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 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 Speaking Futon

Translated from Nihon no Obake Banashi

Long ago, in the town of Totori, a shopkeeper opened a small inn.  The inn welcomed its first customer on a cold winter’s night.

 “Welcome my guest, and please spend the night comfortably.  Help yourself to our bedding and futons!”

 The proprietor thus led the guest to his room.

 The exhausted lodger fell quickly into the offered futon, and was soon asleep.  However, in the middle of the night he was awakened by someone’s voice.

 “Older brother…you must be cold.”

 “Little brother, you must be cold too…”

 The voice, little more than a whisper, was a child’s voice.

 “Huh.  There are no kids in this room…that must be coming from one of the neighboring rooms…”

 “But still…at this hour it is awfully rude for someone to be talking and keeping the other guests awake.”

 The lodger made a purposeful show of loudly clearing his throat.  The child’s voice stopped exactly at that time.

 With a sigh of satisfaction, the lodger once again began to settle into sleep.  But just as he was on the verge of sleep, the child’s voice was heard again, this time whispering directly into his ear.

 “Older brother…you must be cold.”

 “Little brother, you must be cold too…”

 It was a sad voice.  The lodger sprang from his futon and hurriedly lit the nearby paper lantern.

 There was no one in the room.  He check the adjoining room, and there was no one their either.  Leaving the paper lantern lit, the lodger lay down yet again.  And again he heard the voice, coming from the base of his pillow.

 “Older brother…you must be cold.”

 “Little brother, you must be cold too…”

 Again it was the sad child’s voice.

 A chill went down the lodger’s spine.  Yet he summoned up his courage and tried to pinpoint the source of his voice.  He could hear it coming from his futon.   The bed covering was speaking to him.

 The lodger fled terrified from the room. Waking the proprietor, he told him the whole story of the haunted futon.

 “What are you talking about?  My inn has only opened today.  And I certainly don’t have any haunted futons.  You must be very tired for your mind to be playing tricks on you.”

The proprietor would simply not believe the story.  And as for the lodger, he had already paid and there was nothing to be done about it.  The proprietor stuck out his belly and would not be budged.

 “Yah…this is a bad omen.  My first day of business and my first customer is like this…”

 However, the following day another lodger stayed in the same room, and had the same story to tell the proprietor about the haunted futon.

 “Now this is a strange thing indeed.  To have two customers report the same thing…I am going to have to look into this…”

 The proprietor was still unbelieving, but he went into the room and put his head next to the futon.  Sure enough, he could soon hear a child’s voice crying:

 Shocked as he was, the proprietor still investigated the mysterious voice and found that it was coming from only a single bed-cover futon used as a blanket.

 “So you are the offending futon?  Why do you say what you say?”

 The next day the proprietor went to the dealer in used clothing and bedding from whom he had purchased the futon.

 “Actually,  before I sold it to you I bought this futon from another used store…”

 And so the dealer in used goods told the proprietor of the inn where he had the futon.  The proprietor hurriedly went to that shop where he heard the story.

 Not so long ago, there a poverty-stricken family of four lived in the town of Totori.  Their father had died of illness, followed by their mother, leaving only the 6- and 4-year old brothers.  The brothers had no family or friends to look after them.  They sold all of their household goods for food, including their mother and father’s kimonos and their hibachi stove.  But because their house was poor, the items they could sell were soon gone, and they had nothing left but a single futon blanket.

 Before long, winter came and the snow fell.  The two brothers had nothing and stayed in a deserted house growing weaker and weaker. Wrapped together in the single futon blanket, they shivered in the cold.  At night they tried to sleep, but the bitter cold would keep them awake

 “Older brother…you must be cold.”

 The kind little brother tried to give the entire futon blanket to his older brother.

 “Little brother, you must be cold too…”

 But the older brother refused and covered his little brother with the futon instead.

 The two passed the night this way, attempting to give the entire futon to their freezing bother.  And that passed another night this way, and then another. How often could they perform this ritual?

 In time, the coldhearted landlord of the house came calling, and unable to pay the rent the brothers were thrown from the house.  The landlord even tore the futon blanket from them as payment for their debt.

 That night there was a terrible snow storm.

 Having not eaten for many days, the brothers succumbed to their hunger and the cold.  Under the stoop of a nearby house they were found dead, still clinging to each other.

 “The poor dears…the poor little dears…”

 Thinking this, the neighbors buried them in a small grave near the temple of Kannon the deity of mercy.

 The proprietor of the inn, hearing this story brought the futon blanket to the temple of Kannon where the two brothers were buried.  The Buddhist monk of the temple prayed for them and held a memorial service for them.

 From then, the futon was never heard to speak again.

This melancholy tale comes from Tottori , next to Shimane prefecture, and was included in the collection of legends known as “Inbaku Densetsu Shu.”  It was made famous by Koizumi Yakumo, also known as Lafcadio Hearn.

The Yurei of the Melancholy Boy

Translated from Nihon no Yurei Banashi

The Body on the Boarders

 Long ago, on the road lying exactly on the boarder between the province of Sendai (modern day Miyagi prefecture) and the province of Souma (modern day Fukushima prefecture), a solitary boy fell dead.

The boy was journeying from Sendai and planning to cross over into Souma when he collapsed.  His head and upper-body lay in Souma, while his legs and lower-body lay in the territory of Sendai.

Just then, a samurai patrolling the boarder of Sendai came upon the scene.

“Ohhhh…this is a troublesome place to find a corpse.   And who is going to be responsible for cleaning this up? If he is from Sendai, then the obligation is ours, but…let’s see what we can do….”

Softly and secretly, the patrolling samurai of Sendai lifted the body in his arms, turned him around placing his head in Sendai and his feet in Souma.  He did not know, however that he was being watched by a figure from the shadows.  There was a samurai who had been patrolling the boarders of Souma.

The Souma samurai leapt quickly from his positing in the tree’s shadow.

“Hey hey!  This is a terrible thing you are doing!  That child is from your province!  He only fell dead while trying to enter my province.”

What are you saying?  Can’t you see?  This is clearly a child of Souma!”

“No, he is from Sendai.  Look at the body for proof!  Can’t you see that his head is facing away from Souma and his feet are firmly in Sendai?”

“Are you crazy?  Look at his body! It is exactly the opposite!”

“Only because you flipped him around!  I saw it all!”

“How dare you falsely accuse me!”

The two began to scream at each other fiercely.

However no matter how strongly they disputed the other’s statement, they could not come to a conclusion on who was responsible for cleaning up the body.  Finally, the samurai of Sendai fixed the samurai of Souma with his most fearsome glare, and said:

“Fine. If we can’t work it out ourselves, let us fetch a Magistrate of Sendai and a Magistrate of Souma, and they can decide what is right.”

“OK, that sounds fair.  Let’s do just that.”

And so it came to be that the two Magistrates arrived, and discussed the problem of the boy’s body.

It must be said that Sendai was a very large and strong province, while Souma was small and weak.  Even if the Magistrate of Sendai knew he was in the wrong, he would never admit it.  And of this point, he said:

“The tiny province of Souma is nothing compared to the might of Sendai.  If this dispute escalates, what do you think will happen?  Do you understand what I am saying?”

The implied threat was clear.

From here, the discussion of who was responsible for disposing of the body was ended. For it was true that if Sendai and Souma went to war, the outcome would never be in doubt.  Souma would lose.

Therefore, Souma had no choice but to accede to the wishes of Sendai.

Before the Grave

While they were going to this grave decision, the Sun had risen and the body of the boy had begun to decompose.  The people of Souma said:

“This poor boy.  Well, there is nothing to do about it but to bury him here.”

So they dug a grave and placed the boy inside.

The following day, a mysterious thing occurred.  Although they were positive they had buried the boy in the grave, he was seen sitting next to his headstone. Patiently, he would gaze kindly in the direction of Souma.  After that, his head would turn in the direction of Sendai and his face would turn horrible.  With all of his heart he would glare his hatred at Sendai.

The people of Souma said this:

“The curse of that boy is on Sendai, and they will be destroyed by it.  The grudge of the living is nothing to be feared, but the grudge of a yurei…”

Not a single person of Souma who looked upon the boy suffered any ill effects, but the same thing can not be said of the people of Sendai.

This story is from the Houken Era and tells of the way things are.  It is an easy to understand legend, coming from the Tohoku Area.

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