A-Yokai-A-Day: The Bakemono in the Outhouse

Tonight’s story is very short and, if I’m being honest, doesn’t translate too well into English. In Japanese, the language is creepy and evocative, but translated into English the phrasing doesn’t have to same power that it does in Japanese.

First of all, toilets are something that appear actually several times in Shokoku hyakumonogatari. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine toilets as a scary place. Disgusting, sure. But scary? Actually, the reason they turn up so frequently in Japanese ghost stories is that during the Edo period, toilets were a pretty terrifying place!

The word commonly used for toilets in Shokoku hyakumonogatari is secchin. It refers to a pit toilet that was in a separate building detached from the main house. You can see a diagram in this link. Imagine yourself in the period these stories take place. You wake up in the middle of the night and need to use the toilet. There is no electricity, but if you’re lucky the moon might be bright enough to see where you’re going. You have to go outside in your pajamas, walk across your garden (even in the snow or rain), and climb into a pitch black chamber with no heating or light to do your business. If the moon is bright or you have a candle, you might see any number of creepy crawlies waiting for you: bats, mice, snakes, spiders, millipedes, centipedes—all things you don’t want anywhere near your nether regions. Not to mention yōkai. So it’s pretty easy to see why these are common locations for yōkai stories.

Another unfamiliar concept in tonight’s story is the word kasshiki. I debated whether to translate this as “page boy” or “attendant,” but it is more specific than that. A kasshiki was a serving boy at a Zen temple (equivalent to the chigo of Tendai temples). These were very young boys, far too young to enter the priesthood or do heavy work that other novices would do. They helped out with certain duties, such as serving food and announcing meal times. (The word kasshiki literally means “meal announcer.”) They were also dressed up by their masters in beautiful clothing and makeup, and used as catamites by high ranking priests. In that way, they were symbols of idealized beauty and were kind of like child idols. Kasshiki is also the name of one type of noh mask, identifiable by its distinctive hair style.

This imagery creates the eerie mood of the story. A kasshiki would be the last thing you’d expect to see hanging around an outhouse late at night, and being laughed at and mocked by one would be quite shocking on top of the already dreadful outhouse itself. My culture notes ended up being longer than the story itself, but hopefully this helps explain some of the story elements that give this short and simple story a bit of a punch.

The Bakemono in the Outhouse

A man was going to the outhouse when a beautiful young kasshiki approached him, took one look at the man, and then burst out in eerie laughter.

The man was startled, and then hurriedly stood up and fled the outhouse. He ran to the first person he saw and tried to explain, “This… this…” But at that very moment, from inside the outhouse, came the sound of a young man’s voice cackling wildly. The man dropped dead instantly.

People tried various medicines and methods to save the man, but they could not revive him. Everybody thought this was very strange.

A young page boy laughs creepily.

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