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The Weird World of Japanese Tatami Room Ghosts

An interesting aspect of the world of the paranormal, and of the phenomenon of ghosts in particular, is how much the behavior and appearance of such entities and apparitions changes depending on the culture in which one finds oneself immersed. It seems the variety of different wraiths, spirits, ghosts, and ghouls is as vast as the multitude of traditions and cultures that spread out upon this planet of ours, and it is a compelling facet of the supernatural. Japan certainly can lay claim to having its fair share of very unique ghosts, and one very peculiar type of impish, almost poltergeist-like spirit that has been present here for centuries is that of one that takes up residence in traditional tatami mat rooms.

The phenomenon of one particular type of poltergeist unique to Japan is typically called the Zashiki-warashi, or literally “sitting room child.” These spirit-like beings are known for inhabiting usually larger, older houses or other buildings, but not always, and tend to settle within one of the storerooms, sitting rooms, or guest rooms of a location, almost always one fitted out with traditional Japanese woven tatami mats. It is often said that they are usually only visible to the family that lives there, in particular children, although they are known to be rather shy about being seen, and traditions as to who they appear to or what they look like differ from region to region. As their name suggests, Zashiki-warashi usually, but not always, appear as small children between the ages of 3 and 6, although sometimes as old as 15, with a bob-style haircut, a red tint to their face, and dressed in old-fashioned traditional clothing. They can be boys or girls, but it is said that they are very often androgynous, with the gender unclear. In some families the spirit is never seen at all, but one thing for sure is that their presence is certainly felt.

The Zashiki-warashi are well-renowned for being trouble making pranksters, and seem to exhibit a mischievous, child-like nature and curiosity. They will rearrange furniture or other objects, run around at night to produce disembodied sounds of footsteps, giggle from the dark, pull bedding off of beds or futons or flip the pillows, often while someone is still sleeping there, tap or poke people, follow people around, and engage in other assorted mischief. One common prank they seem to enjoy is rubbing their feet with mud or ash and leaving footprints all over the place, and they also seem to really love crinkling paper, to the point that it can drive residents crazy. Sometimes they will even exhibit the ability to influence the moods of people or their physical states, such as provoking a deep sense of melancholy or conversely happiness in their presence. In one storehouse in Iwate Prefecture, the resident Zashiki-warashi is said to cause the sudden urge to urinate, and in other cases the spirit may provoke a passing sense of anger when it is unruly, as if the recipient is channeling the tantrum of a frustrated child.

A traditional tatami mat room

This may all sound quite scary, and something one would not want residing in their home, but interestingly the Japanese tend to welcome such entities, and even make efforts to attract them to their homes or places of business. The reason is that it has long been thought that these spirits bring good fortune and wealth to those whose homes are the haunt of one, and families who harbor a Zashiki-warashi are believed to gain great prosperity, with the ghost serving as sort of a protector and guardian despite its generally trouble-making ways. There have even been reports of the entities putting out fires or scaring off intruders, or protecting the home from some other harm. Conversely, if a Zashiki-warashi is to leave a house the family is said to be met with a deluge of great misfortune and suffering.

For this reason, people who are host to a Zashiki-warashi will do anything to appease it, keep it happy, and to prevent it from leaving, treating these ghosts with the utmost respect. It is customary in many areas to leave out food, candies, or toys as offerings for the spirits. Any food left out is said to be mysteriously gone the next day and any toys played with and moved around, and if these offerings remain untouched this is seen as a bad omen that the spirit is about to leave or is already gone. In some areas the spirits are said to like incense, and so this is constantly burned in their preferred room. Some homes even go as far as to set up and decorate the spirit’s room as they would a child’s bedroom, regardless of whether they actually have children or not, solely for the sake of keeping the spirit happy. In some regions newly built houses will have some ritual performed in order to attract a Zashiki-warashi, and in some areas there are tips for attracting one, such as burying a golden ball in the foundation of the home.

There are countless variations of the Zashiki-warashi phenomenon throughout Japan, with certain details in appearance, favored haunts, and habits dependent on the region, and on very rare occasions there are such spirits that exhibit rather more malevolent behavior, such as sitting atop people’s chests as they sleep to cause them to gasp for breath, placing pillows over people’s faces, or pushing people to the floor, even attacking them. Indeed, there is a type of Zashiki-warashi called the Usutsuki-warashi, or “mortar-pounding child,” due to its propensity for making loud thumping noises, which is thought to be a vulgar, unpleasant, cantankerous, and rather low ranking house spirit that lacks all of the charm and protective powers of its brethren, and which is said to enter homes through the dirt underneath floorboards.

These entities are said to be decidedly sinister and mischievous in a bad-natured way, and although they never actually seem to actively harm anyone, they are certainly creepy, and create an unsettling and  palpable sense of unease and dread wherever they are. They are known to be fond of creating loud noises seemingly for the purpose of scaring and distracting residents or to keep them from sleeping, as well as pushing, shoving, and even dragging people around. The pranks are also more bad-natured and destructive than typical benevolent Zashiki-warshi, and they often cause damage to the home, although usually nothing life-threatening and they rarely cause any serious injury. Rather oddly, although the menacing Utsutsuki-warashi confer none of the prosperity or protective properties over their dwellings, they nevertheless still leave behind suffering and ruin if they decide to leave, meaning that families afflicted with one have no choice but to put up with the unruly, misbehaving spirit and try to keep it around anyway.

Although this must all surely sound like pure fanciful folklore, myth, and legend, and indeed there are many purely folkloric tales of Zashiki-warashi, they are nevertheless widely regarded as very real by a great many people in Japan, especially in more rural areas. There are countless reports of Zashiki-warashi hauntings throughout the country, and the phenomenon is often investigated by paranormal researchers and featured on various TV programs dealing with the mysterious. Very often there has been video evidence taken of supposed Zashiki-warashi activity, such as balls or toys navigating the room on their own, anomalous shadows, and even footprints inexplicably appearing in power or sand set out. Anomalous voices or noises in the afflicted rooms caught on tape are not uncommon. The Zashiki-warashi is by all accounts seen as a very real phenomenon, just as strange a phenomenon as any other in the paranormal realm. However, what exactly they are is largely a mystery.

Theories as to the exact nature of the Zashiki-warashi are pretty much as varied as the different versions of the spirits themselves, and what they are mostly depends on who you ask and what area of Japan you are in. One idea is that these are the wayward spirits of lost dead children that are doomed to wander about. A particular macabre variation of this story is a type of ritual infanticide, called usugoro, which was once carried out in the Tōhoku region during times of famine and hardship in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed, with the bodies often unceremoniously buried in the soil beneath homes. The restless spirits of these children are then thought to haunt the surrounding areas or the house under which they were so hastily interred. Another idea is that these are gods or shapeshifting nature or animal spirits, of which Japan has many, or that they represent protective guardians from another realm or some other magical being.

Just as mysterious is why they should choose to haunt a particular room of a particular house. While with the spirit of a dead child in some location where a child has died this might be easily explainable, it is not always immediately clear why one particular place should be haunted. Typically, most hauntings in the Western world congregate around a place in which death or tragedy has struck, or which has been imbued with a history of pain and suffering, but with Zashiki-warashi this seems to not always be the case. Although they tend to prefer older houses, there is not necessarily always any death or particular tragedy linked to the property or room, and the haunting can seem almost arbitrary, the spirit’s reasons for picking it inscrutable. In some regions the haunting is attributed to a blessing or curse placed upon the place, but there is simply often no clear reason for why the Zashiki-warashi has moved in. Additionally, the spirits are known to be quite fickle at times, choosing to haunt one location only to move on at a moment’s notice without any apparent reason.

Then of course maybe this is all just folklore myth, and superstition in a country with a long history of such things, and perhaps this has merely found a way to intertwine with modern reports of hauntings in order to take on a life of its own. It is difficult to know for sure, but the tradition and phenomenon of the Zashiki-warashi remains very strong in Japan, whatever the case may be, and even as we strive for answers many people in this advanced island nation take them as a fact of life.