A-Yokai-A-Day: Basho no Sei

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Today’s yokai is a plant yokai. Rocks, plants, animals, people… I love that there’s no subject left untouched by yokai!

Bashō no Sei
芭蕉精
ばしょうのせい
“Japanese banana spirit”

Musa basjoo

Bashō is the Japanese name for the Japanese banana tree (Musa basjoo). It originated in China and is found in China, Taiwan, Okinawa, and other tropical parts of East Asia. This tree is well known for its huge, broad leaves. It is a popular ornamental tree, and it is often found in gardens. It was also cultivated for its giant leaves, which could be turned into textiles.

A bashō no sei is a yokai born from this tree. They usually take the form of a human face appearing in the leaves of the tree, which then surprises people in one way or another. Stories of bashō spirits playing tricks on humans were popular during the Edo period in Japan. According to Toriyama Sekien, stories of this phenomenon go back to ancient times in China, but spread as far as Japan, even to become the subject of a noh play, Bashō (“The Bashō Tree”). In this story, a woman appears from a bashō tree next to a priest and asks him if inanimate objects like plants can go to heaven.

Toriyama Sekien’s bashō no sei

One famous story was recorded by an Edo period herbalist named Satō Chūryō. According to him, in Ryūkyū (present day Okinawa), bashō are planted in such large numbers that plantations will plant miles and miles of rows of the trees. If you walk past them at night, you are guaranteed to experience something strange. The spirits that come out of the bashō do not cause any direct harm to people other than spooking them, but nevertheless you can avoid them if you are carrying a sword. His theory was that the bashō wasn’t necessarily unique in this particular ability, but that because its leaves are so incredibly large, it is particularly easy to humans to notice these tree’s spirits (and easy for these tree spirits to notice people, apparently).

Women in Ryūkyū were warned not to go walking among the bashō trees past 6 pm. If they did, it was said that they would certainly meet some kind of yokai among the thick leaves; either a monster, or a handsome young man. After that, the woman would become pregnant. The baby would be born 9 months later as normal, however it would have tusks or fangs like a demon. What’s more, the following year and again every year after that, the woman would give birth to demon after demon after demon. If a demon child like this was born, it would have to be killed by feeding it a poisonous drink made of powdered kumazasa (a type of bamboo grass); this is supposedly the reason why kumazasa are commonly found growing near houses in Okinawa.

A story from Nagano tells of a priest who was sitting outside and reciting suttras when a beautiful young woman appeared and attempted to seduce the priest. The priest grew angry and stabbed the woman with his sword, and she ran away. The next morning, the priest found the blood trail left by the woman he had stabbed. The blood trail lead all the way to the temple’s gardens and to the bashō tree, which was lying on the ground, cut down. The priest realized that the woman had been the spirit of the bashō tree.

I wonder, if he had known that earlier, would he have not stabbed her? Was it okay to stab a woman, but not a tree? I’m not quite sure what the moral of the story is…

“Can even inanimate objects like plants can go to heaven?”