Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara and Japanese Wikipedia
When a child in Japan wakes shaking from a nightmare, she knows what to do. Hugging her face in her pillow, she whispers three times “Baku-san, come eat my dream. Baku-san, come eat my dream. Baku-san, come eat my dream.” If her request is granted, the monstrous baku will come into her room and suck the bad dream away. But the baku cannot be summoned without caution. A too-hungry baku might not be satiated with a single dream, and might suck away her hopes and ambitions along with it, leaving her hollow.
What is a Baku?
Baku are classic chimera; the body of a bear, the nose of an elephant, the feet of a tiger, the tail of an ox, and the eyes of a rhinoceros. One legend says that when the gods were finished creating the animals, they took all of the odds and ends lying around and put them together to make the baku.
According to Japanese legend, baku are the eaters of bad dreams. They are a talismanic figure, that people pray to at night to come and suck away nightmares so that they may never be seen again. But there is a darker side to the baku; some say that baku eat all dreams, not only nightmares. This includes dreams of aspiration, dreams of your future, and dreams of hope.
Is the Baku Real?
While they are wildly stylized, baku resemble the Asian tapir. And in fact, in Japanese they share the same name and kanji (獏). The baku is not alone in this; the word kirin is not only Japanese for giraffe but also a mythical Chinese monster.
Which came first—the legend or the animal—is hidden in the past, with no solid agreement on either side. Many say that the two are unconnected, and that the similar appearance is pure coincidence, with the animal being named after the legend. Some say a wayward sailor drifted to Malaysia, and came back with stories of a massive creature that was transformed by legend.
Either way, the legend is old in his book “Ancient Chinese Gods and Beasts,” Kyoto University professor Hayashi Minao points to ancient bronze ware and other artifacts inscribed with images of the mythical baku. He postulated that some creature like the Asian tapir might have existed in China at sometime, but has since gone extinct.
Baku are often confused with another Chinese legendary animal, the hakutaku (called a bai ze in Chinese). In fact, at Gobyakukan-ji temple in Tokyo, there is a statue called the Baku King, which was originally a statue of a hakutaku.
Is the Baku a Yokai?
A complicated question, that depends on how broad your definition of a yokai is. It isn’t a yokai in the sense of fantasy creatures like the nure onago or bakeneko. It is more of a sacred animal, more associated with gods than monsters. Mizuki Shigeru uses the broadest possible definition of yokai, meaning anything mysterious from Bigfoot to rains of frogs, by which the baku definitely qualifies.
The History and Legends of the Baku
Like many folkloric creatures, baku have changed over the centuries. In the oldest Chinese legends, baku were hunted for their pelts. It was said that using a blanket made from a baku was a talisman against illness and the malice of evil spirits. Due to a lack of available baku pelts, this eventually changed to where putting an image of a baku over the bed would afford you equal protection. During the Tang dynasty( 618 – 907), folding screens decorated with baku were a popular item.
Somehow, the legend of the baku was transmitted to Japan, where the beast became associated with the dream eating that it is best known for today. The Tang period book Torokuten (Six Stories of the Tang dynasty) also tells of a sacred animal called a bakuki that eats dreams, and it is likely that the two were merged into a single legend.
The baku legend as a dream-eater has stayed consistent since adopted by Japan. There have been various ways of summoning the baku. In Fukushima it is said that if, after awaking from a bad dream, you say “I give this dream to the baku,” then that dream will never trouble you again. In other prefectures, you repeat “Baku-san, come eat my dream” three times in a row to summon to baku to come and eat your nightmares.
During the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573) in Japan, it became popular for people on their death bed to hold an image of a baku as a talisman against evil spirits. They also became associated with the fantastical Treasure Galley, which often had a baku painted on its sails. During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), pillows were sold in the shape of baku, said to protect the sleeper from bad dreams.
While many yokai and legendary creatures have faded until they live only in the memory of academics and comic artists, baku are still a popular figure in modern Japan. The baku appears in many modern animation and comic books, although in appearance they look more and more like authentic tapir, and less and less like the folkloric chimera.