Obakes are a class of supernatural creatures often featured in Japanese folklore. Originally taken from the word bakeru, which literally translates into 'thing that changes', they're often known as shapeshifters.
Transformations, particularly those found in nature, are highly symbolic in Japanese culture, like a rainbow after rain or a metamorphosis of an insect. Obakes are no different. Summer is the season when spirits are transformed, when deceased relatives return to earth to stay amongst the living. Families in Japan celebrate the return of their relatives for one week in August during a special time known as 'Obon'.
But obakes are folklore, so they're generally a source of entertainment and humor. Visiting obakeyashikis ('haunted houses') to feel the chill and thrill of being scared is a much anticipated summer past-time for both children and adults in Japan. Here are some of Japan's most famous obakes, which can all be found in our summer obake tenugui pattern!
From a distance. this spirit looks almost human. That is, until its neck stretches endlessly, and its head detaches to fly around freely. Sometimes this spirit performs bad deeds. They're supposedly the most vulnerable when they're sleeping: if their body moves while the head is detached, the head can wander aimlessly.
This playful and harmless spirit grows from a broken umbrella, transforming into a one-eyed, long tongued, one legged spirit. Kasa-obakes are a special class of supernatural creatures called 'tsukumogami' which are inanimate objects that gain a soul and come to life after a hundred years. This spirit is meant to explain how objects develop character and personality ("a soul") as they age, and are often meant to discourage thoughtless disposal of objects that have a long history and still have years of use in them.
The origin of this obake: an old paper lantern would split over time, and the split would become the mouth and transform into a spirit, typically with a long tongue sliding out. Since paper lanterns remain fixtures at temples and shrines, there are still stories today about how a chochin-obake could appear and frighten patrons, although they are relatively harmless.
Perhaps the trickiest of all the obakes, the kitsune is a fox. Japanese folklore views foxes as highly intelligent creatures that develop paranormal abilities as they age - typically when they reach 100. Famously advanced shapeshifters, foxes will often assume the shape of a beautiful woman or an elderly man and pretend they need help; but when you get close, play a trick on you.
You can find this limited tenugui 'obake' pattern here along with other summer favorites!