Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, and Kaii Yokai Densho Database.
Some yokai are scary, some are funny, and some are just … weird. The tenjoname—that bizarre, late-night licker of ceilings—is one of the few yokai that fits all three categories at once.
What Does Tenjoname Mean?
You can’t get much more straightforward than tenjoname. Its name combines 天井 (tenjo; ceiling) + 嘗 (name; lick) to make天井嘗—tenjoname, the ceiling licker.
What Does a Tenjoname Do?
Again, you can’t get much more straightforward than tenjoname—the ceiling licker licks ceilings. That’s pretty much it. It comes out of the darkness on cold, winter nights, and laps away at any accumulated frost or dirt or spider webs clinging to the rafters. You know the next day if you have had a visit from the tenjoname by the dark streaks it leaves behind, evidence of its long, red tongue being drug along the ceiling.
Oh, and there is the small consequence that if you catch sight of a tenjoname while it is doing its business, you die.
Of course, that minor detail doesn’t appear in every legend. But if you are tucked away in bed at night and hear something crawling along the ceiling—or maybe the sound of a long, slurping tongue—it’s probably for the best not to sneak a peek and risk death. Keep your eyes shut tight.
The Origin of the Tenjoname
Like many yokai, the tenjoname is the invention of artist and yokai-maker Toriyama Sekien. Tenjoname first appeared in Toriyama’s yokai encyclopedia Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (画図百器徒然袋; The Illustrated Bag of One Hundred Random Demons).
Toriyama wrote on his illustration:
“The heights of the ceiling devour the lamplight when the winter in cold. This is not by design. You will shiver in fear if you catch a glimpse of the this strange apparition, and know that it is no dream.”
The Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro is famous for its literary allusions, and connection to things in everyday life. For the tenjoname, Toriyama was inspired by a poem from the book Tsurezuregusa (徒然草; Essays in Idleness). The poem comes from the 55th verse of the book, and says:
“In the cold of winter, tall ceilings swallow the lantern light.”
Like many Japanese poems, these lines are meant to evoke an image and emotional response from readers at the time. It deals with a subject most Japanese people would be familiar with. Japanese houses from the period were built with tall, towering ceilings. This was useful in the summer, and helped open up the house to dissipate the fierce tropical heat and humidity of the Japanese summer.
What was a blessing in summer was a curse in winter. The charcoal hibachi and fish oil lanterns were not powerful enough to reach the high ceilings, and so in the winter they became a mysterious domain of frost and shadows.
Yokai in the Boundaries
Ceilings are also boundaries, and in Japanese folklore yokai are known to haunt boundaries. Like fairylore of many countries, yokai exist in the in-between places—in the twilight between light and darkness, on the surface of the ocean that breaks the water world and the dry, or even in the ceiling that separates the inside from the outside.
From ancient times the ceiling was a gathering place for magical creatures, and many kaidan tell of a menagerie of yurei and yokai dangling from the rafters and hiding in the high corners of houses. Toriyama read the poem in Tsurezuregusa, thought of old stories of monsters on the ceilings, and imagined a yokai that scuttled around in the darkness of cold, winter nights.
The Design of the Tenjoname
For his visual interpretation of the tenjoname, Toriyama looked to the famous Muromachi period picture scroll the Hyakki Yagyo Emaki (百鬼夜行絵巻; Night Parade of 100 Demons Picture Scroll). At the time the scroll—and others like it—were designed, the yokai depicted had no name or story. Most of them were just interesting visual designs on the part of the artists, who thought no more of their individual traits than Hieronymus Bosch thought of his demons in his hell portraits. They were just weird designs.
Toriyama took a particular yokai running around with its tongue out staring and the ceiling and decided that was his tenjoname. Strangely enough that particular yokai inspired other yokai as well. A different version of the Hyakki Yagyo Emaki has the word “Isogashi” (meaning “busy” or “frantic” in Japanese) written next to it, and so the Isogashi became another yokai that was constantly running around knocking things over. An almost identical yokai to the tenjoname, called the tenjosagari or “ceiling descender,” comes down from the ceiling and licks the sleepers below instead of the ceiling.
Tenjoname in Showa and Beyond
Just as Toriyama built off of the Tsurezuregusa, many other writers added to the legend of the tenjoname over the years. Fujisawa Morihiko’s 1929 book Yokai Gadan Zenshu
(妖怪画談全集; Complete Discussions of Yokai) added the detail of stains being left behind on the ceiling as evidence of the tenjoname’s visit.
Yamamura Shizuka and Yamada Norio’s 1974 book Yokai Majin Shorei no Sekai (妖怪魔神精霊の世界; The Worlds of Ghosts, Evil Monsters, and Yokai) tells the story of a tenjoname haunting a castle in Tatebayashi Castle, part of the Tatebayashi Domain (Modern day Gunma prefecture) The cobwebs of the castle would be mysteriously licked clean, with the tell-tale slime trail of the tenjoname’s tongue being left behind. The source of this story is unknown, however, and first appears in Yamamura and Yamada’s book.
During the Showa period, the story of the tenjoname leveled-up, adding the terrifying component that seeing the face of the tenjoname would kill you. That has been come an important part of the modern mythos, and has scared many a young Japanese child into into not looking up at their ceilings at night for fear of seeing its frightful face.
This is another yokai that appears in my translation of Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. As a young boy, Nonnonba shows Mizuki Shigeru the frost that has accumulated on the ceiling and warns him of the tenjoname that will come at night to lick it off.
For more yokai from Showa: A History of Japan, check out: