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TRANSLATION: human pillar
HABITAT: found in bridges, castles, dams, and other large constructions

APPEARANCE: Hitobashira refers to the gruesome practice of burying a living human being in the foundations of important buildings—bridges, dams, tunnels, and particularly castles. It was a common practice during large construction projects from ancient times through the 16th century. However there is evidence that hitobashira were still being used in some construction projects during the 20th century.

BEHAVIOR: This form of sacrifice was used as a magical ward for the building being constructed. It was believed that the sacrifice of a human soul would appease the nature spirits in an area—particularly the river spirits in areas where flooding was common. They were also used to ward castles against assault, fire, and other disasters both man-made and natural.

ORIGIN: Although hitobashira literally means human pillar, the actual meaning is more complicated. Pillars and Shinto have a long relationship—kami can be enshrined in pillar-like sacred trees, the oldest shrines were built upon pillars, and hashira, in addition to meaning pillar, is also used as the josūshi—Japanese counter word—for kami. The bashira in hitobashira refers not to a literal pillar, but actually to this counter word. The human was enshrined in a manner similar to a kami of the building to which he or she was sacrificed, becoming both a literal pillar and a connection to the gods. Very often, small stone memorials were erected in honor of the hitobashira who were sacrificed to a building. Some still stand today.

LEGENDS: A few famous castles in Japan are connected to legends of hitobashira. Maruoka Castle in Fukui Prefecture (old Echizen Province), one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan, is said to contain a hitobashira in the central pillar of the keep.

While Maruoka Castle was being constructed, its walls kept collapsing no matter how many times they were repaired. It was decided that a person should be sacrificed and made into a hitobashira in order to improve the stability of the castle. A poor, one-eyed woman named Oshizu was selected for the honor of becoming a hitobashira. As a reward for her sacrifice, she was promised that her son would be made a samurai. After she was sacrificed the castle was completed. However, before her son could be made a samurai, the castle’s lord was transferred to another province, and the promise was left unkept.

Every year thereafter, the castle’s moat overflowed when the heavy spring rains came. The people of Maruoka blamed this on Oshizu’s vengeance, and called this rain “tears of Oshizu’s sorrow.” Afterwards, a cenotaph was erected for Oshizu inside the castle grounds to calm her spirit.



TRANSLATION: upside-down pillar
HABITAT: houses
DIET: resentment at being upside-down

APPEARANCE: Sakabashira are the angry spirits of tree leaves which manifest inside houses where one of the pillars has been placed upside-down — that is to say, in the opposite direction of the way the tree was pointing when it was living. These spirits manifest their grudge late at night, and bring misfortune upon those living in the house.

BEHAVIOR: Sakabashira are most well-known for making noises. They creak and moan, imitate the sounds of wooden beams cracking, and sometimes even speak in sentences like, “My neck hurts!” They can cause houses to shake, and the leaf-spirits residing in the tree can manifest as yanari, acting like poltergeists and breaking things around the house. Sakabashira can be so loud that families often move out of a house that is haunted by one, for these yokai cause not only strange noises, but also terrible luck. People who stay in a house haunted by a sakabashira often lose their family fortunes, or even lose all of their possessions to great conflagrations which consume and destroy the cursed house.

ORIGIN: It has long been a folk belief that a pillar erected in the upside-down position will bring misfortune to a family, and a sakabashira is usually the result of a careless mistake on the part of the construction crew. In order to prevent this yokai from appearing, folk superstition tells us that a pillar must be erected in the same orientation as the tree had when it was alive. However, sometimes support pillars are actually installed this way on purpose. The reason for this is another folk belief: “The moment a house is completed, it starts to fall apart.” As a kind of ward against bad luck, Japanese buildings were sometimes only almost completed, with the final step being left out, or purposefully made into a mistake. The famous Tosho-gu shrine at Nikko is such an example, having been built with just one pillar purposefully pointing in the opposite direction. This same superstition was followed when building the imperial palace — placing the final pillar in an upside-down position. During the Edo period, house builders commonly “forgot” to place the last three roof tiles for the same reason.