Yokai and O-bon

Yokai and O-bon - because it is August

First a brief note: The Japanese word yokai refers to otherworldly beings like ghosts, and spirits. They can be mischievous and clever but are always at least a bit scary. The trigger for this post was the “Supernatural Super Challenge”, a story marathon where participants tell personal experience ghost stories [=yokai-story] organized by John Paul Catton of Excalibur Books in Tokyo. Though this is not my participating entry, like the marathon, it is also inspired by O-bon the Japanese season dedicated to remember the dead. Think Mexican Dia de los Muertos but taking its time.

In early August Japanese honor the spirits of their ancestors and welcome them home for a brief visit. During O-bon, at night, lanterns floating down streams, and showy fireworks set off noisily are supposed to show the spirits the way home. O-bon is also a time to clean graves and tell ghost stories in which yokai are frequent topics. All this reminded me of the supernatural beings I had to be mindful of as a child though I didn’t interact with any of them knowingly.

My childhood on Java was filled with fun but also some fears. There were always admonitions and alerts for dangerous natural and supernatural occurrences for the edification of us children. And good kids that we were, we paid attention. Maybe that’s why we survived?

Roaming around in the garden, there were poisonous snakes near water, in bushes, and in trees to watch out for. There were caterpillars covering trunks of trees as they started their en masse roaming when ready for the pupae stage. Some kinds spun threads to hang down as a kind of bungee chord that they would use to hoist themselves up while wrapping themselves into cocoons. Most species had just enough poison in their hairs to cause dreadful rashes on human skin. But all those daytime dangers could be avoided if you knew where to look and what places to avoid.

On the supernatural side, there were warnings about what in Japanese is referred to as yokai (though they went by local Indonesian names of course) who were harder to miss as they knew how and where to find you. The easiest ones to avoid were the fireflies that tempted us children to catch them. We’d put them in bags or handkerchiefs to carry around as flickering lanterns, until we were told to be more respectful as fireflies were the fingernails of the dead. We stopped doing it though we were still envious of the Dutch neighbor kids who, not as enlightened, blithely continued with their catches.

But the scariest yokai were the women who had died as virgins. Having missed their womanly destiny as wives and mothers, they would entrap men, or steal children. The warning about the latter was much impressed upon us.
A woman yokai, the child stealer, a kuntil anak, has long, loose hair to hide the hole in her back and the kidnapped children she carries there. Indonesian women wear their hair in a bun so loose long hair would be the first indication of danger. However, to appear more natural kuntil anak often hang out near wells. In my childhood, in the absence of modern plumbing, wells, usually in backyards, were a common place for bathing. Here women could let down their hair without suspicion. Naturally this meant that passing by a well alone, especially after dark, was a terrifying experience.

Now far away from my childhood home, checking on the internet to see what today’s reports say about kuntil anak, I was surprised to see unfamiliar explanations and none mentioning the hole in her back. Perhaps my grandma had sanitized her story for our young ears and perhaps the current version added bloody to morph the kuntil anak for today’s expectations. The modern kuntil anak has been turned into a common (and terrifying) vampire. Not that she was benign before, but she used to be more worthy of empathy for her understandable longings, than the creature I read about today.
How does one mourn the demise of a monster that has been substituted by a worse version? Whatever the answer, I’m relieved not to have encountered either one.

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