A-Yokai-A-Day: Taki Reio

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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

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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
“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

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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

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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

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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

A-Yokai-A-Day: Tengu Tsubute

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There’s a typhoon bearing down on Japan right now, and aside from the wind and rain, all sorts of things are flying through the air. Fall leaves, dirt and sand, tiny pebbles and pieces of torn election posters… And of course everyone is in their homes where it is dry and warm, so the mountains look wild and untamed, full of life, and probably teeming with yokai. Its the perfect weather right now for today’s A-Yokai-A-Day:

Tengu tsubute
“stone thrown by a tengu”

Toriyama Sekien’s tengu tsubute

Tengu tsubute is a phenomenon that happens to people usually when they are walking out in the mountains alone. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a stone flies through the air and hits them!

Stories like this are found all over Japan. Mysterious objects which have no business being in the air—such as rocks—fly through the sky and hit a random person. But when you look around there is no one or nothing there that could have thrown the object. The conclusion is that a tengu, or maybe a prankster tanuki or kitsune, must have thrown it!

Why would a yokai do such a thing? Well, one answer is that many yokai are just annoying jerks who like to play jokes on people. This is precisely the type of thing that entertains them. However, because tengu are involved, another answer is common. Tengu are not usually portrayed as tricksters. Instead, they tend to be portrayed as punishers of the wicked. The person who gets hit by a random flying tengu tsubute may not be so random after all; maybe they committed some sort of crime or sin and got away with it, and this is the tengu’s way of making sure they get some form of divine punishment.

Tengu tsubute is not always just a harmless annoyance either; in some tales, the person who gets hit by the rock will become terribly ill—possible even die! Even if they don’t become sick, those who encounter this phenomenon are generally said to have some sort of misfortune (aside from being hit by a flying rock, that is).

In some instances, people don’t get hit by the rocks. They only hear the rock land next to them, but when they look, there is no rock there at all! Perhaps it is an invisible rock, or perhaps it disappears as soon as it lands, due to some tengu magic?

Tengu tsubute, upcoming in my Patreon project


A-Yokai-A-Day: Oshiroi Baba

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When you think of Japan, one of the stronger images that comes to mind is that of the maiko or geisha, with their strikingly white makeup. Painting the skin white is not just limited to geisha of course. As it is in many cultures, lighter skin has been traditionally been viewed as a beauty standard in Japan. Thus, from ancient times onward, it has been a custom to use white powders called oshiroi in makeup over here. And just like the white powders that the ancient Romans used to lighten their skin, oshiroi often contained high quantities of lead, which could lead to symptoms of lead poisoning in heavy users. Today’s yokai is based on that kind of face powder:

Oshiroi babā
“face powder hag”

Toriyama Sekien’s oshiroi babā

You find yourself alone on a dark road in Nara Prefecture near the end of the year… Suddenly you hear a harsh jara jara sound, almost as if someone was dragging along a mirror as they hobble through the streets. You turn around, and there is an old woman approaching, her back twisted and bent after who knows how many years of hard work. She carries a cane in one hand, and a sake bottle in the other. She looks up at you through a broken straw hat, and you see her face is caked with thick white powder and slopped-on makeup that looks somewhat reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker…

You’ve just met an oshiroi babā.

Oshiroi babā doesn’t really do all that much. Her looks alone are scary enough that she doesn’t really need to do anything! According to some legends, she accosts people for makeup or even for sake, which makes her sound strikingly similar to other old hags, like amazake babā. According to others, she is a type of yuki onna who comes down from the mountains on snowy nights. In Toriyama Sekien’s description, she is a servant of Shifun Senjō, the goddess of rouge and makeup (though one would hope this goddess would teach her servants a bit more about proper application!).

As far as scary old hags go, this one may be creepy, but she’s not going to kill you. She’s almost like the yokai equivalent of that one old aunt on your family tree who wears so much perfume that she makes you queasy, and wears so much makeup that she gave you nightmares as a kid, and pinches your cheeks so hard that it hurts but your parents told you that you have to let her do it anyway. It’s scary, but the anticipation and the memory of it are far worse than the actual thing.

It’s actually fairly easy to imagine that this yokai was originally just an old woman, sick and crazy from age and possibly lead poisoning, overly madeup and wandering the streets begging for a little aid from her neighbors. In that case, she’s not really as scary as she is tragic.

Oshiroi babā