Jakotsu Baba – The Old Snake-Bone Woman

Jakotsu_Baba_Shigeru_Mizuki

Translated from Konjaku Hyakki Shui, Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, and Japanese Wikipedia

If you are wandering through the woods at night and stumble upon something that looks like a carved stone stamped with the symbol of a snake—run! Maybe it’s nothing. Or maybe you have stumbled across the hidden grave of the long-dead Jako Emon. And that means that you are seconds away from an encounter with his wife, The Old Snake-Bone Woman called Jakotsu Baba.

What is the Jakotsu Baba?

With definitely one of the coolest names of all the yōkai, the Old Snake-Bone Woman’s kanji reads exactly that. 蛇 (ja; snake) + 骨 (kotsu; bone) +婆 (baba; old woman.) Depending on the region and dialect, she might also be known as Jagoba, the Five-Snake Woman: 蛇 ( ja; snake) + 五 (go; Five) + 婆 (baba; old woman).
The Jakotsu Baba originally appeared in Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; Supplement to the Hundred Demons from the Present and Past). In the illustration she is drawn as an old woman with her body wrapped in snakes.

Toriyama wrote:

“There is an old woman from in northern Funkan-koku, China. In her right hand she holds a large blue snake, and in her left hand a red one. The people of this country call her the Jakotsu Baba—The Old Snake-Bone Woman. They say she is the wife of Jakoemon (Five-Snake Emon), and that she holds vigil over the family tombs. She is sometimes called the Jagoba—the Five-Snake Woman—depending on the dialect of the region.”

The Origin of the Jakotsu Baba

Sekien Jakotsu baba

Little is known about the Jakotsu Baba apart from what Toriyama wrote in his Konjaku Hyakki Shui. It is not known if he invented the character, or if he collected the legend from somewhere or someone. Jakotsu Baba does not appear in any prior collections, either in Japan or China. The other names mentioned by Toriyama—the Snake Family (云蛇塚) and the Old Snake-Bone Woman’s husband Jako Emon—have never been found in any other text, Japanese or Chinese. Nor has the snake-marked tomb been discovered. However, all of these peculiar and particular details give more flavor to the story than a typical Toriyama creation.

It is also interesting that this yōkai lives in China. The setting of the story—Funkan-koku—is mentioned in the Chinese geographic encyclopedia Shan-hai Ching (山海経; Classic of Mountains and Seas). Supposedly, Funkan-koku is a region particularly touched by the supernatural, and renowned for its mediums and fortune tellers. It is possible Toriyama set his story here just to give her a more mysterious air.

Yokai books from the Showa period expanded on the Jakotsu Baba and moved her mysterious grave to Japan. Showa period writers said that Jako Emon was a human, but when he died the sign of a snake was stamped onto his gravestone. To stand guard over his grave, his wife transformed into a yōkai, with a blue snake slithering into her right hand and a red snake into her left. She would attack anyone who came too close to her husband’s grave.

Blue Snake, Red Snake

Another unknown is the significance of the color of the two snakes, other than just to be freaky. The only colored snakes in Japanese folklore are white snakes, such as in the story The Tanuki and the White Snake. White snakes are considered sacred, and bring illness and death when accidentally killed.

The Snake-Repelling Stylish Emon

A yōkai figure with a similar name can be found in Minakata Kumagusu’s book Jyunishiko (十二支考; Twelve Signs of the Zodiac). Jyunishiko tells the how local farmers use charms and incantations and invoke the name of Jajai Emon (蛇除伊右衛門; Snake-Repelling Stylish Emon) as a ward when bitten by poisonous snakes. The book doesn’t go into much detail, but the “Snake-Repelling” part of Emon’s name is obvious. The fact that he is “Stylish” (伊) is just a cool addition.

Minakata says there are a few similar legends in Japan, which might account for a possible origin for the Jakotsu Baba and her Snake Family. However, this is just speculation.

The name Jakotsu Baba has been used a few times, such as in a kabuki play by Konto Mizuki and in a few Edo period short stories. However, there is usually little attachment to the yōkai described by Toriyama Sekein. His Jakotsu Baba is both too vague and too specific, and thus does not appear often in Japanese folklore.

Translator’s Note:

This was a request by reader Dominique Lamssiesk. I had a short window in my busy schedule, and fortunately as a Toriyama Sekien yōkai there wasn’t too much to tell about the Jakotsu Baba.

This is also a yōkai I didn’t know much about myself before researching it. I like the Voodoo vibe of these characters, especially Snake-Repelling Stylish Emon who I picture in a top hat looking something like a Japanese Baron Samedi. And of course the Old Snake-Bone Woman herself is a cool visual, keeping eternal watch over her husband’s grave. But for what reason and protecting him from whom? The stories never say—but I am sure an imaginative writer could fill in the details.

Further Reading:

For more yokai snake tales, check out:

On Cutting a Spider’s Leg During a Game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai

Tonoigusa_Hyakumonogatari_Spider

Translated from Tonoigusa

The brave young men had gathered together for a single purpose. “Tonight, we will exchange 100 stories and see if the legends are true; see if something terrifying awaits us at the end.”

They were ardent tellers of tales. As the night passed, they soon arrived at the closing of the ninety-ninth weird story. The room was thick with anticipation.

“Let us not be impatient.” said one of the men. “A drink and some food together before the final tale is told.” All in agreement, they produced lacquered boxes packed tight with delicacies. These were shared between the intimate gathering. They sat in a circle, enjoying the brief respite.

Without warning, a great hand appeared on the ceiling. It appeared to stretch wide, reaching its fingers out in a colossal grasp.

The frightened men were bowled over at the sight, except for a single stalwart who sprang to action. With a flick of his wrist, his sword flew from its sheath and struck at the hand. However, much to everyone’s surprise instead of a giant finger the sword sliced off a spider’s leg, about three inches in length. One of the men chuckled, “I guess this was a true Test of Courage after all.”

As to the spider, it appeared to be of the variety known as the orb-spinning spider. It would flatter it too much to call it a Joro spider (joroguma). Its color was not right to call it an earth spider (tsuchigumo). But it was no common pit spider either (anagumo). After all, in its web it had killed a giant weevil, so it must have a dreadful poison.

But its color was blue/green, like the kind of insect that could disappear between blades of grass. Perhaps it was a sea spider, blown here by an ocean breeze that carried it far from its home, floating in the air as if on the waves. It is pitiable; this spider carried so far from its home, trying to make do in its new environment, spinning a web on unknown surfaces. We should admire its perseverance. It was only sitting there, sleeping in the summer heat, never asking for the intrusion of these storytellers. And here was its fine works undone.

Our own fine works are made of individual threads that can be pulled apart. We can be killed on the street walking home, joining Yorimitsu in the spirit realms. Or maybe tomorrow will come. It is not for us to decide.

Tonoigusa Hyakumonogatari Spider

Translator’s Note:

This story comes from the 1660 kaidan-shu Tonoigusa by Ogita Ansei. It is one of the earliest known accounts of the game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.

I’ve read numerous accounts of this story, but had never read it myself until recently. I was surprised to find the epilog about the spider, as it is not included in most translations.

Further Reading:

For more spider tales and tales of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, check out:

The Web of the Water Spider

Aoandon – The Blue Lantern Ghost

What is Hyakumonogatari?

Neko No Kai – The Cat Mystery

Neko_no_Kai_-_The_Cat_Mystery

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

March 17th: A black-spotted, two-tailed cat appeared suddenly, slinking around the Motoyoshi family farmhouse. The son of the family, Genjiro, was fond of cats and decided to take the cat in and care for it. Genjiro was a healthy boy, but since taking care of the cat he started looking haggard, getting emaciated and weak. He didn’t have any particular illness, and no one could explain the decline in his health.

Genjiro’s parents blamed his condition on the cat. They noticed that the cat curled up in Genjiro’s bedclothes every day, the same clothes that Genjiro slept in. Without a doubt, he was catching some sort of infection or allergy from the cat. Genjiro’s parents tried many times to get rid of the cat—throwing it out the door, even carrying it to different towns to abandon it—but the cat always managed to find its way back. Eventually, the cat stayed away from everyone but Genjiro. The parents could no longer get close to it.

But Genjiro’s condition worsened, and his parents insisted that he get rid of the cat. His mother had Genjiro take up the cat, and she followed them as they walked to a distant town, going so far that the cat could never find its way back.

They made it as far as Koshinzuka, when Genjiro’s mother suddenly lost sight of him. She looked around, but couldn’t find Genjiro anywhere. She recruited some local children to help in the search, but it was fruitless. No sign of Genjiro was found, and his mother was forced to return alone.

April 9th: In the vicinity of Saidaiji temple, a dog was seen carrying a human arm in its mouth. The arm had scraps of a torn kimono hanging off of it, and these kimono scraps were taken to Genjiro’s mother for her to see. She confirmed that they were Genjiro’s, the same kimono he was wearing the day of his disappearance.

The official finding was that the cat must have attacked and killed Genjiro, and devoured most of his body. Given the strange nature of the cat, no one was really surprised.

Translator’s Note:

I haven’t done a magical cat story for awhile. And it’s been even longer since I translated a story from this book! I’ll probably do more of this style while working on the final edits for my book, Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. The full “yokai encyclopedia” style entries take a LOT more work and research than translating stories.

This was an actual newspaper report about a disappearance and death, printed in one of Japan’s kawaraban clay block printed newspapers, probably from around the 17th century. It comes from the Natural History collection of Waseda University.

It’s a strange story in that the cat was identified as a nekomata right at the beginning. You would think that if a two-tailed cat suddenly showed up on your doorstep, you would know better than to take it in and try and make it into a

Further Reading:

For more magical cat stories, check out:

Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat

Bakeneko Yujo – The Bakeneko Prostitutes of Edo

Bakeneko – The Changing Cat

Kasha-The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

Gotokoneko – The Trivet Cat

The Cat’s Grave

Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat

Two Tales From the Konjaku Monogatari

Konjaku Monogatari

Translated and Adapted from Konjaku Monogatari – Tales of Times Now Past

How Tosuke Ki’s Meeting with a Ghost-Woman in Mino Province Ended in His Death

Tosuke Ki was traveling to his estate in Mino province. While crossing the Seta Bridge, he encountered a woman in a kimono, who asked him to deliver a small box to a lady who sat at the bridge in Kara-village.

Tosuke agreed, and was warned not to open the box. On his trip, Tosuke forgot about the box, and instead brought it home to Mino and placed it in his storeroom.

His wife, jealous in nature, thought it was a gift from a lover, and opened the box secretly. The box was full of gouged-out eyes and penises. Tosuke, being alerted by his wife to the nature of the box, immediately went to Kara-village to deliver it.

When he met the Lady on the bridge, she was outraged that the box had been looked into, and Tosuke died as soon as he got home

So they say.

How a Man’s Wife Became a Vengeful Spirit and How Her Malignity was diverted by a Master of Divination

A man had abandoned his wife of many years for no particular reason. Perhaps he had simply gotten bored of her. In any case, he left his house to go adventuring, leaving the poor woman to waste away and die in their former home.

In death, however, the stubborn woman refused to leave, and her bones stayed together, and her long black hair only grew longer. At night, strange lights and sounds would come from the house, prompting neighbors to summon a Master of Divination, to help them. The Master told the villagers that she was waiting for her husband’s return, and that he must come and break her will.

As soon as possible, the husband was brought back to the village, and during the day, the husband entered the house and sits astride his wife’s body like a horse, and held onto her hair like reigns. At nightfall, the body came to life, and tried to buck the man off, but he held on tightly and they flew out the window and roughshod over the entire countryside. When dawn finally came, the husband still clung tightly, and the wife’s will was overthrown, and her bones disintegrated to dust, leaving the husband undamaged.

So they say.

Translator’s Note:

A couple of new stories for everyone. As you noticed, I haven’t posted anything new since my snow yōkai series of December. The reason for that is I have my edited manuscript for my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost back from my publisher, and I have been busy getting those edits made and doing final adjustments to the book. If all goes well, I will be able to announce a publication date soon! And don’t forget, you can still get copies of my limited edition chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki.

I am also busy making final edits to the next volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan. Drawn and Quarterly posted a preview recently, so take a look!

Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

In the meantime, here are a couple of tales from the Konjaku Monogatari to tide you over. I’m especially fond of the first one, as it showed up in an issue of Mike Mignola’s brilliant Hellboy comic, which all lovers of the folklore and weird tales should have in their library!

So they say.

7 Types of Yokai – Japan’s Snow Monsters

Mizuki Shigeru Snow Monsters of Japan

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

In the frozen north of the Japan, the snow piles deep and high and brings monsters. Whether riding on the avalanche, or coming in the guise of a beautiful young woman or a little lost boy, or hoping on one leg, Japan’s snow yokai are as varied and miraculous as any in folklore. Some are dangerous. Some are famous. Some are sad. Some are spectacular.

Japan’s snow monsters are like the snow itself; they bring comfort, solace, and beauty, but only for awhile. For spring comes, and snow melts, and all things must pass—good or bad.

Click Each Title to Read the Full Story of Each Yokai.

7. Yuki Jiji – The Old Man of the Snow

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Jiji

An old man who rides the avalanche, or an ancient God of Snow? The Yuki Jiji is a mysterious, powerful figure in Japanese folklore.

6. Yuki Onba and Yukinko – The Snow Mother and the Snow Child

Suuhi_Yuki-onna

Anytime a solitary woman approaches you and asks you to hold her baby for a few seconds, you are in trouble. This wintery variation on the Ubume legend delivers its own chills.

5. Yuki Warashi / Yukinbo – The Snow Babies

Mizuki Shigeru Yukinbo

One is cute and sweet—the answer to a childless couples prayers—and the other is a bizarre creature out of your nightmares.

4. Yukinba/Yukifuriba – The Snow Hags

Bakemono_Yuki-baba

Nothing ambiguous here. The Yukinba and Yukifuriba are terrifying creatures out for blood. The most horrifying of Japan’s snow yokai.

3. Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tsurara_Onnna

Does she come to love you, or eat you? The Tsurara Onna goes both ways, and you are never sure just which one is going to come to your door.

2. Oshiroi Baba – The Face Powder Hag

Mizuki_Shigeru_Oshiroibaba

Another oddity of Japanese folklore—is the Oshiroi Baba a dangerous snow hag, or some long-forgotten Goddess of Cosmetics?

1. Yuki Onna – The Snow Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Onna

By far the most famous of Japan’s snow monsters, the Yuki Onna is an enigma. There are thousands of stories about her, with thousands of variations. Which one is true?

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