Perhaps more than any other culture, Japan has a rich tradition of completely harmless, vaguely irritating monsters. European folklore has mischevious elves, fairies, and leprechauns, of course, but even they have their sinister sides. Thanks to Mall Santas, Peter Pan, and Lucky Charms, we tend to think of them as cute, but in old times, coming across these magical creatures was a serious and risky situation, not unlike stumbling across a black bear in the woods.
Japan, though, has dozens of monsters that are not in any way, shape, or form frightening or dangerous. Which brings us to today’s Japanese Monster, which is perhaps the least scary supernatural being ever imagined:
枕がえし Makura-gaeshi, the Pillow-Moving Monster
The name pretty much says it all. This is a monster that sneaks into your bedroom at night and… moves your pillow. It doesn’t steal it. It doesn’t even move it to another room. It just takes the pillow from underneath your head and moves it to the foot of the bed (or futon). I suppose the idea of someone coming into your room at night and touching you while you sleep is creepy, but the Makura-gaeshi is so inoffensive that its mischief could barely qualify as an inconvenience. You won’t even notice it until you wake up.
Some monsters devour your guts or steal your soul. The Makura-gaeshi will, at worst, indirectly give you a crick in the neck.
Part of the reason I’m writing this series is to make completely uninformed guesses about the origins of these monsters. And the every day, household monsters like the Makura-gaeshi are the most intriguing to me. It’s easy to understand why people conjure up monsters that dwell in the depths of the sea or the dark of the woods: those places are in fact inhabited by things that will eat you.
We also all know that people turn to the supernatural to explain the unexplainable, which is why most cultures have a myth about volcanoes, or why the stars moves across the sky, or how humans got their hands on fire, or why we die. Stories like these are big, they’re existential. Their telling needs gods and heroes.
But the scary and unexplainable doesn’t just happen on an epic scale. Losing one sock in the dryer is a comedic cliche, but it’s cliche because it’s happened to us all and it’s kind of inexplicable. Where did that sock go? It’s telling that we tend to joke about runaway socks or the underwear gnomes on South Park.
Pre-modern people had the same problems. Some days they woke up and found their pillow at the foot of the bed and thought, “now how did that end up down there?” Monsters like the Makura-gaeshi are just myth-making at its most mundane.
Of course, I’d bet that the people of pre-modern Japan took the concept of the Makura-gaeshi about as seriously as we take the idea of underwear gnomes. Which is to say, not seriously at all. So, how did stories of such a harmless monster get dreamed up and passed down the generations?
What’s fun about the Makura-gaeshi is that its own legends tell you exactly how it happened.
You see, the Makura-gaeshi is supposedly invisible to adults. It can only been seen by children. And there you have it, that quality of the Makura-gaeshi tells you exactly how it was imagined. This isn’t a monster for adults. It’s a kid’s monster, a kid’s myth-making to explain the mystery of how his or her pillow started at their head and ended up at their feet.
Rather than realize they probably tossed and turned all night, children of old Japan turned to that most common of all monsters: the one under the bed. Or, at the foot of the futon, in this case.
If I have kids, I’m absolutely telling them about the Makura-gaeshi. I may even sneak into their rooms at night and move their pillows to the foot of their beds. I figure I’ll be doing them a favor. Like all kids, they’ll inevitably imagine there’s a monster under the bed. But when the lights go out, they won’t be afraid. Just slightly annoyed.