An Introduction To Japanese Yōkai: Makuragaeshi

Amongst the numerous hobbies that I enjoy, is the study of Japanese history and culture. Nestled deep in Japan’s long history are countless tales and records involving the supernatural and extraordinary. The most striking are those that surround the Yōkai. Yōkai are spirits, demons, or otherwise supernatural entities. And they are numerous, popping up all over Japanese recorded history. Even powerful leaders like Toyotomi Hideyoshi have pondered their existence and meaning. Many Yōkai are perceived to be friendly or benign. Many are seen to be a bane to the people they come in contact with, often causing mischief and problems wherever they appear. Some are even seen as holy, and tied directly to the various gods in the Shinto religion. This series is an introduction into the very deep world of the Japanese supernatural.



Makuragaeshi have a pretty specific name, and to understand it, you need to break down the name itself. The word Makura in Japanese simply means ‘pillow’. While the word Kaeshi means to reverse something (used as ‘gaeshi’ in this situation. Words occasionally change spellings in Japanese when combined with other words. It is difficult to explain).

The Makuragaeshi [pronounced: Mah Koo Rah Ga Eh She] are categorized as Zashiki-warashi Yōkai. These are generally spirits that haunt the home, and they are largely depicted as playful spirits in Japanese folklore. They often take a small humanoid form, such as that of a small child. In fact, the word warashi is actually a reference to a child.

Image source Another victim of a Makuragaeshi. The black block, now resting at the feet of the man, is a pillow.

Primary Lore

Zashiki-warashi-type Yōkai are pranksters that tend to haunt their victims’ home at night. While the unsuspecting humans sleep, the Makuragaeshi carefully removes the pillow from under their heads, but that isn’t all (if their name, as we broke down above, is to be taken to literally). To complete the prank, the spirit places the pillow under or at the feet of the still slumbering person. Which would surely leave the victim confused come morning, and most likely with a neck-ache of some magnitude.

They also have been known to leave foot prints from fireplace ashes or powdered from soap all around the the homes that they haunt. All simple but effective childish pranks. 

Image source. In this print, you can see the pillow has been placed at the feet of the man.

Makuragaeshi, however, were not always perceived as just childishly playful. Some were known to sit on the chest of their sleeping prey and stare at them all night. While creepy, the reason they would do this is unknown. To make matters worse for the unsuspecting victim, this act of sitting on their chest caused a condition called Kanashibari, or Sleep Paralysis in English.

[The act of Kanashibari was actually caused by various Yōkai]

Some more extreme acts found in the lore of Makuragaeshi were: rather than just repositioning the pillow used by the human, they would occasionally flip the entire human around. Either changing their direction completely in the room, or even flipping them like one would a pancake on a griddle. Other cases involved the tatami mat that the person was sleeping on being flipped, and the person waking up under the heavy straw mat that they thought that they went to sleep on.

Some stories claimed that if the victim suddenly awoke to see a Makurageshi in the act, the person would fall unconscious and the Makuragaeshi would steal their spirit or soul. Effectively leaving the person in a coma or dead. But most cases recalling interactions with these spirits were benign. And the perception of the Yōkai’s acts was that they were, in fact, just playing around. Though, I am sure many bad nights sleep were caused.

Varying Legend, Lore, and Beliefs By Region

The stories and beliefs surrounding Makuragaeshi vary from place to place. This is not uncommon with many Yōkai actually. For Makuragaeshi, though, many of the stories came from the colder northern prefectures. Some believe these spirits to be the ghosts of children that passed away inside the houses that they haunt. This believe echoes in the lore of other Zashiki-warashi type Yōkai. Some believe them to actually be different Yōkai altogether. Such as; Tanuki(raccoon spirits. They will be featured later in this series) or cat spirits. These beliefs were justified by the idea that these different Yōkai were just playing pranks by shapeshifting into the visage of a child.

There are other stories centered around Makuragaeshi in Temples. For example, in Tochigi Prefecture there is a temple that has a Makuragaeshi room that is believed to be haunted by this type Yōkai. This room is even named the Makuragaeshi-space. The story goes that a traveler seeking refuge for the night at this temple once went to sleep with his feet positioned towards the temples primary object of worship. ie: a buddhist statue or something similarly holy. This was a disrespectful act, that the spirit took exception to. In the dead of night, when all were asleep, the spirit carefully spun the whole traveler around. When he awoke his head was facing towards the primary point of worship, instead of his feet.

The act of flipping a pillow was theorized to have a much more deeper meaning than that of just a prank. Some believed that when they body sleeps, the soul or human spirit exits the body for a time. The pillow being the tool that the soul uses to exit the body. If the pillow is moved away from its intended location, then the soul cannot return before the human wakes up. It was believed that this would bring the persons death closer to the present.

Like taking days off of ones life.

Yōkai Road

Image source
Shigeru Mizuki with Medama Oyaji(a talking eyeball and main character from GeGeGe no Kitarō) on his shoulder.

Manga artist Shigeru Mizuki(1922-2015), a veteran of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, was an authority on Yōkai, and spent most of his life studying and writing about them. He was the author of the widely known long running manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō, which centers on Yōkai lore. This series was also made into an anime.

In 1996 Mizuki had a street dedicated to his work in Tottori Prefecture, located in western Japan, where he was raised. On this street are well over 150 bronze Yōkai statues of various shapes and sizes. All situated in varying locations. There are also characters from his hit manga depicted in statue form.

The Makuragaeshi is one of the Yōkai depicted at Yōkai Road. Immortalized with its namesake pillow and a grin on its face.

For further information about Yōkai, I highly suggest A website run by Matthew Meyer. He has studied Yōkai and Japanese folklore intensively, and has also released a series of books that he wrote, designed, and illustrated. All devoted to the subject. His books and website were a major source of information for this series, and I regularly reference them. They are:

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]

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Robert is: a Hobbyist, a Music Lover, an RPG Gamer, a Mustard Lover, Chaotic Neutral, a Japanese Speaker, a Veteran, an Otaku, a Table Tennis Player, an Anime Fan, an Aviation Professional, a New York Rangers Fan, a Chaos Lover With Loyalist Tendencies.

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