The Wise Scarecrow of Japan and the origin of Scarecrow Festivals, Rituals and Legends

Origin of the scarecrow and Kakashi Matsuri Scarecrow Festival

Japanese scarecrows in a rice paddy field

Japanese scarecrows in a rice paddy field

The word “kakashi” is supposed to be derived from a meaning of something that smells hideously awful, and is said to have been  derived from the Edo period word “kagashi” (although the word etymology inexplicably resembles somewhat the Bengali word for scarecrow Kaktadua (কাকতাডুয়া)) or Kag-darawa (काग-डरावा) from the Hindi, which suggests possible connections with the Indo-Sakas, source: Scarecrow). Many fascinating tales and legends surround the use and character of the kakashi in the rice field in Japan.

In Kojiki, the oldest surviving historical chronicle in Japan (compiled in the year 712), a scarecrow known as Kuebiko appears as a deity who cannot walk, yet knows everything about the world.

The (ca. 712) Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) has the earliest reference to Kuebiko in the myth of Ōkuninushi (“Great Land Master”). When Ōkuninushi was at Cape Miho in Izumo, a small kami arrived in a boat. Nobody knew his name, but a toad suggested asking Kuebiko, who revealed the god was a scion of the goddess Kami-musubi (神産巣日) named Sukuna-bikona (少彦名神). In Basil Hall Chamberlain‘s translation,

Then the toad spoke, saying: “As for this, the Crumbling Prince will surely know it.” Thereupon [the Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land] summoned and asked the Crumbling-Prince, who replied, saying: “This is the Little-Prince-the-Renowned-Deity, the august child of the Deity-Producing-Wondrous-Deity.” … So [the Deity here] called the Crumbling Prince, who revealed the Little-Prince-the-Renowned-Deity, is what is now [called] the scarecrow in the mountain fields. This Deity, though his legs do not walk, is a Deity who knows everything in the Empire.[2]

Many cultures have knowledge deity myths. Kuebiko is paralleled by two other Japanese kami of widsom: Fukurokuju and Omoikane. Source: Wikipedia article “Kuebiko

Excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Shinto:

Kuebiko a.k.a. Yamada no Sohodo (Kojiki)

kami incapable of walking but possessing broad knowledge of things in the world. According to Kojiki, a kami arrived from across the ocean at Cape Miho in Izumo, where the kami Ōkuninushi was residing. Since no one knew the identity of the kamiŌkuninushi accepted the advice of a toad and asked Kuebiko, whereupon the latter answered correctly that the kami arriving was Sukunahikona, offspring of Kamimusuhi. With the identity of Sukunahikona thus established by Kuebiko, Ōkuninushi had a partner to help in making and developing the land. The name Yamada no Sohodo is interpreted to mean “someone left soaking wet from standing guard over mountain rice fields,” a euphemistic reference to a “scarecrow.” Kue means “disable,” and indicates someone physically handicapped but endowed with wisdom.” -Mori Mizue

Till this present day, Kuebiko is worshipped as the god of agriculture or scholarship and wisdom. The Kuebiko Shrine (Kuebiko jinja 久延彦神社), a subordinate shrine (massha) of Ōmiwa Shrine in Sakurai, Nara, is dedicated to this deity (See the Kuebiko shrine page)

From the Yamagata Kakashi Matsuri Facebook page:

“The Scarecrow Festival or Kakashi Matsuri takes place in autumn, from 8th-16th September. It is best known as a custom of the rice-producing Yamagata prefecture in Japan. But also a popular festival with many villages elsewhere.

At first the Japanese farmers would hang old rugs, meat or fish bones from bamboo poles in their fields and then set them on fire. The smell was so bad that the birds and other animals would stay away from the rice.

Now it not only function as a prop to scare little animals away but a creative centre piece for one’s crop! “

Japanese farmers invited the god of agriculture to leave his home in the mountains each spring and enter their scarecrows, called kakashi. The kakashi could see everything, and the birds who landed on them whispered secrets to the god. When the autumn harvest was completed, the kakashi were taken down and stacked in a pile. The farmers prepared rice cakes to thank the god for his service and to provide food for his long journey back to the mountains. After the rice cakes were placed around the kakashi, the pile was set ablaze and the god was released. The ceremony was known as “The Ascent of the Scarecrow.” – Source: Scarecrow Magick by Lynne Stutevant

Another history of scarecrows has this account, see The History of Scarecrows  :

Japanese farmers also began making scarecrows to protect their rice fields about the same time the Greeks and Romans made their wooden statues.  At first the Japanese farmers hung old rags, meat, or fish bones from bamboo poles in their fields.  Then they set the sticks on fire and the smell was so bad that birds and other animals stayed away from the rice.  The Japanese farmers called their scarecrows kakashis which means something that smells badly.  Soon Japanese farmers also made scarecrows that looked like people.  They were dressed in a raincoat made of reeds and a round straw hat that rose to a peak in the middle.  Bows and arrows were often added to make them look more threatening.  These scarecrows were also called kakashis even if they didn’t stink!

Imaizumi Area Kakashi Festival is held from September 7 (Sun) to September 28 (Sun)

Chris Drake’s Scarescrow (Kakashi) has more fascinating details on the background of the origins of the kakashi, including its being “possessed” by the mountain god until he returns to the otherworld in winter …

In the Edo period, this word was pronounced “kagashi”, meaning something that smells hideously, because the farmers used to hang up rotten fish or hides from animals. In my area, somethimes they hang up dead crows or even small wild boars to let them rot .. and smell.

Usually done on the tenth day of the tenth lunar month.

A custom of Nagano prefecture.

The scarecrow is taken from the field and placed in the garden of the home, harvest offerings to the god of the fields (ta no kami) are then made.

Perhaps Issa is also remembering that in most areas of Japan farmers worship scarecrows as the physical representatives of the local shamanic mountain god, who (like the hototogisu “nightingale”) comes down from the mountain (and the other world) when the weather grows warm to invigorate and protect the paddies and fields until the crops are harvested.

By “possessing” the bodies of the scarecrows in a shamanic manner, the mountain god is able to directly watch over the crops and ensure they grow well while also protecting the fields from birds. In fact, Issa’s hometown is located in an area famous for a ceremony carried out on lunar 10/10 called “sending off the scarecrows” (kakashi-age). During this ceremony farmers move their scarecrows from their paddies and fields to their own yards, where they put broad rush traveling hats on them and place offerings of rice cakes in front of them in order to send off the mountain god as the god returns to its mountain and the other world during the winter. So Issa’s personification of the scarecrow as the protector of a young child in this hokku may have roots in these rural beliefs as well as in his own protective instincts.

At the same time, in Issa’s age the most common rural name for wife was “mountain god” (yama no kami), an old word that perhaps reflected the predominance of women in Japanese shamanism and ancient matrilocal marriage customs. Husbands tended to explain the word as a reflection of the absolute power commoner (as opposed to ruling-class) wives had inside a household as well as the power of women’s wrath, which could be as fierce as any divine retribution. – Chris Drake’s Scarescrow (Kakashi) 

 If we could establish an ancient origin for the practice of making scarecrows that were connected to visiting vegetative spirits from the mountains in spring that left in winter for the other world, it is suggested here that the practices had in common with those across Eurasia.  In Juliette Wood’s The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals‘,  it is suggested that the Gothic scarecrow was an ancient practice of making a straw effigy that represented a vegetative deity or spirit, and part of pre-Christian fertility rites. On the subject of effigies and vegetative or agricultural spirits, James Frazer’s “Golden Bough” is an authority on the subject. With the clear custom of the Japanese mountain god descending the mountain to possess the kakashi scarecrow and leaving in winter for the Otherworld, it seems we must consider a highly likely connection with continental practices such as those involving Frazer’s many Indo-European and Eurasian examples of dying and rising vegetative deities.  

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4 thoughts on “The Wise Scarecrow of Japan and the origin of Scarecrow Festivals, Rituals and Legends

  1. Thai Village says:

    So much to learn from you. Anything on Japanese hand scrolls?

  2. wildinjapan says:

    One of the areas in the city I work in (i.e. a former village) has a scarecrow festival every October- November.
    I must look into it.

  3. We’ve had the kakashi festival every year in the paddy fields around here…until the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the schools used to compete to make the best scarecrows, but it has vanished from the landscape, as the rice fields get converted to other uses, very sad snd missing the friendly neighbour scarecrows indeed…

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