Monday, 15 June 2009

Japanese Creatures II: Bakemono and Tsukumogami

Hello and welcome to The Obscuritan. This week we continue our tour of the critters of supernatural Japan with the Bakemono and, because we're so nice, the Tsukumogami as well.

What distinguishes the Bakemono from creatures such as the Yokai is that, rather than born-and-bred creatures of a certain species which in some cases happen to appear human (mostly in order to prey upon or mock them), the Bakemono are initially ordinary humans or objects. However, the residue of strong emotions, particularly violent ones such as hatred, causes these creatures to develop in strange ways. In the case of humans this emotion is one that drove it in life or tainted its death. While objects can’t feel these emotions, they can, in certain circumstances, absorb them.


As you can imagine, the Battlefield is one such circumstance where both objects and humans both experience these kind of emotions. A couple of Bakemono particularly associated with these paces include:


Wandering alone or in groups in remote fields late at night are small furry creatures that shuffle around in the long grass. On closer inspection, these creatures have torn ropes for limbs and the footplate of a sirrup for a mouth. The Abumi-Guchi are in fact these stirrups, broken off in the heat of some ancient battle and never collected by their slain masters. These abandoned objects crawl around the battlefields to this day.


Occurring not only in battlefields but also in other places where one finds large heaps of anonymous corpses. The bones of these beings, left stewing in their own rage and rotting remains eventually become one collective entity, driven by their hatred of the living. These bones join together, as one colossal skeleton or a construction of individual bones, hunting and devouring living humans, adding their bones to their bodies. One of these creatures famously occurs in Kuniyoshi’s painting “Mitsukuni defying the skeleton spectre invoked by princess Takiyasha”. Here, it is an apparition of a single, large skeleton, which looms over the horizon similar to the Kerakera-onna (more on her next time).


While the Odokuro was formed from the bones of dead soldiers, the blood of those slain and wounded in battle can also transmit their rage. Soaking into the soil, taking the anguish and battle-lust with it, it is soaked up into the roots of trees, infecting them in turn. These trees outwardly show no sign of change, and indeed appear fully nourished. However, should one seek shelter underneath this tree, its branches will snatch you up and drain you of your own blood, your bones left to feed its roots.


Similar to the Odokuro we have discussed, this being has only been seen once, and for a very good reason. Taira no Kiyomori, a warlord of the 12th Century, rose to power through a series of bloody battles, famously warring against the Minamoto clan and establishing what would go on to be the Shogunate government system. All this war, however, produced a lot of casualties, and upon one occasion it seems some of them took it upon themselves to highlight this, appearing in his garden in a great horde before rolling together and staring at him ominously. Taira, unperturbed, stared right back until they left. Hiroshige depicted these skulls as appearing from the very trees and rocks of the garden itself – see if you can spot ‘em all.


While furious death in battle are the surest way to an unhappy afterlife, there are other means of becoming a Bakemono. Some even become these entities while still alive, and appear to be human to outward appearances.


Unlike many Bakemono, the man who becomes one of these creatures is entirely a victim of circumstance. All his life, this farmer lovingly tilled his fields of crops, putting his sweat and tears of effort into it to produce crop after healthy crop until the day he dies. Trouble is, his descendents have fingers far less green, and promptly let the field go to waste. However, the furious spirit of the farmer returns to the field it tended, rising from the waist up from the mud and howling in its fury for the return of its land.


This female Bakemonois primarily fuelled by greed. Throughout Japanese history, large portions of the population were living in deep poverty, and for some women (and in a few stories men) their own hunger was more important to them than that of their families, particularly any stepchildren or foster-children. This hunger never truly leaves them, however, as a second mouth, ravenously hungry, grows from the back of their head. Long snaking tendrils of hair will reach out as the creature sleeps, devouring the piles of food that it otherwise ceases to eat during the day.


Walking the road at night, one might encounter a woman brushing her long, long hair. If you strike her fancy, she may laugh at you. Laugh back, and she will chase you down and dismember you with the razor-sharp hooks on the end of her long hairs.


Ohaguro means Blackened Teeth, a common practice amongst soon-to-be-Brides, and a mouthful of blackened teeth is the distinguishing feature of this female creature, and indeed the only feature on its blank, smooth face. Unlike the Nopperabo we looked at last time, this creature’s appearance is a result of its own resentment of married women – in some stories it is the merchant who sells the squid ink for blackening, in others an unattractive (therefore unmarried) woman.

A similar creature, the Ao-Nyōbō lurks in abandoned castles. Like the Ohaguro-bettari, she has blackened teeth, but also dresses in Heian courtly robes, and devours any young men who pass her way. Curiously, lends its name to a sexual slang term for a woman faint from, *ahem*, “over-activity” with a well… equipped husband.


Another predominantly female variety of Bakemono, and another one that has suffered a mis-labeling (once again, blame Lafcadio Hearn). Of the two similar types of creature, the Rokuro-kubi is the better known. While otherwise a normal woman, who perhaps is a little shy, but can have families and children in the usual fashion, at night the sleeping head reawakens, and stretches itself out via its long, rubbery neck in order to explore. It feeds on insects at night, though in some tales it absorbs the Qi energy from other sleeper's breath.

The other variety of note is the Nuekubi - this being is the same, but in local legend these women detach their heads entirely and float about their business. Hearn noted that, if the body was moved from its sleeping place and hidden, the head could not find it, and would dash its head against the ground until it died.


This Bakemono, literally the "Iron Rat", dates back to the Heian period and a monk named Raigo. Raigo died as a result of a hunger strike - the local Lord promised the temple would be refurbished if the monks prayed for a royal son, but the due reward was stalled by political rivalries. The end result was that the monk's gnawing hunger and anger at the rival temples led to his rebirth as Tesso, a huge, mansized Rat in monk's clothing, who also commanded swarms of normal rodents. These rats proceeded to devour their way through a large portion of the Enryaku temple's Buddhist artifacts before being sealed underground. However, rats are nothing if not born survivors.


Originally found in Kyoto during the Heian period, but encounters have been reported across Japan since then. A certain local Baron, corrupt and tyrannous, was assassinated one day as he was traveling in a horse-drawn carriage. His sheer indignant fury at being cut down led to his being reincarnated as a burning cartwheel with a roaring human head in the centre. He now tears down from the mountains on certain nights and speeds through the main street of town in the dead of night, and any who cross his path or even look upon him are instantly incinerated.


The clue to these being’s natures are in the name, the characters of which (付喪神) can also be read as “99 Gods”. When a well used and/or beloved household object reaches 100, or in some cases when it is thrown away, the emotions invested in that object of love and respect lead to it taking on a life of its own. Usually merely choosing to embark on a campaign of mischief, enjoying their new-found lives, sometimes they bear a grudge against the people who threw them away. They are often drawn out for the Night Parades through the city at certain times of the year (See last month’s article). Dolls, being the most humanlike of these objects, have for many years been taken to the Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple in Tokyo for the Ningyo Kuyo ceremony. Here, they are thanked for a lifetime of happy memories, before being burned and sent on to the afterlife, and into the arms of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Kannon.

Many of these creatures occur often in artwork and stories throughout the years. Some of the more frequent include:

Bake-Zori – A discarded sandal which scampers through the house muttering to itself.

Biwa-bokuboku – An enchanted Biwa lute that can only be played by certain people.

Boroboro-Ton - A ratty old bedding sheet, which presses down upon the sleeper and suffocates them.

Bura-bura – A ripped, ragged lamp which floats in the air spewing fire.

Kameosa – A bottle of Sake which, having received a good life from its many owners, is benevolent to humans, providing an unlimited amount of whatever fluid is put in.

Kara-kasa - A battered umbrella with a hairy leg for a pole, a long tongue and a cyclopean eye.

Kosode no Te - A child's Kimono, handed down for years but often the first thing to be pawned in hardship, it channels the will of those who used to wear it.

Koto-furunushi – Another enchanted instrument, a doglike creature born from a Koto (slide-guitar).

Mokumoku Ren – A battered screen door in abandoned houses, which glares at those who sleep behind it with eyes in its holes.

Seto Taisho – Soldiers made of cutlery which attack Kitchen staff. Mostly harmless, and prone to dashing itself apart when it charges, only to piece it together and start again.

Shamisen-choro -

There are, however, some which are unique. These two panels come from a children’s book featuring the Hyakki Yako night parade. From what we can tell, one of the creatures on the left is born from a Calligraphy brush, and one of the two on the right from rolls of Yen coins. They don’t appear to have a name, and since they come from a children’s book, we wouldn’t hold out much hope on their being from Ancient Lore or Legend, just perhaps from a house where people don’t take enough care of their things.

Since this article's a little earlier than last week, we'll give the Henge a separate article this week as well. Trust us, there's so much lore on them, they need all the space I can give 'em.


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  2. hi! I would like to know if you could give me some tips on books about japanese folklorical creatures. thks!

  3. Some of the more useful ones i've found are U.A. Casal's "The Goblin Fox and Badger and other witch animals of Japan" which you can get in PDF form pretty easily. Hiroko Yoda's "Yokai Attack!" is good too, and Stephen Addiss' "Japanese Ghosts and Demons" is very in-depth and scholarly. Hope that helped!

  4. These are delightful! I'm a long time collector of japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e), especially those with ghosts, witches and other magical creatures, and found information explaining several of them here. Many thanks!