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Himamushi nyūdō

Himamushinyuudou火間蟲入道
ひまむしにゅうどう

TRANSLATION: oven bug monk
HABITAT: houses; specifically under the floorboards
DIET: lamp oil

APPEARANCE: Himamushi nyūdō is a grotesque yōkai which lives under floorboards and crawls out at night time. It vaguely resembles a Buddhist monk, but it has a long neck, sharp claws, a body covered in thick, dark hair, and a very long tongue which it uses to lap up the oil from lamps.

INTERACTIONS: Himamushi nyūdō bothers people who are working hard or studying late at night by jumping out of the darkness and scaring them.  Although it doesn’t directly attack people, its presence is disturbing enough. It blows out the lights suddenly, and it licks up the precious lamp oil, making it difficult to continue working.

ORIGIN: According to Toriyama Sekien’s description of this yōkai in Konjaku hyakki shūi, himamushi nyūdō is born from those who were lazy in life, carelessly wasting time from birth to death.

The word “oven bug” in its name is probably a reference to cockroaches. The hima kanji in this yokai’s name can also be read kama—and likely refers to the kamado, a traditional Japanese oven. Cockroaches have quite a few nicknames in Japanese; among them himushi (“fire bug”) and hitorimushi (“lamp bug”), both of which sound similar to himamushi. Cockroaches and other pests would have fed on the fish oil in Edo period oil lamps; just like this yōkai. Cockroaches live in dark, warm spaces, such as underneath a kamado; just like this yōkai. And they crawl out of the floorboards to scare those working late at night; just like this yōkai.

Himamushi nyūdō’s name contains a number of puns. According to Toriyama Sekien, it was originally called himamushiyo nyūdō (“monks who waste time at night”). Over the years, the pronunciation gradually morphed, and it became associated with hemamusho nyūdō—a popular Edo period word doodle in which a monk is drawn using the characters in its name: ヘマムショ入道. The connection with this cartoon character would probably have amused readers during Sekien’s time.

Ushirogami

Ushirogami後神
うしろがみ

TRANSLATION: behind spirit
HABITAT: haunts cowardly people
DIET: fear

APPEARANCE: Ushirogami looks like a ghost with long black hair, and a large single eyeball located on the top of its head. It doesn’t have feet, but instead has a long, twisting body which allows it to leap high into the air.

INTERACTIONS: An ushirogami’s favorite tactic is to scare people by leaping out and appearing right behind them (thus its name). They like to tug on the hairs on the back of a person’s neck and then vanish just as they turn around to see touched them. Other pranks that ushirogami enjoy include placing their icy cold hands or breathing their hot breath onto the necks of their victims. Ushirogami particularly like going after cowardly young women walking the streets at night. They sneak up behind them and untie their hair, causing it to fall all over the place; or they run their hands through the woman’s hair and mess it around, causing it to become tangled. Sometimes they call up strong gusts of wind to blow umbrellas away.

ORIGIN: Ushirogami is thought to be a kind of okubyо̄gami—a spirit that causes cowardice, or that specifically targets cowardly people. Its name comes from the words ushiro (behind) and kami (spirit). However, there is a hidden pun in its name: ushirogami also means the hair on the back of your neck, and the phrase ushirogami wo hikikaeru (to have the hairs on the back of your neck pulled) means to do something with painful reluctance. It describes a person who has to do something that they really don’t want to do. As they search for some way out of it, they turn around and look behind them as if the hairs in the back of their head were being metaphorically pulled. The pun is that the ushirogami (spirit) is pulling on your ushirogami (hair), causing you to become cowardly and not want to do something. You turn around to see who pulled your hair, but there is no one back there. Thus the ushirogami can be explained as both an external entity which causes fear, or as the internal personification of your own cowardice or reluctance.

Gyokuto

Gyokuto玉兎
ぎょくと

TRANSLATION: jade rabbit
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsuki no usagi, getto (moon rabbit)
HABITAT: the moon
DIET: unknown; presumably mochi

APPEARANCE: The dark spots visible on the full moon are said to resemble a rabbit who lives in the moon.

BEHAVIOR: In Japan, the rabbit is described holding a wooden mallet which he uses to pound mochi (rice cakes) in an usu, or mortar. The mallet and mortar as also visible as dark spots on the moon. In China, the rabbit is believed not to be creating mochi, but is instead mixing the medicine of eternal youth.

ORIGIN: The myth of the rabbit in the moon is very ancient. The earliest written version comes from the Jātaka tales, a 4th century BCE collection of Buddhist legends written in Sanskrit. The legend was brought along with Buddhism from India to China, where it was blended with local folklore. It came to Japan in the 7th century CE from China, where it was again adapted and adjusted to fit local folklore.

The Japanese word for pounding mochi in a mortar like the rabbit is doing—餅搗き (mochitsuki)—and the word for the full moon—望月 (mochitsuki)—are homophones.

LEGENDS: The Japanese version of the Sanskrit tale appears in Konjaku monogatarishū. A fox, a monkey, and a rabbit were traveling in the mountains when they came across a shabby-looking old man lying along the road. The old man had collapsed from exhaustion while trying to cross the mountains. The three animals felt compassion for the old man, and tried to save him. The monkey gathered fruit and nuts from the trees, the fox gathered fish from the river, and they fed the old man. As hard as he tried, the rabbit, however, could not gather anything of value to give to the old man. Lamenting his uselessness, the rabbit asked the fox and monkey for help in building a fire.  When the fire was built, the rabbit leaped into the flames so that his own body could be cooked and eaten by the old man. When the old man saw the rabbit’s act of compassion, he revealed his true form as Taishakuten, one of the lords of Heaven. Taishakuten lifted up the rabbit and placed it the moon, in order that all future generations could be inspired by the rabbit’s compassionate act. The reason it is sometimes difficult to see the rabbit in the moon is because of the smoke which still billows from the rabbits body, masking his form somewhat.

Namekujira

Namekujiraなめくじら

TRANSLATION: a portmanteau of slug and whale; slugwhale
HABITAT: homes and gardens; as a regular slug
DIET: leaves and plants

APPEARANCE: As its name implies, the namekujira is a very large slug.  Its body is described as reddish-brown in color, with a long stripe running down its back. From its head to its neck, it is covered in black spots.

BEHAVIOR: Namekujira live in gardens and behave just like ordinary slugs. It is their size that makes them so strange. They crawl across doors and fences, leaving behind enormous, silvery slime trails up to 100 hiro in length—almost 182 meters.

ORIGIN: Namekujira is described in the Kujirazashi shinagawa baori, a comical Edo-period book featuring different types of pun-based whale yōkai. Its name is a play on words, combining the words namekuji (slug) and kujira (whale). In addition to its name, this yōkai’s description contains one more pun. There is a dish made from whale intestines called kujira no hyakuhiro. The name literally means “whale’s 100 hiro,” which comes from the great length of the whale’s intestines. So the gag is that while kujira no hyakuhiro refers to a delicious meal, namekujira no hyakuhiro is just a 182 meter long slime trail.

Dōnotsura

Dounotsura胴面
どうのつら

TRANSLATION: torso face
ALTERNATE NAMES: akahadaka
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Dōnotsura’s body appears much like that of a human’s, except that it is missing everything from the neck up. Its extremely large facial features are prominently displayed on its torso, just as its name implies.

ORIGIN: Dōnotsura appears on yōkai picture scrolls, but only his name and illustration appear. Like many picture scroll yōkai, no stories exist explaining what it does or where it comes from. However, its most likely origin is as a play on words. There is an expression in Japanese—”dono tsura sagete“—which is used to scold a person who looks inappropriately calm when they should be ashamed of something they’ve done. The connotation of this idiom is to lower a mask over one’s face, as in, “How dare you come here wearing that face!”; however, taken literally it means to “lower a face,” just as this yōkai’s face has been lowered down to his torso.

Shiro ukari

Shiroukari白うかり
しろうかり

TRANSLATION: white floater

APPEARANCE: Shiro ukari is a ghost-like spirit with a very long tail. It is white, with large eyes that stare off into the distance as if lost in thought. It floats about in the air, aimlessly wandering about.

ORIGIN: Shiro ukari appears on a few Edo period scroll paintings, and nowhere else. It was invented by an artist rather than recorded from folklore. Aside from its name, nothing is written about it. Everything about it, including its behavior and its origin, is unknown and unexplained. However, its name may be a clue to its origin.

While it shiro ukari literally means “white floater,” both of these words carry a number of nuances which could refer to this spirit’s true nature. Shiro not only refers to the color white, but to a state of total innocence or naivety. Whereas ao (blue) is used in many yokai to refer to a novice or an apprentice, shiro can refer to a state of total, absolute naivete. It has a negative connotation, akin to a “fool” or a “country bumpkin” in English. The urban socialites of Edo looked down on the “shiro” people who lived in the rural areas outside of the capital. While not specifically stated, the vacant expression on this yōkai’s face could be an allusion to this alternate meaning of shiro.

Ukari comes from the word for floating, which has a number of different implications. The most literal meaning is to float about from place to place. There is also a nuance of absentmindedness or disconnect from others. Tourists who feel out of place in a strange city might be described as floating about in this way. It can also refer to merrymaking, particularly in a way that is disconnected with the real world. This is the same origin as the word ukiyo, which refers to the “floating world”—the urban, pleasure-seeking lifestyle of old Edo. In a spiritual sense, this word can also refer to spirits which have not been able to pass on to the next world due to the weight of their sins. They float about, but never ascend, and are doomed to haunt this world.

Perhaps shiro ukari is a pun describing the uncouth, naive rural bumpkins who Edo urbanites thought had no business being in their city. Their experience in the capital might be something like a wide-eyed ghost floating from place to place. Perhaps it is a yōkai which seeks out the impermanent pleasures of life just as the humans of old Edo did. Or perhaps it is the spirit of someone who is unable to ascend into the next world, and they are forced by the weight of their sins to float about and wander aimlessly for the rest of their existence.

Reiki

Reiki霊鬼
れいき

TRANSLATION: ogre spirit, demon ghost
HABITAT: any; usually haunts the area near its body
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Though some oni can be killed by man-made weapons and others die of natural causes, they do not always peacefully pass on to the next life. Some still have unfinished business or karma left to burn off, while others die such violent or passionate deaths that the soul becomes disjointed at the moment of death and they remain in the human world as a demon ghost. Reiki, written by combining the characters for “spirit” and “demon,” are the ghosts of oni unable to pass on to the afterlife. Reiki appear as they did before death, though they are often accompanied by an aura or an eerie glow. They are semi-transparent like ghosts, and they often gain additional supernatural powers in addition to the magic they knew in life.

BEHAVIOR: Reiki have only one motivation: revenge. They seek to bring suffering to the person or people they feel are responsible for their death, or to those who stood against them in life. They can haunt for centuries, following a target, or else attaching themselves to a particular area – often their own grave site – and assaulting those who come near. These hauntings usually persist until exorcised by a powerful Buddhist priest.

LEGENDS: There are fewer stories about reiki than about oni, but the stories that exist tell of powerful spirits even more fearsome than their living counterparts. One of the most well-known reiki legends takes place at Gangō-ji, a temple in Nara. A mysterious force was haunting the temple’s bell tower and murdering children every night. The force was so powerful that not even the most powerful priests could identify it, let alone exorcise it. In a story reminiscent of the adventures of Hercules, only the son of a god was strong enough to track down and defeat the demon ghost, saving the children of the temple.