One of the largest yokai subgroups is one called hinotama, or “fireballs.” If you’re not totally new to yokai, then you’ve probably noticed that there is a huge amount of fireball-type yokai. Just to name a few off the top of my head which have appeared on this blog: onibi, hitodama, ubagabi, sogenbi, kitsunebi, furaribi, minobi, hakanohi… the list goes on. In general, they each have one unique feature that separates them from the others, whether it’s a backstory, or one particular behavior, or what creature or thing allegedly creates the fire.
Differentiating between different types of hinotama can be sometimes be fairly easy—hitodama, for example, has a long tail which sets it apart from the others. Other times it can be very hard—onibi and kitsunebi look pretty much exactly the same; the definiting characteristic of kitsunebi is that it was created by a fox, but that’s about it. And of course, we see supernatural fireballs in cultures all around the world: St. Elmo’s Fire, will o’ the wisps, jack o’ lanterns, ball lightning, and so on. You could probably make a case that these are all different ways of describing the same phenomenon, rather than each one being a separate, unique apparition.
So what really separates, say, kitsunebi from a will o’ the wisp? Even if they are the same thing, it’s the folklore and stories that spring up around them that make them different. The subtle differences in each naming and each incarnation of the same phenomenon reflect the unique features of the locations and times in which those things appear. You can’t say will o’ the wisp without thinking of twisted, dark forests of the British Isles, and jack o’ lantern is so intrinsically connected with Halloween that the two are almost inseparable. That same rule applies to similar yokai. While the differences between any two hinotama might be very minor, they do tell you specific things about the people and places which named them.
Keeping that in mind, I’m about to introduce to you a very simple fireball yokai that does not stand out too much in comparison with all the others.
“paper lantern fire”
Chōchinbi is a small fireball that looks like distant lanterns being carried by yokai wandering in the night. Chōchinbi float in the air about one meter above the ground, bobbing lazily to and fro. Sometimes they appear in long chains like strings of lightbulbs. When a person approaches them to investigate, they disappear.
Minor details vary from place to place. Chōchinbi is most commonly said to be the work of a tanuki, and thus it is sometimes referred to as tanukibi. Kitsune are sometimes said to be responsible, but that is just as often called kitsunebi instead. Chōchinbi usually appears in rural areas along the footpaths that separate the fields, but is also said to appear alongside rivers and streams, or to travel between one graveyard and another.
Chōchinbi also appears as a common device to create a spooky atmosphere in theatrical ghost stories. It is usually accompanied by eerie flute sounds. In this case it is often depicted as strangely colored fires burning inside or next to an old dilapidated paper lantern. Sometimes the lantern itself is a yokai: the chōchin obake, a tsukumogami of an old paper lantern. Oiwa’s ghost could even be said to be a kind of chōchinbi when it appears inside of a burning lantern.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what makes a chōchinbi different from a kitsunebi (especially if a kitsune is the one responsible for creating it!) or an onibi. They’re all eerie and otherworldy, connected to and caused by the spirit world, and potentially dangerous. The difference may be entirely arbitrary, depending only on who is telling the story and where they are from. Or maybe there is something substantial, but we as humans can’t understand it. Maybe if you asked a tanuki or a kitsune what the difference was, they would laugh at you for asking such a silly question…