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October 29, 2021

Halloween Episode: Kokkuri Spirit Boards and WTF?! (Ep. 87)

Reading Time: 5 Minutes
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Kokkuri or Kokkuri-san is the name for the Japanese ouija or spirit board. It’s also the name for the spirit who visits during the game. For Halloween, Richard and I decided to try our hand at this super creepy pastime and you’ll never believe what happens. Headphones on and buckle up!

Detailed image of Kokkuri device

Hey hey, my name it Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan. It’s the end of October, Halloween season, and I’m in the mood to try something super scary. Ever since I first watched The Exorcist as a preteen — thanks dad — I have been traumatized and absolutely wigged out by ouija boards. I’ve managed to live my whole life without using or even touching one.

I thought I had escaped those loathsome things when I moved to Japan. But it wasn’t long before I learned there is something similar here. It’s called Kokkuri-san. Again, nope, uh-uh, no way. But as with all things that scare the bejeezus out of me, I’ve always been a slight bit curious. After much soul searching, thought it would be a great episode for one of the spookier shows.

So here I am today, not only going to tell you about this super creepy past time, but I’m going to actually use it — even though everyone I’ve ever met in Japan tells me not to, and up until now I was fine with that.

But you know what they say about facing your fears and whatever doesn’t kill you…

I guess I should start by saying every time I’ve ever had a conversation about Kokkuri-san with Japanese friends and family I’m always heavily warned against it. One conversation I remember in particular was about how The Exorcist wasn’t scary at all because it came with the assumption you believed in a christian god, heaven, hell, and this thing called the devil. Kokkuri-san, this person told me, was something much more beyond that, beyond religion. You were opening up to the other side and who knows what evil you might invite.

So what is Kokkuri or Kokkuri-san?

The name Kokkuri has two meanings. The first is the onomatopoeia of the device that was originally used when playing back in the late 1800s, or Meiji Era. I’ll put up a drawing I found of it on the Uncanny Japan website, but try to imagine three thin pieces of bamboo of equal length, that have been tied in the middle. You then splay the bottom to use as feet so it stands, and the top opens up naturally.

Here you rest a round hitsu () lid. I spent an entire day researching this. Wikipedia and other places said a pot. But it’s not a pot. A hitsu is an old wooden storage box that has a fitted lid. It looks like round lids were the ones were used for kokkuri. Anyway over this lid you drape a cloth.

With the old fashioned way of doing Kokkuri-san, everyone would rest their fingers lightly on the edges of the cloth-covered lid, ask their questions, and the lid or the entire contraption would tilt to indicate the answers. When it tilted it made a sound like: Kokkuri kokkuri.

The whole idea is said to have come to Japan via American ships in the 1880s. Japanese people saw the sailors doing table turning and wanted to know what was up with that. Unfortunately there was a dearth of big round tables you could sit around and maneuver with your feet or knees. So the Japanese cleverly came up with their own way of doing it using sticks and a lid.

The second meaning of Kokkuri-san is that somewhere along the way, someone decided to assign kanji to the word as well to make it spookier. So the ko ()  in Kokkuri means fox, the ku () means dog, and the ri () is for tanuki. The thought being that the spirit that is called could be one of those, a combination of those, or just some rando malevolent spirit.

Actually, it’s said that doing this you’re only going to connect with teikyurei (低級霊) the spirits of low level creatures and animals. No benevolent god or spirit is going to come and hang out with you by this means. So already it’s feeling dangerous.

Kokkuri-san today. Alas, those days of finagling bamboo sticks, finding and then precariously balancing an old hitsu wooden box lid on the setup are gone. Also you don’t need to — like you do in the west — go out and buy a fancy board game with a creepy-looking font and planchette. Now all you need is a piece of paper, a pen (or brush and ink), and a ten yen coin.

Before I get into how to ready your ouija paper game, and my own game, a couple cultural things real quick.

One of the first manga I bought was one called Ushiro no Hyakutaro by Jiro Tsunoda. It was an older book, came originally in the 1970s, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, that manga single handedly started a kokkuri-san craze all across Japan among school aged children.

Everyone was doing Kokkuri-san, calling various other worldly entities and, it turns out sometimes freaking out, passing out, and getting hospitalized even. That last one I’m not sure if it was a rumor or not. But I can imagine it happening. Kids are magical creatures with enormous imaginations. Anything is possible. But anyway, schools ended up banning the game all together because of panic is caused.


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura

Loose Pipes (Loopable) by Dave Deville
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/8255-loose-pipes-loopable-
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Executioner by Alexander Nakarada
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/8436-executioner
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Monsters In Hotel by Rafael Krux
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/5421-monsters-in-hotel-
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Cinematic Background Sad by MusicLFiles
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/8181-cinematic-background-sad
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Happy Boy Theme by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/3855-happy-boy-theme
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Happy Boy End Theme by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/3854-happy-boy-end-theme
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Royalty free music by Giorgio Di Campo for FreeSound Music

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About The Uncanny Japan Podcast

Speculative fiction writer, long-term resident of Japan and Bram Stoker Award finalist Thersa Matsuura explores all that is weird from old Japan—strange superstitions, folktales, cultural oddities, and interesting language quirks. These are little treasures she digs up while doing research for her writing.

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