The Legend of the Yokai Lantern
The Yokai Lantern’s origins:
The idea of a living lantern, a chōchin obake, has its origins in Japanese religion. The union of Shintoism and Buddhism led to the idea that every thing, animal, person, object, has a soul. This led to a belief in things called tsukumogami, or living objects. Old household objects, ones which survive over 99 years, would awaken and become yokai, or spirits. Chōchin obake, which directly translates to paper lantern ghosts, or lantern monsters, are one such spirit. They are lanterns which have lived long enough to become tsukumogami. Possibly, it was the flickering of the light of lanterns, while being tossed about in the winds of a gale that first made them appear alive, giving rise to the original legend.
The Appearance of the Yokai Lantern
Chōchin, Japanese lanterns, are made of paper or silk, with bamboo ribs giving them their structure. Once awakened, the yokai lantern opens a single round eye, in the centre of its body (although it has been depicted with two eyes sometimes as well). A split forms in the paper of its surface, along one of its ribs, creating a mouth, from which protrudes a long tongue. Sometimes arms and legs sprout from the sides of the lantern as well. These lantern spirits are generally harmless, preferring to scare people rather than hurt them. However, they are mischievous spirits, who like to surprise unsuspecting passers by. They stick out their tongue, roll their big eyes and laugh loudly to scare any nearby humans.
…but don’t be fooled:
Not all chōchin are harmless. There are legends about more powerful and dangerous yokai, like the onryō, disguising themselves as the chōchin obake to get close to their prey. There are also stories of powerful ghosts possessing lanterns, like the ghost Oiwa, from the kabuki play Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, or Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido. Tamiya Iemon, Oiwa’s husband, betrayed her, leading to her death. She then returns as a ghost, haunting her husband by appearing in the lanterns he was using to light his way.
Other similar spirits:
The chōchin obake are similar in nature to another Japanese yokai, the karakasa kozō, or kasa obake. The kasa obake is an umbrella which comes to life after a long age. The umbrella spirit, like the chōchin obake, is made of paper and bamboo. When the kasa obake awakens, it takes flight like a bird.
Records of the Yokai Lantern
The Yokai Lantern in Literature:
Despite their fame, chōchin obake have almost no mention in written historical manuscripts or records of Japanese folk legends. In fact, even the author of the popular yokai based manga Gege no Kitaro, once mentioned that he had not been able to find enough historical information on the spirit, so in the end, he had to make up a lot for his manga on his own.
The Yokai Lantern in Art:
Chōchin obake do appear in traditional Japanese prints, like the one from Katsushika Hokusai, depicted below. An Edo era card game called obake karuta also featured chōchin obake.
The Yokai Lantern, Chōchin Obake, in the Modern World
The Yokai Lantern in pop culture:
In the modern day, Chōchin Obake appear in the game Yokai Watch. Chōchin Obake inspired the design of the Pokémon Dusclops, and are featured five times in the anime and manga Gegego No Kitaro.
Are Chōchin Lanterns still used today?
Today, although paper lanterns are still in use, they no longer appear at the front of every single home, restaurant and store. Mainly, chōchin hang in front of izakaya, yakitori shops, and, of course, the lantern festivals which are held at certain shrines. Osaka has a back alley called chōchin-dori, which is hung with hundreds of lanterns. So if you ever see a lantern blowing in the wind, while walking down a dark street in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, maybe it will open its eye and look back at you…
Below is a short story I wrote based on the Chochin Obake:
The Vigil of the Chochin Obake – A Short Story
I open my eye. It is as if I have suddenly awakened from a deep sleep. My mind is filled with hazy memories, like the remnants of a dream. I have been dreaming for a long, long time.
In my dream, I hung by a doorway. I hung there for years, my warm glow bidding farewell to those leaving, welcoming those returning home. On windy nights, spinning dizzily, still I welcomed. During rainstorms, as my paper was soaked, my candle sputtering, still I welcomed. On the nights when demons howled outside the door, I hung and shone as brightly as I could, driving them from the doorstep. My light has flickered for a hundred years. My paper has been patched, my candles have been changed, but I always shone my welcoming light, hanging at the doorway, listening to the laughter within.
That night, I welcomed the man with the sword too. Then, from within, the laughter was replaced by screams. The screams were replaced by silence. My red paper was stained a deeper crimson. The liquid seeping through me was warmer than the usual rain. One person stepped past, back out onto the street. My candle was guttering, so I could not properly greet the person. However, my low light reflected the glint of a curved blade.
I waited. My candle had burnt out, but no one came to change it. The door hung open, the house was still. No one else came out for me to greet. No one. Where did they all go? Why didn’t they take me with them?
I swung from my hook in the breeze. The night had swallowed everything, the people, the laughter, my light. Everything but the demons. The demons’ howls were no longer driven away. As the ghostly chatter reached the doorway by which I hung, it spoke to me. “Why do you still hang there? There is no one left to welcome. They are all dead.”
And so, I open my eye. I tear free from the hook which had bound me, soaring up into the night along with the gusts of wind which once battered me. My century long vigil is over. My paper tears, a slit widening, widening into a mournful grin. Inside, I am filled with a new light. A ghostly light, not created by any candle’s flame. I fly down, joining the howling throngs of demons in the dark.
Do the short stories help with your understanding of the yokai? Do you have any suggestions/ideas? Please let me know in the comments below!