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:
“face powder hag”
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.