Tsukumogami: Japanese Spirits that Bring Everyday Objects to Life TAP TO GET PODCAST
What if Toy Story was real? What if inanimate objects took on a life of their own when we’re not looking? Well, according to Japanese lore, this might just be the case.
My morning routine is pretty standard, really. Wake up, and attempt not to stare into the void that is my phone for too long. Yawn, stretch, make my half of the bed, then head downstairs to brush my teeth, take a shower, and get ready. I typically do most of this on autopilot, primarily focused on just how delicious that cup of coffee is going to be when I get through the more “necessary” parts of my morning. But a few weeks ago, something really threw off my rhythm.
I opened the drawer below our bathroom sink, as usual, to grab my hair brush and deodorant, except when I reached my hand to where it normally lay, my deodorant was gone. Now, I had JUST put a brand new stick in there that week. And I keep it in the exact same spot at all times. It lays horizontal to my hairbrush in the front of the cabinet drawer right when you open it.
So assuming I must have dropped it, I looked under the vanity, in the next drawer down… I even began pulling everything out of the drawers to see if I had accidentally put it in the wrong place, but after 10 minutes of hunting, I put everything back in the drawers in their designated places and assumed I was just losing my grasp of reality. No big deal.
I went and enjoyed my cup of coffee, read a couple of chapters of the book I was reading through, and set about my day. An hour or so later, I hopped back into the restroom to grab a hair tie. But when I opened my drawer, I honestly was beyond shaken. I yelled out to Elaine, “Hey Babe, have you been in my drawer today?” When she responded with a no, I asked her to come in and take a look at this for herself. There, on the left division of the two-compartment drawer, was my deodorant lying ON TOP of my hair brush. I picked it up, looked it over… and I just shook my head, bewildered. I hadn’t misplaced it. It was literally like it grew legs and walked off, only to come back as if nothing had happened at all.
Dumbfounded, I did what anyone else would do. I put on deodorant like a good boy, placed it back in its designated spot, and walked away, questioning if I was real or all just part of a simulation.
It’s funny, really, because as much as this event really did blow my mind, you are probably on the other end going, “Yea, I had something like this happen to me too!” Sometimes we misplace things, and other times, it’s as if those things misplace themselves. But this isn’t a new problem for our modern minds to ponder. As long as humans have created tools and collected trinkets, we have also had some fear of those trinkets taking on a life of their own.
Many Europeans attributed this to the deviant work of fairies. In Iceland, this phenomenon might be blamed on elves. Heck, many Christians have gone as far as to say it’s the work of witchcraft and the bidding of demons. Catholics even pray to St. Anthony, a saint supposedly gifted with the supernatural ability to find what has been lost. But to me, the best depiction of objects gaining sentience lies in the Japanese belief of the tsukumogami.
tsukumogami, literally meaning “Tool Spirits,” is the idea that after an inanimate object has existed long enough, it can take on a literal life of its own. First appearing in The Tales of Ise, section 63, It is said that when an object turns 100 years old, the object can then become occupied by a spirit. Often, these inanimate objects sprout their very own limbs, where they then begin a life of their own.
Take, for instance, the Abumi-guchi. The Abumi-guchi is said to be a Tsukumogami from the stirrup of a soldier who has fallen in battle. The tales state that upon the soldier’s passing, the stirrup will come alive, waiting wherever it falls in hopes that its rider will come back from the grave to give it purpose once more. I can’t help but imagine that tragically sad images of dogs whose owners are lost to the horrors of war lying next to their graves.
Another Tsukumogami takes the form of a lute. The Biwa-bokuboku is an anthropomorphic instrument with the body of a human, but its head is a Biwa, which is a traditional Japanese short-necked stringed instrument. The Biwa-bokuboku has been known to sit calmly in the corner of the room, playing sweet melodies in hopes of enticing its owner to play them. In more musically active homes, it’s not uncommon for the Biwa-bokuboku to dance through the house, singing with joy (often robbing its owners of precious sleep). Similarly, there is the Koto-furunushi which, like the Biwa-bokuboku, is a living, harmless stringed instrument, but this time it more resembles a small dragon.
And I’d be remised if I didn’t include the more modernly adored Kasa-obake, the one-eyed living umbrella that hops about on its one leg. This cyclops parasol can often be seen hopping about down alleys on rainy nights. Sometimes you might even find a Kasa-obake in a great mood, which will then offer you protection from the harsh elements.
But unsurprisingly, the idea of sentient… stuff doesn’t always set well with folks. The Japanese are historically very sentimental, opting to hold onto their old tools and trinkets for lifetimes of use and enjoyment. But sometimes things break. And to be honest, too many, having a living object in their house is a creepy inconvenience. So many people through the years have made it a point to toss out their objects before they reach that 100-year milestone. And in theory, that sounds great! Except there’s a catch. If you happen to throw out an item when it is 99 years, it is said that upon turning 100, the spirit that inhabits the object will grow angry, transforming it into a yōkai.
Yōkai are spirits notorious for causing a ruckus. Instead of a peaceful lute or playful parasol, you might end up with a vicious jar of sake or constricting kimono.
One such amount of a yōkai is known as the Ungaikyō. The Ungaikyō is a mirror, perhaps clouded or cracked, that was tossed out before its centenary. The Ungaikyō, now angered, takes on the ability to alter reflections to its will. Any human who looks into a Ungaikyō runs the risk of seeing a monstrous version of themselves looking back. And some unfortunate souls might find themselves transformed by this image, reshaped into hideous beasts.
Then there is the Bakezōri. The Bakezōri is a tossed-out flip-flop. Literally translating to ghost sandals, the Bakezōri, upon reaching 100, grows arms and legs where it wanders about, looking to taunt those who discarded it. It has been known to sneak into people’s homes where it then taunts them as they sleep by saying, “They have three eyes and two teeth!” “They have three eyes and two teeth!
But deranged mirrors and haunted sandals pale in comparison to the Boroboroton. The Boroboroton, or Tattered Futon, is a Yōkai that inhabits torn-up mattresses. Known for wearing out before they read their 100-year sentience, these ragged-out mats come back from the dump in the middle of the night to strangle their past owners, those very people they spent their whole lives supporting and comforting, just to be tossed out… The Boroboroton tosses their former owners out of their new bed, rises into the air, and begins to constrict them like a snake, choking the air from their lungs.
Over the years, tellings of these traditions have slowed down. Consumer culture has lessons in our dependency on specific tools and items. Things just don’t last like they used to, as they say. But in their prime, these folktales about tsukumogami reminded people to cherish what they had, to treat it well, and to honor the craftsmanship of others. While few probably believed in inanimate objects coming to life in a strictly literal sense, it is easy to see how we could grow to love and cherish these items, often older than the very hands that wield them.
They are symbols of a generation. They are tokens of our ancestors. And at the height of tsukumogami literature, these weren’t machine-made goods. Every broom, basket, and bassinet was hand-crafted with love. It’s easy to see how these tales could take on a life of their own and, sadly, why they are not as popular today.
But thankfully, people are beginning to push for more quality and sustainable goods. We are slowly leaning back into the trades, hand-crafted products made with care, and overall, being better stewards of our time and resources by making things that matter. And maybe that explains a bit about people’s restored interest in these folktales. As Manga and Anime have become more mainstream, tsukumogami has started to find their place back in our modern stories. So next time something turns up missing, and you’re left scratching your head thinking to yourself, it couldn’t have just sprouted legs and walked off. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe it did just that.
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