A-Yokai-A-Day: Ushirogami

The fall weather is in full swing here, with chilly breezes, cold rain, cloudy skies, and trees changing color all around! It’s the perfect weather for getting in the Halloween mood. It’s also exactly the kind of weather that makes me feel like a yokai or a ghost might be just around the corner… or just behind me! If you ever get that feeling, maybe it’s one of today’s A-Yokai-A-Day subjects following you around.

“behind spirit”

Toriyama Sekien’s ushirogami

This yokai is a bit of a play on words, so before I get into it I just wanted to introduce the words that make it up. Ushiro is Japanese for “back” or “behind,” as in, “Look behind you!” Kami in this case means “spirit” or “god,” but written with a different character it can also mean “hair.” So keep that in your mind as you read the rest of the yokai’s description.

Ushirogami is a ghost-like yokai that sneaks up behind you and causes fear. It is reminiscent of buruburu, and is generally thought to be an okubyо̄gami—a spirit that causes cowardice, or that specifically haunts cowardly people. Its most distinguishing features are its single eye nestled in the top of its head, and its long, acrobatic body. It sneaks up behind you and pulls on your neck hair, but when you turn around, it’s not there anymore!

Ryūsai Masazumi’s ushirogami

Ushirogami appears behind people and messes with them. It will stick its icy cold hand on the back of your neck, or breath its hot breath on your neck instead. It will pull on the hairs on the back of your neck to make you jump. They particularly like going after cowardly young women walking the streets at night. They sneak up behind them and untie their hair, causing it to fall all over the place; or they run their hands through the woman’s hair and muss it around, causing it to get all tangled. Sometimes they call up a strong gust of wind and pull your umbrella away.

There’s a phrase in Japanese that goes “ushirogami wo hikakareru“—to be pulled by the hairs on the back of one’s head. It means to do something with painful reluctance. It’s easy to imagine having to do something that you really want to do, so as you move foward you keep looking back—as if the hairs in the back of your head were being metaphorically pulled—searching for some sort of escape or other way of doing it.

It’s easy to see the wordplay here. The ushirogami (spirit) is pulling on your ushirogami (hair), causing you to become cowardly and not want to do something. You turn around to see, but there is nothing back there. In this way, it can be viewed both as an external spirit messing with you, or even as the internal personification of your own cowardice or reluctance.

Ushirogami, to appear in The Book of the Hakutaku

4 thoughts on “A-Yokai-A-Day: Ushirogami

  1. This sounds something like “the Behinder” in Appalachian folktales. It’s a creature that follows behind a person when they travel alone in the mountains; you know something is there, but when you turn around, no matter how fast you turn, it always remains “behind” you. It is said that if a person ever sees the Behinder, it is so frightful they die.

    I can’t see how you would be a coward if you are afraid, but go out and do what you need to do anyway.

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