the online database of Japanese folkore

Mikari baba

箕借り婆
みかりばば

Translation: winnowing basket borrowing hag
Alternate names: mikawari baba, mekari baba (“eye borrowing hag”)
Habitat: villages in Eastern Japan
Diet: whatever scraps they can steal

Appearance: Mikari baba are greedy yōkai from the Kantō Region who look like old women missing one eye. They often wear dilapidated old straw hats and coats, and carry a flaming torch in their mouths. They appear in the winter and creep into villages to steal raincoats, winnowing baskets and eyes from people.

Behavior: Like many one-eyed yōkai, mikari baba are afraid of objects that have many holes in them. This includes things like bamboo sieves and woven cages. It is thought that the holes resemble many eyes, so the mikari baba with its single eye is afraid of them.

Mikari baba are one of the few yōkai which are known to work together with other yōkai. They often appear together with the small one-eyed yōkai hitotsume kozō. The two of them travel from house to house during the winter, writing the names of families in a ledger which they present to the gods a few weeks later. The gods then use this report to mete out sickness and misfortune to people as they see fit.

Interactions: Mikari baba go from house to house like beggars, asking to borrow a coat, or a winnowing basket, or even just a few grains of rice. They are so greedy that they will scour gardens for every single last grain of rice. In doing so they put their faces so close to the ground that the torch they carry in their mouth can ignite fires. They will even try to “borrow” an eye from a person’s head.

In Chiba, Kanagawa, Tōkyō and other places where mikari baba are said to appear, villagers stay at home and remain quiet on these days. Loud voices, lighting lamps, hairdressing, and bathing are avoided. Leaving the house after dark and entering the mountains are forbidden. Measures are taken to discourage mikari baba from approaching the house. Bamboo baskets, sieves, and other woven objects with many “eyes” in them are hung outside of houses or placed on tall bamboo poles throughout villages in order to scare mikari baba away. Fallen grains of rice on the floor and in the gardens are gathered and made into a dango, which is then placed in the doorway to show that there is no rice left to pick up. If even a single grain of rice is left on the ground, it will attract a greedy mikari baba.

Mikari baba only appear on fixed dates during the year. The dates vary from tradition to tradition, but usually fall on the eighth day of the second or twelfth month of the lunisolar calendar. These dates are rooted in ancient religious practices surrounding new year rituals, and are referred to as kotoyōka–”eighth day events”–although most places have their own name for these special dates.

Origin: While the kanji in mikari baba’s name literally mean “winnowing basket borrowing hag,” this is likely a folk etymology that was invented long after she was named. The word mikari has an older meaning, referring to a period of fasting or purification before ancient religious ceremonies. It was believed that bakemono were more likely to appear before religious festivals. People stayed at home and refrained from work and normal activities prior to festivals. This period of quiet isolation was called mikari or mikawari (“changing one’s self”), referring to the interruption of regular daily life in preparation for religious festivities. Because it was forbidden for people to be outside during the mikari period, any person coming to your house was sure to be a yōkai. Mikari baba was the name given to one of these yōkai, and the kanji for her name were added later to reflect her behavior.

Alphabetical list of yōkai