Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Yokai Jiten, Japanese Wikipedia, and other sources
On a dark and stormy night Edo night, if you should happen to turn around and see a giant baby dressed in an enormous bamboo hat and carrying a wiggly block of tofu festooned with a maple leaf, don’t panic. Despite the strange appearance, it is only Tofu Kozo, one of the most harmless of all of Japan’s bizarre yokai tribe.
Who is Tofu Kozo?
One of Japan’s most popular yokai, the name Tofu Kozo is most commonly translated as “tofu boy” or “tofu kid,” although a more literal—albeit clumsy—translation would be “tofu young Buddhist priest.” But the Buddhist associations don’t run any deeper than the name, with “kozo” being a common term for young boys in Japan.
Tofu Kozo generally appears as a small boy, or even a baby, in a giant, conical bamboo rain hat and a traditional kimono. The kimono can be plain, or highly decorated with daruma figures, red rockfish, horned owls, and taiko drums, all of which were thought to be talismans against small pox during the Edo period. As the same suggests, Tofu Kozo are never seen without a plate of tofu, which is decorated with a single maple leaf impression.
Lacking any special powers or features other than appearance, Tofu Kozo is said to wander through deserted city streets at night, or during the rain. Generally shy and timid, Tofu Kozo sometimes likes to sneak behind humans and follow them through the streets.
There is little agreement about Tofu Kozo amongst writers. Some say that there is only one Tofu Kozo, and that he is a sort of yokai prince, the son of the yokai supreme commander Mikoshi Nyudo and his wife the Rokurokubi. Some say that tofu kozo are nothing more than errand boys for the yokai, rushing back and forth on endless tasks.
From the Showa era and up, there have been accounts of Tofu Kozu as meeting people on rainy streets at night, and offering up some delicious tofu. Anyone who eats the tofu finds their body growing with mold from the inside until they die. Yokai researchers Kyougoku Natsuhiko and Yamaguchi Bintaro trace this legend as having been invented for for childrens’ books in the Showa era to give the Tofu Kozo a bit more of an edge for modern readers.
One the opposite side, in modern Japan therapists have been using Tofu Kozo as a yokai who gets bullied by other yokai, and is used in anti-bullying therapy and education.
The Origin of Tofu Kozo
Tofu Kozo has the unique status of being Japan’s first modern, city-bred yokai. Unlike other yokai that sprang from ancient and rural Japan, the Tofu Kozo has no folklore heritage, no appearances in traditional folktales or legends. He arrived fully formed suddenly during the Anei era (1772-1781), where he quickly became a popular character for picture books, kabuki performances, toys, advertisements, cookbooks, and yellow-covered kiboshi illustrated stories.
There are several theories as to the origin of Tofu Kozo. One aspect is tofu itself. The urban Edo period saw the rise of tofu as a popular food source, cheap and nutritious. One picture book of the time, Edo Meisho Zue (江戸名所図会) “Collection of Pictures of the Famous Places of Edo” by Hasegawa Settan, shows tofu dealers wearing the iconic conical bamboo hat as they travel the streets back and forth with their wares. Other illustrations from the period show yokai like tanuki and kappa carrying tofu, and it is speculated that some enterprising tofu dealer might have created Tofu Kozo as an advertising character for their shop, only to see the character’s popularity run away from them.
Mizuki Shigeru gives the location of Tofu Kozo as Satsuma province, modern day Kagoshima prefecture, although the character is seen all over Japan. During the Edo period, when the 100 candle storytelling game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai was popular, game players and storytellers were always on the lookout for new yokai stories to tell, and it is likely that the legend of Tofu Kozo was created and expanded upon during numerous storytelling sessions.
The first known print appearance of Tofu Kozo is in the 1777 kiboshi illustrated book “Bakemono Shiuchi Hyoban-ki” (妖怪仕内評判記; “Commentary on Notable Events of the Yokai”), written by Koikawa Harumachi. A few years later in 1782, he appeared in a popular tofu cookbook called “Tofu Hyakuchin” (豆腐百珍; “The 100 Curiosities of Tofu”) by Hitsujun Ka. The character continued to be popular through the Meiji era.
The Many Faces of Tofu Kozo
Because there is no traditional origin for Tofu Kozo, artists have depicted him in varying ways over the years. Early descriptions describe him as having an enormous head, like an overgrown baby. Koikawa Harumachi described him this way in “Bakemono Shiuchi Hyoban-ki,” and the artist Kitao Masayoshi even named him Ogashira Kozo, meaning “Big Head Boy,” in his 1787 picture book “Bakemono Chakutōchō” (夭怪着到牒). For a short time, it was popular to draw Tofu Kozo as having only one eye, but this fad soon faded and by 1853 Tofu Kozu was drawn looking like a normal young boy, as seen in the illustrated book “Kyoka Hyakumonogatari” (狂歌百物語).
An obvious relative of Tofu Kozo is Hitotsume Kozo, meaning the One-Eyed Boy. Although Hitotsume Kozo is an older, more traditional yokai, over the years the two have come to resemble each other as their stories and appearances merged. This has caused researchers to postulate that they are the same yokai. But while they have had obvious influences on each other—and are depicted as cousins in many modern yokai stories—they are generally considered to be separate characters.