The Meaning of its Name
Kanji: 鎌鼬, meaning Sickle-Weasel
Other names: kazakama (風鎌, “wind sickle”), akuzen-kaze (possibly written 悪旋風, “evil whirlwind”), taiba-kaze (堤馬風), izuna (飯綱, least weasel), nogama (野鎌, “wild sickle”), muchi ((鞭, “whip”) and Qiongqi (窮奇 the Chinese version of the kamaitachi)
Appearance of the Kamaitachi
The Kamaitachi, or Sickle Weasels, are supernatural beings from Japanese legends, created to explain the natural phenomena of cutting winds.
In their usual depictions, Kamaitachi are weasels with nails as long and sharp as sickles. As described by Negishi Shizumori in the Mimibukuro, their fur is thick and prickly, like that of a hedgehog, they have a bark like a dog, but they fly through the air like a bird. They are carried by the winds in the mountains, and when they pass their nails leave deep cuts in their victims. However, these cuts don’t bleed, nor do they cause pain.
Weaknesses: there are various theories, one legend says that if you carry an old calendar in your hands you can avoid getting slashed. Another legend says that burning an old calendar to ashes and spreading them on the wound caused by a kamaitachi can cause it to heal.
Origins of the Kamaitachi
Kamaitachi were not initially interpreted as having the form of weasels. It is thought that their original name came from the word kamae-tachi, which means “sword stance”. However, the name eventually changed into kama-itachi, or blade weasel, possibly as a play on words.
One of the first recorded mentions of the kamaitachi is in the Sōzan Chomon Kishū (想山著聞奇集), in the Edo Era. According to its author Miyoshi Shōzan, kamaitachi like water, they live in puddles after the rain and can be encountered when crossing rivers or playing in puddles.
Another Edo-era mention is from the Kokon Hyaku Monogatari Hyōban, which briefly mentions deaths caused by kamaitachi injuries. However, it also says that death can be prevented by proper treatment of the injury by a knowledgeable doctor.
Legends and Locations of the Kamaitachi
The kamaitachi are just one version of numerous legends from different regions across Japan, all involving some form of cutting or illness associated with wind. While the phenomena are the same, the explanations vary from region to region:
A Map of all the Kamaitachi Legend Locations across Japan
- In the Hida region, especially in the Niu river basin, the kamaitachi are said to be three gods. The first one knocks down the victim, the second one slices them, and the final one applies medicine to the wound, so that the injury is bloodless and painless. The gods are said to be a parent, a child and a brother.
- In the Shin’etsu region , the kamaitachi are believed to be evil gods, related to the misfortune of stepping on a calendar (it is one of the seven mysteries of Echigo).
- In the Hokuriku region, according to the Hokuetsu Kidan, the kamaitachi is an injury resulting from touching the blade of a god.
- In the Tōhoku region, they say that if you are sliced by a kamaitachi you can heal the injury by burning an old calendar and putting the remains on your cut.
- In Aichi Prefecture, the kamaitachi are known as izuna (飯綱), which are a kind of spirit possession. The legend says an “izuna tsukai” (飯綱使い , meaning izuna-user) forgot to tell his apprentice how to seal an izuna, causing it to be released in the region. The izuna rides on whirlwinds and sucks blood from the wounds it causes, accounting for the bloodless nature of the injuries.
- In West Japan, in particular in Kōchi Prefecture and Tokushima Prefecture instead of kamaitachi, it is said that one is cut by a wind sickle or “nogama” (野鎌). They are actual grass cutting sickles which have been possessed by resentful spirits, turned into yokai and gained consciousness, chasing down people to slash after being forgotten in a field. These are a kind of tsukumogami (living tool).
- In East Japan, it is insects such as the preying mantis or the longhorn beetle which leave slashes like those of a sickle. In the town of Katakai, Santō District, Niigata Prefecture, there was said to once be a giant mantis who got crushed to death by snow on a hillside. Now anyone who falls on that hill will be cursed to receive slashes like those created by her giant, sharp forelegs.
- There are a few legends which take place in different locations within old Edo: In Yotsuya , kamaitachi are said to attack women in the bathrooms, while in Ushigome they are said to attack men while they are putting on their geta. In Ōme a woman deeply in love with a man, but also deeply jealous of her rival in love, cut her hair, whereupon it became a kamaitachi and cut of her love rival’s head off.
- In the Musashi region (the area around Tokyo) and Kanagawa Prefecture (around Yokohama City) kamaitachi are also called kamakaze, meaning sickle wind.
- In the Yoshio District of Nara Prefecture, there are also legends of kamaitachi, whose bite causes you to fall and receive a large (but bloodless) cut.
- In Shizuoka Prefecture they are called azuken-kaze (possibly written 悪旋風, meaning evil whirlwind).
- In Amami Ōshima, at the time of Obon (the festival of returning spirits) near cemeteries a breeze might pass, giving you a chill. Upon returning home you would find a small red speckle on your body and then fall ill with a high fever until a yuta ( a kind of shaman) came to heal you.
- In Ochi, Takaoka District, Kōchi Prefecture (which used to be called Kuroiwa), sometimes a wind, called muchi (meaning whip) blows sharply across the field, striking like a whip, a wind called. If struck you will fall ill.
- In Kōchi city, Tosa District (once called Toyosama) they say that the wind kills the mounts (horses and cattle) of those who travel at night, to protect them you need to cover the eyes of your mount when the sharp wind blows.
For more information on other yokai, see here!