Our Work is Our Play!
For this week’s Japanese theme, I decided to look for a more light-hearted creature. So far, I’ve covered guardians of Hell and Apocalypse bringers, and while Japan has no shortage of demons, such as the Oni or the Kappa, I thought we should look at the more harmless creatures of the bunch: a (literally) enchanting group known as the Tsukumogami.
Tsukumogami are a class of yokai, or strange apparitions, that roughly translates to “artifact spirit”. A popular concept that began in Japan as far back as the tenth century in various folklore, most commonly seen in connection to Shingon Buddhism, Tsukumogami are ordinary objects (typically household items) that, upon reaching their 100th birthday, receive souls and become sentient beings. These spirits are relatively harmless and very rarely descend past playful tricks and pranks upon their owners; however, if the items become torn, ripped, or in any way abused, they will become vengeful and take their rage out on their possessors. Though little more than a popular folktale today, on occasion some will perform a ceremony to appease and soothe the spirits of broken or torn older items.
Oddly enough, it is said that modern items are incapable of becoming Tsukumogami, One reason offered up is the interference of the electricity needed to power most items; another considers that most modern items today would not last long enough to reach its birthday century.
There are several very interesting Tsukumogami, ranging from the hilarious to the spooky. Here are a few of the most common still discussed today:
Chōchin-obake, or Burabura
Chōchin-obake is the paper lantern ghost, specifically the round, collapsible lanterns used in Japanese festivals. The face is formed by the paper splitting along one of the wooden ‘ribs’ of the framework, creating a gaping mouth with a long, swollen tongue that lolls and flails about. The solitary eye will pop out along the top half of the lantern. While it usually does not develop limbs, remaining content to either hang on its string or, in some legends, float on its own, sometimes the burabura will develop a set of long, gangly arms and legs. They are primarily seen in children’s stories, likely to keep children from playing too roughly or irresponsibly with a lantern at night. After all, if a lantern could come alive and swallow you whole if you shook it too much, or burst into flames or spat fire on your clothes if you banged it around, would you risk treating it poorly? The lantern ghost doesn’t actually consume your children, however – instead it is a trickster spirit, content with simply frightening people and playing mild pranks, such as moving erratically on nights with no wind or making strange noises.
Perhaps the only danger truly connected to the Chōchin-obake is what type of creature can disguise itself as the lantern spirit. Powerful and demonic spirits known as onryō, who are capable of brutal acts of violence, murder, and even natural disasters, can change their shape and take the place of the burabura in a person’s home – but this is a very rare occurrence.
Karakasa-obake is an animated umbrella. They only possess one eye and one leg, and share the same large, lolling tongue as their lantern cousins. They can only hop from place to place. They are also quite harmless, and like to play pranks, such as sneaking up on someone and delivering a long, oily lick from their massive tongue. Another common prank is to refuse to open on rainy days, or to close up suddenly when a person is walking through the rain.
While the Karakasa-obake is rather playful, it is often mistaken for its crueler cousins. One, known as the yūreigasa, or the ghost umbrella, looks identical to the karakasa; however, on windy days, it will lift its owners up into the sky and let them drop to their deaths from the heights. Another is known to float around in valleys on rainy evenings, and paralyze all who beheld it, usually leaving them to die in the cold, wet night.
The Biwa-bokuboku is an anthropomorphic being with the head of a biwa, a short-necked wooden lute. Upon reaching its 100th birthday, an extremely well crafted biwa can transform itself into the self-playing biwa-bokuboku, and grow itself a human body, though it lacks eyes and sight. It wanders the night in fine kimonos with a cane. If the instrument is treated with great care and respect in its hundred years, then it will play the most beautiful music softly in the night. However, if it feels it is being ignored or unused for a longer period of time, then it will wander the house at night and play loudly out of boredom. Sometimes, it will even throw loud slumber parties with other nearby tsukumogami out of spite. And on rare occasions it will leave its home and search for other biwa-bokubokus to spend time with.
The Koto-furunushi is perhaps the most benevolent and harmless of the tsukumogami, as well as the most easily dismayed. It is very similar to the biwa-bokuboku in that it, too, is an instrument that plays at night. The Koto-furunushi is made up of the Koto, the national instrument of Japan similar to a zither. Once it turns 100, it develops a demonic face at one end, and its strings detach themselves and move freely, resembling a mane. However, its appearance belies its nature by far. When it is no longer played after a long life of use and production, the koto-furunushi will play in empty rooms, and cause anyone in the near vicinity to wonder at the mysterious music. It remembers every song that was ever played on its surface, and enjoys performing ancient, mournful songs that no one in the current day and age has ever heard before. If it is not passed down through the family, then it will wander off on its own and find a new one.
The Bakezōri, or ghost sandal, is one of the most irritating spirits. It possesses two arms and two legs, but only one eye, and a very large mouth. It starts life as a zori, or a straw sandal, that has been horrendously mistreated, battered, and later forgotten by its wearer. They are incredibly loud at night, and they often run about and cause havoc in the house. While they do so, they like to scream, “Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai!” (“Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Eyes three and teeth two!“), which references their “eyes” (where the sandal straps are attached) and their “teeth” (the wooden platforms on the underside of the sandal). Otherwise, they will only screech and sing silly nonsense songs and phrases.