A boardgame

Here we digress from senjafuda to look at another kind of woodblock-printed yōkai from the mid-19th century: a sugoroku gameboard.

Sugoroku—which may literally be translated as “double sixes”—is the name for two not-really-related kinds of board games played in premodern Japan. The word first applied to the game known in English as backgammon, which is played with a pair of dice (thus the name). The word also came to refer to board games similar to the snakes-and-ladders type or simple race-type games familiar today. The rules for the latter were simple, but the “boards” themselves came in a dizzying variety of arrangements, and were not in fact boards but paper on which pictorial designs were printed. These were illustrated, printed, and sold by some of the same artists and craftsmen responsible for ukiyo, illustrated books, and, yes, senjafuda.

As games sugoroku boards have little to offer modern players, but as works of visual art they can often be quite spectacular. In fact, many of the boards seem to have been designed not for actual play but for appreciation as visual art that incorporates gameplay ideas and forms into its visual scheme—rather like later senjafuda, meant not for pasting but for exchange and appreciation. Like senjafuda, sugoroku boards have not attracted the same kind of attention from scholars and collectors that their ukiyo-e cousins have; one of the few discussions of them in English is in Rebecca Salter’s Japanese Popular Prints (pp. 164-81).[1] The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art has several sugoroku boards, however, including the classic piece of yōkai art below. (For those interested in comparisons, another copy may be viewed in the National Diet Library's Digital Collections.)

Entitled Once-Upon-A-Time Monsters Sugoroku (Mukashibanashi bakemono sugoroku 百種怪談妖物雙六), this board was illustrated by Utagawa Yoshikazu 歌川芳員 (n.d.) and published in 1858. As the title reflects, the game design combines yōkai with a storytelling motif. The start square is the large square in the center of the bottom row (it says “start” or furidashi), which depicts a group of children telling scary stories by lamplight. The rest of the squares depict the monsters inhabiting the children’s tales. Each square contains a list of six instructions. Players puts their markers down in the start square, and then take turns rolling a die, then following the instruction that corresponds to the number rolled. The instructions typically tell the player to jump to another yōkai’s square, although one can also lose a turn. Players move around the board, not in sequence, but at random according to the roll of the die, until somebody rolls a number that corresponds to an instruction to jump to the finish (agari) square, which is the large square in the center of the top row.

This game could be played, and judging from the well-worn condition of the JSMA’s copy, it probably was. At the same time it could be appreciated purely as a visual artifact, presenting twenty-five of the best-known yōkai in what appears to be an orderly fashion. A parade, if you will: this board exemplifies the tendency toward rational presentation that Foster identifies as the counterpoint to the pandemonium exhibited by the hyakki yagyō (which was, paradoxically, envisioned as a literal parade). But the order is illusory, not only because the yōkai don’t seem to be arranged according any particular logic, but mainly because gameplay will bring the player into contact with these yōkai in a different order every time, according to the roll of the die.

One of the peculiarities of this gameboard is that some of the yōkai are given names that don’t correspond to what are now their best-known appellations. Whether they correspond to tales that were well known in 1858 or whether they’re merely fanciful embroidery has yet to be determined.

For an identification of each yōkai on the gameboard, see below the image.



The bottom row, left to right

“The Mountain Man of Mount Myōkō.” A yamaotoko; a gigantic human living in remote mountainous areas.

“The Dog-God and White Child of Kōshū.” Kōshū was another name for Ōmi. An inugami or “dog-god” was thought to be the yōkai that resulted from certain arcane rituals; it could be used to possess or torment an enemy. Depictions of the inugami often give it a servant or sidekick known as a shirachigo or “white child”; these are usually drawn with human faces, but this one is drawn as a puppy.

Start square (discussed above)

“The Great Three-Eyed Priest of Asahina Pass.” Asahina Pass is in Kamakura. Priests are often monster-fied in yōkai culture, probably reflecting both the familiarity of the Buddhist priest in Edo life and the association of Buddhism with death in the period (since Buddhism had a legal monopoly on funeral rites). Three-eyed (mitsume) monsters were staples of the early modern imagination.

“The Snow Lady of Naka-no-Kawachi.” There are several locales known as Kawachi. The yōkai here labeled yuki jorō is more commonly known today as yuki onna (“snow woman”); she haunts snowy climes and combines both idealized feminine beauty and the treachery of a mountain snowstorm. She was popularized (in both Japan and the West) by Lafcadio Hearn’s story of the same name in Kwaidan (1904), and its subsequent adaptation in the film of the same name (1964) by Kobayashi Masaki.


Second row from bottom, left to right

“The Sea-Monk of the Genkai Sea.” The Genkai Sea (Genkai-nada) is an area of ocean off the northwest coast of Kyushu. The umibōzu or “sea-monk” is a well-known oceanic yōkai often pictured as a huge shadowy or black figure that wrecks ships.

“The Filth-Licker of Shedbottom Valley.” Sokokuradani is probably a made-up place name, so we’ve translated it literally as “Shedbottom Valley.” The location depicted is actually a public bath, and the filth-licker (akaname) is reaching excitedly for a wash-bucket in order to lick up the soap scum or dirt left behind in it.

“The Jealous Grudge.” An enigmatic image for a modern viewer, this depicts an old-fashioned wooden pillow, a snake, and a floating flame. Disembodied spirits were often depicted as floating flames, while medieval stories often saw snakes as the embodiment of female jealousy. The story of the monk Karukaya is typical: as a layperson, he kept both his wife and mistress in the same house, until one day he passed the room where both were sleeping and saw that their hair had turned to snakes fighting with each other. Realizing the torments of jealousy he was subjecting them to, he became a monk. Here the viewer might imagine that the snake and the flame are the embodiments of different women’s jealousy, and that they’re facing off here.

“Boat-Ghosts in the Leviathan Waves.” Boat-ghosts (funayūrei) are sometimes conceived of as a ghostly ship and sometimes as ghosts that emerge from the waves to attack a ship. Here we see the latter type. They’re holding ladles, with which they are said to pour water into a ship to sink it.

“The Forktailed Cat in the Rotting Temple.” Abandoned temples are frequently imagined to be the lair of ghosts and monsters, and here we have a nekomata or “forktailed cat” dancing wildly in one, a rag on its head. Cats of exceptionally advanced age were believed to develop forked tails and magical powers. Yōkai cats are often depicted as dancing in this spooky manner, as in Toriyama Sekien’s influential 1776 bestiary Gazu hyakki yagyō (The illustrated night parade of a hundred demons). Two more such cats are depicted in the finish square two rows above.

“The Kappa of Bandō Tarō.” Bandō is another term for the Kantō, or the region of eastern Japan surrounding what is now Tokyo; Bandō Tarō, or the “Firstborn of Bandō,” was a poetic name for the Tone River. Kappa are described elsewhere on this site; this particularly ferocious looking specimen appears to be extracting the internal organs of the child in his right hand. An additional inscription on this square instructs the player to “lose one turn because the water in your dish dries up.”

“The Angry Spirit of Sunamura.” Sunamura was a village near Edo famous, according to some sources, for pumpkins. The idea of a pumpkin yōkai, however, is most associated with the Yotsuya Kaidan story; in some versions, when Oiwa’s angry spirit (onryō) manifests her face in a burning lantern, her face also appears on some pumpkins growing nearby. Here the idea has (literally) taken on a life of its own, as the pumpkin vine is carrying its own head in its hands.

“The Echo.” A seemingly straightforward monsterfication of the echo phenomenon, the yamabiko doesn’t seem to have been represented in illustrations before the mid-Edo Period. Toriyama Sekien depicts it in a vaguely canine manner, no doubt inspiring Yoshikazu’s depiction here.


Second row from top, left to right

“The Pestle of Mortar Mountain.” We appear to be in a tsukumogami world here. The pestle (rengibō) appears to be a normal pestle that has sprouted wings and perhaps antennae. “Mortar Mountain” in the background is an overturned mortar.

“The Leerer at the Skylight.” This depiction of a shōkera is clearly indebted to Toriyama Sekien’s. The origins of the creature are obscure, but Sekien’s visualization of it, echoed here, is scary enough: a creepy crawler peering in through a skylight.

“The Morinji Kettle.” One of the most popular tanuki stories (Bunbuku chagama, or “The Lucky Teakettle”) involves a tanuki who turned himself into a teakettle. A number of variations on the tale exist, but most at some point involve the tanuki losing his concentration when placed over hot coals, so that his tail and legs pop out of the teakettle. Some version of the story associate it with the temple of Morinji in Gunma; that’s the version Toriyama Sekien illustrated, and that’s what Yoshikazu shows us here.

“The Oneleg of Heron Pool.” Undoubtedly one of the cutest yōkai is the umbrella monster (kasabake and variants thereof), sometimes also known as a “oneleg” (ippon-ashi). Usually depicted with comical eyes and protruding tongue and one leg (for obvious reasons). Like Tofu Boy, the umbrella monster seems to have existed mostly in illustrations, without any particular story attached to it. Perhaps it was conceived of as a kind of tsukumogami, or perhaps it was simply—then as now—an irresistibly funny idea for a yōkai.

“The Latheneck in the Old Chest.” Latheneck is our pet translation for rokurokubi, the enigmatic name of a familiar yōkai. A rokuro refers to either a potter’s lathe (in which case the name conjures up the way a potter might mysteriously lengthen the neck of a jar while turning the wheel) or the pulley used to draw water from a well (in which case the name suggests the sinuous length of the rope)—and other explanations have been given. In any case the yōkai has an extendable neck, allowing the head free rein to travel where it will (in some versions the head is detachable). Usually the rokurokubi is depicted as female, but Yoshikazu gives us a grizzled priest-like very similar to the mikoshi nyūdō in the row above.

“The One-Eye of Liar’s Moor.” Like the three-eyed monster, the “one-eye” (hitotsume) was a common figure in yōkai illustrations; often it was a boy like this. But this one also has attributes of the well known Tofu Boy (tōfu kozō), who was usually depicted with two eyes but sometimes conflated with the one-eye as here (both are further conflated with “big-headed boy,” ōatama kozō, whose appearance may be imagined). Neither are considered particularly harmful yōkai. Tofu Boy is usually pictured as he is here: appearing on a dark and rainy night, wearing a rain hat and carrying a tasty-looking block of tōfu on a tray. Occasionally he’s shown licking the tōfu with a preternaturally long tongue.

“Lantern Oiwa.” Oiwa is the protagonist of the classic kabuki ghost story Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan (The Tōkaidō Yotsuya horror), first performed in 1825 and a staple of Japanese horror ever since. A faithful daughter, wife, and mother, Oiwa is deceived, ridiculed, cheated on, dumped, poisoned, disfigured, and finally killed as a result of the machinations of her rogue of a husband Iemon. After her death she haunts Iemon spectacularly on her way to a revenge that has satisfied audiences for nearly two centuries. One of the most iconic moments in the story is when a large paper lantern bursts into flames, revealing Oiwa’s face leering at Iemon out of the blaze. Yoshikazu has foregone the fire here, but Oiwa’s ravaged features gaze forth with terrifying menace.

“The Belly-Drum of Tanpo Moor.” The “belly-drum” (haratsuzumi) is, of course, a tanuki happily doing his thing. The word here translated "moor"—hara 原—is a homonym for "belly"—hara 腹. This square contains an extra inscription instructing players to “lose one turn because you injure the skin of your belly.”


Top row, left to right

“The Devil Lurking in the Abandoned Temple.” This square depicts a nobusuma (written, as is often the case on this sugoroku board, with characters that suggest an alternative interpretation), and it’s a rare case of Yoshikazu departing from Sekien’s precedent. Sekien identifies the nobusuma as a flying squirrel (musasabi) and draws it accordingly, but Yoshikazu’s teacher, the influential Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1798-1861), had depicted the nobusuma as a fearsome batlike creature, and that’s what Yoshikazu gives us here.

“The Overlooker Initiate.” An “initiate” or nyūdō is someone who has “entered the Way,” or taken the first steps toward Buddhist priesthood but gone no farther; it was a common state for a retired man in premodern Japan. Since old things and priests were always fair game for monsterfication it’s no surprise that the nyūdō has a presence in yōkai lore. The “overlooker” or mikoshi nyūdō was one of the most popular of early modern yōkai. Originally it seems to have been simply a very tall priest-like figure that grew taller the more you looked at it, but it was also often depicted as having (like the rokurokubi) an extendable neck, and its name implies the ability to peer over your shoulder. Sekien depicted it peeking out from behind a stand of trees. Here the head almost fills the frame; the bulging flesh beneath the beard suggests the coils of an elongated neck.

“Monster Cat in the Old Palace.” This is the finish square. It refers to a scene from an 1827 play by the author of Yotsuya kaidan, Hitoritabi Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi (Traveling alone on the East Sea Road, All 53 Stages). In the scene in question a traveler stops for the night at an old temple, where he encounters an old woman who turns out to be a shape-shifting cat. After they fight, she flies away. Kuniyoshi’s ukiyo-e depictions of this scene (one in the British Museum, one in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston) became iconic yōkai images, featuring the old woman mid-transformation, dancing cats (drawn from Sekien’s model), and a huge cat head peeking in through holes in the blinds. Yoshikazu’s scene is clearly modeled after his teacher’s conception.

“A Golden-Furred Nine-Tailed Fox.” The nine-tailed fox (kyūbi no kitsune) was a figure of ancient Chinese and Japanese legend, where it often appeared as a villain. In Japan the most famous occurrence was in the story of Lady Tamamo, a courtesan favored by an emperor who was later revealed to be a nine-tailed fox preying upon him. When revealed, she fled and was eventually killed, her spirit becoming embedded in a “killing stone” (sesshōseki), fatal to any who came in contact with it, until a priest exorcised it. Unlike Inari foxes, nine-tailed foxes are generally depicted as red or golden.

“The Octopus Initiate of the Tosa Sea.” Just as the umibōzu isn’t really a priest, the tako nyūdō would seem to be an initiate in name only. Beyond that it’s just a giant octopus. That's monstrous enough, perhaps.



[1] Rebecca Salter, Japanese Popular Prints From Votive Slips to Playing Cards (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).

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