January 16, 2015


        Here’s a fun addition to my fantasy menagerie, and something that was completely new to me.  All I know about it is what I came across while looking up something else, so I make no claims to understanding the history, literature, and cultural nuance of this bit of Japanese folklore.  I simply was tickled by the idea.  And the basic idea is that household objects, after a long life of service, receive souls and become animate.  Usually it takes about a hundred years, and often it involves a long period of neglect before objects come to life.  Apparently sometimes stories about these objects were told to teach elements of Buddhism, sometimes their message is to discourage wastefulness, and sometimes they’re merely considered mostly harmless and mildly prankish.  What delights me about this idea is the seemingly random list of Tsukumogami known from legends and stories.  They include possessed or animated sandals, bedding, paper umbrellas, tea kettles, mosquito netting, graters, musical instruments, and lots more.
        The Bakezori, a possessed straw sandal, uses his life to scamper around all night chanting "Kararin, kororin, kankororin, managu mittsu ni ha ninmai!” which is apparently meant to mock the more prestigious wooden sandal.  The Boroboroton, or animate futon, on the other hand, is downright murderous.  In the middle of the night he will throw his owner out of bed and begin to wrap around the sleeper’s head and neck in an attempt to strangle him.  The umbrella spirit, or Kasa-obake, is a relatively modern creature, not appearing in any of the older folklore, but it’s one of the most well-known and popular today.  It has one eye and jumps around on one hairy leg.
        Many Tsukumogami seem motivated by loneliness.  For example, musical instruments 
will play by themselves the tunes that former owners used to play, or which were especially poignant, and the sad Abumi-guchi, stirrup-mouth creature, waits forever on the battlefield for its dead soldier to return.  But most Tsukumogami are less patient with neglect.  They search out other Tsukumogami and either throw boisterous parties together at night, or run away from home together.
        Always excepting the murderous futon or the possessed roll of cotton, which will try to smother travelers, I think it would be quite interesting to meet a wandering Tsukumogami.  Naturally my imagination tends first toward something like Lumiere or Mrs Potts from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” but I think Tsukumogami are an idea with a lot of different interesting possibilities for fantasy.

[Pictures: Boroboroton,
Abumi-guchi, wood block prints (presumably) by Toriyama Sekien from Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro, c 1781 (Images from Wikimedia Commons).]


Pax said...

Fun! I have an old Japanese paper umbrella that has been in my attic for several generations. This seems like a good candidate. Should I venture up there some dark night just to check on it?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Hmmm... That might be a good idea! Who knows what shenanigans it's been getting up to?