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

The Legends and Storytellers of Tono

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Tono Monogatari

Yanagita Kunio’s “Tono Monogatari” is mainly the recollections of Tono-native Sasaki Kizen.  Sasaki was a researcher of local legends, and also harbored dreams of becoming an author himself.   Gathered here are the many stories passed down through generations from parent to child in the Sasaki household, including myths and legends, folktales and traditions, ghost stories and fairy tales.   Sasaki told them with out any particular order, plot, literary structure or device, and Yanagita wrote them down accordingly. Together these stories and Yanagita’s other books became the foundation in Japan of minzokugaku, or folklore studies. 

2010 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the initial publication of “Tono Monogatari,” and Tono has planned many events in recognition of this milestone.  This book is one of those events.  Tono itself retains many of the characteristics and atmosphere that it had in Yanagita’s days.  With the images of this book held in your heart, you can visit Tono and be transported back a hundred years to when the stories were first written down.

Tono is found in the northern Japan, in the southern mountainous district of Iwate prefecture.  Located in a valley basin and ringed by three holy mountains, Tono can find on either side Mt. Hayachine, Mr. Rokkoushi and Mt. Ishigami.  Together, these are called the Three Mountains of Tono.   The middle mountain, Mt. Hayachine, also forms a part of another group known as the Three Southern Mountains including Mt. Iwate and Mt. Himegami. As the most outstanding and prominent of the mountains, Mt. Hayachine has been an object of worship for thousands of years. Fukuda Kyuya included Mt. Hayachine on his list of 100 Famous Mountains of Japan.

If you visit Tono you will find that there are elements exactly as in the book.  Story number 98 tells of large rocks by the side of the road with the words “mountain kami,” “kami of the fields” and “kami of the village entrance” carved in them. These can still be seen today.  The many kami of Tono are even now celebrated, including amongst their number the honored dead, important pilgrimages, and even a “kami of wives.”   At the shrine of the kami of wives you can see people praying for good fortune in marriage, or for the blessing of a child, or even those mothers who have lost a child praying for its soul.

All of these stone monuments to spirits and ancestors are surrounded on every side by a rich abundance of natural beauty.  The area brews a peculiar feeling of mystery and magic.  It is no wonder that when night comes and the darkness falls, the children of Tono gather eagerly around the hearth to hear the stories that have been passed down through the ages…

It is these stories, passed down through the ages, which have been collected and bound as “Tono Monogatari.”    What you won’t find here are tales commonly told to children, no classic morality stories of “The Boy from a Certain Village Who Went in Search of Adventure.”  Instead, what you will find are raw stories that sprang from real people.  There are stories of strange circumstances and suspicious encounters (some even filled with blood and gore).  The storyteller who filled children’s head with these stories as night fell also bound them together as a people, providing a collective narrative of society to be shared with each successive generation of children.

However, there are only about twenty-five left of these storytellers.  And while about six of these can be found in a proper performance, the rest are probably found at the train stations, serving as tour guides to visitors.  They ask no fee, but are just there to share their body of lore when the occasion calls, at anytime to anyone.

The Yurei Child

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In Edo, in the vicinity of Nipponbashi (modern day Tokyo), there was an important shopkeeper named Kenhei.  Every year Kenhei would make a trip to Kyoto to buy stock for his store, always buying from the same seller, a widow women living with her daughter.  This daughter had stolen the heart of Kenhei, and she had no plans to give it back.  So, with the consent of the mother, they were pledged.

In the following days Kenhei said:

“I am a man of Edo, and so it is my wish to move our family to Edo where we can live out our days in ease.  I will return first and make the necessary preparations, then come and collect you.  What do you think?”

The daughter was pleased, and answered:

“I know that we have not yet the money to move, so we will wait for you here in Kyoto.  By the time you come again next year, we will be ready to go and live with you in Edo.”

With this pledge, Kenhei returned happily to Edo.  But on the trip back, he became terribly ill and unable to work.   The daughter was unaware of this and waited patiently for Kenhei to come and collect her and bring her to Edo to live together.  When the promised day came and went, she thought she had been betrayed and was overcome by sadness.  Such was her grief that she died.

Kenhei, still in Edo, believed that the daughter was waiting for him in Kyoto.  Just as he was wondering what she was doing now, he heard a voice:

“Is this the residence of Kenhei?”

Kenhei was overcome with happiness.

“What are you doing here in Edo?  This is fantastic!”

They both wept profusely.  But the daughter was bitter with her accusations at Kenhei for not keeping his promise.

Kenhei explained to her about his illness and why he had been unable to keep his promise.  At length he soothed her anger and brought her into his house, where she was introduced as his wife.

When the daughter said:

“And now we must bring my mother to Edo as well.”

Kenhei replied:

“Sadly, I still lack the money and she must wait another two or three years.”

During that time, the daughter, now Kenhei’s wife, became pregnant and gave birth to a boy as round as a ball.

When the boy was three years old, Kenhei went as promised to Kyoto to bring back the mother.  He went to their familiar house where the old widow was pleased to see him again.

She cried while saying:

“Well, well.  This is an unexpected reunion!  It has been three years since my daughter died while waiting for you to come and collect here.  Since she passed away I have had no one to rely on.  I have just lived an empty life here by myself, without compassion or sympathy of others, and here suddenly from Edo is that man who I thought had abandoned us long ago!”

Kenhei was shocked by this:

“What is it you are saying?  You daughter came to my house three years ago, and even now our three year old child is in our house.  Your grandson!”

With this the mother went into the back room where the family altar was kept, removed the mortuary tablet of her daughter.

“Your love for my daughter must have been so great as to call her back so she could live with you for those three years.”

Pulling it from her breast pocket, the mother showed the mortuary tablet to Kenhei.  The daughter’s name was written clearly on it in brush, along with the name of the blessed Buddha.    Kenhei broke down in tears, and after performing the proper funerary rights he brought the mother home with him to live together in Edo.

The child born to Kenhei and his ghostly bride grew up, and he became admired for his great wisdom and gentility by everyone in the province.

The One-Armed Kappa

Translated from Nihon no Obake Banashi

Long, long ago, a kappa lived in the river. This kappa would threaten children who were swimming in the river, pull the tails of horses walking along the river banks and drag them into the water, and generally cause mischief to those around him.

The river this kappa lived in was in a mountain in the province of Hida (modern day Gifu prefecture), and all the villagers were troubled by its presence.

“That damn kappa.  I would sure like to give him a beating at least once!  He’s getting worse and worse every day.”

Finally, some young men who were an excellent swimmers went to the river to get rid of him.

The kappa himself was unbothered by this, and was swimming as always easily at the deep bottom of the river.

“Inside the river is a kappa’s heaven!  Anyone who wants to try their luck with me here is welcome to come.  They will be the ones in for a beating!”

When the young men entered the water, the kappa shot out in a flash, wrapping his body around a young swimmer, pulling harshly on his legs and fixing his face with a terrible glare.  When he was in the water, the kappa was even stronger than on dry land, and he was filled with a mysterious power.  When he was in the water, the kappa would lose to no one.

The young men, afraid of drowning, soon lost confidence and fled from the river and the kappa.  Together, they formed a new plan.

“All right!  The next time we have to get the kappa to leave the water!  Then we can grab him together and turn him upside down to force the water to spill from his head-plate.”

With the plan set in detail, they each decided what role they would play. 

The following day, one of the young men found that the path from the fields were they were growing cucumbers was wet.  Following the path, they found it connected to the river.

“The kappa!  These are clearly the footprints of a kappa…he has come to steal the cucumbers.”

Kappa’s are well known for their love of cucumbers.

The young men quickly informed the rest of their fellows.  Carrying sickles and wooden bats, they crept into position around the cucumber plantation. 

“He’s here.  He’s here.”

In the shade of the cucumber plants a figure the size of a small child was hiding.   It was the kappa.  His skin was green and shiny as if slicked with oil, and on the top of his head was an indented plate filled with water.

“For sure it is the kappa…”

“Hit the top of his head and make him spill the water!  Spill the water!”

Everyone sprang out shouting all at once, leaping on the kappa.

But the kappa was not about to lose. He desperately turned towards them.

For you see, the kappa is not only strong in water.  Even on dry land he is something to fear.  Unless you manage to spill the water from his head plate and dry it out, he has the strength of a hundred men.  Nay, a thousand men!  The kappa effortlessly threw the young men as they came at him.

However, he was having so much fun flinging the young me around that he didn’t notice that the water had spilled from his head-plate.

“Oh no!  What have I done!”

But it was too late.  Picking themselves up off the ground, they saw the kappa lose his power.  Fully drained of strength, the kappa plummeted to the ground.

“What did I do…what did I do…”

Without his water, the kappa was truly helpless.

The young men hoisted the kappa aloft and carried him to the house of the village elder, where he was tightly bound.

“I humbly beg your forgiveness. It is just as you say.  I was wrong….”

The kappa’s mighty energy had left him, and he sobbed uncontrollably, apologizing over and over again in a voice filled with melancholy.

 “Well this is no good.  What do you all say?  What should we do with this kappa?”

The young men gathered together to discuss it.  At length, the daughter of the village elder came by.

“Please, I implore you.  Speak to your father for me.  Help me!  Help me!”

The kappa begged the young woman.

“No way!  You have caused nothing but trouble!  I will never forgive you!”

The daughter grabbed a near-by ladle and smacked the kappa on the head with it.

At that exact moment, the kappa’s strength suddenly returned.

It seems that inside that ladle there was a single drop of water.   And that single drop of water in his head plate was enough.


With water in his head once more, the kappa used his mighty strength to tear free from his bonds.  However, his right hand was bound more tightly than his other, and in his desperation to get free his right arm ripped from its socket.

“Hey!  The kappa has escaped!  After him!  After him!!!”

In all the confusion, no one was sure where exactly to chase after the kappa,   The now one-armed kappa flew like the wind, escaping to his river home where he dove in and swam quickly to the bottom. 

From then on, the one-armed kappa no longer threatened or annoyed the people of the village.

This is a folktale from Gifu, although similar tales can be found almost anywhere.  The kappa is a terrible creature of mischief, and can be found in Japan anywhere rivers are present.

The Velvet Obake

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

It was on the 20th of April, in the Saruo mansion near the vicinity of Bancho.   A maid who had been in the service of the mansion for many years made the journey from her sleeping quarters to the bathroom in the dead of night.

Suddenly, something colored pitch-black sprang at her, grabbing her by the head.  It was such a fright that the maid fell to the ground unconscious in a mere second.   The commotion was so loud that the household staff came flying to the scene, nursing of the poor maid until she was able to return to her senses.  Even though  it was only moments from when the maid fell until the other arrived, nothing could be seen of the bakemono.

Truly, that pitch-black monster was a Velvet Obake.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries

Copyright notification

All translations and other writing on this website were created by Zack Davisson and are copyright to him.

Copyright notification

In accessing these web pages, you agree that any downloading of content is for personal, non-commercial reference only.

No part of this web site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of Zack Davisson.

Copyright notification

For rights clearance please contact Zack at:

zack.davisson (at) gmail.com

Thank you.

%d bloggers like this: