The Rise of a Leader

The Night Parade

There are many different types of Yokai that roam around the Japanese archipelago, from the mighty Oni to the slippery Kappa. With such variety of creatures one can only imagine if there is a leader among the madness. And what a leader it is.

From humble, uncertain beginnings, the Nurarihyon grew to be a prominent figure in the modern day understanding of yokai in Japan. Nurarihyon has an interesting role in both the media as well as social structures. In modern times, nurarihyon is seen as the supreme commander of the yokai and is a prominent figure in manga and anime. In the past, nurarihyon was an obscure figure that was eventually used to depict the social hierarchy of Edo Japan. In this post, I am going to go into his unknown origins, how he “evolved” into the yokai no oyadama, or “leader of Yokai,” and how this image has been shaped by media and politics throughout his history.

But before all that, let me set the stage by delving into the meaning(s) of his name. Michael Dylan Foster, author of The Book of Yokai mentions that “in a standard Japanese dictionary, the word nurarihyon ぬらりひょん is described as being synonymous with nurarikurari, which refers to something (or somebody) with no place to grab onto” (218). For me, this description is interesting both based on the type of yokai Nurarihyon is and the fact that his origin is grasping and mysterious, not really having a set place. The characters of his name are also interesting. They mean “slippery” 滑 “gourd” 瓢 (Nurarihyon). This depiction in characters may be based on his image, which depicts him with a long, bald cranium as well as his behavior which is slippery and hard to pin down. Foster also mentions a Japanese proverb about trying to catch a cat fish, which is often how Nurarihyon is physically compared to as looking like, with a gourd (Foster 218).

The origin stories of Nurarihyon vary and there is no set version. There is another yokai by the name nurarihyon, a spherical object that lives in the ocean and was once thought to be a type of Umi Bozu, an ocean yokai that is said to appear in calm waters and is a sign of a storm or danger to a ship(Davisson). This version of nurarihyon is said to bob in the waves and disappear whenever sailors would reach out to touch it, only to appear again further out of reach. Many people think that this could have been our modern day nurarihyon’s beginnings, evolving into the monk-like figure we have today. And in a way, they’ve got it right.

Some of the first written records and depictions of this yokai begin with Sawaki Sushi’s Hyakkai-zukan in 1737. While there is no record or mention of Nurarihyon’s nature, he is depicted as an old, monk-like figure with an elongated head (Foster 218).

A Folklorist, Fujisawa Morihiko, in 1929 “labeled an image of nurarihyon with the caption “leader of the yokai” (yokai no oyadama) (Foster 218). However, there is no reasoning as to why he gave nurarihyon that title.

By the 1970s, the modern concept of nurarihyon began to finalize with the addition of the Ichiban Kuwashi Nihon Yokai Zukan (Most Detailed Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan’s Yokai). The title given to nurarihyon was that of Yokai Sodaisho, the Supreme Commander of Yokai (Davisson).

Mizuki Shigeru, a modern day manga author and anthropologist, has a comic that includes this yokai. Nurarihyon is said to not only be the leader of the yokai but also will sneak into your house and drink your tea and eat your food before disappearing (Foster 218).

One of the most common stories involving nurarihyon is as follows:

One hectic days when the household is running around with barely a second to think, Nurarihyon slips casually into the house and sits down to a cup of tea acting as if he were the Lord of the Manor. People who see him and the casual ease with which he takes authority assume that he must indeed be the Lord. They fall upon themselves serving him, and don’t realize how they have been deceived until he is gone (Davisson).

Now in modern media,  popular anime and manga series, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan and Nurarihyon no Mago, portrays nurarihyon as the supreme commander of the yokai and the series follows the grandchild of nurarihyon and his yokai and human adventures.

With this history of nurarihyon established, we can now delve deeper into the mystery, both in origin and social implications, behind this yokai. As a potential water yokainurarihyon has had a constant tie to the water, whether through his origins or  through his description as catfish-like. In the Ukiyoe-zushi kosniki Haidokubara there is only one sentence describing nurarihyon: “Nurarihyon looks like a catfish, without eyes or a mouth. It is a spirit of deception” (Davisson). While this image has not stayed with us, the term “catfish-like” and the deceptive nature has stuck with nurarihyon.

There is also some debate in his origin. In Murakami Kenji’s Yokai Dictionary, there is talk about how the modern-day image of nurarihyon is just the fabrication of Toriyama Seiken to match his drawing (Davisson).

It is also this drawing (to the right) in particular that sparks an interesting line of questioning with nurarihyon. The Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedia of Toriyama Sekein is a collection of Sekein’s four works along with modern commentary. This image from the encyclopedia depicts nurarihyon stepping off of a palanquin into a house wearing fancy robes and carrying a single sword. It is these characteristics that suggest the nature of this cartoon as a political one. The palanquin and fancy robes are symbols of wealth or prestige while the single sword defines this figure to be a wealthy townsperson instead of a samurai, in which case he would’ve carried two swords (Sekein).

Historical context of Toriyama Sekein’s drawing is set in the middle of the Edo Period (1615-1868). At this time, there were divisions of classes/people in the sense of honor and function. Samurai were the highest rank, followed by farmers, then artisans and merchants, which were often just thrown into the same category of chonin or “townsmen”. Merchants, however, were looked especially down upon since they themselves made none of the products they sold and their wealth came at the expense of others (Jansen 2000). It is this view of merchants that might have lead to nurarihyon being depicted as one. Jansen describes merchants being thought of as “parasitical, self-interested people” (Jansen 2000). Nurarihyon can be viewed as parasitical, as he takes advantage of a home.  The Japandemonium Illustrated also goes into another source, the Seji Kenbonroku or Things I have Seen and Heard from 1812, that discusses the merchants rising status. “They rise above their status and look down on samurai…” (Sekein). Merchants also get described as loan sharks and more of that imagery can be seen in the picture (above) by the book that is in the house. This concept shows the established social orders were being challenged at the time the image was drawn, around the early 1800s. Merchants made up the lower levels of this social hierarchy, however, it is clear that they tried to rise above this and work to occur more wealth and status (Sekein).

Nurarihyon is not the only example of politics and Yokai being mixed during the Edo Period. After an earthquake in 1855, depictions of a namazu-e, or giant, earthquake causing catfish, began circulating, eventually taking on a life of their own to speak on or against troubles in the political systems (Smits 2006). In his article, Smits focuses on “the political consciousness among Edo commoners in 1855, and argues that they used the namazu-e to express an emerging consciousness of Japanese national identity” (Smits 2006).

Nurarihyon has had an interesting history and political significance through his claim to fame. From a humble beginning as an ocean yokai to an old, monk-like figure with no real purpose to a trickster with a taste for fancy tea and leadership, Nurarihyon has finally found a place to hold onto as a prominent yokai in modern day culture.


Works Cited

Davisson, Zack. 2014. Nurarihyon – The Slippery Gourd. 百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. Accessed January 13, 2017

Foster, Michael Dylan. 2015. The Book of Yokai. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Jansen, Marius B. 2000. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nurarihyon. 2016. Accessed January 13, 2017

Sekien, Toriyama. Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedia of Toriyama Sekein. Courier Dover Publications: 64.

Smits, Gregory. 2006. Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints. Journal of Social History: 1045–1078.

All images from Google Images

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