Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, and Kaii Yokai Densho Database
When you are walking down a lonely mountain road at night, and you hear footsteps behind you, don’t be alarmed. You have probably attracted the attention of that amiable yokai Betobeto-san. If you aren’t in the mood for yokai company, just step to one side of the road and say “Oh please, Betobeto-san—you first.” With that said, Betobeto-san will walk on by.
What Does Betobeto-San Mean?
The word “beto beto” (べとべと) has a few different meanings in Japanese. Japanese loves homophones, and we usually have the kanji to give us a clue as to the meaning. Not here though—beto beto is written in hiragana so we have to do a little deductive reasoning.
One of the meanings of beto beto—and the most common—is “sticky.” This is what you will find in most dictionaries, and has lead to some mistranslations of Betobeto-san as “Mr. Sticky.”
However, another meaning refers to an onomatopoeia of the sound of footsteps (Beto beto beto … ). This makes more sense given the nature of Betobeto-san, and a more accurate translation would be “Mr. Footsteps.”
(Although even the “Mr.” part is up in the air. The Japanese honorific “–san” (さん) has no gender bias, so Betobeto-san could easily be “Ms. Footsteps” or something gender-neutral like “The Honorable Footsteps.” None of those makes for a good translation though so I stick with Betobeto-san.)
What is Betobeto-san?
For most of its existence, Betobeto-san was a purely aural yokai. It embodied as the sound of someone following you down a dark street at night. The sound beto beto beto … brings to mind wooden clogs on hard streets, although Betobeto-san can be found wandering both city and country roads. Legends of Betobeto-san come mostly from Uda gun in Nara prefecture, and from Shizuoka prefecture, where Betobeto-san only travels mountain roads.
There are similar legends across all of Japan, usually with some slight variation. In Sakai gun, Fukui prefecture the yokai is called the “Bisha ga Tsuku” (びしゃがつく; The Following Bisha). The main difference is that the Bisha ga Tsuku only comes out in winter, where you can hear the sounds “bisha bisha” as someone walks behind you, crunching on the snow.
In any case, and whatever the name, Betobeto-san is not a dangerous yokai, and means no harm to anyone. If you hear the sound behind you, you step to the side of the road and invite it to pass by you. If you are in Nara prefecture, the phrase is “Betobeto-san, Osakini Okoshi” (お先にお越し; “Please Betobeto-san, you go first.”) In Shizuoka prefecture the more casual “Osakini Dozo” (お先にどうぞ; “Go right ahead.”) works just as well. With that formality observed, Betobeto-san will accept the invitation and walk by, looking for someone new to follow behind.
The Refusing Betobeto-San
There is one story of Betobeto-san not accepting the invitation. A man carrying a lantern was walking down a dark street when he heard the unmistakable sounds of Betobeto-san behind him. Knowing his yokai lore, he stepped aside and said “After you, Betobeto-san.” To his surprise, he heard an answer from behind: “I can’t go ahead. It’s too dark.” The man then offered Betobeto-san his lantern, and was even more surprised to hear a “Thank you” in reply, and to watch his lantern go bobbing down the street in front of him, held by invisible hands.
The man made it back to his house in the dark, and found his lantern returned the following morning.
Mizuki Shigeru and Betobeto-san
Betobeto-san is one of the yokai Mizuki Shigeru encountered as a young boy. His caretaker and friend Nonnonba taught him the chant that lets the Betobeto-san walk by.
When he was older, Mizuki Shigeru included Betobeto-san in his comics, and he was the first one to give the yokai a physical appearance. In all prior accounts, Betobeto-san was nothing more than the sound of footsteps. Mizuki imagined with the footsteps might be attached to, and the round yokai with the large friendly smile is what he came up with.
Before Mizuki Shigeru’s comics, Betobeto-san was an obscure, unknown yokai not included in any of the major yokai encyclopedias or collections. Now, the Honorable Footsteps is one of Japan’s most popular yokai and ranked in 5th place in a “What’s Your Favorite Yokai?” survey held across Japan. In Sakaiminato city (Mizuki Shigeru’s birthplace) there is a train station named “Betobeto-san,” and Betobeto-san was one of the few yokai to show up in the popular TV drama Gegege no Nyobo that told the story of Mizuki Shigeru’s wife.
Much of Betobeto-san’s fame and popularity is attributed to Mizuki’s design. The large, friendly smiling mouth made the yokai an instant favorite of children. Tourists to Sakaiminato like to pose next to the Betobeto-san statue and try and imitate its mouth, and leave coins in its mouth for good luck. It just goes to show that, even in the case of yokai, a good character design can be more memorable than a good story.
Betobeto-san is another yokai that makes an appearance in my translation of Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, as well as in another Mizuki Shigeru comic published in English, NonNonBa.
For more yokai from Showa: A History of Japan, check out: