Kijimuna, Folktales of Island Spirits

by Ricky Hough

In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, folktales filled with supernatural phenomena and mysterious creatures have been part of the cultural imagination for as long as history itself. Folklore of the Japanese variety is full of monsters, ghosts, goblins, spirits, phantoms, demons, fantastic beings, and the supernatural, collectively known as yōkai. Taken as a singular term, the word yōkai is difficult to translate, and to merely describe it as folklore is a bit misleading and overly simplistic. Nevertheless, yōkai tales are integral part of Japanese culture, and in recent decades the fantastic fables and creatures of yōkai lore have crossed over and become dominant features in contemporary mainstream mediums such as anime and manga.

Traditional Okinawan yōkai may not be as robust as their Japanese counterparts, yet the folktales and imaginary creatures that do exist in Okinawa’s repertoire are no less important to the region’s cultural makeup as those in mainland Japan. Easily the most popular of these myths is the notorious kijimuna, a rascally, fairy-like creature that is believed to live in gajumaru (banyan) trees. Kijimuna—aka bungaya, meaning “large-headed”—are small, child-like creatures with disproportionately big heads, long, scruffy orange hair, oversized hands and large, gleaming eyes.

Kijimuna statues can be found island-wide.

Mischievous by nature, kijimuna are known to play tricks on humans; one of the most common involves laying on the chest of human during sleep, making them immobile and unable to breathe (kanashibari; sleep demons associated with sleep paralysis are common among Japanese yōkai). Kijimuna, much like other yōkai, are often associated with mysterious fires and have been seen covered in ghostly flames running along beaches or riverbanks. If one were to wake up and discover a paper lantern missing, it’s quite possible a kijimuna hijacked it in the middle of the night and ran off. Kijimuna hate octopus above all else. So keeping an octopus around is the best way to ward off any potential attacks or hijinks from a bored kijimuna on the prowl.

Despite such devious tricks, kijimuna are generally good at heart and also known to befriend humans. Such friendships, however, are relatively short-lived due to the puckish and jealous nature of kijimuna. Known to be excellent fishermen, if a kijimuna really likes a human they’ll give fishing tips and perhaps even offer the bodies of the fish they’ve caught—after eating out the fish’s eyeballs, of course. Yet, if a human doesn’t offer gratitude and gifts in exchange for a kijimuna’s kindness, the kijimuna will soon lash out, behaving in a childish manner and bring the friendship to an abrupt end.

Like many of the numerous yōkai in Japanese folklore, kijimuna are an essential part of the Okinawan lifestyle. Tales of kijimuna have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Nearly every Okinawan young and old can happily rattle off a kijimuna folktale from memory. Images of kijimuna can be found all over the island and have even invaded popular culture in the form of anime and manga characters. So they next time you come across a hyperactive, orange-haired fairy with with an oversized head and hands, you’ll know it’s a kijimuna. Approach with caution, act accordingly or suffer the consequences!

  • Matthew Sutton

    We have a similar creature in Hawaii called the “Menehune”. Hawaiian legend has it that many centuries ago, the Menehune were a mischievous group of small people, or dwarfs, who lived hidden in the forests and valleys of the islands before the first settlers arrived from Polynesia. These Menehune, who roamed the deep forests at night, were said to be about two feet (60 cm) tall, though some were as tiny as six inches (15 cm), small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. They enjoyed dancing, singing and archery, and their favorite foods were bananas and fish.

    The Menehune have been known to use magic arrows to pierce the heart of angry people, igniting feelings of love instead. They also enjoy cliff diving, and according to local lore, they were smart, extremely strong and excellent craftsmen. They were rarely seen by human eyes, and they are credited with mighty feats of engineering and overnight construction.

    These industrious master builders used their great strength to build temples (heiau), fishponds, roads, canoes and houses. One such structure they are believed to have built is Kikiaola, also known as the Menehune Ditch, a historic irrigation ditch that funnels water from the Waimea River on Kauai. Another one of their amazing feats is the legendary overnight creation of the Alekoko Fishpond on Kauai, which archaeologists estimate to be around 1,000 years old.

    It is said that they built the Alekoko Fishpond for a princess and her brother. The shy but strong group lined up in a double row, which stretched 25 miles (40 km) to distant Makaweli. The workers passed stones hand-to-hand to build the pond. They worked at night so as not to be seen by others, cutting, transporting and fitting stones for their projects in a long bucket brigade. If they were discovered, their work would have been abandoned.

    The Menehune were promised no one would watch them at work, which was carried out after dark. However, one night the royal siblings snuck up and watched the thousands of Menehune at work, only to fall asleep. At sunrise the Menehune discovered them and turned them into twin stone pillars that can be seen today in the mountains above the fishpond. Interrupted by the sun, the Menehune left two gaps in the fishpond wall. Many generations later, Chinese settlers filled the gaps to raise mullet, but the stonework that closed the gap was far inferior to that of the mystical Menehune.

    Another description that has been passed down in local folklore is of the three Menehune of Ainahou. Ainahou is a forest on the north side of Halekala Crater on Maui. The three Menehune were called Ha’alulu, Molawa and Eleu. All the other Menehune living in Hawaii knew them well because they possessed very unusual powers. Ha’alulu means “to tremble” and it seemed like this little man was always cold, but his magic gift was that whenever he would start shaking, he would become invisible and could travel anywhere without being detected. Eleu in Hawaiian means “quick and nimble” and whenever Eleu moved, he was so quick that he disappeared and no one could follow him. Molowa’s name means “lazy,” but what most people didn’t know was that whenever he appeared to be sleeping or lazy, his magical self became imperceptible and he would go around the island and do good deeds.

    Even though the Menehune were said to be displaced when the first settlers arrived in Hawaii, some people still believe that the Menehune are roaming the islands, carrying out tricks on people. Indeed, an 1820 Census of Kauai listed 65 people as ‘Menehune.’ Other Hawaiian mythology records refer to a few other forest dwelling races: the Nawao – who were large and wild hunters descended from Lua nu’u – the Mu people and the Wa people.

15:50 18 Feb , 2018

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