)

As to where makura-gaeshi come from, there are many theories. Often times they are associated with ghosts — particularly the ghosts of children who died in the particular room haunted by the makura-gaeshi. However, many have also been attributed to magical tanuki or saru (monkeys) due to those yokai’s love of pranks, while others have even attributed this spirit to the act of a kasha!

Their appearance also varies. Frequently, they appear in wild costume; either taking the form of a Niō, or else a monk or a samurai. Sometimes they even appear just as young children, too.

Makuragaeshi

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