Earlier this year I spent an inordinate amount of time researching Japanese folklore for background information for a science fiction novel I was writing. Readers... the novel was put out of its misery at the 20,000 words make but the research lives so in this post we head to Japan for an encounter with the Zashiki-warashi, one of those yokai supernatural/elemental spirits and entities that are so popular in both traditional and contemporary Japanese folklore.
The name zashiki-warashi translates into English as ‘parlor child’ and is used to describe a type of protective household spirit who brings good luck to the home. It is widely believed families with a zashiki-warashi living with them will prosper, whereas the departure of a zashiki-warashi is a sign that bad things are about to befall that family. Indeed some Japanese folklorists suggest zashiki-warashi originally evolved as a way traditional communities explained the changing fortunes of families, and homes, as well as the movement of wealth in villages.
Accounts describe zashiki-warashi as looking like children (ranging from about three years to 15 years in age) – some are clearly girls, others are boys but there are also tales of some of a distinctly androgynous nature. They have bob haircuts or in a short, spikey style. Female zashiki wear predominantly red kimonos, whereas the males wear robes of indigo although some have even been described as looking like mini-samurai warriors. As to why they appear like children, in Japanese Buddhism there are ‘wrathful’ divinities called goho-warashi or Dharmapala who protect the laws of Bhuddism but take on the guise of children.
Turning to their behaviour, all zashiki-warashi are good with children: they will play with them and even teach them nursery rhymes. In fact some zashiki are only visible to children but not adults – or else they will confuse the adults by joining a group of children so when counted there are one too many children but the adults cannot work out who the extra one is.
In common with many elementals in folklore, especially household spirits, the zashiki-warashi have a mischievous streak. They will spill ash, flour or soap powder and then walk around the house leaving little footprints in their wake. They will also make annoying noises, such a spinning wheel revolving or the sound of footsteps dancing on a wooden floor but when the householder goes to investigate the room where the noise is coming from, there will be nobody to be seen. And at night they will disrupt people’s sleep by pulling at their pillows and bedding. That said zashiki-warashi are never considered a nuisance, in fact they are treated as gods, and a family that has a zashiki-warashi is usually treated with respect by other people in their village or community.
Interestingly, although the Hayachine Shrine on the Japanese island on Honshu has been holding festivals offering prayers to the zashiki-warashi for over 1200 years, as recently as 2015 a webcam captured images of a translucent little girl in a kimono walking through walls in a house. So, if you are ever in Japan, keep your eyes open as you just might spot a zashiki-warashi – and if you do, leave out a plate of azuki meshi (rice with red beans) as this is apparently their favourite meal.
Curated by English barrister and Reuters correspondent turned editor, author, blogger, podcaster, award-winning tech journalist, storyteller, and sometime werewolf hunter Charles Christian. He writes, he drinks tea, he knows things. This site also has links to Charles' books and the Weird Tales Show videos and podcasts.
Descended from a motley crew of smugglers and rogues, Christian was born a chime-child with a caul and grew up in a haunted medieval house by the harbourside in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. He now lives in a barn on a ley-line in rural East Anglia. His latest book is The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle: Wraiths, Werewolves & Other Weird Tales from the Yorkshire Wolds (Haunted Landscapes Volume 2)
According to folklore a caul-shrouded chime-child can't drown at sea but can see and talk to faerie folk and also has protection against spells cast by malevolent sorcerers. And yes, he was once commissioned to go on a werewolf hunt on the night of a full moon by a newspaper. Spoiler alert: he didn't find one. (Or it didn't find him.)
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