On Zashiki-Warashi

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Tono Monogatari

There is what is called the Three Great Stories of Tono.  Of these, the legend of the zashiki-warashi is by far the most famous.  Let’s touch on these legends a bit.

Zashiki-warashi (“zashiki” meaning the tatami room of traditional Japanese houses, and “warashi” meaning a kid or small child) are often seen as a kind of omen in the houses of once-great families on the verge of decline.  The disappearance of the zashiki-warashi from the house was a sign that the family’s fortunes had waned.  Looking into this, you can find many families who have used zashiki-warashi to account for the withering away of their wealth and status.   The disappearance of zashiki-warashi was also an easy way to explain away a neighbor’s misfortunes to children who were too young to understand.   Many a parent has relied on this convenient excuse to circumvent uncomfortable questions.

But there are other thoughts on the zashiki-warashi.  In the 42nd year of Meiji, Yanagita wrote in his diary that on the journey from Hanamaki to Tono he saw only three places that showed any sign of human habitation.  On these rough plateaus between the surrounding mountains it was said there were a hardscrabble people making their living off the land called Yamabito.  These people of the mountains were said to be of substantial build and were described as having eyes differently colored from normal Japanese.  The villages of the Tono area were terrified of Yamabito, who were said to sometimes raid the villages and either ravage or kidnap the local women.   Due to this fear of outsiders, as well as due to the special geographical features of the mountain basin in which they lived, the people of Tono were solitary and exclusionary.   Their houses held many secrets.  Old families of rank and reputation sometimes found their daughters ravaged and impregnated by these Yamabito attacks, and any child born of such a union was hidden away in the depths of the family mansion and never allowed to see the daylight.  Other families of lesser fortunes sometimes gave birth to more children than they could afford, so it was said that some children were culled, their bodies buried under the dirt floors or under the kitchen instead of a proper grave.   An eyewitness to both of these ancient customs sites these practices as the origin of the zashiki-warashi legends.

There are of course other origins that have nothing to do with bad parents hiding or killing their own children. Some say that zashiki-warashi are merely spirits of the house, no different than any other kami.

Regardless of their origins, they are a vivid and ancient legend.  One official account, published in 1910 (the 43rd year of Meiji), tells of an elementary school in Tsuchibuchi where a first grade student claimed to see a zashiki-warashi right in front of him, although his teachers and classmates were unable to see the spirit.

Further Reading:

Read more Zashiki Warashi tales on hyakumonogatari.com

Zashiki Warashi

5 Comments (+add yours?)

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