Translation: Japanese banana spirit
Habitat: the Ryūkyū archipelago
Diet: sunlight and soil
Appearance: Bashō no sei are the spirits of Japanase banana trees (Musa basjoo). They are native to the islands of Okinawa, but are common in ornamental gardens across Asia. They usually appear as a human face amongst the broad, flat banana leaves.
Interactions: Bashō no sei are not particularly hostile or threatening towards people. They generally limit themselves to merely scaring humans by suddenly appearing next to them. For example, in one story a bashō no sei takes the form of a young woman, appears next to a meditating monk and asks him, “Can even inanimate plants attain buddhahood?”
They are not completely without danger, however—some local legends tell of bashō no sei assaulting and even impregnating humans. Women were warned not to walk near banana trees past 6 pm. If they did, they would run into a yōkai among the broad leaves—sometimes a monster, other times a handsome young man. Shortly after, the woman would become pregnant. When the baby was born 9 months later, it would have tusks or fangs like a demon. What’s more, the following year and again every year after that, the woman would give birth to another demon. Whenever a demon child was born, it would have to be killed by feeding it a poisonous drink made of powdered kumazasa (a type of bamboo grass); this is supposedly the reason why kumazasa is commonly found growing near houses in Okinawa.
Origin: Stories about banana tree spirits are numerous across Japanese, Chinese, and Ryūkyūan folklore. The Edo period herbalist Satō Chūryō recorded his observations about these spirits in an essay. According to him, Ryūkyū’s banana orchards were so large that they contained rows of trees many miles long. If you walked past them at night, you were guaranteed to experience something strange. He observed that the spirits that come out of the banana trees did not cause any direct harm to people other than spooking them, but nevertheless could be avoided if you carried a sword. Chūryō’s theory was that banana trees weren’t necessarily unique in having spirits, but that because their leaves are so large and they were planted in such large numbers, it is particularly easy for humans to see these trees’ spirits. He believed that was the reason for the large number of superstitions about banana trees compared with other plants.
Legends: A story from Nagano tells of a priest who was sitting outside and reciting suttras when a beautiful young woman appeared and attempted to seduce him. The priest grew angry. He stabbed the woman with his sword and she ran away. The next morning, the priest found a bloody trail left by the woman he had stabbed. The trail lead to the temple’s gardens, where a bashō tree was lying on the ground, cut in two. The priest then realized that the woman was actually the spirit of the tree.