JAPAN: Culture (Tsukimono / 憑き物)

Japan possesses a unique culture that dates back thousands of years and to understand it to some degree will only enhance your experiences when you travel to this wonderful country. In previous posts, I had written about some aspects of Japanese culture and now I would like to delve into something that is lesser known in the Western world, the concept of Tsukimono.

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In Japan, where there are nearly eight million gods and monsters, it isn’t unlikely to come across tales of a few who take possession of human bodies.  Essentially, that is the definition of Tsukimono, a possessing thing. (Tsuki meaning “possession” and mono meaning “thing.”)

Spirit possession is a long standing, ancient belief in Japan. The oldest form known as Kamiyadori (god possession), stems from the Shinto (also called Kaminomichi) religion, the ethnic religion of the people of Japan dating back to the 8th century.  This involves mediums who are able to draw the power of the god or ancestor spirits and serve as oracles. However, this type of possession is different from the possession of Tsukimono.

Tsukimono are exclusively yokai (ghost) or animal spirits which invade human bodies and the event is “involuntary” on the part of the human being possessed. It is said that the yokai possesses a body out of vengeance whereas the animal spirits take over a body out of greed.  The animal spirit may desire to eat something that it normally cannot obtain, therefore it takes possession of a human body to accomplish this act.

The types of Tsukimono are different depending on what source you consult however the typical list includes:

Kappa-tsuki ( Kappa possession) : Kappas are mischievous water sprites found in Japanese folklore who dwell in lakes, rivers and swampy areas. Tales of the Kappa were used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa were said to lure people into the water and drown them. Kappa are also said to victimize animals, especially horses and cows. These mythical creatures are believed to be innately curious about human beings and perhaps this is the reason why they are believed to possess human bodies.

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Gaki-tsuki (Hungry Ghost possession): Gaki are the Japanese spirit of starvation looking for a little sustenance and somewhere warm to stay hence human bodies are inviting.

Tengu-tsuki (Tengu possession): Tengu is a dangerous spirit thought to dwell in mountains and forests. They were depicted with a beak in early drawings which later gave way to a more humanized depiction having an unnaturally long nose. Tengu are believed to be troublesome opponents of Buddhism, who mislead the pious with false images of the Buddha, carry off monks only to drop them in remote places, possess women in an attempt to seduce holy men, rob temples and endow those who worship them with unholy power. They often disguise themselves as priests or nuns.

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Neko-tsuki (Cat possession): In the West, cats were often believed to be familiars of human witches. They were said to possess the ability to sense the presence of spirits before humans noticed them. In Japan, cats have long been well regarded, often epitomized by the Maneki Neko, a good luck talisman in the shape of a cat found in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors and other businesses throughout the country. But cats according to the Shinto belief can also be kami (spirits or phenomena that are worshipped).  In Shinto, kami began as the mysterious forces of nature associated primarily with permanent features in the landscape such as mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks.  Many folk tales evolved around these holy places, often referring to animal possession chiefly involving foxes, badgers, dogs and cats. Although the kami can be considered deities, they are not necessarily considered omnipotent or omniscient, and like the Greek Gods, they had flawed personalities and were quite capable of ignoble acts. Therefore, it is important to please the kami as they can either grant blessings or curses to a person. Possession by a tsukimono occurs in cases where a person is cursed.

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Other animal possesions include:  Hebi-tsuki (Snake possession); Tanuki-tsuki (Japanese raccoon possession); Uma-tsuki (Horse possession); Inu-tsuki (Dog possession); Kitsune-tsuki (Fox possession).

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The effects of the possession vary widely as well. In most possessions the victim takes on the attributes of the yokai or animal. For instance, if a victim is possessed by a tanuki, it is said that they voraciously overeat until their belly swells up like a tanuki, causing death unless exorcized.  In the case of  an uma possession, people become ill-mannered, huffing at everything and sticking their face into their food to eat like a horse. Those plagued with kappa-tsuki become overwhelmed with the need to be in water and develop an appetite for cucumbers.

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Possession by tsukimono was frequently used as an explanatory concept and a cultural device as the cause of disease and misfortune. Generally, the only way to free someone from a tsukimono was through an exorcist. Wandering Shugendo priests called Yamabushi were often engaged for this purpose.

So there you have it, a look at the darker side of Japanese culture and a possible explanation as to why Japanese people believe so strongly in the power of the omamori (amulets, charms and  talismans commonly sold at religious sites and dedicated to particular Shinto deities as well as Buddhist figures, that are said to provide various forms of luck or protection).

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