A-Yokai-A-Day: Tsutsuga mushi

We’ve seen a lot of silly and bizarre yokai during this month’s A-Yokai-A-Day. As we move closer to Halloween, I like to focus on some spookier, creepier yokai to set the mood. Today’s yokai is truly horrifying, because it actually exists! And what’s more, there’s probably at least one very close to you right now!

Tsutsuga mushi

Tsutsuga mushi
“disease bug”

Back in the days before modern medicine, people usually blamed sickness on the work of some yokai or another. We saw yesterday that obesity could be attributed to tanuki. And if you’re a frequent reader of yokai.com no doubt you’ve seen the numerous parasite yokai there.

In the old days, doctors who investigated the bodies of those suffering or killed by this particular sickness were unable to find a cause. So they invented one: the tsutsuga mushi. This yokai is large, the size of a dog perhaps. It combines all the worst features of a giant centipede and a cockroach. It lurks near inhabited areas and inflicted this terrible illness on the people living there. This spirit was thought to cause everything from fever, headache, muscle pain, coughing, and gastrointestinal symptoms, to hemorrhaging and blood clotting. One tale from Iwami Province tells how, in a certain village, night after night tsutsuga mushi would slip into the villagers’ houses and feed off of their blood and lifeforce. They were finally expelled by an onmyoji.

Eventually, doctors learned that the cause of tsutsuga mushi disease was actually a parasite which are transmitted by small mites. Since the name of the yokai was already well known in Japan, the mite was given the name of the yokai: tsutsuga mushi. The deadly disease attributed to this particular yokai is known in Japan as tsutsuga mushi disease, elsewhere as scrub typhus.

Even today mites spread tsutsuga mushi disease in parts of East Asia and Oceania, although in developed countries they’re more responsible for giving the heebie jeebies. In less developed countries, this disease is often fatal. It was a problem for troops during the Pacific War. Fortunately, if recognized early enough it can be treated.

It’s disturbing that something so tiny can cause so much suffering and death. It’s easy to see why they were imagined as yokai before the knowledge of medicine and microscopic parasites.

But imagine if they weren’t tiny little parasites, and instead were the enormous, hideous monsters people once imagined they were!

Now that’s something to be terrified about!

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