Kamikiri

Variations: Kami-kiri, Kami Kiri, Kamikiri-ma, Kamikiri-mushi, Kami Kiri Mushi; Amikiri (probably)

Kamikiri

Hair has been of historical importance in Japan. During the Edo period, the chonmage or topknot in men was a status symbol. In women, long hair indicated beauty and wealth, with differing hairstyles communicating age, rank, and availability. Cutting one’s hair was a solemn and drastic step associated with religious vows.

Cutting someone’s hair without their consent, therefore, was a spiteful and criminal act, even more so if it seemed to happen without reason. Inexplicable and sudden hair-cutting was known as Kamikiri, “hair cutter”. Most kamikiri incidents happened at twilight, and the victims were usually young women. Matsuzaka City was especially plagued by kamikiri. Often the hair was snipped off while the victim was walking, with the crime noticed only upon returning home.

Who was to blame for kamikiri? Demonic winds could have been the culprit, and they were countered with prayers written on papers and placed in hairpins. Kitsune were also blamed; after three women fell victim in one area, a fox was cut open and long hair found inside.

The phenomenon has also been attributed to a yokai, the kamikiri, kamikiri-ma (“hair-cutting demon”), or kamikiri-mushi (“hair-cutting insect”). It may have been a large longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae), but Edo scrolls elaborate that into a small humanoid creature with pincer hands and a birdlike face. The insect features may be due to kamikiri’s similarity with kamakiri, “praying mantis”.

Toriyama Sekien’s yokai compendia do not include the kamikiri, but rather the scorpion-like amikiri or “net-cutter”. This may be an error, or Sekien’s own spin on the scissors-handed yokai.

References

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Hepburn, J. C. (1872) A Japanese-English and English-Japanese Dictionary. American Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai.

Thunberg, C. P. (1796) Travels in Europe, Africa, and Asia, v. III. F. and C. Rivington, London.

Kamaitachi

Variations: Kama-itachi, Kamakaze (“Sickle wind”)

Kamaitachi

The Kamaitachi, or “sickle weasel”, is the Japanese yokai of unexplained cuts. It is most common in snowy Honshu. The name itself may be alternately derived from kamae-tachi, “poised sword”.

A kamaitachi looks something like a weasel with razor-sharp sickle claws. It travels in whirlwinds, but it is never seen. Instead, the presence of a kamaitachi is known by the cuts it leaves on its victims. It will also cause people to trip and fall, taking malign pleasure in causing injury.

Kamaitachi are useful scapegoats for inconvenient injuries. A woman in Niigata, after injuring herself during a nocturnal tryst, successfully deflected attention by blaming the kamaitachi for her wound.

The kamaitachi was rationalized in a number of ways, including pieces of sharp debris tossed around in whirlwinds. Y. Tanaka suggested that the “kamaitachi disease” was the result of temporary vacuums forming from stray air currents, slicing skin that came in contact with them. Such vacuums would be common in mountainous areas and thunderstorm conditions.

In Gifu the kamaitachi becomes three gods, the first pushing over the victim, with the second cutting with a knife and the third healing the injury.

References

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Griffis, W. E. (1876) The Mikado’s Empire. Harper and Brothers, New York.

Y. Tanaka (1911) An Epitome of Current Medical Literature: Spontaneous Wounds. British Medical Journal, v. 2, p. 37.

Yamabiko

Variations: Yama-biko

Yamabiko

The Yamabiko, “mountain echo” or simply “echo” is heard rather than seen. It is found in the high mountains of Japan, and answers anyone shouting in the mountains with a mocking echo of their voice. While there is no definite version of its appearance, it was depicted by Toriyama Sekien as a rather simian creature.

Its name can also be interpreted as “spirit of valley reverberation”. It is not known if the yamabiko yokai was named for the echo, or if the echo was named for the yokai. The Yamabiko Shinkansen train, on the other hand, is named for the echo and not the yokai.

References

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Raiju

Variations: Raijū, Thunder-animal, Thunder-beast

Raiju

In Japan, it is said that lightning cannot pass through a mosquito-net – and neither can the Raiju. These creatures also hate the smell of incense.

A raiju, or thunder-beast, ranges from dog to squirrel in general appearance, but usually resembles a badger. It falls from the sky with the lightning, and jumps from tree to tree. After the storm has passed, evidence of the raiju’s presence can be seen in the torn, deeply gouged treetrunks and woodwork where a raiju dug its claws in. Such raiju-damaged trees can be harvested for bark that cures toothache.

Raijus will pounce on anyone taking shelter beneath a tree, and will enter any house unprotected by mosquito netting or incense. They also love to eat human navels, and so it is vital to keep one’s navel protected during a thunderstorm, sleeping face-down if necessary.

Despite their elusive nature, raijus have been captured on multiple occasions. The Edo period in particular has many such cases across Japan, and it is believed the Chinese Bencao gangmu text was the inspiration for the raiju craze. One raiju got tangled in the ropes of a well and was taken alive. Another raiju was exhibited (for a fee) in a brass cage in the Temple of Tenjin in Matsue. It looked like a badger, and was said to sleep during fair weather, but during storms it would become active, with its eyes flashing.

The masked palm civet or hakubishin (Paguma larvata) is the most likely contender for the originator of the raiju. This badger-like animal was brought over to Japan from mainland Asia perhaps as early as the Edo period, its unfamiliar nature leading to tales of lightning beasts.

References

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Hearn, L. (1910) Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (Second Series). Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig.

Tsuchinoko

Variations: Bachi-hebi, Gigi-hebi, Koro, Koro-hebi, Nozuchi, Tsuchi-korobi

Tsuchinoko final

The Tsuchinoko (“child of the earth” or “mallet child”) is a snake native to Japan. Its primary characteristics are its unusual stocky appearance and its secretiveness. Sightings of tsuchinoko go at least as far back as 1807, in the Edo Period.

A tsuchinoko is easily recognized by its fat, dorsoventrally flattened appearance, reminiscent of a beer bottle, mallet, or pestle (tsuchi). It is this feature that has earned it its name, as well as the alternate name of nozuchi (“field mallet”). It is known as bachi-hebi and gigi-hebi in Akita Prefecture, koro and koro-hebi in Fukui Prefecture, and tsuchi-korobi in Tottori Prefecture.

tsuchinoko bwWhile rare and hard to find, the tsuchinoko is believed to be venomous. It can get around by rolling, as observed by witnesses; when spotted, it laughs and vanishes in a flash of light, causing the onlookers to fall ill. When angered, a tsuchinoko will hiss, spit, and even jump at its pursuer before biting with its fangs.

Recent years have greatly added to the tsuchinoko’s reputation, as reports of sightings have led to its promotion into a full-blown cryptid. The 2000 discovery of an alleged tsuchinoko skeleton in Yoshii, Okayama Prefecture, firmly cemented the snake’s existence in popular culture.

The true identity of tsuchinoko sightings are possibly the venomous yamakagashi (Rhabdophis tigrinus) or the dangerously venomous mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffi). The latter has caused human fatalities, and therefore any potential tsuchinokos should be treated with respect and given a wide berth.

References

Foster, M. D. (2009) Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.

O’Shea, M. (2005) Venomous Snakes of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.

Nurikabe

Nurikabe

The Nurikabe (“plaster wall”) is a type of yokai that resembles a large wall with varying amounts of anthropomorphic elements. It may have legs, hands, and facial features; sometimes it looks somewhat like a flattened elephant with three eyes. Nurikabe were first reported from Kyushu, specifically Fukuoka and Oita Prefectures, but have since then moved to the rest of Japan.

Nighttime travelers are the primary targets of the nurikabe. It appears without warning, blocking further movement, and any attempts to bypass it are futile. Sometimes it impedes without materializing, slowing travelers down as though they were slogging through tar.

Nurikabe will disappear if struck at the base with a stick, but doing so to the upper part of the wall has no effect.

The tanuki no nurikabi, or nurikabe caused by tanuki, is a variant from Oita Prefecture. It prevents its victims from seeing ahead of them.

References

Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.