Tsukumogami: Japan’s Household Spirits

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 yōkai (Japanese spirits or monsters) which are anthropomorphic household objects. The transformation occurs on their one-hundredth birthday. In Japanese folklore, after serving people for a century inanimate objects gain souls. If the object has been mistreated in that century, it becomes vengeful and causes havoc for its current owner. Tsukumogami’s powers range from mildly irritating to murderous, and they are known for teaming up to maximise their scare factor. They also like to wander the streets at night to meet others of their kind.

Here are some of the most notorious tsukumogami.

目目連 Mokumokuren (sentient paper screens)

Japanese-style houses feature room dividers called shōji, which are paper screens. If there are holes in the shōji, ghostly eyes can fill them and watch the residents of the house. These are called mokumokuren, and although harmless they are very creepy.

Mokumokuren
Mokumokuren by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

化け草履 Bakezōri (sandal ghosts)

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!

Traditional 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.

茂林寺の釜 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 tanuki (Japanese raccoon) which transforms into a tea kettle. This tale is also referenced in the 1994 Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko.

Bunbuku Chagama
Bunbuku Chagama – source

傘おばけ Kasa-Obake (umbrella ghost)

If neglected, old umbrellas will become kasa-obake. There are one of the most commonly known yōkai, 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. Kasa-obake are closed umbrellas with one eye, and they jump around using the handle as a leg.

一反木綿 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, Sakaiminato
Me riding an Ittan-Momen in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture. Image my own.

提灯お化け Chōchin-Obake (haunted paper lantern)

Chōchin lanterns are the iconic paper or silk lanterns with bamboo frames which are a common sight in Japan. Because of their fragility, when they get old they are likely to split. These splits form eyes and a wide mouth with a long tongue hanging out of it. Chōchin can also become inhabited by vengeful spirits. If such a chōchin is lit, the spirit will be released and attack the lighter.

やまおろし Yamaoroshi (possessed grater)

My personal favourite, purely because it’s so bizarre. Yamaarashi is the Japanese word for  porcupine, and oroshi is the word for grater (as in cheese or vegetable grater). 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 to become a yamaoroshi.

暮露暮露団 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.

 

Boroboroton Toriyama Sekien
Boroboroton by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

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. And be sure to look after your cheese grater. Just in case.

 

Lantern stock image free for non-commercial use, made 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. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Folklore at the University of Aberdeen. 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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