In Japanese folklore, tsukumogami (付喪神 or つくも神, lit. “tool kami”) are tools that have acquired a kami or spirit. According to an annotated version of The Tales of Ise titled Ise Monogatari Shō, a certain theory in the Onmyōki, tsukumogami are what foxes that have lived for one hundred years turn into. In modern times, they can also be written 九十九神 (ninety-nine kami).

According to Komatsu Kazuhiko, the idea of tsukumogami, or yōkai of tools, spread mostly in the Middle Ages, and declined in more recent generations. Komatsu infers that despite the depictions in Bakumatsu period ukiyo-e leading to a resurfacing of the idea, these were all produced in an era cut off from any actual belief in the idea of tsukumogami.

Because the term has been applied to several different concepts in Japanese folklore, there remains some confusion as to what the term actually means. Today, the term is generally understood to be applied to virtually any object “that has reached its 100th birthday and thus become alive and self-aware”, though this definition is not without controversy.


See also: Japanese Mythology

A New Collection of Monsters 新板化物つくし

Woodblock print, A New Collection of Monsters 新板化物つくし

For “tsukumogami” to have the kanji representation 付喪神 comes from the Tenpō period otogizōshi, the emakimono called the Tsukumogami Emaki. According to this emaki, a tool, after the passage of 100 years, would obtain a spirit, and a tsukumogami is a result of this change. In this emaki, there was also a caption that “tsukumo” could also be written as 九十九 (meaning “ninety-nine”) referring to “one year before one hundred,” and made the interpretation that this meaning came from “tsukumo hair” (つくも髪, pronounced tsukumogami), a word that appeared in a waka in The Tales of Ise, section 63 to refer to an old woman’s white hair, which is why tsukumo means “a long time (ninety-nine years).”

Other than the “Tsukumogami Emaki” and interpretations made in annotated versions of The Tales of Ise waka poems of the words “tsukumogami” (つくも髪, tsukumo hair), usages of the word “tsukumogami” do not appear anywhere in literature, and usages of it has not been transmitted in detail. In collections of tales such as the Konjaku Monogatarishū, there were tales that could be seen to be about objects having a spirit, and in the emakimono Bakemono Zōshi, there were tales depicting a chōshi (an alcohol cup), a scarecrow, and other things turn into monsters, but there was no word “tsukumogami” mentioned in them.

There is the follow tale in the Tsukumogami Emaki. An object would become occupied by a spirit after one hundred years, so people would throw out old objects before they became a hundred years old, which was called the “susu-harai” (煤払い). By doing this, they prevented objects from becoming tsukumogami, but according to the captions of this emaki, it’s written that ones that are “a year from one hundred,” in other words, objects that are “tsukumo” (ninety-nine) years old would become angered and become a yōkai by some means other than the mere passage of time, and then cause a ruckus. In the first place, the idea of becoming a yōkai once it’s one hundred years old or is ninety-nine years old does not need to be taken literally, and it can be interpreted to be the idea that humans, plants, animals, or even tools would acquire a spiritual nature once it becomes old, and gain the power to change itself. The yōkai that are depicted are not ones that gained the power to change themselves as a result of being used for a long time, but rather ones that were thrown away right before it, and became a yōkai through some different means.


Hokusai, The Lantern Ghost

Hokusai, The Lantern Ghost

In the Tsukumogami Emaki, which depicted tsukumogami, it is written at the very beginning, “It’s told in the Onmyō Zakki. A tool, after one hundred years pass, would change and acquire a spirit, and deceive people’s hearts, and it’s said these are referred to as tsukumogami,” thus referring to changes or mutations of tools as “tsukumogami” (however, no book called the Onmyō Zakki has actually been confirmed to exist). In the emaki, it’s written that they can take on “the appearance of people male and female, old and young” (appearance of humans), “the likeness of chimi akki” (appearance of oni), and “the shape of korō yakan” (the appearance of animals), among others. Its form after its change/mutation is referred to with words such as “youbutsu” (妖物).

Even in emakimono that came before the Tsukumogami Emaki, paintings of yōkai based on tools can be confirmed, and in the Tsuchigumo Zōshi, there were depictions of gotoku (trivets) with heads, stamp mills with the body of a snake and two human arms attached to it, and a tsunodarai (four-handled basin) with a face and growing teeth, among others. Also, a face that appears to be what the tsunodarai is based on appears in the Yūzū Nenbu Engi Emaki (融通念仏縁起絵巻) and the Fudō Rieki Engi Emaki where a yakugami with almost the same appearance appears. However, all of these were not merely tools, but ones that are a hybrid with a tool or oni. This characteristic can also be seen in the Tsukumogami Emaki and the Hyakki Yagyō Emaki.

The Hyakki Yagyō Emaki from the Muromachi period also depicts many of what appear to be yōkai of tools. In the present day, these tools yōkai are thought to be depictions of tsukumogami, and it has been inferred that the parade depicted in the Hyakki Yagyō Emaki is likely the “youbutsu” (aged objects) of the Tsukumogami Emaki in a festival parade.

The Hyakki Yagyō Emaki from the Muromachi period, author unknown. They are yōkai of tools, so they are commonly thought of as tsukumogami.

The Hyakki Yagyō Emaki from the Muromachi period, author unknown. They are yōkai of tools, so they are commonly thought of as tsukumogami.

Works about tools

In works about tools having a human personality, tools such as the “chōdo uta-awase” that would perform uta-awase can be found before the Muromachi period, and it is thought that these are close in concept to being the idea of “things that tools turn into” as depicted in the Tsukumogami Emaki.

Understood by many Western scholars, tsukumogami was a concept popular in Japanese folklore as far back as the tenth century, used in the spread of Shingon Buddhism.

In Japanese folklore

Utamaro Yama-uba and Kintaro

Utamaro Yama-uba and Kintaro

According to Elison and Smith (1987), Tsukumogami was the name of an animated tea caddy that Matsunaga Hisahide used to bargain for peace with Oda Nobunaga.

Like many concepts in Japanese folklore, there are several layers of the definition used when discussing Tsukumogami. For example, by the tenth century, the Tsukumogami myths were used in helping to spread the “doctrines of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism to a variety of audiences, ranging from the educated to the relatively unsophisticated, by capitalizing upon pre-existing spiritual beliefs in Tsukumogami.” These “pre-existing spiritual beliefs” were, as Reider explains:

Tsukumogami are animate household objects. An otogizōshi (“companion tale”) titled Tsukumogami ki (“Record of tool kami”; Muromachi period) explains that after a service life of nearly one hundred years, utsuwamono or kibutsu(containers, tools, and instruments) receive souls. While many references are made to this work as a major source for the definition of tsukumogami, insufficient attention has been paid to the actual text of Tsukumogami ki.

By the twentieth century the Tsukumogami had entered into Japanese popular culture to such an extent that the Buddhist teachings had been “completely lost to most outsiders,” leaving critics to comment that, by and large, the Tsukumogami were harmless and at most tended to play occasional pranks, they did have the capacity for anger and would band together to take revenge upon those who were wasteful or threw them away thoughtlessly – compare mottainai. To prevent this, to this day some jinja ceremonies are performed to console broken and unusable items.

List of tsukumogami

  • Abumi-guchi – A furry creature formed from the stirrup of a mounted military commander that works for Yama Orochi
  • Bakezōri – A possessed zōri (traditional straw sandals)
  • Biwa-bokuboku – An animated Biwa
  • Boroboroton – A possessed Futon
  • Chōchinobake – An animated lantern, also known as Burabura
  • Ichiren-bozu – Animated prayer beads
  • Ittan-momen – A roll of cotton
  • Jatai – Possessed cloths draped from folding screens
  • Kameosa – A possessed sake jar
  • Kasa-obake – An animated paper umbrella. Also known as Karakasa-obake.
  • Kosode-no-te – A possessed kimono robe
  • Koto-furunushi – An animated Koto
  • Kurayarō – Animated saddle
  • Kyōrinrin – Possessed scrolls or papers
  • Menreiki – A spiritual creature formed out of 66 masks
  • Minowaraji- An animated Mino straw coat
  • Morinji-no-okama – A possessed tea kettle. Another variation is Zenfushō
  • Shamichoro – An animated shamisen
  • Shirouneri – Possessed mosquito nettings or dust clothes
  • Shōgorō – An animated gong
  • Ungaikyō – A possessed mirror
  • Yamaoroshi – A possessed grater
  • Zorigami – A possessed clock

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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