A-Yokai-A-Day: The Ao Oni of Kaga Province

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Tonight’s story is rather brief, but it’s rather funny. The idea of all the bravest samurai from the three provinces of Kaga, Etchū, and Noto (comprising all of today’s Ishikawa and Toyama Prefectures) were gathered together and yet all they could do was scream is worth a chuckle. But can you really blame them? Oni are terrifying, and a six meter tall one is definitely not something to trifle with.

Tonight’s oni is specifically described as an ao oni, or a blue oni. It’s not often that the color is explicitly stated, which makes this story a bit intriguing. Why blue? What is the meaning?

According to folklorist Yagi Tōru, oni come in five colors, which are specifically related to Chinese philosophy and the five hindrances of Buddhism. Blue oni are related to the element wood and the hindrance of antipathy. Red oni are related to the element fire and the hindrance of avarice. Yellow oni are related to the element earth and the hindrance of disquietude. Green oni are related to the element metal and the hindrance of sloth. Black oni are related to the element water and the hindrance of doubt. These hindrances are problems because they disrupt both meditation and daily life.

Since this was a blue oni, it must have been born out of feelings of hostility and bitterness. The man who died is not actually named in the story, but he is called the chūnagon of Kaga Province. That refers specifically to Maeda Toshinaga, the first lord of Kaga Domain and the second head of the powerful Maeda clan of Kaga. Toshinaga suffered from syphilis late in his life, and he withdrew from society. He died in 1614 either from syphilis, or from suicide by poisoning. The intense aversion he felt due to his terrible illness, which caused him to withdraw from society, is surely responsible for causing the ao oni to appear.

The Ao Oni of Kaga Province
Long ago, when the chūnagon of Kaga Province died, all of the samurai from the three provinces of Kaga, Etchū, and Noto were packed in a great hall. That day, at dusk, an ao oni about six meters tall came out of the back room and into the hall. Then it went to the front entrance, pointed at the front gate, and left. All of the samurai from the three provinces were brave men, but all they could do was scream. Only when the oni had left through the front door did they finally put their hands on their swords.

a blue-skinned oni wearing tiger-skin pants points into the distance

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Three-Way Magic Contest in the Presence of Michinaga

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Tonight’s story features several famous figures from Japanese history: Fujiwara no Michinaga (966 – 1028), Kanshū (945-1008), Abe no Seimei (921 – 1005), and Tanba no Shigemasa (946-1011). Not much background on these figures is really necessary to understand the story, but it’s worth knowing that all three of them were established and well-regarded men of their time. Michinaga was a powerful statesman of the Fujiwara clan and the power behind the imperial throne. Kanshū was a Tendai monk  from Mt. Hiei who was appointed as a high priest under Michinaga’s reign. Abe no Seimei was an onmyōji of such fame that his name is practically synonymous with the art. Tanba no Shigemasa was a doctor, acupuncturist, and court physician to Emperor Ichijō. So this is a story about the real big names of the Heian period, and serves as a testament to how masterful their skills were—Seimei’s gift of foresight, Kanshū’s power of prayer, and Shigemasa’s surgical technique.

The Three-Way Magic Contest in the Presence of Michinaga

During the Chōtoku era (995-999 CE), high priest Kanshū of Mt. Hiei, Abe no Seimei, and the doctor Tanba no Shigemasa sat together before Minister Fujiwara no Michinaga. Some melons were served as refreshment.

Seeing them, Seimei prophesied, “One of these melons is poisonous.”

Upon hearing this, Michinaga said, “If that is the case, use your magic to tell which one of these melons has the poison.”

Kanshū faced the melons and gestured with his fingers and incanted. One of the melons moved, and that melon was immediately removed.

Shigemasa produced a needle from his pocket and stabbed the melon, and it stopped moving.

When Michinaga cut the melon open, inside was a snake. The needle had pierced the snake’s eye, and it was dead.

Michinaga was highly impressed by how well-versed all three men were in their skills.

a split open melon containing a snake that was killed by a needle through the eye

A-Yokai-A-Day: How Okushima Kengyō Climbed the Bureaucracy Thanks to a Mountain God

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Tonight’s story doesn’t feature a yokai, but a yama no kami (mountain spirit/god) instead. Well, that sort of begs the question of what is a yokai vs what is a god, and honestly that question isn’t easy to answer — but I’d say in general that if a supernatural figure is worshiped and respected, it gets to be a god, while if it’s not, it gets to be a yokai. Of course there are exceptions, but that works as a good rule of thumb. Anyway…

There’s a few other terms in this story that probably need some cultural explanations. This contains spoilers, so if you want to read the story first, skip this part now and come back afterwards.

First, sekihan, which is a kind of sticky rice mixed with azuki beans. It is considered a special dish, to be made on celebratory occasions like birthdays, holidays, and so on. In the case of this story, it is made as a religious offering.

Next, the kosode, which is a short-sleeved kimono that has evolved over the centuries, but in the time of this story it was used as an undergarment, worn directly on the skin under a kimono. This is significant, because the zatō is able to wear the same garment that a person with smallpox wore without getting sick himself. Smallpox was highly contagious, so the fact that the zatō is able to wear this kosode without contracting smallpox himself serves as a testament to his divineness in the eyes of the villagers.

And lastly, kengyō. In this story it is used like a name, but it is actually a title. Since the middle ages, certain types of work were controlled by an organization called the Tōdōza — a guild made up solely of the blind and visually impaired, which served as sort of social welfare to ensure that they could earn an income without competition from the sighted. The Tōdōza had a monopoly on several professions, including massage, playing the biwa, acupuncture and moxibustion. The Tōdōza had a very hierarchical ranking system. The highest ranking members were kengyō, followed by bettō, then kōtō, zatō, shibun, ichina, and han. At the very top was a single individual who was the sōroku kengyō (“chief administrator”). Beneath him were ten administrators called the jūrō kengyō (“ten elder administrators”), ranked from one (lowest) to ten (highest). (Often, any person in this guild was referred to as a zatō, a term we’ve seen in many yōkai stories, regardless of actual rank.) High ranking zatō could be quite powerful, serving feudal lords as doctors, scholars, administrators, and even spies. Ranking up in this system was not really a question of skill — it was a question of money. Each rank cost a certain amount of money, and you had to buy your way up the ladder. This story starts off talking about how Okushima Kengyō never ever held a single official rank; this is because he was a poor man and not due to any other reason. But due to the money he received by acting as an intermediary of this mountain god, he made enough money to rise from no rank at all at age 60, to kengyō at age 73, all the way up the the jūrō before the end of his life. In other words, he skyrocked to the 2nd highest rank of zatō in just a few years!

How Okushima Kengyō Climbed the Bureaucracy Thanks to a Mountain God

For his whole life until he was sixty years old, the man called Okushima Kengyō had never held a single official rank. He made his living doing this and that, walking place to place.

In Kumano he got lost on a mountain path, and he stopped in the shadow of a large tree to rest for a while. Then a loud voice came from the sky above the tree: “Zatō! Zatō!” it called. Okushima was startled. He lowered his head to the ground in fear.

“If you are hungry, eat this,” came the voice. And it gave him a bowl of warm sekihan.

Okushima wondered what kind of person this was, but he was so hungry and tired that he just expressed his gratitude and ate. Then the voice came again:

“Zatō, if you are cold, wear this.” And a kosode came down from the sky above the tree. Okushima took the kosode and wore it underneath his own kimono. Then the voice came from above the tree again:

“Zatō, if you want to get to the village, I will show you the way. Follow my voice.”

Okushima was grateful, and he followed the voice as it directed him here and there. At first, when he was alone, it was very difficult to walk on the boulders and stones; but when he followed the voice it was like walking on tatami mats. Before long he arrived at a village.

“Take a room at that house,” said the voice.

Okushima requested a room at the house he was shown, and the master served him a several dishes, starting with sekihan. Okushima thought it was strange that he was served sekihan again, and the master asked him, “Master Zatō, why do you seem puzzled? Tell me the reason.”

“Well, it’s just that before, when I got lost on the mountain path, I had some sekihan, and it tasted exactly the same as this sekihan.” He explained everything that happened, and showed the kosode that he was wearing under his kimono.

The master was astonished and said, “Well, this is a strange thing! My daughter will turn fifteen this year, and she recently was sick with smallpox, so I prayed to the mountain god, and then she recovered completely. So last night I made some sekihan and offered it along with the kosode that my daughter wore on her skin to the mountain god. It seems that the mountain god took a liking to you, Master Zatō.”

He then prepared a great feast and announced to the village, “Anyone who wants to pray to the mountain god should visit Master Zatō!” And so as the villagers vied with each other for his favor, Okushima was showered with silver and gold, and at the age of seventy-three he was made a kengyō, eventually rising to the rank of jūrō kengyō. He lived until the age of ninety, and he died in the 14th year of Kan’ei (1637).

a glowing bowl of sekihan sits on the forest floor

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Onryō of Abe Sōbei’s Wife

” href=”https://matthewmeyer.net/blog/2023/10/11/my-wife-draws-a-yokai-a-day-the-bakemono-of-the-outhouse-in-kasamari-omi-province/”>toilet stroker!) The fear of ghosts that come back from the grave to enact supernatural revenge on the living has been a deep part of folklore since ancient times, and as such onryō stories make up a large portion of the kaidan stories from the Heian through Edo periods, and even to today with modern horror movie ghosts modeled after these centuries-old patterns.

These stories are deliciously violent and cruel, and they really make me feel like Halloween is just around the corner. The descriptive imagery that comes forth even in these very short stories is chilling. And it somehow is even more so when the ghost’s victim seems to deserve their punishment, like in tonight’s story!

I will be taking a painting break tomorrow to rest my arm, so my wife will once again pick up the slack for tomorrow’s story!

The Onryō of Abe Sōbei’s Wife

In Hayami, Buzen Province there was a man called Abe Sōbei. He was always cruel towards his wife, and would not allow her to eat. He wife was so frustrated by this that she fell ill, but her husband would not give her medicine, and she grew even worse. She died in the spring of her nineteenth year.

In the final moments of her life, she turned to Sōbei and expressed the malice she had built over so many years. “I will never forget what you have done, no matter how many lives I live. You will soon understand,” she said, and then died.

Sōhei discarded his wife’s corpse in the mountains and did not hold a funeral. At midnight on the seventh day from her death, his wife came to his bedchambers. From the waist down she was stained with blood, her long hair loose and disheveled, her face a sickly pale green, teeth blackened, eyes glaring wide like bells, and her mouth split open like a shark’s.

She stroked Sōbei’s sleeping face with her icy hands, and as Sōbei shrunk back, his wife cackled. Then she tore the body of the woman sleeping next to him into seven or eight pieces, pulled out her tongue and tucked it into her bosom and said, “I’m leaving now. I’ll come back tomorrow night, and I’ll show you my years-long grudge.” Then she disappeared.

Sōbei was so started that he asked a high priest to recite the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and perform an exorcism. The following night he set up bows and guns at all of the house’s entrances and exits, fortified his position, and waited. At midnight, Sōbei’s wife came up behind him out of nowhere and watched him intently. Sōbei thought he felt a chill at his back, and when he turned around, she glared at him.

“Well, well, aren’t you very cautious,” she said, and she moved to stroke his face, but then suddenly turned into a terrifying figure, tore Sōbei in two, kicked all of the maidservants around her to death, kicked through the ceiling, and rose up into the empty sky.

A-Yokai-A-Day: The Attachment of Shirai Sukesaburō of Gōshū’s Daughter, and How She Became a Daija

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Tonight’s story is a sad one, with tragedy upon tragedy piling up. The yokai is called a daija, which literally means “giant snake.” However, when looking at Edo period illustrations of these stories, many times when they talk about giant snakes, the illustrators draw dragons—complete with beards, horns, spikes, even limbs. Yet other times, they draw actual snakes. Needless to say, this can be confusing. When is a snake just a snake and when is it a dragon? It’s hard to say, and folklore doesn’t seem to have a clear answer.

The Attachment of Shirai Sukesaburō of Gōshū’s Daughter, and How She Became a Daija

In the village of Tochū in Kita-gun, Gōshū, at a place called Ryūge Peak, there lived a rich farmer named Takahashi Shingorō. He had a five-year-old boy. Across the road from him was Shirai Sukesaburō, a less-wealthy farmer who had a three-year-old daughter. They were such close friends that they decided their children should someday be husband and wife, and they had them share a promissory cup of sake.

Not long after, when the boy was ten years old, Shingorō came down with a minor illness, and then died. After that, Shingorō’s family fortunes declined. Sukesaburō broke his promise and, when his daughter was fifteen years old, betrothed her to a wealthy farmer from a neighboring village.

The day of the wedding drew near. The daughter remembered that from a young age that she was betrothed to the boy in the house across the street, and she felt it was wrong to break that promise and marry someone solely based on declining wealth. She secretly sent her maidservant over to the boy across the street and called him over.

“As you know, you and I were promised to each other at a young age by our parents’ arrangement. But now I have been promised to another, and this vexes me tremendously. The wedding is to take place tonight. You must leave this place and go somewhere else, and take me with you,” she told him.

The boy replied, “I am deeply grateful for your offer, but I have been reduced to this poor state, and I absolutely do not begrudge you for that. You should marry into a good home.”

Hearing this, the girl said, “Then there is nothing else I can do.” She prepared to kill herself.

The boy was startled and held her back. “If you really feel that strongly about it, then I will accompany you anywhere,” he said. And so the two of them left together under the cover of night. However, they had made no arrangements with anyone who could help them, and so they rested in a certain place and were at a loss.

The girl said to him, “I cannot accept your offer to accompany me anywhere in the world. Let us throw ourselves into this pond, and let us meet again on a lotus leaf in the Pure Land in some distant future life.”

The boy agreed, and they joined hands as husband and wife, and became debris at the bottom of the pond.

However, somehow the boy got caught in a tree branch, and he could not sink. And just then, a passerby on the road saw him and pulled him out of the water, and he was saved. The boy believed that the reason he had unexpectedly gotten tangled in the branch was that his karma had not yet come to him. He shaved his head and became a monk, performed a funeral for the girl, and then returned home to his family.

Later, the boy’s mother traveled to Ishiyama Kannon to pray, and she saw a girl of fourteen or fifteen crying beside the Seta Bridge. She stopped to ask what was wrong.

The girl replied, “I am from a village north of here. My stepmother has been tormenting me in so many ways that I could not bear it any longer, so I came to throw myself from the bridge.”

The mother pitied her, and she told her, “Fortunately, I have a son. You can marry him.”

“Please allow me to do so!” she exclaimed.

The mother was overjoyed. She thought it was a match made by Kannon. She took the girl home, and her son and the girl were married. The son quickly forgot his sadness, and soon he and his wife were deeply in love like the hiyoku bird, and their love bore a son.

Before long, their son was three years old. One day, while her husband was away, the wife went into her room to take a nap. The boy entered his mother’s room, looked at his mother, and then cried and ran away. Then he came back in, looked at her, and cried and ran away again. He did this three times.

When the husband came home, he found this strange, and he entered the room to see what was going on. His wife had taken the form of a three meter long daija, and was fast asleep. The husband was horrified, and he called her name to wake her. The wife returned to her original form and looked at her husband.

“Well now, up until now I’ve been so careful not to show you my true form. I’m so embarrassed. I was the daughter of Sukesaburō. I was so attached to the idea of meeting you again that even death could not keep me from you. I changed back into a woman, and over the years, we have grown close to each other. Now it is over. I am sorry to leave you.” And with that, she vanished.

Afterwards, the boy incessantly asked for his mother. The husband, overcome with grief, took his son to the pond and said, “This boy longs for you so dearly, so just this once, please come and show yourself.”

Suddenly a woman appeared in the pond. She took the boy in her arms, suckled him at her breast for a short while, then bade her farewell and went back into the pond. After that, the boy yearned for his mother even more, and so once again they went together to the pond and called for her. This time she came in the form of a daija. She wiggled her red tongue, tried to swallow the boy, and then vanished. After that, the boy no longer missed his mother at all.

According to locals, the husband was so saddened by this that, afterwards, he and the child hurled themselves into the pond and died.

a serpentine dragon rises up out of a swamp and flicks its tongue

A-Yokai-A-Day: Ōishi Matanojō and the Blessing From the Chijin

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I’ve recovered enough movement in my arm to start painting again, which is a much more pleasant way to spend the day than sitting around and doing nothing.

Tonight’s yokai presents itself as another ōbōzu, but it becomes clear later that is just a form that it takes to scare Matanojō. Its actual identity is a chijin. These are local spirits that serve as tutelary deities of a specific area. Chijin are both the protector spirit and the spiritual representation of the land they rule over. It can be anything from a small plot of land, to a mountain, to even as much as an entire country. When their home is in disrepair, they may appear as angry monsters, but when their homes are well taken care of and they are worshipped and honored, they will be benevolent protector gods.

Since Matanojō was an educated, valorous, and logical samurai, he was not afraid of the ōbōzu, and was able to learn its true identity. One part of this story may be confusing to readers: There’s a scene where the ōbōzu tells him, “I am pleased that you worshiped me and vowed to enshrine me as your tutelary god for many years to come.” We don’t actually see this scene in the story, however we know that Matanojō was a properly educated and pious samurai, and we know that he repaired the house. So we can also assume that he took the time to fix up the small shrine on his property, remove the weeds, and once again pray to the spirit enshrined there. I’m not sure if this was omitted because it would be obvious to an Edo period reader, or if it was omitted because that is how the original editor heard the story and they wanted to reproduce it faithfully… But it does feel like there’s a couple of missing sentences there.

For my illustration, I chose to paint the happy chijin rather than the ōbōzu.

Ōishi Matanojō and the Blessing From the Local God
At the time of the Battle of Sekigahara, there was a rōnin called Ōishi Matanojō. He was a samurai well-versed in martial arts, especially the literary arts, devoted to Confucianism, with the heart of a poet, and with a discerning knowledge of logic and reason.

He was appointed to a military post in Izumo and given an estate by the lord, but this house had been inhabited by a bakemono for a long time, and there was nobody who could spend even one night there. Whenever somebody happened to go there, the monster would snatch them and take them away. Because of this, his friends urged him to decline this estate and request a different residence.

Ōishi replied, “As a samurai, it is no easy thing to request a change of residence out of fear of monsters. This is the type of estate that a true samurai would prefer to go to.” He took his men to the house, had them clean it up and perform repairs, and then chose an auspicious day to officially move in. After that, he decided that he would first stay overnight at the house as a test to gauge the bakemono situation, and after that he would move his wife and children in. He fortified the front gate, readied his bow, gun, spear, and his naginata, then he laid out his books on his desk and kept watch while studying.

Around midnight, a knock came at the front gate. Ōishi thought this was suspicious, and he went outside to check. There was a six-meter-tall ōbōzu, and it said, “Open this door.”

“So, this must be the bakemono,” thought Ōishi. He answered, “Who are you to tell me to open the door? Tell me your name, or I will not open the door.”

“Whoever I am, if I say ‘open this door,’ then open this door! If you don’t open it, I will stomp through it! Even if you think to strike me, I cannot be harmed by tachi or katana. Now, open this door!” replied the ōbōzu.

Ōishi felt uneasy, but he also thought it curious, as a monster should be able to get inside even without opening the door. So he opened the gate door, and a young monk of about eighteen or nineteen stepped inside.

“I see that you are concerned that I am some kind of monster. There is no need to be so anxious. I am the god who lives in the northwest corner of this estate, in front of the study. Since ancient times, all who have lived in this house have treated me with disrespect and tried to drive me away. I hated them and cursed them. This is your first time coming here. I have come to tell you that I am pleased that you worshiped me and vowed to enshrine me as your tutelary god for many years to come. From now on, I will guard your family so that your descendants will prosper. Now, my shrine is in terrible condition. You must repair it. There is a pine tree and some bamboo in front of my shrine. If you dig these up, you will find gold,” he explained kindly. Then he vanished into thin air.

Ōishi felt grateful, bowed three times, and shortly after that the dawn broke. His men and his friends all came to check on him, and as he had nothing to hide, he told them everything that happened. When the lord heard what had happened, he declared that Ōishi was a samurai favored by the gods, and he increased his salary from 300 koku to 500 koku, and made him an important advisor in the government.

Afterwards, when Ōishi dug up the spot the god told him, he found 100 gold coins. He used this gold to rebuild the shrine, and due to this great reverence, his household also flourished.

a guardian spirit appears in front of a shrine in disrepair

(My Wife Draws) A-Yokai-A-Day: The Bakemono of the Outhouse in Kasamari, Ōmi Province

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Tonight’s story is a tale that pops up time and time again in almost every prefecture. It’s the story of kurote, or the hairy hand that reaches up out of the toilet to stroke your butt while you do your business. Clearly Edo period people enjoyed potty humor as much as modern people!

I particularly enjoy this story because of the logical, even sarcastic tone it treats the monster with.

Once again my wife was kind enough to do the illustration while my arm is broken. I will have an illustration for you tomorrow, however!

The Bakemono of the Outhouse in Kasamari, Ōmi Province

In a place called Konse in Ōmi Province, there is a rural village called Kasamari. In the outhouse at a certain somebody’s house in this village, a bakemono supposedly lived, and nobody would go there. Whenever the wind blew, a hairy hand would stroke their bottom.

One person heard about this and decided he would go and see this monster for himself. He went into the outhouse and positioned himself above the toilet. Just when as the wind blew, sure enough, the bakemono’s hairy hand eagerly stroked his bottom. The man immediately thrust his hand down into the toilet to seize it, but it was a plume of pampas grass.

Because it was the countryside, pampas grass grew beneath the outhouse. When the wind blew, the plumes fluttered the wind and everybody thought that what they felt on their bottoms was a hairy hand caressing them. After that, the pampas grass was trimmed, and the stories about the bakemono stopped.

a man uses the toilet while a hairy hand tickles his rear end