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Bakemono

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"Shitakiri Suzume" (舌切り雀) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
*Japanese: 化け物 (bakemono)

Bakemono are the traditional monsters of Japanese culture. The word itself means "changing things", and many bakemono are thus the results of bizarre transformations, from things that are common and normal to things that are mysterious and abnormal. These transformations are not thought of as supernatural, but merely natural though strange and mysterious (Chambers 16). The term is sometimes given as obake or obakemono, though the latter is somewhat uncommon.

A bakemono is usually a living thing (Mayer 89), though it can sometimes be used to signify yûrei, a ghost of a human being, or as a blanket term for all mysterious phenomena synonymous with yôkai, of which it is normally a subset. However, the term bakemono in standard usage means a transformation of another living thing, usually a fox or tanuki or even a tengu. Many animals were traditionally believed to have shape shifting powers, and these included snakes, boars, turtles (Tyler xlvii), snails, birds, frogs, clams and even some plants (Mayer 88). The strange shapes that these creatures took were either normal human forms, or some sort of monstrous aberration such as hitotsume-kozô, ônyûdô, or noppera-bô. When a human form is taken, it is usually with intent to either seduce a man or to show gratitude for some previously performed good deed. The term bakemono can apply to either the transformation or to the creature’s original form.

Bakemono often appear in folktales, usually in the form of monstrous antagonist (though also at times as animal wife) and in this role they are usually not described in any detail. And so while Bakemono are a type of yôkai, the term can be used in a more general sense as well (yôkai individually are almost always named and have more or less set descriptions). The main difference between bakemono and yôkai is that the former, in the usual sense, is a living creature while the latter can be a ghost or a phantom. Yet again, the line can be easily blurred. Also, bakemono is a purely Japanese term, while yôkai derives from the Chinese yaoguai.

The most well known of bakemono are the tengu, the kappa, the fox (狐, kitsune), the raccoon-dog (狸, tanuki) or badger (mujina), and the oni, a horned human-shaped ogre often carrying an iron club.

Bakemono also include tsukumogami, the animated spirits of everyday household objects. The term tsukumogami originally meant “seaweed hair”, and was used to describe the thin and ragged appearance of people who had reached unusually great ages. It was applied to these transformed objects because of their association with age; it was believed that when an object of any kind had achieved one hundred years of age, the power that it had gathered over its many years of use became a conscious soul. If these objects, at any period of their existence, had been unceremoniously thrown out for any reason, they had the potential to become vengeful creatures who delighted in tormenting the humans that had neglected them.


Sources

  • Tyler, Royall. (1987) Japanese Tales. Pantheon.
  • Mayer, Fanny Hagin. (1974) "Religious Concepts in the Japanese Folk Tale". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.
  • Chambers, Anthony. (2006) Tales of Moonlight and Rain, translated from Ugetsu monogatari by Ueda Akinari. Columbia University Press.
  • Addiss, Stephen, ed. (1985) Japanese Ghosts and Demons. George Braziller.
  • Daijisen: Bakemono (Japanese). Yahoo Japan Jisho. Retrieved February 21, 2007.
  • Daijirin: Bakemono (Japanese). Yahoo Japan Jisho. Retrieved February 21, 2007.
  • Morgan, Susan. The Obakemono Project. Retrieved February 21, 2007.
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