Oyatsu and shougo aren’t the only remnants of the old Japanese way of telling the time to survive to the present day. The following phrase demonstrates one final hangover from this antiquated system.
kusaki mo nemuru ushimittsudoki
Even the plants are asleep at ushimittsudoki.
Ushimittsudoki, I’m sure you remember, is the 3rd period of the hour of the ox which translates to about 2 o’clock in the morning. This phrase, or just the word ushimittsudoki, is often used to introduce scary children’s stories. As I’m sure you will agree, no one in their right mind should be out and about at this time. This is the time, when everyone (including the plants) are asleep, that Japanese monsters will come out to play. Therefore the best way to translate ushimittsudoki is probably, The Witching Hour.
What monsters come out during the Japanese witching hour? Unlike the monsters of European origin such as vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein monster, traditional Japanese monsters are fairly unique and more or less unknown in western countries.
Or so you would think…
If you are in the same age group as me you probably would have spent a fair bit of your childhood playing on the game consoles made by Nintendo and Sega. Being Japanese companies, many of the games on these consoles were made in Japan and thus, despite the best efforts of the localisation team, various little titbits of Japanese culture would slip through. As a child I probably spent a few minutes wondering why some of the enemies you were shooting at in Parodius were the same as those in Super Mario Land. I may have thought that these game developers were just copying each other but no, it turns out all those monsters are deeply engrained in Japanese folklore.
Here are a few Japanese monsters that mystified me growing up, perhaps you remember a few from the recesses of your game playing childhood too.
Tsukumogami were once mundane objects, the kind used in everyday life. These objects eventually grow old and unused. The story goes that once they have passed their 100th year, these objects obtain a soul and haunt the families that have cast them aside. Apparently just about any inanimate object can do this but the ones I remember are the Karakasa (umbrella monster) and Chochinobake (lantern monster). Perhaps things going animate after their 100th year explains why Japanese homes generally don’t survive 40 years before they are rebuilt. Nobody wants to live in a pissed off house.
These are monsters that were once normal human beings but as the result of a curse or some sort of wrong doing their head has gained the ability to float away from the body and their necks to extend. Rokuro-kubi are always women and sometimes try to live undetected marrying normal human husbands. Their powers only manifest at night, sometimes unintentionally, as the woman sleeps her head floats off on its own, hoping to scare a few drunkards and village idiots. Some are not even aware of their affliction and will wake up with vague memories of seeing their neighbourhood at strange angles. Others, like tanuki, enjoy playing tricks on people and delight in their night-time excursions.
These fellows don’t only come out at night, they live in Japanese lakes and rivers and their pranks range from farting and loosening women’s kimonos to drownings and rape. Kappa have many strange tendencies and are famous for their love of cucumbers and the fact they are extraordinarily polite. If you ever find yourself in trouble with one you can bow and they will always bow back. Hopefully this will make the small dish containing water they like to wear their head, fall off. They will then become much weaker allowing you to easily over power them.
Hitotsume-kozo take the form of a 10-year-old boy wearing a Buddhist monk’s clothes. Their face however shows one huge eye and they always seem to be shown with their tongue sticking out. These monsters are relatively harmless, they love silence and often go around telling loud people to be quiet. Meeting one is considered a bad omen though, if you do you may fall ill. To stop them coming people hang up bamboo baskets, hitotsume-kozo think the holes in the basket are eyes and run away, jealous. I think I may have run into a few of these in a more human form on the train, no salaryman likes people talking during their train journeys.