The Household Objects That Turn Into Ghosts In Japanese Folklore

April 13, 2018

|Ariel Rodriguez
hunted household objects japan

Be careful of how you treat your belongings; they might get revenge on you one day.

In ancient Japan, painting was used as a form of storytelling. Artists illustrated the tales of brave warriors, battles, traditions, and myths on paper scrolls and panels that required meticulous details and calligraphy. Looking at these narrative scrolls or “emakis,” is a way to learn about the culture, history, and beliefs of Japan. The “emakis” were an artistic and visual way to communicate information, pass traditions on, and even warn future generations about threats, like evil spirits and demons. Some illustrative “emakis” are warnings and myths about spiritual creatures that have been haunting humanity for ages. One type of ghost, specifically, that has been illustrated in many scrolls from classical to contemporary Japanese times, is the “tsukumogami,” or normal household objects that come to life after 100 years of existence.

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According to the stories told in the illustrations, whenever a household object turns 100 years old, it acquires a soul and becomes wise and mature. It also gains body parts – try picturing a broom or kitchen utensils with legs and a face. They are harmless and usually just play pranks on their owners, goofing around, but that's about it. The only problem is that they don't like it when their owners neglect them or attempt to get rid of them before or during their 99th year. When they do, the “tsukumogami” get angry and turn into evil monsters or demons, known as “yōkai.” They hold grudges against their careless owners and bring them misfortune.

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Thus, to prevent the rage and revenge from these haunting spirits, which once served as regular household tools, people would perform ceremonies to calm and console the broken or damaged items. In fact, this belief still endures in modern Japanese society, although it has been forgotten by some and even misinterpreted due to lack of information. For instance, some people still gather to pray for the tools and objects they used for very long time, seeking their forgiveness. Then, they set them on fire hoping to drive the bad spirits away, but it is also a way for them to say thank you and farewell.

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Modern artists are still captivated by the stories behind this belief. Just like the “emakis,” contemporary artists are illustrating “tsukumogami” in many forms, not just paper scrolls. They can be spotted in anime, mangas, and other illustrations where cartoon art can be illustrated. One of the most fascinating things behind their legend, which plays perfectly with the cartoonists' artworks, is the characterization they are given. For example, a tea kettle that became a “tsukumogami” is known as "Morinji-no-kama;" a “tsukumogami” umbrella (one of the most illustrated ones) is called a "Kasa-Obake;" and a paper lantern ghost is referred to as "Chōchin-Obake." There are, of course, many other household tools that turn into ghost, like cheese graters, cotton rolls, among others, but apparently, these are the most illustrated ones. In addition, it was believed that electricity was harmful to the ghosts, which would explain why we don't see televisions or radios walking around.

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Before you say, “Well, I’ve never seen a human-like household object walking around,” consider the fact that, in the past, people used to live longer, and some were able to hold on to their tools and possessions for over a century. I personally don’t own anything older that 30 years of age, and if I were to live more than a century, I doubt that my lost and forgotten objects would be able to find me, since I have discarded them in many places. Nevertheless, these artworks are iconic of the culture and are still inspiring new artists to portray them in their artworks. So, next time you are struggling to find an object, or think someone is playing a prank on you, remember the “tsukumogami” warnings painted on Japanese “emakis” and take good care of them.


More on art with a historical background:

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5 Paintings That Hide Filthy and Hilarious Secrets

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Ariel Rodriguez

Ariel Rodriguez

Creative Writer