A-Yokai-A-Day: Yanagi baba

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Today’s yokai is a bit of a continuation of yesterday’s. It’s another willow tree yokai. Many trees have connections with yokai, ghosts, and the supernatural, but willows may be the species with the most connections. In folklore all over Japan, and even going back to ancient China, willows have a lot of connection with femininity (from the graceful, sweeping branches which hang down from the tree and sway in the wind) to death and evil spirits (from the horrifying, clawing branches which hang down from the tree and seem to grasp at the wind). It’s interesting how those two viewpoints are so different.

Yanagi baba

Yanagi baba
“willow hag”

Yanagi baba is a terrifying hag who appears beneath willow trees and beckons men to her. There’s no one rule for what she does to people who approach, but it’s generally not a good thing. Sometime those bewitched by her call simply become lost, and other times they might get injured, or fall ill. Whatever happens, it’s pretty clear from looking at her that yanagi baba is not a nice spirit.

In some ways, yanagi baba is similar to yesterday’s yanagi onna. They are both ghostly women who appear under willows and call out to people. However, the chief difference is that rather than being a spirit caught in the willow tree, yanagi baba is the spirit of the tree itself.

Willow trees that stand for 1000 years are said to gain the ability to change into beautiful young women. However, sometimes they can turn into hideous old hags. Either way, from that point on, they begin to call out to men on the roads to mislead them. In essence, these willow spirits are reminders to people not to be negligent or careless.

One of my favorite yokai researchers, Murakami Kenji, has suggested that this cautionary meaning is not really meant to warn people about willow trees, but that it may be a metaphor for staying away from the sex trade. If the willow tree is a symbol of womanhood, then “willow trees” who beckon men on the roads could be hinting at prostitution. We’ve seen many times how too much lovin’ can supposedly ruin a man, and getting it from strange women on the roads is probably not the safest way to do it either.

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