A-Yokai-A-Day: Todaiki

There’s only a few days left in the Kickstarter project! In fact, Kickstarter is now counting the hours, not the days! So if you’ve been waiting until the end of the project, now is a good time to back. As we meet more stretch goals, more yokai designs will be added to the t-shirt and hoodie options.

“spirit candlestick”

Toriyama Sekien’s Tōdaiki

Today there are all kinds of urban legends about people traveling to foreign countries, staying in hostels, and then waking up in a bathtub of ice with surgical stitches and missing a few internal organs. As much as that sounds like a product of modernization and the trend of global tourism, urban legends like this have existed for as long as people have traveled. Tōdaiki is a fun example of such a legend; although, it deals with dark magic instead of amateur organ harvesting…

According to Sekien, long ago, a government minister named Karu no Daijin was sent on a mission to Tang China. This was a period of great movement of culture and ideas between China and Japan, so nothing is strange about that. However, when the envoy failed to return to Japan long after they were overdue, the minister’s son, Hitsu no Saishō, began to worry.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s print of Hitsu no Saishō encountering the tōdaiki

Hitsu no Saishō traveled to China to search for his missing father. He traveled far and wide, and in one particular location he came across something he had never seen before: a tōdaiki—a candlestick fashioned out of a living human being! By some combination of strange drugs and sorcery, the man’s ability to speak had been removed. His body was covered in tattoos, and a large candle had been placed in his head. He had been installed on a fancy little stand like a piece of furniture.

As Hitsu no Saishō looked in puzzlement at the strange sight, the human candlestick began to shed tears. Unable to speak, the man bit into he tip of his finger until it began to bleed. He scrawled out a few characters in his own blood. Upon reading them, Hitsu no Saishō realized in horror: the tōdaiki was his own father who he had come to China to search for!

The people involved in this story are real. Hitsu no Saishō was the nickname of Fujiwara no Arikuni, a Heian period noble who lived from 943-1011 CE. Although the story about the tōdaiki is a fabrication, it’s an interesting example of where fact and folklore intersect. Because this early urban legend involved real people who were well known to educated readers, it gives the story much more weight. It’s not really any different from the story about George Washington and the cherry tree when you think about it… well, except that this one is far more terrifying!

Don’t miss out on your chance to become a backer for The Book of the Hakutaku, and get Kickstarter-only special collectors editions of the book, as well as other awesome yokai goods.

A-Yokai-A-Day: Kidomaru

I love yokai stories that reference other yokai stories. There are a lot of recurring characters, especially heroes, among yokai tales; especially among tales from the Kamakura period, when the legends of brave samurai from the previous era were popular. The rise of the military caste during this period is probably responsible for the popularity of amazing warrior stories from that time.

Cross-referencing other yokai seems to give a little bit of credence or believability to folk tales. We see Toriyama Sekien do this a lot when he makes up new tales. Some of the really famous yokai, such as Tamamo no Mae and Shukaku trace their roots all the way back to India and China, linking their Japanese versions to famous folk tales from those countries, and adding more depth to their biographies.

In a way, it’s almost like a folkloric “expanded universe” or fandom, where sometimes contradictory stories exist, but they still feel correct despite the irregularities.


Toriyama Sekien’s Kidōmaru

Kidōmaru is the name of an oni who appears in Kokon chomonjū (“A Collection of Notable Tales Old and New”), a Kamakura period complication of myths and legends of the Heian period. Kidōmaru is his name, so I haven’t listed a translation, but the characters used roughly translate to “Oni Boy.” It sounds like a nickname, almost like “Billy the Kid.” I’m sure you could translation it a number of fun ways: “Li’l Oni” “Oni the Kid” or anything along those lines, but I will just call him Kidōmaru.

When speaking of oni, it is impossible to fail to mention Shuten Dōji, the king of the oni. We’ve also covered his right-hand man (woman?) on this blog: Ibaraki Dōji. Kidōmaru is another member of Shuten Dōji’s clan, and is sometimes said to be Shuten Dōji’s son!

His story takes place after the legendary samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu (aka Raikō) and his party of heroes had subjugated Shuten Dōji and freed all of the women captured by the oni’s clan. The women were grateful to the samurai for rescuing them, and returned home to their villages. One of the women, however, didn’t return to her home. Instead, she traveled to the village of Kumohara, where she gave birth to a baby oni—Shuten Dōji’s son!

Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicts Kidōmaru training in his cave and developing his magical powers

The boy was named Kidōmaru. He was born with a full set of teeth, and an oni’s strength. When he was only 7 or 8 years old, he was strong enough to kill a deer or a boar by throwing a single rock. By the time he had grown to an adult, he decided to get revenge on those who had slain his father.

Some versions of his story say that he was apprenticed as a temple servant to Mt. Hiei, just like his father was. And just like his father, he was eventually expelled from the temple for being a wicked, wretched little boy. He fled into the mountains and lived in a cave. He turned to robbing people to survive, and studied magic and honed his powers in his cave hideout.

Time passed, and the next thing we hear about Kidōmaru occurs when Raikō was visiting his younger brother, Minamoto no Yorinobu. Yoribonu had captured Kidōmaru in his bathroom—the story doesn’t say how or why this happened, but somehow, Yorinobu had locked the oni in the bathroom.

Raikō scolded his little brother for being so careless and not properly tying Kidōmaru up in ropes and chains. He then tied up the oni in chains to make sure he couldn’t escape and to show his brother how it was done. Raikō spent the night there just to make sure everything was OK.

During the night, Kidōmaru easily broke the chains that were holding him with his supernatural strength. He wanted to get his revenge on the cocky Raikō. He snuck up to Raikō’s door and spied on him. Raikō, however, noticed Kidōmaru spying on him. In a loud voice, he told his attendants that tomorrow morning they would ride to Kurama to make a pilgrimage to the temple there.

Hearing this Kidōmaru went ahead to set a trap for Raikō. He set up an ambush on the road near Ichiharano. He slaughtered a cow in one of the fields and climbed inside of its body to hide and wait for Raikō.

When Raikō and his companions arrived at Ichiharano, they easily saw through the oni’s disguise. Raikō’s best archer, Watanabe no Tsuna (the same Watanabe no Tsuna who cut off Ibaraki Dōji’s hand) shot an arrow through the cow’s body, injuring Kidōmaru.

Kidōmaru emerged from the cow’s corpse and charged at Raikō with all of his might. However, Raikō was too fast for him. He cut Kidōmaru down with a single stroke of his blade.

Kidōmaru, to be painted later this year!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Taki Reio

Who else is excited for season two of Stranger Things coming out today? I know I am!

What does Stranger Things have to do with yokai, you might ask? Well, nothing really, at least on the surface. However, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the world of that show and yokai lore. For example, both the Upside Down and ikai, the world of the yokai, are normally separate, but some people can cross between them at certain times and/or places. Also, the demogorgon may seem to be be evil, but in fact it is just behaving according to its own nature. It’s not evil in the sense that many horror monsters actively seek to destroy humanity. In that way it is like yokai, most of whom are not necessarily evil, but just doing their own natural thing.

But most of all, it’s the fact that they don’t explain (or at least they haven’t yet) the true nature of the strange things happening in the show. It’s presented as is, without the typical backstory that seems required by Hollywood and most TV productions. There is a monster, there is a weird world, and there are some strange things going on, but we’re not given the omniscience treatment; we are left to wonder just as the characters are. In that sense, the show shares something in common with yokai, whose primary draw and power lie in the fact that they are unexplained (and maybe unexplainable).

I’m hoping that in season two they give us more of the good stuff without killing the magic by over-explaining things. Sometimes the best mystery is the one that remains a mystery!

Taki reiō
“waterfall spirit king”

Sekien’s taki reiō

Taki reiō is an apparition that can be seen in the basins of certain waterfalls found throughout various nations. It is so powerful that all types demons, spirits, and yokai, bow down before it!

Toriyama Sekien’s illustration for taki reiō looks exactly like Fudō Myōō, one of the most important Wisdom Kings in Japanese Buddhism. (Fudō Myōō is the Japanese name for the Buddhist/Hindu deity Acala.) Like most Buddhist gods, he takes on many different forms. For instance, he is said to appear as one of the judges of Hell. so it’s not entirely strange that he might appear as a strange spirit king in certain waterfalls, and certainly not surprising that demons, yokai, and other spirits would bow before him. Further supporting theory this is the fact that Sekien’s entry references Seiryōso (“The Seiryū Commentaries”), an annotated version of the Diamond Suttra from China.

Fudō Myōō appears in a waterfall in this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Murakami Kenji and other yokai scholars have gone so far as to say that taki reiō is not actually a yokai, but just an image of Fudō Myōō himself. Which takes us back to the timeless question: what is and what isn’t a yokai?

This is one of those times when I use “yokai” in its most broad definition. Normally, most Japanese would probably not include Buddhist gods like Fudō Myōō among yokai. However, strange occurrences and phenomena certainly are considered yokai. So what do you call the strange occurrence of a Buddhist god appearing in a waterfall? And what about a yokai who looks exactly like Fudō Myōō? Where do you draw the line? Is yokai such a derogatory word that it can’t be used to refer to holy beings or phenomena? Each person you ask will probably have a different answer.

Incidentally, the connection between Fudō Myōō and waterfalls is not isolated only to this yokai. There are a number of waterfalls in Japan with Fudō Myōō connections. Some of them are thought to be a possible inspiration for this particular yokai, however there isn’t any hard evidence to prove which one in particular inspired Toriyama Sekien to come up with Taki reiō.

Some waterfalls with Fudō Myōō statues include Iwadani waterfall in Ikoma, Nara; Takitanifudō waterfall in Ida, Nara; Nageshi waterfall in Higashiyoshino, Nara; Momo’o waterfall in Tenri, Nara… just to name a few.

Myōō-in, a Buddhist temple in Ōtsu, Shiga has a statue of Fudō Myōō which was allegedly made by the the high priest Sōō who lived from 831 to 918 CE. He is said to have carved it from a holy tree taken from the basin of a nearby waterfall. According to Mizuki Shigeru, the legend of this Fudō Myōō statue may also have been the inspiration for Toriyama Sekien’s taki reiō.

It seems likely that we’ll never know what Sekien had in mind with this yokai; why he made it; if it was inspired by any real-world stories; what makes it different from Fudō Myōō… But that’s just part of its mystery and what makes it special!

Taki reio, to be painted in the coming months

A-Yokai-A-Day: Jakotsu Baba

Today the Kickstarter reached a new high: 2000% funding! Thank you all so much for supporting my project! It’s clear that the reach of yokai is spreading around the world, and that there are a lot of people out there like me who just can’t get enough of them! 🙂

Today’s yokai was invented in Japan, but has false foreign origins. Even though yokai are traditionally viewed as something “Japanese,” it’s clear that even back in the Edo period, their international appeal was well known. Yokai artists often relied on foreign texts to import foreign yokai into Japan, or even to invent new ones based on foreign texts. Globalization has been going on for much longer than we think!

Jakotsu babā
“snake bone hag”

Toriyama Sekien’s jakotsu babā

Jakotsu babā is an old hag and a shaman. She is described as carrying a blue snake in her right hand and a red snake in her left hand. According to Toriyama Sekien, she was the wife of a man named Jagoemon, earning her the nickname Jagobā (i.e. “Jago’s wife”). Over time, her name became corrupted into Jakotsu babā.

Because she carries two snakes, Toriyama Sekien speculates that Jakotsu babā originally came from the country of Bukan (also called Fukan; Wuxian in Chinese). Bukan was a land of myth. It is recorded in the Shan hai jing, which Toriyama Sekien uses as his source for this record. It was supposedly located far to the west of China on the Asian continent. The race of people living in Bukan were shamans, using snakes to master the art of divination.

It’s not quite clear where the yokai originally comes from. “Jagoemon” is not a famous figure that Sekien is referencing, so his own explanation seems like something he made up just for fun. She was published by Sekien in 1780. Prior to that, the name “jakotsu babā” appears in pulp fiction and kabuki plays of the 1760’s and 1770’s—although it was just used as a vulgar slang word for an old woman, rather than a yokai. Some yokai scholars belief that Sekien may just have taken a popular buzzword of his time, transformed it into a yokai and attached a simple backstory to it.

Jakotsu babā, from The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Kazenbo

There’s now just one week left in the Kickstarter for The Book of the Hakutaku. The final clock is ticking down. If you’ve been on the fence, now is the time to sign up. If you’ve already joined, you can help spread the word on social media for the final push!

“monk in the flames”

Toriyama Sekien’s kazenbō

There is a mountain in Kyoto called Toribeyama. During the Heian period, it was an important burial/cremation ground for royalty and nobility. During major epidemics, it was said that the smoke rising from mountain from all the burning bodies was unending.

Towards the end of the 10th century, a number of priests decided to offer themselves up in ritual sacrifice by fire, in hopes to achieve enlightenment. The ceremony was open to the public, and a large number of people came to witness the event.

A number of these priests did not actually achieve enlightenment due to their improper attachments to the material world. Instead, they still haunt Toribeyama, appearing in ghostly flames as beggar-monks wreathed in the fires of ignorance and sin.

Honestly, this yokai creeps me out more than many of the other ones we’ve seen this month. The idea of death by fire, and particularly self-immolation is so horrifying to me. They say burning is among the most painful ways to die. The super-heated air makes your lungs burn and blister while you are still conscious, causing you to simultaneously suffocate and drown in your own blood. Meanwhile every pain receptor in your burning skin is firing at maximum power. And then to have the entire purpose of your death be rendered meaningless because of some “worldly attachment” (a.k.a. “you didn’t want to die in a fire”), causing you to remain forever as a vengeful onryō; never dying, always burning… That’s pretty awful.

Kazenbō, for The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Himamushi Nyudo

Today’s yokai is one of Toriyama Sekien’s priest/monk yokai which I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Although this yokai doesn’t actually have anything to do with the clergy in particular, there’s a few reasons to depict as a priest. One is that there have historically been a lot of priest & monk yokai, so naming your yokai as a priest or monk automatically puts it in good company. Another is for humor; contrasting something so ugly and wretched with people who are supposed to be good and pure makes for good humor. Even in English we tell a lot of priest jokes. Good humor transcends geography.

Now, on to the yokai!

Himamushi nyūdō
“oven bug priest”

Toriyama Sekien’s himamushi nyūdō

Life is work. Or at least, work is a very important part of life. According to Toriyama Sekien’s description of this yokai (another one of his creations), those who were lazy in life, carelessly wasting their time from birth to death, will come back as this spirit. It lives under the floorboards and crawls out at night time. It’s main activity is to bother people who are working hard late at night or pulling all-nighters—by jumping out and scaring them, blowing out the lights, and licking up their lamp oil (in the Edo period, lamps burned fish oil).

Himamushi nyūdō’s name is a bit tricky to translate. There’s no such thing as an “oven bug” in Japanese, but according to yokai-ologist Tada Katsumi, it may be a play on words meant to refer to cockroaches. The “hima” part of this yokai’s name can also be read “kama,” and probably refers to the kamado, the traditional Japanese oven. There is a kamado featured in Sekien’s picture, and he usually only puts things in his pictures for a reason. Cockroaches, normally called gokiburi in Japanese, have a few nicknames; among them himushi (“fire bug”) and hitorimushi (“lamp bug”), both of which sound similar to himamushi. Cockroaches would have fed on the oil in old lamps just like this yokai. They live in dark, warm spaces such as under and around a kamado, just like this yokai. They crawl out of the floorboards to scare those working late at night, just like this yokai. Of course there’s also something satisfying about the idea that lazy people come back as cockroaches after they die…

Can you find the characters for ヘマムショ入道?

Another fun fact about this yokai’s name: According to Sekien’s explanation, this spirit was originally called “himamushiyo nyūdō,” and over time it became corrupted into “hemamusho nyūdō”—which was a popular Edo period cartoon. The hemamusho nyūdō is a monk drawn with the katakana characters used to write its name: ヘ, マ, ム, シ, ョ, 入, and 道. It appeared in all sorts of graffiti and prints during the Edo period. Today there’s a similar type of cartoon face called the “henohenomoheji“—the hemamusho nyūdō was the Edo period equivalent. Toriyama Sekien often liked to tie his made up yokai to contemporary real events and phenomenon, possibly in order to give them a sense of authenticity.

My himamushi nyūdō sketch for The Book of the Hakutaku

A-Yokai-A-Day: Ozato

Today’s yokai is not the first zatō yokai we’ve seen on the blog, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve written the translation for zatō down below as “blind man,” but there is a lot more to it that isn’t quite picked up by that translation.

In the Edo period, there was a strict caste system in place, and you could only perform the certain types of work that were allowed by your caste. It’s an unthinkable restriction by today’s standards, but back then it did more than just control the peasants; it also provided welfare for certain groups of citizens. For example, while there was no social security system back then, the government did establish guilds for the disabled so that certain types of work were reserved for them, reserving for them a way to make a living.

The zatō were one of these guild-like organizations. Only blind citizens were allowed to become zatō, and only zatō were allowed to perform certain types of work: anma, a traditional kind of massage, and playing the biwa, a lute-like instrument. This allowed blind people their own realm in which to prosper (No word on what blind people who weren’t interested in music, massage, or accounting did for a living.). The zatō guilds made enough money that they were able to become money lenders.

The zatō was a popular staple of Edo period art, especially ukiyoe, which depicted the dreamlike “floating world” of urban life, beauty, and pleasure. As a result, it’s no surprise that there are more than a couple zatō-based yokai stories. Blind Hōichi from the famous ghost story Miminashi Hōichi (“Hōichi the Earless”) is a good example.

Fans of Japanese film might know the character Zatōichi the blind swordsman. He is of course a swordsman but also a zatō. So there’s a lot more to this word than just “blind man,” but there’s not really an easy way to translate it. I prefer to leave the word as-is, because it has no English equivalent.

“giant zatō (blind man)”

Toriyama Sekien’s Ōzatō

Ōzatō appear on windy, rainy nights, and usually loiter about the same areas night after night. They wear tattered, old hakama and geta. If you stop to ask them where they are going, they reply: “Always to the whorehouse, to play the shamisen!”

That’s all that Toriyama Sekien writes about them. It may not be much, but it does give you a bit of an idea of how Toriyama Sekien (and probably his readers) felt about certain zatō who loiters about late at night…

Some zatō were able to make lots of money from a few regular high-paying customers, and by profiting from moneylending and collection schemes. By manipulating guild fees, they could syphon funds away from the poorer guild members. It’s safe to say his opinion of these zatō was not very high either.

Sekien lived in a time of strong censorship, but he was about to hide his critiques of society in his yokai artwork. Among his yokai, there are a lot of -bōzu and -nyūdō (priests and monks) yokai, as well as a number of zatō yokai. He didn’t have a very high opinion of people who frequented red light districts either, judging by how many brothel monsters he slipped into his works.

Sekien especially did not look favorably on corruption among clergy. But can you blame him? Even today, who enjoys receiving solicitors, especially those who appear to be exploiting a disability to gain your sympathy? And corrupt priests are still just as infuriating today—just the other day we pulled into the gas station to fill up, and in front of us was an imported European luxury sports car with full leather interior. Out pops a monk wearing full robes, fills it up with high octane gas, and then ROARS down the street when he is done.

Many of Sekien’s yokai are not-so-subtle digs at these hypocritical aspects of society. Keep that in mind as we look at more of his monks and priests this week.

My sketch for Ōzatō