October Mythology Special: Kuchisake-Onna, or What Happens When Ghost Stories Get Too Real

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You’re walking down a dark street at night. Mist is starting to cover the ground making the road ahead of you hard to see. Suddenly you see the shadow of a woman step out of the mist and walk towards you. She looks like a fairly normal Japanese woman and is wearing a surgical mask to cover her face. That in and of itself isn’t weird as many people in Japan wear masks when they are sick or for various other reasons. The woman continues to walk towards you, and when she is close enough for you to see her face clearly, she asks, “Am I beautiful?” Not wanting to be rude, you answer “Yes”. The woman takes hold of her mask, pulling it down to reveal a mouth that has been slit open ear-to-ear, and asks, “Even now?” You have just met the Kuchisake-onna, how do you answer? Be careful, if you answer wrong, you could end up looking like her. Continue reading

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October Mythology Special: Gashadokuro, the Hungriest of Ghosts

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Japan is known for its hungry ghosts, yurei who come back to haunt those who have wronged them or come back to fulfill some unfulfilled purpose before they can move on. In the last post, we had the Manekute no Yurie or the beckoning hand that appears sticking out of empty rooms, and will only go away once its wants are fulfilled or someone reads it some sutras. However, the the Manekute no Yurei is a fairly benevolent ghost despite its hunger. Hunger can be an extremely powerful force especially when put into the perspective of starvation and famine, and that’s where tonight’s ghostly story comes from. The Gashadokuro is the hungriest ghost of all and one of the most dangerous of the yurei who walk the darkened streets of Japan. You definitely don’t want to meet this one, but if you do there’s only one thing you can do…..run. Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Jorogumo/Tsuchigumo and Indigenous History

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Japan Powered recounts one story about a curious thing that happened to a logger out in the forest: “One day a logger was going about his work. Since logging is an exhausting business, seeing as how this was Edo period Japan and the chainsaw hadn’t been invented yet, the man decides to take a short break. He hears the crash of a waterfall nearby, and decides that sitting on the stream bank and watching the waterfall would be a pleasant way to spend his lunch break. However, no sooner has the man settled himself and unpacked his food than a strange something attaches itself to his foot! Puzzled, the man pulls the sticky substance off. He sees that it is something like spider silk. He sticks the stuff to a nearby log. A moment later, the log goes zipping across the stream bank, only to disappear beneath the churning waters of the waterfall. Not a little spooked, our logger decides it’s best to take his lunch break elsewhere and he beats a hasty retreat back into the woods.” Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Raiju/Raijin and the Superstitions around Belly Buttons

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Never clip your nails at night. Make sure to hide your thumbs when a funeral procession goes by. Don’t whistle at night or you’ll invite a snake into your home. These are just a few of many superstitions that can be found in Japanese culture used to scare children into good behavior. Another common one you may hear is “always cover your belly button when thunder is rumbling.” It’s very obviously a cautionary tale to prevent children from getting sick when the temperature drops during a storm, but what are the mythological and cultural origins of this phrase? Why thunder and why belly buttons in particular? Continue reading

October Mythology Special: The Legends Surrounding Sun Showers

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A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan has in it an enchanting story of a very particular wedding, a fox’s wedding. He tells of two young, white foxes here: “Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, of course, received the customary fee in copper cash.

“When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while. After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.” Continue reading

October Mythology Special: The Multifaceted Nature of Oni

In Noriko Reider’s Japanese Demon Lore, she recounts one curious tale of an Oni: “Shuten Dōji, the chief of an oniband, lives on Mt.Ōe. During the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Shuten Dōjiand his oni band abduct people, particularly maidens, enslaving them and eventually feasting on their flesh and drinking their blood. The concerned emperor orders the warrior hero Minamoto no Raikō and his men to stop the abductions by vanquishing Shuten Dōji and his band of oni followers. Raikō and his men disguise themselves as yamabushi (mountaineering ascetics) and by means of guile, deception and some divine help, they eliminate Shuten Dōji and his oni band. There are many theories regarding the origins of the Shuten Dōji legend, including the notion that Shuten Dōji and his fellow oni were nothing more than a gang of bandits who lived on Mt.Ōe, or that Shuten Dōji was a Caucasian man who drifted to the shore of Tanba Province (present-day Kyoto) and drank red wine.”(20) Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Nurikabe (The Wall Yokai)

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This edition of October Mythology Special comes with a true story from a pretty famous mangaka: Mizuki Shigeru, the creator of GeGeGe no Kitaro. Everything is Scary recounts his story on their site: “In his historical memoir, Showa, Mizuki depicts an encounter that brought him incredibly close to the most senseless of all deaths. While in Papua New Guinea, alone in the pitch dark of night, the young soldier encountered an invisible wall that he could feel with his hands. It compelled him to stop and he slept the night, only to awake next to a cliff’s edge. Mizuki credits the spectral wall, a yōkai called Nurikabe, for his survival. ‘“If the Nurikabe hadn’t been there,” he writes, “I would have run straight off into the darkness and died.’”

There has been another more recent encounter in 2005 as well in the famous Aokigahara forest by the medium Yuuko Sou during the filming for a TV program. Tofugu recounts: “She and the TV crew were just about to enter the forest when a blurry, wall-like thing allegedly rose from the ground, as if the spirits of the dead had come together to say, No further! If you’ve come to commit suicide, you can’t enter!Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Zashiki Warashi

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“About 600 years ago, a warrior was fleeing forces from the south when he discovered and befriended two six-year-old brothers. The oldest brother came down with a deadly illness, and succumbed after swearing to protect his home – the land of Ryokufuso Inn. When the owners and visitors of Ryokufuso Inn began noticing strange occurrences such as the sound of child’s laughter and footsteps, objects moving on their own accord, and almost nightly incidents of sleep paralysis, they believed the spirit of the boy had settled as a zashiki warashi. In order to please the zashiki warashi, the owners collected toys and placed them in the front parlour tatami room. As well as toys suddenly springing to life, ghostly orbs are often captured on film.”

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The story above is about a real inn in Iwate that seems to be blessed with the spirit of a zashiki-warashi. I say blessed because these kinds of youkai are often seen as a sort of good luck charm to the families that they haunt, with the disappearance of a zashiki warashi from the home as a sign of bad luck. The zashiki warashi is a kind of house youkai, with zashiki referring roughly to the tatami room of a traditional Japanese house and warashi meaning small child. This youkai always appear as small children, and never adults, often between the ages of 3 to 15 years old. They are mainly known for the mischief that they cause rather than their appearance, but when you do see them, they often appear in kimonos if they’re girls and more patterned or striped outfits if they’re boys. They are also often depicted with short straight hair in a bob-cut.

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The origins of the zashiki warashi may come from the need to come up with an explanation to small children why their family’s fortunes have waned, but there are few other more historical origins it may be pulling from as well. The Book of Yokai by Michael Foster mentions that the basis of these legends might stem from the practice of infanticide in Japan that happened through at least the eighteenth century. A dead infant may not be necessarily memorialized like a more grown child would be, so they were often buried under the floors of houses and though to become a sort of guardian spirit because of it. Hyakumonogatari points to a similar yet more specific origin: the history of the relationship between the people of the Tono region and Yamabito. It is said that the men of Yamabito would often raid the villages of Tono, either raping or kidnapping local women. Any children born of these raids would either be hidden away in the depth of the house or killed if they became too much of a burden. The hiding away of these children and subsequent infanticide seems like a logical basis to the zashiki warashi legends.

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There are quite a few zashiki warashi characters in anime and manga, but as I haven’t seen all of these shows, I’m going to point to three that I have noticed in the past couple months of reading manga and watching anime. One of the more recognizable characters in recent anime seasons would be Ougon-douji from Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits. Ougon-douji is the owner of the two different inns featured in the anime, Tenjin-ya and Orio-ya, and she maintains a role as innkeeper and mistress mostly at Orio-ya. She is very clearly a zashiki warashi and is named as such in the show by the characters. Her appearance is similar as well with one key difference: her hair is blond instead of black. But she is pictured a lot wearing a traditional kimono, short hair in a bob cut, fairly young looking, and carrying a child’s toy. Ougon-douji also has the ability to bless certain places with good luck, which Aoi find out when she gets a huge influx of customers to Moonflower after she shows up.

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My next example is a little less clear, but still referred to as a zashiki warashi in the story itself. I’m talking about the Zashiki Warashi in XXXHolic. She’s a little less clear because when we first meet her, she doesn’t really look like a typical depiction of this youkai. For one, she’s on the high age range, looking to be around 15 years old maybe. She’s also wearing non-traditional clothes with a more Western looking winter outfit. Her hair is also longer, but it is straight and black so that fits fairly well. There’s no real reference to her bringing good luck or taking up residence in a house or building, but there may be a slight reference to the origins of the myth by saying she usually lives deep in the mountains secluded from other people, which may be referring to Yamabito or Toho and the way their regions were fairly secluded. CLAMP definitely took a few liberties when they chose to use this myth, but I think it’s a fairly clear depiction especially when we get to scenes of her in a traditional kimono.

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The last one I want to bring up may or may not be the case. This is a personal theory of mine on the origins of this character, but I do think it works. I’m talking about Kitaro from GeGeGe no Kitaro. I have to admit I don’t know much about the history of this series, so this very well could have been the intended thought behind his character design. My thoughts on Kitaro being a zashiki warashi come mainly from his appearance. For one, his hair is short and cut into a bob or bowl cut. He’s also wearing fairly traditional clothes with his sleeveless top shirt in a striped pattern. There’s no real reference to similar abilities of good luck, but I think it’s safe to say that at least his character design may have been based off of the look of the zashiki warashi.

Let me know what your favorite characters are that are based off of zashiki warashi in anime and manga, and join me next time for more myths and legends in the October Mythology Special.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~


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Kamisama Kiss: Season 2 Anime Review

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Kamisama Kiss continues with Nanami’s story as she settles more into her role as land god of Mikage Shrine. The previous season followed her as she was abandoned by her father and kicked out of her home to wander the streets looking for a place to stay. After saving a mysterious man from a dog, she was gifted with the powers and responsibilities of a god. Now Nanami has to toe the line between human and god as spirits, youkai, and other gods come to her with their troubles and wishes. In this season, with the help of her fox-youkai familiar Tomoe, Nanami travels to distant places to meet with gods, save a man from the netherworld, and help a community of Tengu. But will her growing feelings for Tomoe start to get in the way?

If you haven’t already read my review for season one, go here before continuing.

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