Tsukumogami: Japan’s Household Spirits

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Imagine going to boil some water, and suddenly your kettle sprouts legs and runs away. Or turning a light on, to find your paper lampshade grinning at you and waggling a long tongue. You might have a spirit problem, but these are no ordinary poltergeists. Meet the tsukumogami!

Tsukumogami is the collective name given to a type of yokai (Japanese spirits or monsters) which are anthropomorphic household objects. For some, the transformation occurs on their one-hundredth birthday. According to Japanese folklore, after serving people for a century items are given souls. If the item has been mistreated, it becomes angry and causes havoc for its owner.

Here are a few of the most notorious (and strange!) tsukumogami:

  • Mokumokuren (sentient screens)

Japanese-style houses feature room dividers called shōji, which are paper screens. If there are holes in the shōji, then ghostly eyes can fill them and watch the residents of the house. These are called mokumokuren, and although harmless they are very creepy! Imagine if your walls started watching you *shudders*

  • Morinji-no-kama (haunted tea kettle)

Iron tea kettles are used in Japan to heat water on stoves to make tea. The Morinji-no-kama is a tea kettle with a spirit trapped inside. A well-known Japanese folktale called ‘Bunbuku Chagama‘ is about a man who rescues a tanuki (Japanese raccoon) and it transforms into a tea kettle. This tale is also referenced in the 1994 Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko.

Raccoon tea kettle. Image from Library of Congress.
  • Kasa-Obake (monstrous umbrella)

If neglected, old umbrellas will become Kase-Obake. There are one of the most commonly known yokai, but strangely there are no stories about them. They only exist in folklore and images. It is thought they were created by oral storytellers in the Edo period, when there was a demand for new folklore characters. Kase-Obake are closed umbrellas with one eye, and they jump around using the handle as a leg.

  • Bakezōri (ghostly sandals)

If you hear noises in the night, then it’s most likely a pair of Bakezōri! Old, mistreated sandals grow arms, legs, and one eye, and enjoy running around in the dark and causing mischief. They also repeat this chant:

Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai!
Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Eyes three and teeth two!

Japanese sandals have three holes where their straps are attached, so ‘eyes three’ refers to these. ‘Teeth two’ refers to the two wooden blocks on the bottom of the sandals.

Some Kasa-Obake, Bakezōri, and Mokumokuren having a little gathering. Image from yokai.com.
  • Ittan-Momen (flying roll of cotton)

If you’re a dressmaker, beware of this one! Ittan-Momen is a long sheet of cloth used to make clothes, which flies around at night and attacks people by wrapping itself around them. Sometimes it smothers them, if it goes for the face. This malicious tsukumogami is most commonly found in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Ittan-momen. Image from Encyclopédie du Paranormal.
  • Chōchin-Obake (paper lantern ghost)

Chōchin lanterns are the iconic paper or silk lanterns with bamboo frames which are strongly associated with Japan. Because of their fragility, when they get old they are likely to split. These splits form a wide mouth and eyes, and so the Chōchin-Obake is born. These tsukumogami are mostly harmless. They just like to scare people with their wide grins!

Chōchin-Obake. Image by Rohkova on Deviantart.

What you really need to watch out for is the Bakechochin. This is the spirit of a person who died in anger which chooses to inhabit a paper lantern. Lighting the lantern releases it, and will attack the lighter.

  • Boroboroton (murderous futon)

Futons are Japanese bedrolls. If they are not well cared for, then they may turn into a Borobororton. When the owner is asleep, the Borobororton wraps itself around them and strangles them in revenge for its mistreatment. It then stumbles around the house and strangles any other sleepers it finds.

And finally, the prize for the most random and weirdest of all tsukomogami goes to…

  • Yamaoroshi (possessed cheese grater)

‘Oroshi’ is the Japanese word for ‘grater,’ as in cheese or vegetable grater. The ‘yama’ part comes from the Japanese word for porcupine which is ‘yamaarashi.’ So a yamaoroshi is literally a grater ghost which resembles a porcupine. If a grater becomes dull and can no longer be used, its slicers transform into spines and it grows legs.

Yamaoroshi on the rampage! Image from Art Might.

Whilst I find the idea of vengeful household items hilarious, I’m certain that if my own things came to life and antagonised me I’d be extremely freaked out (especially if it was  a Boroboroton!) Tsukumogami are also known for teaming up to maximise their scare factor, or wandering the streets to meet others of their kind. So if one of them is present, chances are there will be more somewhere nearby. Especially in old, abandoned properties!

So next time you clean your house, think about airing your mattress and giving those old shoes in the bottom of your wardrobe a clean. Hang pictures over holes in your walls, and make sure any rolls of fabric are tightly bound. Just in case.

Also, be sure to look after your cheese grater. Because I’m pretty sure no-one wants an evil porcupine in their kitchen…


Lantern stock image by firenze-design on Deviantart

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

2 thoughts on “Tsukumogami: Japan’s Household Spirits

  1. How terrifying if you grew up being told this! Although the phrase “murderous futon” did make me laugh…And it makes me think of the enchanted objects in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast! I’m sure the connection isn’t intentional, but if there were some Japanese version of BATB with these household spirits that would be really cool

    1. Yes indeed! I had an overactive imagination as a child (and still do, perks of being creative…), so I think tsukumogami stories would have reduced me to a paranoid mess. They reminded me of BATB, too. A Japanese version would be fabulous. Only, in BATB the household objects are good and helpful, and tsukumogami are mostly the opposite. That could shake things up a bit haha!

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