A lot of yokai have recurring themes to them: prostitutes, priests, young boys… these are not coincidences. These different classes of yokai are all there for reasons. In some of the cases, they are commentaries on societal problems that Toriyama Sekien and other yokai-ologists saw in Edo period Japan.
Another commonly recurring theme is having one eye. A number of yokai have this trait, ao bozu, hitotsume nyudo, hitotsume kozo, yamajijii, dorotabo, ippondatara of course… the list goes on and on. So where does this trait come from. Why are there so many one-eyed gods?
The most common theory is pretty interesting, and it is related to yesterday’s topic: just what makes a yokai a yokai and not something else? Scholars believe that many one-eyed yokai may actually be former mountain gods who were forgotten over time and corrupted into yokai.
You may have heard that Japan is the land of 8 million kami. That’s not really an exaggeration either. There are kami everywhere. Every river, every tree, and yes, even every mountain has its own local kami. Of course beliefs change, populations move, and oral traditions evolve, so those kami may change over time, or be forgotten, or be replaced by other kami brought in by migrants. And what happens to the old kami that get demoted? Maybe they turn into yokai.
Ippondatara’s story is particularly interesting because not only is he attached to a very specific place (a mountain range located between Nara and Wakayama) but he is also attached to a very specific time (December 20th). Why this day? Well, it is very close to the winter solstice, when fall ends and winter begins. Perhaps that was a holy day related to some long-forgotten god of those mountains between Nara and Wakayama… In that area, children are warned to stay out of the mountains on that day, and it is considered unlucky. Why? Maybe the change from bountiful fall into cold, dead winter was associated with death or misfortune in some old local superstition? Changes in the season are also strongly associated with yokai and evil spirits. In some area, kappa are said to transform from water spirits into mountain spirits (maybe even gods?) during the change from fall to winter. Perhaps that day was associated with kappa migrations? Perhaps ippondatara picked up parts of that legend over time?
All of this is purely speculation. Nobody knows for sure, and that is part of the appeal of folklore. There is this hint, just a faint whiff of a truth buried in there somewhere. We can look at the oral traditions and remnants of ancient legends passed down, with all of the changes, additions, and subtractions applied over the centuries, and try to figure out what, if anything, it means. But looking at all of these points; the date, the one eye, and the similarities between other yokai, it seems impossible that there isn’t some connection doesn’t it? Ippondatara must fit in there somewhere. Of course, we probably will never know… but then, that’s the fun of it! If we knew for sure, he wouldn’t be a yokai would he?