Today on A-Yokai-A-Day, we continue aquatic week with another Patreon request: a cute little guy named shussebora. It’s not just cute, though, it’s an amazing just-so-story! But first, it will take some explaining, because it’s not readily apparent to people like us today.
In Japan, there are kinds of fish called shusseuo. This is the same shusse as we see in shussebora, and it means “promotion” (uo means “fish” and bora comes from hora which is short for horagai, or “giant triton“). Shusseuo are a strange concept: they are fish who are called by different names at different stages of their lives. As they age, they “promote” from one creature to the next.
A few examples of shusseuo are the amberjack, which sushi lovers will know as buri. Depending on its size and the region, this fish has a number of different names. When it is under 15 cm it is called an wakashi. When it is over 15cm but under 40 cm it is an inada. Around 60 cm it becomes a warasa. And at around 90 cm it become a buri.
The Japanese sea bass, or suzuki, does this as well: oboko -> subashiri -> ina -> bora -> todo. As do a number of other fish, including koi, and tuna. (In case you ever wondered why when you go to a sushi restaurant all the fish have different names but when you look in your dictionary they all say “tuna,” there’s your answer.)
This would probably be a much stranger concept to non-Japanese if not for Pokemon, which of course has made the idea of animals changing from one kind into another very common over here as well. If charmander, charmeleon, and charizard are each different creatures but technically the same too, then why not fish? It’s a concept that is reflected in plenty of yokai as well, which start as one animal and transform into another once they reach a certain age or size. One of my favorite examples of these would be bat -> nobusuma -> yamachichi or momonjii. Another fun one is badger -> nodeppo.
So your average Edo period yokai fan, upon hearing “shussebora,” would immediately recognize the “shusse” part as similar to shusseuo. And the “bora/hora” part would remind him or her of the horagai.
So this reader could figure out that this is some kind of horagai that “promotes” into a different creature. The illustration depicts a dragon, and to evolve from giant triton -> dragon seems like a pretty awesome upgrade to me! It’s a play on words that would seem natural and probably be instantly understandable to the yokai fans of old Japan.
The only question that remains is why on earth would anyone come up with a sea snail that lives in the mountains and migrates to the sea to become a dragon? Well, part of that goes back to a play on the word hora. Hora is also a word for caves that are left behind after mudslides and avalanches. With earthquakes being quite common in Japan, and with the whole country being covered in mountains, it’s easy to imagine that new caves would be uncovered relatively frequently. The hora (shell)/hora (cave) pun would not be lost of clever yokai readers back in the day. The implication is that the caves were the nest spots of big horagai, and are left behind as the tritons migrate from mountain to sea.
But if horagai are sea creatures, why would people think they originated in the mountains? This isn’t explained in the old books, but here’s a theory: the tops of Japan’s mountains were once located underwater, and it is possible to find shell fossils high up in the Japan alps, so 150+ years ago, someone digging in the mountains and coming across a shell would have no idea how it got there. If he or she found enough shells, they’d think they were the shells of creatures that naturally live in the mountains. Adding a bit of credence to that theory, yamabushi—the ascetic monks who live deep in the mountains—often carry large conch shells which they use as trumpets. A lay person seeing such a monk might just assume that the monk got the shell from deep in the mountains as opposed to the sea… And thus, you have things like shellfish and tritons originating deep in the mountains!
Click below to read more about the shussebora. And if you like this story and my explanation above, you should join my Patreon project—its just like A-Yokai-A-Day, but year-round!