Ok, I really need to get this out of the way first. I’m a bad blogger… That title is clickbait! Japan has a very rich tradition of supernatural creatures and assorted folklore and often times these so called monsters are fairly lovely folks. Certainly no worse than you see across European countries or the terrifying native American tales. I just wanted to create a nice flow with my post titles from previous years. What do you mean there’s plenty of other reasons?
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a Yokai fangirl. Is that a weird thing to be a fangirl of? You know what, you don’t need to answer that!Back to Yokai.
Although I have and do read up on the subject regularly,there are just so many Yokai that I haven’t even scratched the surface. And what better time than Halloween time to revisit one of my favourite occasionally creepy subjects?
Before we start just a few general things I’ve noticed. First there sure are a lot of specifically female Yokai types. Not that species of entirely female creatures are by any means unique to Japan, everyone loves them a magical girl, but as I was going through the lists it really seemed a bit more than expected.
Second, there are a lot of “licking” Yokai… o.k. not a lot but I have never heard of supernatural creatures whose main trait was licking things outside of Japan. There’s the Abura-akago that licks the oil out of lamps and Akaname that licks the filth from dirty bathrooms(!) and that’s just in the “A”s. This both thrills and terrifies me.
But no mare stalling, let’s move on to the main event. Here are just another small sampling of bone chilling Yokai I have never had a chance to speak about before:
Hashihime: to be honest, I’m only including the Hashihime because I wrote about Hashihime of the Old Book Town (the post will be out next week I think) and didn’t get around to describing what a Hashihime actually is. In short, it’s the ghost of a women whose husband (or lover depending on who you ask) was cheating on her. Every evening she would wait for him to return from his dalliances by the bridge near their house, seathing with jealous rage. Eventually those feelings would become so intense that she turned into a spirit that haunts bridges. Eventually more hashimes started to appear making this an actual Yokai species. women! Am I right? One particularly hilarious aspect of the myth to me, is that the Hashihimes retain their generally jealous nature and as such if you happen to say good things about another bridge while being on the bridge they are haunting they will get enraged and lash out. I’m not sure why this tidbit delights me so!
Aobozu: this is a big blue guy, often described as a monk who kidnaps children for unspecified purposes. In urban legends he’s often said to appear in school bathrooms. I’ve mentioned this before but Japan sure seems to have a specific dread of public bathrooms. If legends are to be believed, you are really much better off walking around with a chamber pot at all times…
Junbokko: are threes that grow on especially bloody battlegrounds. After sucking up all that blood in the soil they become Yokai and essentially vampires sustained on human blood. They look like ordinary trees but if an unsuspecting human wanders to close one, it will grab them, turn it’s branches into vacuum tubes and suck all the blood out of the poor victim. If you know anything about the history of… everybody… You probably know that we humans are impressively proficient at killing each other in unpleasant and juicy ways so a bloody battlefield can describe pretty much anywhere if you go back in time a bit. So just to be safe, I’m going to stay away from all trees. Seems like the only reasonable solution.
Baku: I love this guy. He actually looks like a big blue something (armadillo…fuzzy anteater?) and he eats nightmares. Which is generally a good thing. However he has a monkey’s paw deal going on. People who summon a Baku to keep them safe from bad dreams are in trouble if the stop having them because the Baku tends to have a voracious appetite and if no nightmares are available it will happily move on to eating your desires and hopes leaving you an empty husk, although a well rested one. So you know, win some loose some!
Amazake-babaa: appears to be this adorable little old lady that just wants some sweet sake and will happily request it from anyone she meets. Hecks yeah grams! You know how to enjoy life to the fullest. Retirement goals! But then, just as you’re thinking this is the peak of awesomeness and you get to party with granny when phooey, she makes you sick! Drinking buddy betrayal cuts deep! It’s the worst! If you can’t trust old drunks, who can you possibly trust? What’s scarier than shaking your fundamental belief in people?
Hannya: The Hannya are the spirit of women that have become demons due to obsession and jealousy (kind of a common theme). There’s nothing that unusual about the Yokai itself, these type of “scorned women demons” are pretty common in all mythologies it’s just that in all the stories I read, the women were pretty average. Just angry at openly cheating husband’s. Nothing really out of the ordinary as far as wrath goes. I’ve seen people do much worse when they found out their mans be creepin. Yet these women, well … they’re demons. So ladies if your dude cheats on you you better not get too pissy about it or else you know – demon! Or you can just leave. Guys, no need to worry, I have not yet found a Yokai for men angry at cheating wives. Although considering the amount of Yokai out there, there probably is one.
Binbogami I always picture this:
So Binbogami is a god! Honest to goodness god with shrines ‘n stuff, yet what blessings does it bring: misery and poverty!.. Just to be clear, that picture up there is Kofuku ebisu, a different god of poverty. How many do we need? Admittedly, there are some pretty crappy gods but being loved by this one means your pretty much doomed to hardship. Gods get their powers from us, right? Should we really be encouraging this?
Mokumokuren: are a swarm of eyes. You read that right, just a whole bunch of disembodied eyeballs that appear on shoji or tatami or even in the walls themselves, to stare at you as you try to go on with your perfectly innocent bedroom business. Picture it, super creepy right? Now it seems you can actually remove them pretty easily but it involves touching eyeballs…ewwww. Still, it’s better than the alternative since going to sleep in a house hunted by mokumokuren might have you waking up to find you’ve misplaced your own eyeballs. And have you ever tried looking for something without your eyes? It’s really frustrating!
Harionago is another evil pretty girl. There’s a few of those as well. Her peculiarity? She has very long hair tipped with thorns. She wanders the streets and smiles at young men. If they smile back at the pretty girl, she’ll attack them with her wicked hair! So ladies, if that nice young man isn’t smiling back, it’s not you, he just thinks you’re a horrible (but beautiful) monster!
Ittan-mommen: these are evil scarves you guys! I’m not kidding. They are possessed strips of cloth that wrap around their victims necks and strangle them. Just like that. Let me tell you, as someone who lives in a country where scarves are an absolute necessity half the year (and even the nonpossessed ones try to kill you once in a while) this is truly terrifying!
Man this post got out of control fast and I’m not even close to discussing all the Yokai I want. Let’s see if I manage to wait until next Halloween to resume this…
In the meantime, do you have a favourite Japanese monster? Or just a favourite monster in general?
20 thoughts on “Even Monsters are Scarier in Japan”
Yay for yōkai! My personal favorite monsters are tengū, kitsune, tanuki, and nue. I also like the auspicious “monsters”, kirin, hakutaku, and hōō!
Ooo, and I love Hanabiyori Tatami’s Twitter feed—new and original yōkai artwork every day.
During the Meiji Period, tanuki became known for being able to imitate a steam train. Train conductors working at night reported hearing an oncoming train, and frantically looking for but not seeing it. There were even reports of dead tanuki (having lost the confrontation with the real train) being found on the tracks the next day.
There is an old live action film titled “Kwaidan” (Ghost Stories) that depicts several famous tales, including one about Yuki Onna starring Japanese film superstar Nakadai Tatsuya. One of my favorite tales is about a blind biwa player who is bewitched by ghosts from the Genpei War.
A few bits of trivia regarding the above list:
The Gintama anime has a story arc (Tama Quest Arc) with an evil character named “Baku” but he has little to do with dreams, good or otherwise.
Sorry to be a drinking-buddy downer, but amazake (“sweet sake”) contains very little or no alchohol. The fermentation breaks the rice starch down into sugars, but does not make alcohol (that requires a different process).
Hannya are very popular subjects for Japanese folktales and theatre. Famous plays include “Kurozaka,” “Dojōji,” “Aoi no Ue,” and “Momijigari.” BTW, the purpose of the big white headdress (and sometimes a hood) worn by Japanese brides in traditional wedding attire is to hide her ogre horns. The headdress is called tsunokakushi, literally “horn-concealer.”
I actually an a huge fan of sweet sake as well and yes it’s water but tasty water. Love the headress trivia. Amazing!
Lol I will be sure to say wonderful things about each bridge I’m crossing haha.
Also I mean I get it, public restrooms are creepy especially at night.
True. I understand fear of bathrooms!
I kind of would accept being a well-rested husk of a person. Sleep is nice.
I appreciate that you’re a yokai fan. They seem kind of like a cross between European fairies and urban legend ghosts.
It’s kind of a catch all for everything supernatural. Including fairies from my understanding.
Hard question! But I do like a lot of kitsune youkai imagery and interpretations in fiction, so that’s what I’ll go with.
Kitsune are adorbs and fun. Great pick!
The baku is a tapir. Those weird foreign animals have weird foreign powers? (I think the Chinese had a word for tapir, but the Japanese didn’t? Not sure.) In the T. Rex song “Teen Riot Structure” there’s this verse “An ancient lord in wonder/rung upon my bell/I fed him with my nightmares/But he ate my dreams as well.” The song’s lyrics are weird, but I personally think it’s about how growing up is much like the apocalypse (imagine walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland and you have nothing to wear). The baku would be the perfect patron saint for such a horror scenario. Imagine you walk through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and you have nothing to wear, and… you don’t care!
I personally think the tapir is underappreciated in fiction, and so being heralded as a dream eater in Japan is quite fun. Long live the baku (and mundane tapirs, too).
Oh wow I had not realized it was a blue tapir. I never saw this turning into a Tapir appreciation post but I’m glad it did…
I learned about the Baku from the anime Nekogami Yaoyoruzu (in 2010; “Cat God” on Crunchy). I though it was odd that the baku (ep4) was riding a floating tapir, so I looked it up.
I’m partial to the Japanese urban legends myself. I especially like Teke Teke, the spirit of a woman who was hit by a train, leaving her legless body on the side of the tracks. Morbid as it may be, I just find the mental image of a ghost with no legs wobbling towards me at inhuman speed using both hands as terrifying and hilarious.
I gave her a Soiled pants rating: 6/5
I am a Youkai fanboy. It has to to be Nurarihyon
I had to look them up. Awesome design!
Great post Irina! Personally I’m partial to the Yuki Onna myself, mostly because winter is my favourite season and anything assosciated with that I just automatically adore. Looking forward to more yokai posts next Halloween.
I do love Yuki Ona…It’s like a beautiful abominable snow man…is that just a Canada thing? He’s a rockies big foot…
Who doesn’t love an abominable snow man? Then again the mental picture I have of them is from the old classic Doctor Who story so they’re super fluffy and cute, even if they are literal killing machines. https://tinyurl.com/y3c7nra3