Obake: Japanese demons

The crowds of Japanese demons, including several species of evil beings in addition to the human spirits, animals and even trees, have no rivlas in the world: they are called bakemono or obake, which means “monster” or “mutant”.
In the West, ghost stories are typically set in winter; in Japan, however, the spirits wander especially during O-bon, the Buddhist celebration of the deads that lasts one month, starting from mid-July, coinciding with the highlight of the summer holidays.
As the celebration of All Saints for the Christians, the O-bon is the day of remembrance, when families visit the tombs of relatives and pray in front of the household altars: during the O-bon, the deads’ spirits come back to find their loved ones for a month, the celebrations welcome their return, but it is said that some evil spirits jump on the bandwagon of the band.
The Setsubun festival (February, 3 and 4), however, is needed to drive away the Oni, demons similar to orcs with horns that feed on human flesh.
The small figures of devils, like toads with a tortoise shell, represent the Kappa: it’s said they live in the most remote rivers and streams and don’t wait other that to be able to suck the viscera of those who venture into their waters, an appetite often exaggerated to prevent children from playing dangerous games in the water.
The tengu, winged creatures forest dwellers, are sometimes depicted with a stout beak, but often have a vicious scarlet face and a huge nose: derived from the ancient masks of tragedy, Tengu masks are often hung on the walls of typically Japanese restaurants. The Tengu benevolence depends mainly on the morality of the beholder: the legend tells that the great military hero of the XII century, Minamoto Yoshitsune, learned the skills of the sword as a child, from a wise old Tengu met in the forest.
The spirits of animals are often found in Japanese folk beliefs, like the legends about foxes, of Chinese origin, which were taken by the Shintō and reworked.
The statues of foxes in the various Sanctuaries are dedicated to Inari, the God of rice and prosperity, and it’s believed they are messengers or relatives of the God; not always friendly, their ability to assume human shape inspired many tales of ghosts: in the past, it was believed that mentally ill people were possessed by the spirit of a fox.
Also the tanuki, or raccoon, is considered to assume a different appearance: the ceramic statuettes of burly tanuki with giant testicles, often showed in the windows of the taverns or of the sake sellers, are considered auspicious.
It seems the appearance of kitsun-bi (fox of fire), like an ignis fatuus or a swamp exhalation, is an omen of terrible nightmares by yurei, the spectra; as in the West, it’s believed that the ghosts are transparent and are vanishing into nothingness from the waist down: the yurei, spirits of earthly creatures who haven’t completed their task, were very much feared.
The stories about demons and ghosts were the main inspiration for the Noh theater.

 

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