A-Yokai-A-Day: Sunamura no onryo

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It’s finally upon us! Halloween is here! During this year’s A-Yokai-A-Day we’ve seen hungry ghouls, dark clouds, hunchbacks, giant bugs, vampires, cats, ghosts, and old hags. But I wanted to save the most quintessentially Halloween-y yokai for today. Creepy or not, I don’t think anyone can make an argument against this guy being the most Halloween-y yokai of all.

Sunamura no onryo

Sunamura no onryo
“the ghost of Sunamura”

Sunamura was a neighborhood in what is now Koto City, Tokyo. Today it has been fully swallowed up by municipal mergers and technically no longer exists, although some parts of the area still contain remnants of its name. During the Edo Period it was famous for one particular vegetable: pumpkins!

The ghost of Sunamura is a walking pumpkin monster. Its body and limbs are formed of a tangled mess of pumpkin vines and leaves. Its head is a heavy, bright orange pumpkin which it struggles to carry around in its thin arms. There is a face in the head, although it doesn’t appear to be carved like a Jack-o’-Lantern.

According to legend, this spirit would appear night after night in the village of Sunamura and chase people. What strikes me as interesting is that it is referred to as an onryo rather than the more common obake or kai, or some other generic term. As you may know, onryo are the scariest type of ghosts. They born out of extreme emotional attachment or grudges, and wreak their vengeance upon the living. But what could cause a pumpkin to come back as an onryo? What kind of grudge can a pumpkin hold??

Sadly, there aren’t any surviving contemporary documents with more information on its story, so how this little guy began and any others details about it are lost. It may even have been lost to time if not for its inclusion in an 1858 ghost-themed board game by Utagawa Yoshikazu which features famous local ghosts:

Kaidan hyakumonogatari sugoroku

Kaidan hyakumonogatari sugoroku

It’s amazing that this creature so closely resembles a Jack-o’-Lantern even though it was created long before the concept of Halloween ever reached Japanese shores. In fact, in the 1850’s Halloween wasn’t even a big thing in the United States yet! Before The Great Pumpkin, before The Pumpkin King and Pumpkinhead, and even before David S. Pumpkins, the ghost of Sunamura was hopping around Tokyo scaring people!

Pretty incredible, huh?

Sadly, this marks the end of A-Yokai-A-Day for 2018. Thanks for reading every day, whether on my blog or on social media! If you enjoyed it, please consider joining my Patreon project and following along as I continue to paint and translate yokai all year long. The support of my patrons is what allows me to keep making art and maintain yokai.com year round.

A-Yokai-A-Day: Gotoku neko

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October is almost over, so don’t forget to take a look at all of the fantastic #ayokaiaday contributions across the various social media platforms! Even though it’s only the first year I’ve ever asked people to share their own #ayokaiaday posts, the response has been amazing! It’s fun to see so many people getting into the Halloween spirit with yokai-themed paintings, drawings, and sketches.

Now on to today’s yokai:

Gotoku neko

Gotoku neko
“trivet cat; five virtues cat”

In Japan, just like in the West, cats have a long and deep connection to superstition and the occult. For instance, you must not let a cat anywhere near a corpse. If a cat crosses a corpse, or jumps over one, or even sits on a coffin, the corpse will reanimate and begin to dance. It’s even been said that cats will suck the breath out of fresh corpses in order to gain power. Cats who are allowed to do this develop bizarre abilities, and begin acting more and more human-like. One major warning sign that a cat has turned into a yokai (a bake neko) is when it begins to stand up and dance on two legs. Many bake neko are depicted in paintings and prints standing on their hand legs with their arms outstretched as if dancing. When a bake neko becomes even more powerful, their tail splits in two, after which they are known as a neko mata.

Gotoku neko is a variant of the neko mata. It was invented by Toriyama Sekien and includes a couple of puns, which I will get to later.

Sekien is not explicit on what this yokai does beyond that of a normal neko mata. However as a neko mata it certainly has the ability to do all sorts of wicked deeds. Sekien’s depicts this cat as sitting around the irori (an in-floor hearth found in old Japanese country houses) and stoking the fire by blowing on it with a bamboo pipe.

The name gotoku neko comes from the gotoku, or trivet, that the cat wears on its head upside-down like a hat. A gotoku is an iron ring with three or four legs that is used in an irori or a hibachi to hold a tea kettle or pot and keep it out of the ashes. While it does make an awesome hat, it has its own occult connections: the ritual of the shrine visit at the hour of the ox requires that the participant wear a gotoku upside-down on his or her head, just like this cat is. So even though at first glance the gotoku neko appears to just be a cute cat warming itself by the fire, there’s something a little more sinister going on.

Another bit of wordplay in this yokai’s name is that gotoku also refers to the “five virtues” of Confucianism: benevolence, honesty, knowledge, integrity, and propriety. It’s a bit ironic for a yokai to be connected with the five virtues, but there’s a pun buried in there which Sekien references in his writing. He cites an old story about a nobleman named Shinano no Zenji Yukinaga. One day Yukinaga was set to perform the shichitoku no mai (dance of the seven virtues) before the court. However, he forgot two of the dances! As a result, he jokingly became known around the court for his dance of five virtues (gotoku). Since neko mata are also known for dancing around, the joke takes us back to yokai cats. It’s a bit vague, but that’s the silly and mysterious style of Sekien’s writing!

One last note is that folk belief also associates cats with house fires. There are many variations, but one example is that it was believed if you let a cat sleep near a fire, your house would burn down. The sparks from the fire would ignite the cat’s tail on fire, then the burning cat would run around in a panic, igniting everything it touched. And as you can see, there are flames on gotoku neko’s twin tails!

It is explicitly stated, but I think that the gotoku neko is far less virtuous than its name implies…


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!

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.


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Yanagi onna

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Willow trees have a lot of associations in East Asia. Because of their slender, soft, wavy branches, they have been considered since ancient times a symbol of feminine beauty. For a similar reason they have also been associated associated with ghosts since ancient times. The way the branches bend and flutter in the wind, and the way they can gently caress your cheek or steal your umbrella as you walk by makes them seem like they are possessed by a spirit. This is why you’ll see willow trees in a lot of East Asian ghost imagery.

Today’s yokai meets both of these criteria.

Yanagi onna

Yanagi onna
“willow woman”

Yanagi onna is the ghost of a woman who died under the tree. Now her spirit haunts the tree.

Legend has it that a young woman was walking at night with her baby, when suddenly the wind became strong. She sought shelter under a nearby willow tree. However, in the fierce wind, she became entangled in the branches of the willow. Some of them wrapped around her throat. As she struggled the branches grew tighter and tighter, until she was strangled to death. Since then, every night, a haunting figure in the form of a woman carrying a baby would appear under that tree and call out: “Alas! You cursed willow tree!”

Yanagi onna is similar to a couple of other yokai. Specifically, she is most closely related to the ubume—a woman who died in childbirth and is unable to care for her baby, so she transforms into a horrifying yokai. Although scary, she is not here to harm people. She just laments for the baby that she is unable to care for.

A close comparison could also be made with kosodate yurei, although many people would point out that yanagi onna is a yokai, not a yurei. Most Japanese ghosts do not have feet; they are transparent from the legs down and just float around. Yet yanagi onna clearly stands on her feet. I think it’s kind of a fuzzy distinction at best, but if we’re talking strict classifications that is something to consider.


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Nikusui

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What could be more quintessentially Halloween than a vampire? Today’s yokai fits that description. Like with many western vampire stories, there’s a deeper, underlying cautionary tale. Read on to learn more!

Nikusui

Nikusui
“meat sucker”

Nikusui are vampiric yōkai which hunt late at night on mountain roads. They usually appear in the form of young, beautiful women about 18 or 19 years old.

They prey upon young men traveling alone by lantern light. They appear from out of the darkness and begin to flirt. They ask their prey to lend them their lantern. When they get close enough, they snuff out the light. Then, in the pitch dark, they bite into their victims and suck the meat from their bodies, leaving nothing but skin and bones.

Occasionally nikusui will approach lone men in their bedrooms. They use sex to seduce and weaken their prey. Then they can suck the meat from their prey at their leisure.

To protect against nikusui, villagers who live near the border between Mie and Wakayama Prefectures avoid walking at night without a spare light source. Those who absolutely must travel through the mountains night protect themselves by preparing spare lanterns and burning coals. If a nikusui steals their lantern, they can throw burning coals at them to keep them away.

Tales about nikusui are cautionary tales, warning young men to keep away from strange women. A beautiful woman could “snuff out a man’s fire,” draining his money and distracting him from more important things. Less metaphorically, there was a real folk belief in a sickness called jinkyo—weakness in men caused by the loss of semen. Overindulgence in sexual activity was believed to drain a man of his virility, leaving him weak and anxious. Losing too much semen could even be lethal. Therefore, sexual promiscuity was frowned upon not only due to social mores, but for health reasons too. Nikusui represent the dangers of young men overindulging in their lust.

A hunter named Genzō was hunting late at night on Mt. Hatenashi. All of a sudden, a beautiful young woman of about 18 or 19 years appeared before him and laughed with an eerie “ho ho.” Though it was night, she carried no lantern. The young woman asked to borrow Genzō light. Genzō had a very bad feeling about her. He carried a blessed bullet with a prayer to Amida Buddha incribed upon. He loaded that bullet into his rifle and threatened the girl. She fled into the darkness, Genzō continued on his way.

A short time later, a terrible monster over 6 meters tall rushed out of the darkness at him. Genzō fired his rifle with the holy bullet at the monster. The monster fell, and Genzō was able to get a closer look at the monster’s true form: a bleached white skeleton inside a loose bag of skin, with no meat at all.


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Tsutsuga mushi

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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!


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!

A-Yokai-A-Day: Nebutori

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Now that we’ve finished two very vague yokai scrolls I thought as we got closer to Halloween I’d move on to some yokai with a bit more of a story or explanation to them. Maybe a bit scarier too. Today’s yokai comes from the Ehon hyaku monogatari (“Picture Book of A Hundred Ghost Stories”), and it’s one that I’m sure you’ll eat right up!

Nebutori

Nebutori
“sleep fattening”

Nebutori is a supernatural illness that affects women (and only women) who like eating and sleeping. (How cruel is that!) Women who go to sleep or lie down and nap soon after meals run the risk of transforming into a yokai! Once afflicted, they begin to massively expand during the night. Their appetites grow, and they begin to eat more and more, and expand more and more. Eventually they become too big to even leave their rooms. In addition, an afflicted woman begins to snore loudly, with enough force to shake a cart or a wagon.

Nebutori has also been blamed on tanuki and kitsune. Both of these animals can possess humans and cause them to do evil things. In particular, tanuki like to possess people and give them huge appetites. A tanuki-possessed woman who eats a lot and then goes to bed might be at risk of becoming infected by a tanuki and nebutori!

You might not think it by looking at it, but nebutori is closely related to two other yokai: futakuchi onna and rokuro kubi. This is because it afflicts only women, and is presented as a punishment for the man married to the woman. Futakuchi onna is a punishment inflicted on miserly old men who are stingy with food; rokuro kubi affects the daughters or wives of men who have committed terrible crimes; and nebutori is seen as more of a problem for the husband than for the wife! It’s basically 19th century fat shaming taken to a supernatural level.

It’s likely that nebutori was invented as a way to admonish women into maintaining thin, elegant figures; and as a way to parody married women who “let themselves go” once they’ve captured a husband. It’s a common folk superstition in Japan that lying down after eating will turn you into a cow; this yokai seems to be a twist on that concept.


Want more yokai? Visit yokai.com and check out my yokai encyclopedias on amazon.com! Still want more? You can sign up for my Patreon project to support my yokai work, get original yokai postcards and prints, and even make requests for which yokai I paint next!