Lesley Downer

Things that Change Shape in the Night

The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore


University of California Press 309pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

There were many traps for the unwary in old Japan. You could be out walking at twilight at the edge of town and meet a beautiful woman. But before you proposed marriage, it would be as well to check whether she had a bushy tail protruding from her skirts. Otherwise you might wake up and discover that you’d slept with a fox.

Or you might buy a cooking pot that screamed when you put it on the fire and revealed itself to be a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog), badly burnt and probably dead. (Tanuki are rather inept shape changers, unlike foxes.) On 3 May 1889 a train driver reported a train steaming straight towards him that suddenly disappeared, leaving a dead tanuki on the track. Domestic utensils like pots and pans had a tendency to grow arms and legs, and cats might develop a split tail and turn into cat monsters.

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