A-Yokai-A-Day: Jakotsu Baba

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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
蛇骨婆
じゃこつばばあ
“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

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