A Tsukumogami is a kind of Yokai, which is a Japanese phantasm, ghost or otherwise supernatural apparition. Yokai can get pretty strange and scary, and there are countless different varieties. Among the most benign Yokai are the Tsukumogami. They are inanimate objects that come to life on their 100th birthdays.
Once they came to life, Tsukumogami would go around tricking people and causing general mischief, so people would throw them away during susuharai (lit.: soot sweeping) year-end house cleaning before their 100th birthdays. The animate items were angry that they were thrown away after so many years of loyal service, so they had a spooky parade, because parades are always the best revenge.
Long story short, their parade ran afoul of the Emperor’s chief adviser who happened to be carrying a charm that emitted a halo of flame. Assorted shenanigans ensued, mostly involving a lot of fire and running away.
After a sound beating, the Tsukumogami decided to follow the teachings of a prayer bead Tsukumogami named Ichiren-Bozu (pictured above, top left). They promised not to torment humans anymore and set upon the path of enlightenment, which is exactly what I would do if I were a Tsukumogami who ran into something called a halo of flame.
I’m fascinated by Yokai and the fact that Japan has so many different kinds of named supernatural phenomena, but I specifically like the story of the Tsukumogami. Even today, some Shinto shrines perform ceremonies to console broken and unusable items. I don’t really believe the stories, but I love the concept of personified inanimate objects. I always have.
I was a shy, isolated child. I retreated into myself after I was sexually abused at seven years old. I had no one to talk to, no one I could trust. My teddy bear, dolls and other toys were my best friends. I confided in them and trusted them when I couldn’t trust anyone else, especially my family.
I didn’t grow up in Japan nor even remotely familiar with Japanese culture, yet the concept of Tsukumogami would have made total sense to my child mind. Had I heard about it then, I might have argued that items came to life long before their 100th birthdays. My teddy bear was as real to me as a school friend.
As an adult, I don’t talk to or confide in them anymore, but to this day, I have a hard time throwing objects out just because they’re broken or I don’t use them. I’m not a hoarder, but I go to thrift stores and take pity on ugly things, because I feel like they won’t find a home anywhere else. Even if I don’t end up buying them for whatever reason, sometimes, I walk around the store inexplicably carrying them. When I leave, I place them gently back on a shelf with a better view of their surroundings.
That’s how each of these things wound up on my shelf (except the little mouse which was hand-carved by my dad):
From left to right, there’s the squatting African man, complete with a very-happy-to-see-you poking out from under his grass skirt; Unibrow Bear, the non-functional lamp; and the fish ashtray carved from the horn of some animal.
The reason I love thrift stores is that I can buy something like a fish ashtray carved from animal horn and not feel guilty about it. Yes, some animal gave his horns so that I could have an ugly ashtray, but I bought it second-hand. The manufacturer won’t profit from it, thereby making some corporation somewhere think that maybe they should make more ugly fish ashtrays carved from animal horns. The people who profit from my ugly thing addiction are actually charities who use the money to give people jobs and stuff, so yay me.
Fishtray is very fragile. If you bump that shelf, he’ll fall over. He is rather intricately carved, but he’s missing his tail fin. Fishtray even has a mouth full of individually-carved pearly white teeth, because all fish have teeth I guess?
I call the squatting African man African troll doll because his hair is similar to a troll doll and he’s really just as ugly, although more anatomically correct:
I took pity on Unibrow Bear and brought him home with me. He’s really quite ugly, and a lesser person might be afraid of his creepy, blank, yet almost lecherous stare with giant beach ball hiding any potential bear naughtiness, but not me. Unibrow Bear is so ugly that I brought him home. He has been nothing but a gentleman. I’ve never caught him misbehaving.
I’m not sure how old Unibrow Bear is. I’d guess he’s a product of between the 1930s and 1950s, so he has a few more decades before his 100th birthday. I’ll probably be there. I’d like to think that I’ve treated Unibrow Bear with enough respect that, if he does become Tsukumogami, he’d still be my ugly friend and not my enemy.
Do you personify inanimate objects or am I (and the country of Japan) the only crazy one who does this?