A-Yokai-A-Day: Kokuri Baba

Old hag yokai are not in short supply in Japanese folklore, as I’m sure you’re well aware if you’ve been reading A-Yokai-A-Day for the past few years. For some reason, folklore loves to hear the story of a beautiful, upstanding young woman transform into a hideous, murderous witch. It’s often the deep, profound love of a pure and upstanding woman which is seen as the most potent catalyst to drive a person mad with jealousy or resentment—transforming them from human into demon. There’s a saying in Japanese: onnagokoro to aki no sora—“women’s hearts and autumn skies.” At least in folklore, women are said to be as fickle as the weather in fall.

Kokuri babā
“old temple hag”

Toriyama Sekien’s kokuri baba

“Baba” or “babā” is a suffix you’ll find on lots of yokai. It just means old woman. Kokuri is made up of “ko” meaning old and “kuri” which is the priest’s quarters in a temple. So this is an old hag who haunts the living quarters of an old temple. Kokuri babā is a fine example of a creepy old hag. In fact, in Toriyama Sekien’s description of her, he says that she is even more scary than Datsueba, the old woman who flails off your skin when you reach the underworld!

The reason she haunts is actually a tragic tale of love turned sour: she is the widow of the priest who used to work at a remote, rural temple. Once, she was a wonderful wife, helping out her beloved husband to run his temple, tending to the needs of the parishioners, cooking, cleaning, washing, and taking care of the temple grounds. However, after her husband died, she retreated into the temple’s living quarters and became a shut in. To survive, she steals the offerings of food and coins left behind by people visiting the temple. Over time, she gradually changes into a yokai. She starts to acquire meat from the corpses of the recently dead. When there are no fresh corpses available, she digs up the buried and peels off chunks of their rotting skin off to gnaw on.

It’s a tragic tale not only because she was widowed and forced to live by herself in the temple, but also because none of the temple parishioners ever lifted a finger to help her. You have to wonder how long it took for her to get this bad. If they had paid her a little more attention might she have remained human?

Although, now it does seems like she could make a nice pair with this guy. They at least have a common food interest…

Kokuri babā

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