I don’t use umbrellas. If it rains, I just wear a jacket and do my best to pop under nooks and awnings until I get where I’m going. Sure, I get a little wet, but it beats buying yet another umbrella that I am guaranteed to lose minutes after the rain stops. I don’t think I’ve ever had an umbrella more than a few days. In fact, the bars, restaurants, and apartments of this city are probably littered with my broken, and forgotten umbrellas.
If Japanese folklore is right, then I am in big trouble, because in a few decades, all those umbrellas are going to come to life, form a collapsible, rain-repelling army and hunt me down. They will become, in fact, our monster of the week:
傘お化け Kasa Obake, the Umbrella Monster
Like the pillow-moving monster and the toilet-licking monster, the Kasa Obake is not very scary. It’s an umbrella, after all. According to Japanese legend, Kasa Obake are discarded umbrellas that come to life after a century. They grow a cyclops eye, a long tongue, and a foot on the end of their stick, complete with wooden geta sandal. After that, they hop around and… well, the legends aren’t really clear about what they do after they come to life. They probably try to scare people, but what’s really all that scary about a one-eyed, one-footed umbrella? At worst it’s going to, what, lick you? Refuse to keep the rain off of you? Open up indoors and give you seven years of bad luck?
(Side note: that’s not even a taboo in Japan. Japanese people open their umbrellas indoors all the time to dry them out. My co-workers do this. Ayako does this. Which is very sensible, really, as they dry faster that way. And even though I know it’s silly and just a stupid superstition, it still freaks me out a little when they do it).
The disturbing nature of the Kasa Obake, I think, isn’t what it does when it comes to life, it’s that it comes to life at all. The umbrella monster is actually the most popular of a series of monsters called the Tsukumogami, or “artifact spirits.” Our previously highlighted screen door monster, the Mokumokuren, is of similar ilk. These are objects like sandals, tea kettles, mirrors, and even musical instruments that come to life on their hundredth birthdays.
Mostly, these are objects that have been discarded, broken, abandoned. Objects denied their purpose, like the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. And like those toys, they are said to sometimes band together and seek vengeance against those who abused, disused, or threw them out.
It seems strange on the surface, but I think the Kasa Obake and its monstrous brethren are manifestations of a very real, but very subtle human fear and fascination with the objects we own and use.
The famous Asakusa Temple in Tokyo, for example, even today holds an annual ceremony called the Hari Kuyou, or “Needle Funeral.” Discarded and broken sewing needles are stuck in tofu and offered to the gods as a way to console them as they pass out of usefulness. Nobody really fears that the needles will come to life, but there is that need to offer them some measure of respect and consolation.
We grow very attached to our objects. We name our cars and feel sad when we sell them. We curse our printers as if they were actually out to get us (they are). Stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Toy Story, and even Chucky movies are so popular and enduring because they speak to that childhood wonder and fear about what our possessions do when we’re not looking at them. I’d even go so far as to suggest that the killer robot/computer genre, exemplified by The Terminator and The Matrix movies, are related to this feeling, this deep dependence on and mistrust of the objects we create for our own use.
Broken and abandoned objects are especially disturbing. They’re literally not what they used to be. To misquote Heidegger, is a hammer that doesn’t hammer still a hammer? They bother us, these broken things, these things that we made but no longer serve a purpose. We sometimes don’t really know what to do with them. Fix them? Sell them? Throw them away? Is that too wasteful? Part of us thinks, when stumbling across an old, moldy action figure or toy in the back of the closet, “poor thing, I hope it doesn’t feel sad… or angry.”
Well, those broken or lost toasters, desk lamps, and umbrellas are angry; soon enough, they’ll be coming to get you. And in about 70 years, when you open the paper and see the headline Nobel Prize Winning Author/Noted Sex God Austin H. Gilkeson Found Mysteriously Beaten To Death Amid Pile of Umbrellas, you’ll know what happened.