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Umi zatō


TRANSLATION: blind man of the sea
HABITAT: the waters surrounding Japan
DIET: ships and sailors

APPEARANCE: Umi zatō are mysterious, gigantic yokai which look like blind guilds-men, or zatō, who wander the seas at night, tapping the waves with their long canes.

INTERACTIONS: Very little is known about the mysterious umi zatō. They are usually considered to be harmless and leave people alone. However, according to some tales, umi zatō harass fishermen out at sea. They are said to beckon ships towards them, and when the ships draw close, they flip them over and capsize them. They also occasionally swallow entire boats whole. They do have a congenial side, however. If the people on a ship reply to an umi zatō in a polite and docile manner, the umi zatō will vanish and leave them alone.

ORIGIN: Because there are so few legends about the umi zatō, almost all of what we know about them is only speculation. They are sometimes considered to be cousins of the similar-looking umi-bōzu, but it is very likely that umi zatō is an invented yokai thought up by Edo-period artists solely for decorating old picture scrolls.



TRANSLATION: “Gong-goro,” or ghost gong, depending on the reading

APPEARANCE: A shōgorō is a kind of tsukumogami, a spirit which inhabits a household item. In this case, it is an animated shōgo (鉦吾) — a small, bowl-shaped gong that is struck with a mallet and used in Buddhist services. A shōgo gets a lot of use, being used multiple times every service. It is made of metal, and so can last a long time before breaking. A gong which has long worn out and stopped playing its note pleasantly, and gets put into storage until it is forgotten (or perhaps one is the witness to some horrible crime) is an ideal candidate for awakening into a yokai.

BEHAVIOR: Like nay tsukumogami, shōgorō are not dangerous. At most, they are startling, as they wander around at night like some kind of metal turtle, striking their bodies and ringing their notes out into the night. It is enough perhaps to cause loss of sleep, but not much else.

ORIGIN: The name shogorō is a pun. It is a combination of shōgo, the gong, and gorō, a very common part of a boy’s name. The word can also be read as a combination of shōgo and goryō (御霊), the ghost of a noble or an aristocrat from ages past. Goryō are a grade of ghost above yūrei, and play a large part in many Japanese ghost stories.

LEGENDS: In the early 18th century, there was a wealthy merchant family called Yodoya living in Osaka. For many generations, the Yodoya were the kings of the rice trade, raking in unbelievable amounts of cash. The 5th generation boss, Yodoya Tatsugorō, had so much money and lived a life of such extreme opulence that he attracted the attention of the bakufu (regional shogunate officials, something like military police).

The bakufu decided that the Yodoya family had accumulated too much wealth. They were only a merchant family, and it was improper for a lower class to hold so much wealth. Their economic power was above their station in life, and so the bakufu stripped Yodoya Tatsugorō of everything he had: his rice, his business, his house, his every last possession. The Yodoya family fell into ruin, and Tatsugorō became destitute. Even his favorite possession, an unbelievably rich and indescribably splendid golden chicken called kogane no niwatori (金の鶏, literally “golden chicken”), was taken from him. The loss of his precious golden chicken caused Tatsugorō so much grief that he died, and because of the unhappy circumstances of his death, his ghost was unable to pass on.

Normally, when a ghost lingers like this, it attaches itself to the object of its desire, be it a person, a place, or (in this case) a thing. Tatsugorō’s soul meant to attach itself to his precious kogane no niwatori. In Japanese, the words for “gong” and “golden” can both be read “kane.” Poor Tatsugorō’s ghost must have gotten confused and attached itself to a nearby shōgo instead of his chicken, and the instrument turn into a tsukumogami.

Biwa bokuboku

Shamichouro, Kotofurunushi, Biwabokuboku琵琶牧々

TRANSLATION: takes its name from a particular legendary biwa

APPEARANCE: A biwa is a kind of lute, frequently used to sing stories and poems.

BEHAVIOR: A biwa of extremely fine construction, upon reaching an advanced age, can transform into a self-playing biwa instrument known as a biwa bokuboku. It grows a body like a human’s and wanders about like a blind priest, wielding a cane, and playing music in the street for money.

ORIGIN: These tsukumogami get their name from a legendary biwa named Bokuba, which was said to magically play on its own when nobody was looking, and played music beautiful enough to charm even an oni.

Koto furunushi

Shamichouro, Kotofurunushi, Biwabokuboku琴古主

TRANSLATION: old master koto

APPEARANCE: A koto is long and harp-like, and the national instrument of Japan.

BEHAVIOR: A koto which was once played frequently but later forgotten about and stored away can transform into the koto furunushi. These koto look like wild beasts, and remember every song that was ever played on them. They play them when nobody is around to see, and causing everyone to wonder where the music is coming from. Koto furunushi prefer to play old, forgotten tunes which have fallen out of style and have long vanished from people’s memory.

Shami chōrō

Shamichouro, Kotofurunushi, Biwabokuboku三味長老

TRANSLATION: elder shamisen

APPEARANCE: A shamisen is a three-stringed guitar-like instrument.

BEHAVIOR: A shamisen that was once played by a master but no longer receives any use, either because the master died or because he started using another instrument, transforms into the shami chōrō.

ORIGIN: Musical instruments, because of their high value, are often kept around long enough to turn into tsukumogami. Those instruments which were once played by a master, but now sit idle and unused are the most likely to develop into yokai, sadly wishing to be played once again.

Shami-chōro’s name is a play on words, written with characters meaning shamisen master, but also invoking the old Japanese proverb, “Shami kara chōrō ni wa nararezu,” meaning, “One cannot go from novice to senior.” In other words, only through many years of practice can one become a master.