Indomitable is our series where we examine the meaning behind our favorite motifs from traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi). In this installment, we’re looking at one of the cutest and weirdest icons from Japanese folklore — hitotsume-kozo and tofu-kozo, aka tofu boys. Make sure to check out our previous posts about cherry blossoms, dragons, hannya masks, kitsune, the Nue, and samurai crabs.
Most of the demons, monsters, and poltergeists (yokai) found throughout Irezumi are malevolent entities, hellbent on bringing about misery into people's lives, but there are a few supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore that are completely benign, like tofu boys. These little bean-curd-carting ghosts aren’t menacing in the least bit, other than the fact that they like to sneak up on people in the dark of night to offer them a bite of deadly tofu. Just have a look at these tattoos and you’ll see that tofu boys are actually pretty endearing for being restless spirits.
There are two flavors of tofu boys in Japanese folklore, hitotsume-kozo and tofu-kozo. These yokai are cousins and are very similar in appearance, both sporting wide-brimmed bamboo hats, kimonos, and the iconic plate of jiggling tofu, of course. The easiest way to tell them apart is that hitotsume-kozo only have one eye, while tofu-kozo have two. Hitotsume-kozo predate tofu-kozo, the former coming from age-old rural myths and the latter being a relatively new addition to the yokai pantheon, born out of urban legends from the An’ei era (1772-1781).
Tofu boys have been a part of Japanese culture for a very long time now, appearing in countless kaidan (ghost stories) ever since the onset of the Edo period (1603-1868). The are numerous tales about them, but they all describe essentially the same series of events. Here’s one of the most famous accounts of an encounter with a hitotsume-kozo. On a dreary evening, just as the sun was setting, a man caught sight of a strange blue glow outside of his house. He went to investigate it and discovered a one-eyed boy playing in the garden. The man fell to the ground, frozen with fear, as the ghost licked him up and down with its long tongue as if he was a cube of bean curd.
Hitotsume-kozo have crept into all sorts of fine art over the centuries, especially ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints), while tofu-kozo tend to roam around in popular art, cropping up in advertisements, children's books, kabuki performances, and even as toys. Though they have their respective haunts, they are both fixtures in Irezumi, carrying around bean curd on people’s bodies. If you ever see one bumbling about in a back-piece or in real life, just make sure never to partake of its tofu. It’s rumored to make mold grow inside of your stomach until you die, which is a bit malevolent, now that we think about it.
To see more traditional Japanese body art and perhaps a few more tofu-licking cuties, visit these tattooists’ Instagrams. Should you want a piece of Irezumi featuring hitotsume-kozo or tofu-kozo for yourself, have one of them design a cute little apparition of your own.