Kyōkotsu – The Crazy Bones Yōkai

Kyokotsu Mizuki Shigeru
Translated and adapted from Hyakiyako Kaitai Shisho and other sources

Be careful when you pull up a bucket of water from an ancient, abandoned well. You might get more than you bargained for if a kyokotsu 狂骨—which translates literally as “crazy bones”—springs up from the bucket like a Jack-in-the-Box to deliver its curse.

Clad in a white burial kimono, kyokotsu almost look like a classical yurei but they lack the black/white contrast due to shocks of white hair that spring from its bleached-white skull. Kyokotsu appear as little more than bones wrapped in a shroud, springing from a well.

The yokai is best-known from Toriyama Sekien’s Edo-period yokai print-book “Konjyaku Hyaku Kishui” or  “Supplement to the Hundred Demons of the Past.” Author Kyogoku Natsuhiko also recent featured a kyokotsu in his book “Dream of the Kyokotsu.”

Sekien’s original woodblock print was accompanied by this text:

“Kyokotsu rise from the bones in the well. It is said that whosoever commits the horrendous act of abandoning august bones will find it impossible to abandon the horrendous wrath that follows.”

Sekien’s text seems to explain that kyokotsu appear from a well in response to some wrongdoing and bearing a terrible grudge. Seiken also claimed that the regional-dialect term “kyokotsu,” meaning “violent” or “furious,” is an allusion to this yokai. However, while such a term does exist, specifically in Tsuki-gun in Kanagawa prefecture, there is no concrete evidence linking either the term or Seiken’s picture to an older folktale.

It is much more likely that the opposite occurred, that Seiken heard the term “kyokotsu” and decided to invent a yurei to match—much like if an English-language author decided to create a monster called “Lazy Bones” after the pre-existing term. To get the image for his yokai, Seiken was probably just playing on works, combining the local term “kyokotsu” (crazy bones) with “gyokotsu,” which means bones from which all of the meat has fallen off. He might also have been influenced by the words “keikotsu” or “sokotsu” which can mean drifter or wander, but also can be phrased as “someone from the bottom.” It seems likely that Seiken was influenced both by these words and by the old belief of an inexhaustible grudge that can come from the bottom of wells.

There are several Japanese folklore stories—involving both yokai and yurei—that involve the bottom of a well. In Japanese folklore, water was a channel to the world of the dead, and the bottoms of wells were directly connected. Wells also served as a convenient hiding place for murders committed in the dark of the night, and the superstitious believed that any such-disposed of corpse was capable of a powerful curse. Those who died from falling in wells, by accident, suicide, or murder, were thought to transform into shiryo and haunt the well. The spirit connects to the well itself, rather than where they were murdered, and their curse is likely to fall on anyone who used the well and not specifically targeted to the murderer.

A cursed set of bones is another typical trope in Japanese folklore and does not need to be connected to a well. In her book “Nozarashi Monogatari,” the literary scholar Sawada Mizuho wrote a similar story of a weather-beaten, abandoned skull that gets its revenge.

The biggest difference between the kyokotsu and typical Japanese folklore tales of skeletal ghosts is the element of disparity between the spirit form and the physical remains. In most stories, the spirit resembles a typical Japanese yurei—with a physical, full human body—even while the discovered remains are nothing more than a pile of rotting bones. The kyokotsu is rare in that Sekien drew the spirit in skeletal form as well. Because of this, kyokotsu is most often identified as a type of yokai, being a possessed skeleton, rather than a type of yurei, a Japanese ghost.

Translator’s Note:  The manga series “Bleach” has a character called Katen Kyōkotsu that uses the same kanji as this yokai, but seems to have no other relationship.

The Severed Heads Hanging in the Fowling Net

 

Translated from Nihon no Yurei Banashi

The Thrush Bird

At the Western base of Noriguchidake in the Japanese Alps there is a picturesque plateau.  All through-out this plateau are scattered small lakes filled with sky-blue water.

In the olden days, the road from Shinshu (modern day Nagano prefecture) to Hida (modern day Gifu prefecture) wound along this plateau linking lake to lake.  However, because fearsome things were known to happen along this route people referred to it as the “Road of the Dead.”

It has been two hundred years since this story was first told.  Sitting near the base of this plateau was a small village, where lived a peasant named Heitaro.  His greatest love was hunting the birds and beasts of the wild, and with the coming of winter Heitaro would venture forth with his fowling net and bow and arrow without fail.

“Today, if luck is with me, I will bring down a thrush!”

Heitaro spread out his great fowling net right in the open plains of the Road of the Dead, and waited for an unknowing thrush to fly into it.

At this time, it was still in the early hours of morning.  The white fog was thick, covering the ground and limiting visibility.  Heitaro crouched silently, hidden in the lee of a nearby tree and patiently smoked a cigarette.  After awhile, he heard a loud voice coming from the vicinity of his fowling net.

“Get that Heitaro!  Get that Heitaro!”

Heitaro could hear someone yelling this.

“Eh? What is that?”

Heitaro peered into the fog from between the branches of his hiding place.

“What the…?

Taken aback, Heitaro held his breath and began to shudder with fear.  The voice was coming from something unspeakably terrible.

Caught in his fowling net, lined up in a row, were several severed heads of dead men. And what’s more the heads were screaming:

“Get that Heitaro!  We are going to get that Heitaro!!!”

At any minute it looked liked the heads would free themselves and coming flying towards Heitaro.

Heitaro was too frightened to speak, and quickly dove into an open cavern in a nearby rock formation where he lay shivering. Because the severed heads might be able to come down the same opening that Heitaro had entered, he closed up the hole with another rock.

But he could still hear the terrible voices screaming:

“Get that Heitaro!  Get that Heitaro!”

In time, the dense fog that enveloped the scene began to dissipate, and along with the thinning of the fog Heitaro could no longer hear the voices.

The Dead among the Fog

 

“Now is the time to make my escape”

Heitaro made no move to gather up his fowling net.  Leaving everything behind, he started to run for his village at the base of the plateau.

As he was fleeing, however, again the thick white fog began to gather around the ground until Heitaro could longer see even those things right in front of his eyes. 

“Ahhh!  This is bad…this is bad…anything could happen in weather like this…”

Thinking this to himself, a long shiver ran along his spine. 

He found himself standing along one of the small lakes that decorated the plateau.  From the lake he could hear certain sounds:

“Slurp.  Slurp.”

It was clearly the sound of someone drinking from the water. Heitaro could also hear the sound of something moving along the ground like a worm.

Fearfully, he tried to search through the fog for the source of the sound…

“Ah!”

Heitaro screamed loudly, when he saw the ghastly blue colored things rolling around on the ground.  Drinking the water, dressed in white kimonos where the yurei of dead men.   And there were many of them!  Clinging to the banks of the lake they were pushing each other out of the way to drink from the blue water.

“O…oh no!”

Wanting desperately to flee, Heitaro turned to run but his legs where knocking together with terror and his feet wouldn’t move.  And it was here that Heitaro was seen.

“Heitaro!  We have been waiting for you!”

In a blind panic, Heitaro drug his unmoving feet finally breaking into a run.  Blindly he fled across the plateau until somehow or other he arrived at his village. But all was not well, as Heitaro could no longer go hunting and in time fell ill and succumbed to his bed.

When news of this affair reached the people of the village, they said:

“Is that so…things like really do happen?  I guess what they say about that road is true.  It really is the Road of the Dead.  A place where you go hunting for thrush and catch severed heads”

From that time forth and for a long time after, no one passed again along that route.

This legend is of the “Haunted Forest”-type, and is common amongst yurei tales. These same types of mysterious stories can be found in almost every area, with only the details changed to accommodate the local setting.

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