Hey hey. This is Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan.
A Story about Meeting an Akaname
Imagine it’s after dark. You’ve been up since dawn. All by yourself, all day long, you harvested your sweet potato fields before the weather turned bad. Then you dragged the heavy, potato-filled boxes into your kura-earthen storehouse, secured the door, and hurried over to the public bathhouse. It’s late now, so no one’s here, but the room’s still warm and steamy and smells of cypress and a hint of mildew.
After scrubbing the dirt and sweat from your skin, you step into the deep bath, soaking all the way up to your neck. The exhausted, cramping muscles in your shoulders, back, and legs start to release and feels so good.
Outside, the wind howls, the rain lashes. The andon lantern you hung on a hook at the entrance, the only light in this damp, dark room, flickers.
It’s okay, though, you feel safe inside this slightly cavernous room. You’ll wait until the storm passes before you leave. You close your eyes. But you have only a moment’s rest before you realize your not alone. Someone or something is in there with you. You can feel it.
“Ooi!” you call out. “Dare ka iru? Anyone there?”
But you hear it, in the far corner, in one of the denser shadows. Breathing. Movement…and the sound of… licking.
“Show yourself!” You demand. But it continues.
Now you know something is not right. You scramble out of the bath and hurry to grab your paper lantern. Holding it out in front of you, you take one slow step after another, creeping across the wet floor toward where the sound is coming from. A little farther. A little farther. The candlelight illuminating a little more until…the sound stops. You stop, too.
“Detekoi, come out!”
And it does. Crouching down on all fours, it steps into the quivering light, a ghastly creature the size of a child but sinewy with bluish-black skin and tangled black hair falling to its thin shoulders. On its feet and hands protrude hooked claws. It looks up at you with unblinking yellow eyes.
“What are you doing here? What do you want?” You ask.
As if in answer, the beast opens its wide mouth and out falls a disturbingly long wormy tongue. Keeping eye contact with its jaundiced gaze, it leans down and begins licking the slimy residue from the wooden planked floor.
You nod, whisper to yourself, nope, and quietly back away.
Today we’re going to talk about a yokai I’ve always be quite fond of, a little fella called Akaname or the Scum Licker!
Hey hey, I hope you’re all doing well.
What is Aka?
Today let’s talk about the Akaname, sometimes called the scum licker or filth licker. Do you remember I briefly mentioned aka in some past episode (I can’t for the life of me remember which one)? But I think I said aka was the scum that boiled off vegetables and meat, the stuff that floated to the top of the water and needed to be skimmed off to make your whatever your cooking taste better.
Well, don’t puke, but aka can also mean dead skin. Like, all that crud that doesn’t go down the drain and mixed with soap residue, builds up on the tile or porcelain. You can buy something called an akatori, a thing that “takes off aka”, and what you’ll get is an exfoliating sponge or some gritty soap.
And it’s that gross slimy scum that the akaname (nameru means to lick) feeds off of. And isn’t that nice?
In Toriyama Sekien’s Works
I was surprised to learn there isn’t a whole lot out there about this endearing creepy creature. One depiction that is often referenced is from Toriyama Sekien’s book, Gazu Hyakki Yagyou/画図百鬼夜行, or you might now it better as The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. This was Mr. Sekien’s first book of four such works. And although he didn’t write anything much about this peculiar beastie he did illustrate one in black and white creeping around a bathhouse. Anyway, that one came out in 1776.
If you look back before the Akaname, though, in the year 1686, you’ll find something called the Akaneburi/垢舐り. This yokai was painted by Yamaoka Genrin, in his book, Kokon Hyakumonogatari, Hyoban/古今百物語評判. And what he says is, just like fish are born in water and drink water, and louses come from filth and eat filth, the akaneburi is a creature that originates from the accumulation of scum and dirt and thus…eats it to live.
What’s one Look Like?
So how can you spot an akaname? Well, they’re said to be the size of a child with blue-black skin (although some images are pale in color, and some play on the word aka which can also mean red, so they’re shown with ruddy skin). No matter their color, they’ve got clawed hands and feet, big goggling eyes, sometimes wild funky hair and most importantly a very long tongue.
Why People Don’t Want One
So even though the thought of going to sleep only to wake up to have your ofuroba licked spotless is quite appealing, running into one of these creatures was so unsettling, people preferred to make sure they kept their baths super clean so not to have one show up in the first place.
Oni Kara Denwa Version
A 21st century take on the akaname can be found in that Oni kara Denwa app I talked about back in 2019, Episode 37. Remember that? A rather traumatic app mothers can use to get there children to do something. Like if you don’t listen to your mom I’m going to call an oni. Then the mom uses the app, pretend phone rings, she hands it to her kid, scary voice of an oni threatens child if they don’t do what mom says. I guess that’s still a thing. But on it, I saw they have an akaname and one of his threats is that if you don’t take a bath, he’ll come over to your house and lick the dirt off you. The little illustration is super creepy, glowing yellow eyes, giant purple tongue. So, yeah, there’s one way to get you child to take a bath.
So basically, that’s what a Akaname or Akaneburi is and does.
A Different Frightening Version
Except there’s one more variety that is a little more colorful. It was written about in the Nittou Honzou Zusan/日東本草図纂 and here the Akaneburi appears as a beautiful woman who shows up at say an onsen and offers to scrub your back. Only instead she uses that fearsome tongue to lick off all your skin and flesh, leaving a pile of clean bones behind.
The end. For you and this episode.
Before I go though, might I suggest and experiment, instead of faithfully cleaning your bathtub after every use, why not let it go a little. Let it collect some mold, some soap scum, get a bit gross. And see if you can attract one of these dedicated and hard working pals. Maybe you can train it to do floors and toilets, too. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Okay, Thank you for listening, thank you super awesome patrons. And I will talk to you all in two weeks.