Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources
The Sazae Oni may not look like much—just a giant shellfish with an odd set of arms. But then you read the legends, and discover that this bizarre creature is a testicle thief that has more in common with the classical succubus of the Malleus Maleficarum than traditional Japanese yokai … and it starts to get more interesting. And scarier.
What Does Sazae Oni Mean?
Sazae are a popular menu item in Japan, although almost unknown in the West. They are called Turbo cornutus, which literally means horned turban. But, they are more often called Turban Shells or Turban Snails in English, or just by the Japanese word Sazae.
The Sazae Oni’s name uses the kanji 栄螺 (Sazae; turban shell) + 鬼(Oni; Demon, Ogre). Like the Onikuma (Demon Bear), the term “oni” is used in a general sense of “demon” instead of the sense of the Japanese yokai, Oni.
What is a Sazae Oni?
The origins of the Sazae Oni are obscure, and come in two distinct different flavors. According to one legend, the Sazae Oni is a typical animal yokai, one that has lived a long time—in the case of the Sazae Oni, 30 years—and been transformed by the magic of long life into a supernatural creature. Like many of these creatures, the Sazae Oni grows to unusual size, and becomes a blend of human and animal features, gaining two powerful arms and eyes on its shell.
Artist Toriyama Sekein used the Sazae Oni as a metaphor for the mysterious universe that we live in, a realm where all things are possible. Toriyama included the Sazae Oni in his yokai collection Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (画図百器徒然袋; The Illustrated Bag of One Hundred Random Demons), where he wrote:
“If a sparrow becomes a clam upon entering the sea, and a field-rat can transform into a quail, then in this unfathomable universe it is no impossible thing that a turban shell might become a demon. I have seen this in something like a dream.”
Toriyama is making a reference to a Chinese proverb, that comes from the Liji (礼記; Book of Rites). It says that a sparrow may become a clam in the sea, and a field-rat may become a quail. The proverb means that even impossible things can happen in the mysterious world we live in.
These Sazae Oni are harmless creatures, who do nothing more than rise to the surface of the ocean on moonlit nights to dance on the waves. There is even some mixing with the sea dragons that rule the land beneath the waves.
And then there is the other, less esoteric origin.
Sazae Oni – The Succubus of the Sea, and the Testicle Thief
In Kishu province (modern day Wakayama and Mie prefectures), there is a legend that Sazae Oni are born from lustful women who are thrown into the ocean as punishment for their wanton ways.
In one story, a ship of pirates hugging the coast heard the cries of a woman drowning in the waves. Seeing that the woman was beautiful, the pirates decided to rescue her. Once on board, the pirates planned to rape her but found instead that the woman was willing. Over the course of the night, she had sex with every member of the crew.
The woman had her own agenda—she kept a souvenir from each of her conquests, the man’s testicles that she supposedly bit off when she was finished. Discovering that they had been robbed of the precious possessions, the men charged at the woman who revealed herself as a Sazae Oni. She offered to sell the pirates back their testicles in exchange for their plundered treasure.
In this way the Sazae Oni traded “gold” for gold, as the Japanese word for testicles is kintama (golden balls).
This story of the Sazae Oni draws a further, and interesting, correlation with the succubus. In the 1486 Witchhunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, it is said that succubus gather semen from their male lovers in order to breed. In a similar way, the Sazae Oni collects testicles, and some legends have sprang up saying that the Sazae Oni also uses the semen from the testicles in order to breed new Sazae Oni. This is a completely modern theory, however, and does not appear in old folklore studies.
There is a further legend of Sazae Oni, from the Boso peninsula in Chiba prefecture. In a story almost entirely unrelated to other instances, the Sazae Oni is said to take the form of a woman who wanders at night, staying at inns and making a meal of the innkeepers.
This is another in my series of yokai that appear (however briefly) in my translation of Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. The Sazae Oni appears when Nonnonba buys Mizuki Shigeru an exceptionally large sazae to heat, and speculates that it might be a Sazae Oni. This plays on the young Shigeru’s imagination, as he searches for eyes on the massive shell.
For other ocean-based yokai, check out: