You’ve probably seen the cycloptic umbrella with a long tongue, flailing arms, and a single leg and thought “that’s one freaky version of the lamp from A Christmas Story. It’s actually the mythical kasa-obake — one of the most peculiar yokai (Japanese spirits) ever dreamt up. This bizarre parasol has been hobbling around Japanese culture ever since the Edo period (1603-1868), when it became a popular figure in kaidan — aka ghost stories. The demon started out as nothing more than the figment of some weary storyteller’s imagination, but now it’s one of the most popular creatures in contemporary Japanese art, creeping its way throughout anime, manga, and Irezumi alike.
Unlike most other supernatural creatures found in traditional Japanese tattoos, kasa-obake don’t come from ancient Asian folklore. Because there are no traditional myths in which these possessed parasols appear, just images and descriptions of them, historians believe they originated with Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales) — a parlor game that used to be played in Japan, in which people would light lanterns known as andon and tell frightening tales until the flames died out. Many of these narratives featured encounters with otherworldly beings, some of them, like the kasa-obake became popular kaidan.
It may seem strange that something as ordinary as an umbrella would transform into a restless spirit, but there is a longstanding tradition of tools being possessed in Japan. It used to be widely believed that after an object was a century old, it would become a tsukumogami — the vessel for a yokai. Because of this, people would regularly throw out belongings before they became 100 years old — an act known as susu-harai. This is undoubtedly where the person behind kasa-obake got the idea. What one of these parasols would do after gaining sentience isn’t clear, though; it varies from story to story, but they’ve been causing mischief in visual art for hundreds of years now and still haunt the realm of tattoos to this very day.
To see more traditional Japanese tattoos, perhaps a even a few more spooky kasa-obake, follow these artists on Instagram. If you’d like a haunted umbrella of your own, have them design one of the freaky parasols for you.
You just experienced Indomitable, our series where we explore the history and symbolism of traditional Japanese tattoo motifs. We hope you found learning about kasa-obake as spine-tingling as we did. If you want to find out more about other figures found in Irezumi, check out these other posts about baku, foo dogs, kirins, Namazu, the Nue, phoenixes, severed heads, and tofu boys.