A-Yokai-A-Day: Kowai

Today’s yokai contains an interesting little etymology tidbit, so make sure you read all the way to the end! I’m sure you’ll find it quite “scary!”

Kowai (狐者異, こわい)

Today’s yokai first appeared in the Ehon Hyakumonogatari, a collection of illustrated ghost stories published in 1841.

Kowai is the ghost of a glutton. Someone who loved food so much that they even ate other people’s portions in life would carry that attachment to food into his next life, transforming into this yokai when he died. Kowai stumbles about towns, rooting in trash bins, digging at carrion, and assaulting food stalls and shopkeepers just to get one more precious bite. It was illustrated attacking an udon stand, and according to yokai researcher Tada Katsumi, this is because the soft noodles are so easy to digest that they go right through you, leaving you hungry again very soon after you eat — very appropriate for this ever-starving yokai!

While this yokai has nothing to do with Buddhism, it strongly echoes Buddhist doctrine, where attachment in life determines which world one reincarnates into in the next life. In Buddhism, those with severe attachments to material goods (food in particular) will reincarnate into the realm of the hungry ghosts, sometimes called preta in English, or gaki in Japanese. The world of the hungry ghosts is awful — you are gaunt, starving, and so blinded by your hunger that you stuff anything you can find into your mouth, making focusing on spiritual pursuits and enlightenment utterly impossible. It is a life of pure suffering and torment, and when your life as a hungry ghost ends, you get another chance to reborn as something else. Kowai is a yokai, so it is not related to Buddhism, but it bears a remarkably strong resemblance to a gaki. No doubt whoever thought it up was influenced by that religious belief; and readers of the Ehon Hyakumonogatari would probably recognize the connection as well.

Finally, IMHO one of the neatest things about this yokai is its name. It is written with 狐 (ko; “fox”) 者 (wa; “person”) 異 (i; “strange”), so could literally be translated as “weird fox person.” Presumably this ghost sniffing around trash resembles a fox. But students of Japanese may also be familiar with the word 怖い (kowai). According to the Ehon Hyakumonogatari, this yokai is actually the origin for the word “kowai“, which is the Japanese word for “scary.” Cool huh? Whether or not this is actually true, I do not know… but hey, if it is written in a very old book, it has to be true, right? Right??


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