Parts 1 and 2 had more than a month between them. Part 3? Well hey! Actually, this post was going to be Part 2 – I was waiting for one little figure to arrive while I brokered a deal for the remaining bottle caps. But that figure got held up in customs, and the bottle caps arrived, so it worked out this way.
A Netsuke is basically a belt clasp for an obi. Traditionally, they are awesome little works of art, and if you can see some real ones up close, do so! They are gorgeous! A lot of Yokai figures have been released as pseudo-netsukes… which for all practical purposes means that they are cell phone charms.
That’s oddly awesome. Anyway! Most of these are Kaiyodo’s faux-netsukes, and a couple are dioramas from a company I can’t quite identify, but I picked them up a long time ago. And there is at least one Monster in my Pocket in the mix, because they made a figure of Umibozu. Besides, this is a nice opportunity to revisit things like Tengu, and also explore other famous monsters like the Oni. So let’s get to it!
What is an Oni? Well, it’s an ogre. Or a demon. Or a troll. or a monster. Or maybe a ghost. Or a goblin. Oni are easily the most common Yokai out there, surpassing even Kappa or Tengu in appearances. They certainly serve a fairy tale monster role, especially when they hide out n the mountains and terrorise people – there are plenty of unique named Oni filling this role, such as Shuten-Doji. Some others have authority over the spirit realm, such as Chirizuka-Kaioh. Still others torment sinners in hell, such as those dudes in Dragon Ball Z.
Oni come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of them look like animal men or animal-headed men, but this depiction has simply vanished over the years. Lots of them even come with two heads, or three eyes, or extra fingers, but the most popular depiction by far is that of a gigantic, blue or red-skinned horned ogre wearing a tiger-skin loincloth and wielding a massive kanabo club.
In fact, “Oni with an iron club” is a colloquialism for something practically invincible! n Oni’s color may or may not have significance, but often the contrast between red and blue Oni is that the red one will be more hotheaded and violent, while the blue Oni is calmer and smarter.
And of course, we can’t ignore the Namahage. In certain parts of Japan, one way to celebrate the new year is to dress a villager up as an Oni and go from house to house, angrily asking if there are any naughty kids so he can kill and eat them. The parents then manage to placate the evil Oni with booze, and he leaves… until next year. Man, when I was a kid my parents just told me to behave. If a giant alcoholic ogre demon wanted to eat me, I’d have cleaned up my act much more!
So, Oni are pretty ubiquitous – if you need a big monster, you’ve got an Oni! here are even Tsukumogami oni, such as the ones spawning from a spoon or a whistle. But not all of them are evil – some are wise and quiet. Others are simply wild and savage. Most Oni are pretty mean, though, so you’d better watch out.
And of course, defeating an Oni is a pretty big thing… but it’s really part of their generic Ogre depiction. Oni are big, bad monsters, so a hero should be able to take ‘em out. And this has spread to the point where the Japanese version of hide-and-seek is called “Chase the Oni,” which clearly does not cast the monster as intimidating.
So, Tengu started out as dog-men, and then became bird-men, right? But what about the long-nosed weirdos? Let’s talk long-nosed Tengu!
Tengu are greedy troublemakers who have big noses. Wow, if Japan weren’t so isolated, I’d say this has horrible connotations. But it doesn’t, so haha! Actually, Oni with humanoid faces (or masks) ad long noses are often more likely to be wise or at least not evil. This probably comes from anthropomorphizing them. Sure, maybe it’s a mask, or maybe a disguise, or maybe a face… but now that Tengu look more like people, they get to be protective spirits and martial art teachers!
Based on (read: identical to) the Hindu god Yama, King Enma is often included among the Yokai despite being a god, not a demon or monster. Enma is the god who judges the dead. He decides if you go to Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Nirvana, or back into the great Wheel of Reincarnation. He is kind of terrifying, even if they did make him out to be a big goofball in Dragon Ball Z.
In Noh theater, demons are represented by a Hannya mask – a hideous grinning visage that almost looks sad from the right angle. And of course, it has a demon attached to it.
A Hannya is a female demon, often formed through twisted feelings of obsession and jealousy. She is filled with vicious, enomous rage, but also wracked with sorrow and guilt. Her hatred has turned her to the path of evil, and she will cause pain and death, but there is always that conflict in the background.
As is probably obvious, Sagari is a horse ghost, specifically the spirit of a horse who died on the roadside and was left to rot. Before it could ascend from this plane of existence, its fear and pain confused it until it was trapped in a tree. The poor thing… Sagari looks like a horse’s head attached to a single tendril-like tail. Some accounts also give it a hand or extra eyes, but the head and tail are the most important part.
Sagari hangs from a tree branch by either hand or tail, waiting for innocent passerby to come walking past. It then drops down, still dangling only by the hand or tail, and screams! Yes, horses scream. If you hear the scream of the Sagari, you may end up coming down with a virulent fever. Godfather, eat your heart out!
The demon of a hundred eyes, Hyakume is superficially similar to Nuppeppo – it’s a big blobby lump of fat with limbs. The difference is, Hyakume is covered with eyes! A hundred eyes! They often haunt abandoned shrines and similar places, and are mostly harmless. Mostly. When a Hyakume sees somebody, it might detatch one of its eys and throw it at the person. The eye will then latch on and watch for criminal activity. A theory is that this comes from the habit of marking criminals in general… or maybe just glue-eyes.
I discussed this guy at length in the first Yokai installment, but here’s a refresher – it is a harmless, albeit smelly, lump of fat. They like disrupting social gatherings before fleeing. Silly, silly Nuppeppo!
Azuki-Arai, literally “The Red Bean Washer,” is related to azuki beans. You know, the sweet red beans in Chinese and Japanese desserts. And Azuki-Arai washes them. Got it?
Azuki-Arai looks like an odd old man, usually green-skinned. He can often be found washing his beans in the river and singing,
“Shoki-shoki! Shall I wash my beans or find a human to eat?”
(Shoki-shoki is an onamatapaeia for the sound beans make when you wash them)
But don’t worry! He’s harmless! If you approach Azuki-Arai, he will scream and run away. He isn’t very effective at eating people.
Hey look, it’s a wooden fish! No, really. Mokugyo are wooden fish… sorta. It’s a type of wooden drum used in Chinese and Japanese Buddist temples. They originally resembled fish, but soon morphed into these odd things. Although the last Mokugyo was bat-winged and shar-toothed, this one just looks kind of lazy.
And so, spiders. There are lots of spider Yokai out there, from the Jorogumo lady to the Ushii-Oni ox. But Tsuchigumo is its own creature, patterned after the beefy Purseweb Spiders.
Tsuchigumo is actually an ethnic slur against Japan’s indigeneous people – “dirt spider” – and the term preexisted the monster, though thankfully the Yokai has mostly managed to displace its original use. As a monster, it is a gigantic house-sized spider with shapeshifting abilities. One famous story involves a samurai defeating a Tsuchigumo and cutting it open, only to find hundreds of skulls and other human remains spilling out of its carcass. Take that, arachnophobia!
No, this isn’t a shih tzu, it’s Keukegen! Keukegen is one of the ghosts that manifests when your house is dirty. It’s a big pile of fur, usually with a moustache. Keukegen are shy but kind of friendly, and certainly not malicious… but they are filthy and disease-ridden, so having one around is just bad for you. Keep your house clean, otherwise this adorable little guy will kill you!
Japan’s mythology has borrowed liberally from China, which stole wholesale from India. You can see this in a few instances – Buddhism was originally Indian, and some other creatures like the Monkey King or Garuda or the Asuras or Rakshasa also came from India originally. One such figure is the Preta, or Hungry Ghost. Preta has a variety of names, but in Japan it is known as Gaki, the Cannibal Ghost.
Gaki is the ghost of a glutton, or a greedy man, or even a cannibal. In its original incarnation, it was alway hungry but had a throat too small to swallow anything. But the Yokai is much more sinister. Gaki is truly a cannibal, and will devour any person it sees. Yet it knows how horrible this is, and cannot help itself, turning it into a rather tragic figure. There is a festival in August in which some faithful Buddhists give up offerings to release Gakis from their torment.
An Otoroshi’s name pretty much means “Big, scary thing.” And it certainly is! Otoroshi is a terrible beast of hair, fangs, and claws! But Otoroshi serves a purpose. Aside from just random monstrous destruction, Otoroshi often rests atop a temple’s gates, waiting to see who would pass by. If an impious or sinful person tries to go into the temple, otoroshi pounces and eats him up! Sometimes they also eat birds.
Bakeneko, or Nekomata, is a type of demon cat – sometimes they grow twin tails as a sign of what they are, but other times they simply remain catlike. A Bakeneko can breathe fire, devour human flesh, and raise the dead as zombies, which is pretty close to being an ordinary cat.
Sogenbi is a flying, burning head! He is the ghost of Sogen, a monk who foolishly and wickidly stole too much cooking oil. And thus, he is doomed to forever be tormented…
…Hey, wait a second. I think I know where this story came from. I have an idea that it might have been an object lesson to stop some monks from using too much oil. Y’know, lead the kid out at night, have somebody swing around a big fiery ball in the distance, and then tell him, “This is what’ll happen to YOU if you don’t shape up!”
Possibly the most famous and terrifying of all sea monster Yokai, Umibozu is also one of the most mysterious. Nobody truly knows what it looks like, as all that has ever been seen is its head – massive, the size of a small island, and pitch black except for the eyes. This tremendous kraken-esque demon will rise from the depths and conjure up a hurricane, making some sort of strange demand of the crew of a boat – for example, giving it a barrel which it then fills with water and uses to drown them. In order to escape Umibozu, you have to outsmart it. In the case of a barrel, just give him one without a bottom so he cannot fill it up.
Tenjoname, the Ceiling-Licker, is an odd lizardlike Yokai clad in strips of paper that licks ceilings. This is what it does. It will lick your ceiling until their is a discolored patch, thus explaining it as a supernatural monster thing, and not the fault of people who don’t clean their house. That stain isn’t water damage, it’s a ghost!
Yosuzume are the Night-Sparrows, litte bird Yokai who mostly come out at night. Mostly. They like to approach lonely travelers on mountain roads, chirping merrily at them. The only problem is, sometimes they can possess a man and do mischief! But usually, Yosuzume are friendly little birdies, and are just curious.
Amefurikozo is a ghost that looks like a little boy wrapped up in a big umbrella! Yes, he is an umbrella spirit, but he isn’t the same as the one-eyed umbrella ghost you see everywhere. Amefurikozo works for the rain gods, and tends to show up whenever it is raining very heavily. or of course, you know, it could just be that some people saw some kids with umbrellas and made up a ghost.
Oh yeah, and that paper lantern with a tongue is a spirit of its own, called Burabura.
Speaking of children, one of the most famous childlike Yokai is Tofukozo, the Little Tofu Boy. Although sometimes he is one-eyed and other times he has a super long tongue, 99% of the time he just appears as a small bald child carrying a plate of tofu festooned with a maple leaf. Tofukozo will walk up and ask if you would like some free tofu. In the oldest legends, Tofukozo is harmless, but many stories also state that eating his tofu will give you quite a lethal case of food poisoning. That’s what you get for accepting food from strangers!
Hilariously, Tofukozo may have originally been an advertising mascot for tofu houses in Edo. But all it takes is one meme-ish trend, and a new Yokai is born!
This is the story of Hoichi the Earless!
Hoichi was a blind minstrel whose skills with the Biwa lute were without equal. One day, a samurai approached him and asked him to play for an audience of noblemen. So Hoichi went and performed to great success. The samurai returned the next day and led him again… and again, and again. Every time, his audience was anonymous, but they loved his music.
After a while, his friend, a local priest, noticed that he kept disappearing night after night, and followed him… only to find Hoichi playing in an empty cemetary!
So the priest covered Hoichi’s body with protective symbols to hide him from ghosts, and the next night the phantom samurai could not find him. Except… the priest had fogotten to inscribe symbols on Hoichi’s ears, which the samurai saw and tore off. Poor Hoichi recovered from this in time, and thus freed from the spirits, he made a name for himself as a famous musician.
I still have yet to show off an ordinary Tanuki (raccoon dog), but here’s a special story about one in particular!
Bunbuku Chagama (happiness bubbling over like a teapot) is the story of a travelling merchant who one day found a Tanuki stuck in a trap. Feeling compassion for the poor creature, he freed it. So, the Tanuki, as a show of gratitude, turned itself into a teapot and told the man to sell it for money.
So he did, selling the transformed Tanuki to a monk. But when the monk tried to boil tea in his pot and clean it with a wire brush, the Tanuki decided that this was unbearable, half-transformed back, and ran away, leaving the monk very confused. It returned to the first man, and decided to try something new – they set up a travelling show, “Come see the tightrope-walking teapot!” And they were happy forever.
Most fairy tales really have no point.
Well, that’s it for this installment! Are there more Yokai figures out there? Why yes – at least four netsukes, and a lot of stuff based on GeGeGe No Kitaro, the manga series that revived interest in Yokai in Japan. In fact, you should check out that series and the life of the remarkable man who created it sometime.
Well, there really is no telling when I will gather up enough stuff for another entry. I have really enjoyed the chance to research and prattle on about these things, and the reception has been really positive, so don’t be surprised if you see more soon!