the online database of Japanese folkore

Shibaten

芝天
しばてん

Translation: mini tengu, lawn tengu
Alternate names: shibatengu, enkō
Habitat: riverbanks
Diet: omnivirous; fond of cucumbers

Appearance: Shibaten look like hairy, naked boys or monkeys standing about three shaku (91 centimeters) tall. They live along riverbanks in Tokushima and Kōchi Prefectures. Despite their small stature and weak appearance, their strength is greater than a grown man’s.

Behavior: Shibaten spend much of the year up in the mountains, away from humans. They create phantom sounds, such as falling trees or rockslides. On the 6th day of the 6th month (by the old lunar calendar), they migrate en masse from the mountains into the rivers and transform into enkō.

They are fond of cucumbers. They often raid gardens just as the vegetables reach their peak ripeness, running off with an entire batch.

Interactions: When a person passes by a riverside at night, shibaten leap out of the brush and challenge them to a sumō match. At first the shibaten will lose on purpose, and challenge the person to a rematch. This will continue on and on, the shibaten gradually using more and more strength, until the person is helplessly tossed and thrown about. Before they know it the entire night has gone by, and the person passes out from exhaustion. When they awaken, there is no sign of the shibaten. If they ask anyone nearby what happened, they explain that the person spent the entire night wrestling a boulder or a bale of straw like a fool.

Origin: The word shiba means a grassy lawn, but in this case it specifically means a small thing. The name shibaten comes from the idea that these yōkai were a small species of tengu. Despite their name, shibaten are thought to be a kind of kappa rather than a tengu.

Legends: Long ago in Kōchi, there was a skillful sumō wrestler named Yakichi. He was attending a summer party in a neighboring village when the day had grown late. He decided to return home via a shortcut through the mountains. As he walked along the road, all of a sudden seven or eight little kids jumped out of the bushes and surrounded him, saying, “Hey old man! Come wrestle us!”

“Why you little brats!” Yakichi reached out to teach them a lesson, but before he could grab one, BOOM! he was on his back. He got up, and then again BOOM! he was knocked down again. Yakichi couldn’t understand how these little brats were beating him. He finally managed to grab on to one and was shocked to find he couldn’t make the kid move at all. He pushed and he pulled, but the kid didn’t budge.

It was getting late, and Yakichi’s family wondered why he hadn’t returned home yet. They lit lanterns and traveled along the road to look for him. They discovered Yakichi deep in the mountains with his arms wrapped around a big tree stump, heaving and straining to knock it over.

“Yakichi! What are you doing?” they asked him.

“I’m doing everything I can! But this kid won’t give up!” he grunted.

“You fool! That’s a mulberry tree!”

Yakichi stepped back and blinked his eyes. “So it is… How did that happen?” The expensive kimono he had worn to the party was tattered and torn all over, and completely ruined. It suddenly dawned on him that he had been tricked by shibaten into wrestling a tree stump.

Alphabetical list of yōkai