Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Showa: A History of Japan, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, and Other Sources
If you are walking through a mountain trail, and find yourself overcome with a sudden hunger—a soul-killing hunger that drives you to your knees like true starvation—you might need to do more than reach into your backpack for an energy bar. You might be under attack by the Hidarugami, the Hunger Gods.
What Does Hidarugami Mean?
Hidarugami is written with the katakanaヒダル (hidaru) + the kanji 神 (kami; god). Things written in katakana have no inherent meaning. However, the word “hidaru” is most likely connected with饑い (hidarui), meaning hunger. Hidarui is a colloquial term, used mainly in Gifu prefecture. Hidarugami is also sometimes writtenひだる神 using the hiragana for “hidaru,” also with no inherent meaning.
The fact that the kanji “kami” is used places the hidarugami on a higher level than most yokai, alongside such devastating deities like the Binbogami (貧乏神; God of Poverty) and Shinigami (死神; God of Death). This elevated status is due in part to arising from human spirits, from reikon.
There are other names for the Hidarutami. In Kitakyushu, it is known as the Darashi (ダラシ), in Mie and Wakayama prefectures it is sometimes called the Dari (ダリ), while in Nara and Tokushima prefectures it is called Daru (ダル). All of these use katakana for the names.
The Hunger Strike of the Hidarugami
Hidarugami are said to be the spirits of those who starved to death wandering the mountains. Because they died alone, with no marker for their grave or any ceremony, their spirits become evil and seek to share their death agonies.
They are found almost exclusively on mountain trails and passes. Hikers and travelers in the presence of the Hidarugami are suddenly overcome with acute hunger, fatigue, and numbness of the limbs. The feeling is said to be that of actual starvation. The victim is unable to move and often collapse. This attack is a form of possession. The Hidarugami enters your body. If no action is taken, the Hidarugami can cause death—actual death by starvation in a healthy body.
If you are killed, you join the Hidarugami group. In this way, Hidarugamai groups slowly enlarge to contain many souls.
Expelling the Hidarugami is easy, so long as you are prepared. Just a small mouthful of a staple food, such as rice or grain, staves off the attack and the starvation leaves as quickly as it arose. That is why—even today—hikers are advised against going into the mountains without a few riceballs or a bento to eat. Even then, they never eat the entire meal, always leaving a few grains behind in case of emergency.
Old Japanese kaidanshu and traveler’s guides are full of stories of the Hidarugami. In a story coming from 1736 a man named Senkichi was found exhausted and unconscious on a mountain trail. Unable even to speak, he was loaded into a cart and carried back to town where he was fed and recovered. Senkichi related an account of an attack by Hidarugami. Another typical story tells of a merchant crossing the Noborio Pass towards Onohara. Only a few hours after finishing his lunch he became ravenously hungry, struggling to make his way to a nearby temple. A traveler’s guide from 1861 warned of the dangers of going into the mountains without a few riceballs for protection.
Are the Hidarugami Yokai or Yurei?
Hidarugami defy simple classification, and show the complicated nature of Japanese folklore. Are they yurei? Are they yokai? Are they Gods? Yes to all three questions. (And yes, it is a trick question as all yurei are yokai. Smart catch there!)
Because Hidarugami enter the body and possess it, they are considered a type of the Tsukimono yokai – A Possessing Thing. While most tsukimono are magical animals, anything that possess can fall into this category.
Higarugami are most definitely yurei—they are referred to as either akuryo (悪霊; Evil Spirit) or onryo (怨霊; Vengeful Spirits). But they are not typical yurei. Like Funa Yurei and oddities like the Shichinin Dōgyō – The Seven Pilgrims, the Hidarugami act as a group and actively make new members. Because they are bound to their location, they would be considered a type of jibakurei (地縛霊; Earth-bound Spirit).
Hidarugami are also muenbotoke (無縁仏). This refers to the unworshiped dead, those who die without burial or ceremony. Special rites are often held on Obon, the Festival of the Dead, specifically for muenbotoke to try and get their spirits to pass one. One passage says that the Hidarugami’s grip on the world is not particularly strong—that they are a weak god—and they should be banished by a simple muenbotoke ceremony.
They are also associated with Gaki ( 餓鬼), the Preta or Hungry Ghost of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist mythology. The association is vague and only based on the dual obsession with hunger. Gaki are those whose sins of gluttony condemn them to be reborn as foul creatures with a rapacious hunger for disgusting things such as corpses or feces. Gaki are not native to Japanese folklore, and at sometime after their importation from China a link was made between the Gaki and the Hidarugami.
Hidarugami Across Japan
Like all widespread folklore, the Hidarugami have regional variations and associations. In Wakayama prefecture, —along the ancient pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo—there is a deep hole called the Gaki Ana, or the Gaki’s Pit. The exact location of the pit is unknown, but it is said to be someone near Mt. Okumotori and Mt. Shokumotori in Wakayama prefecture. Wherever it is, staring into the Gaki Ana is said to summon the Hidarugami.
In Shiga prefecture, possession by a Hidarugami is much more dreadful. The possessed person’s stomach suddenly swells like a starvation victim, and they begs for a bowl of rice with tea. If someone answers that they had food, but have eaten it, the possessed victim will attack with a fury, ripping open their stomachs in search of undigested bits of rice to eat.
In Mie prefecture, Hidarugami are said to attack not only humans but also cattle being moved across mountain trails.
In Kochi, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima prefectures, there are small shrines set up along mountain roads and mountain passes enshrining the kami Shibaorigami (柴折様). Making a small offering at these shrines, even something so small as laying down a few token branches of wood, is said to provide protection against the Hidarugami.
This is the next in my series of yokai who appear in Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan. A young Mizuki Shigeru encountered the Hidarugami once walking through a mountain road. He survived the attack due to finding a few stray grains of rice. It was only much later in his life while reading a book that he learned to put a name to the strange phenomenon he had encountered.
To read more about Tsukimono and other sundry ghosts, check out:
Tsukimono – The Possessing Thing
Shichinin Dōgyō – The Seven Pilgrims