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February 11, 2020

Kanashibari and the Pillow Flipper (Makura Gaeshi) (Ep. 46)

Reading Time: 9 Minutes
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The makura gaeshi, or pillow flipper, was thought to cause kanashibari, otherwise known as sleep paralysis. It happens when you believe you’ve woken up in bed, but you’re actually somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. You’re aware of the room around you, but there’s a subtle change in the air. You try to move, but you’re frozen. You try to call out, but you can’t make a sound. It’s a terrifying experience.

The Pillow Flipper
The Pillow Flipper

Hey hey, everyone, this is Terrie and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan. It’s February, very gusty outside, but warmish for this time of the year. The plum blossoms are starting to bloom, the cherry trees are getting ready, and it’s roundabouts my birthday. I have no plans, except to get two episodes of the show out this month. My job ended a month earlier than anticipated. Or shall I say, I had to end my job earilier than anticipated. So quick before bills start rolling in, some new shows and lots of Patreon content.

Last time I talked about happy food, basically. So today I want to delve into something a little more on brand for me.

First, I have a question: Have you ever gone to bed and been in that surreal space between awake and asleep, not that place where you take a dreamy step and it feels like you’ve tumbled off a cliff and you bolt awake, heart pounding in your chest. But a place where without even realizing it, there’s this subtle charge in the air, a buzz almost. You’re wide awake again, at least you think you are. You can hear, you’re aware of the room around you, your bed against your back, but when you go to move, you’re frozen. You try to call out, but you can’t speak either. It’s quite a terrifying experience when it first happens to you. It is, as you probably know, called sleep paralysis.

I go through bouts of this every couple years, ever since I was really little and kept catching pneumonia, that messed up my breathing, and my sleep I guess. I was also a chronic sleep walker for years. For me it’s like sleep paralysis happens almost nightly for weeks, then sometimes other very weird, scary, or wonderful things also happen.

I’ve had times when I heard voices talking to me, murmuring, whispering, shouting. I’ve heard singing or even strange and beautiful music played as well. OBE (out of body experiences) were also frequent at certain times in my life. Oh, I even had a very brief period (probably a month or two) after returning to Japan after being very sick, when I had exploding head syndrom. That was freaky and terrifying until I looked it up and it eventually decided to go away. Really glad that one hasn’t returned.

But almost always just as quickly as these things started, they just stopped for months or even years.

Knock on wood. I haven’t have a long bout or sleep paralysis or anything too weird in awhile now and that’s kind of nice.

A couple of quick facts I just read about sleep paralysis. Between 8-50% of people experience it at sometime in their lives. About 5% have regular episodes. And men and women are affected equally.

Now, before I learned the word sleep paralysis. This was again, pre Internet and I was describing what was happening to me to a Japanese friend who was studying at my university and she said, ‘Oh, that’s kanashibari! In Japan lots of people get, especially students studying for tests or under a lot of stress.” So I literally thought this phenomena happened to only me and a whole lot of Japanese students in Japan.

The kanji for kanashibari is pretty cool. Kana means metal and bari means to be tied up, or bound. So ‘bound up by metal’. The word is originally a Buddhist term though. But in order to get to that, let me take a side road and tell you about Fudo Myoo. In Sanskrit, he’s called Achala, and is one of the Buddhist guardian deities, protecting both Buddhism and its followers. You’ll find images and statues of Fudo Myoo in temples and museums all over, not just Japan, but in China, Tibet, Taiwan, and Nepal. Fudo Myoo is very important in Vajrayana or esoteric Buddhism, so in Japan you’ll see his image in Shingon and Tendai temples, of course; but also you’ll find Zen and Nichiren followers paying respects to him as well.

I know I’m going down a rabbit hole, but I think it’s important that you are able to recognize Fudo Myoo because he is so awesome and fierce looking. Even if you’ve never had or will have the experience of kanashibari, you might very well come across the likeness of Fudo Myoo and you can impress your family and friends perhaps by recognizing him.

Okay, imagine a male diety, sitting crossed legged on a rock, engulfed in flames. The flames symbolize consuming all the evil in the world, by the way. Now his skin is dark indigo or black. He’s scowling, brow furrowed, one fang pointing up, one fang pointing down. He’s also got a squinty left eye and a long braid hanging over one shoulder.

He’s holding a sword in his right hand (that symbolizes cutting through ignorance and delusion) while a rope or lasso is in his left hand. It is with this he ropes in violent passions and evil. Fudo Myoo is hardcore. He’s also known as the immovable one and back in the day was beloved to samurai as a guardian figure and even today it seems some people in the yakuza have adopted his image via tattoos as a kind of representation of strength of body and mind. His depiction works best as a full back or chest tattoo. Seriously, if you search for Fudo Myoo and tattoo, you’ll see some beautifully amazing pieces out there.

Okay, no, I haven’t forgotten where I started. Sleep paralysis, kanashibari.

Remember the rope that Fudo Myoo is holding in his left hand?  It’s called a kensaku. On one end it has a round metal piece and on the other, a small pointed metal piece. If you’re looking at a colored image of him, it will be a braided rope of five colors. This is what he uses to tie up demons and to rescue suffering beings. There is a sutra actually called the Kanashibari sutra. And it is from this and that image of being tied up with this rope that the name of the phenomena derives.

While now when you look for anything related to kanashibari online in Japanese, so many of the sites talk about the science behind it and not how it used to be viewed. For example, it’s not hard to imagine that people used to believe sleep paralysis was a kind of possession. Possibly by a kitsune/fox, tanuki, or some other more malevolent force. Also, have you ever heard of a makura gaeshi?

Now, I’m personally quite fond of a makura gaeshi and have written about them quite a few times. So let’s take another detour and talk about them for a bit.

A makura in Japanese is a pillow and gaeshi or kaeshi means to change or turn. So a makura gaeshi is a yokai that waits until someone is deep asleep and then appears only to slip the pillow from under their head and move it to the foot of their futon. They’re very thin, have long stringy hair, overall freaky looking.

Some stories say that they are the spirits of dead people who have died in that room. For example, travelers who have lots of money, spend the night in an inn, and are murdered by the inn owner so that they can steal the money.

Usually they are just known as mischief makers. Kizen Sasaki, the folklorist, writes that not only do they mess with your pillows, they can lift up tatami mats and press on your sleeping body. In Guna Prefecture the belief is that a cat has transformed into a Kasha, a kind of monster and whose job is to make someone who when sleeping has their head facing the easterly direction to face west.

There is also another very creepy belief that when you dream your soul leaves your body. And if while you’re dreaming, and your soul is absent, someone or something moves your pillow, your soul will not be able to return. So, be careful. Also, they are thought to sometimes cause kanashibari.

There is one more thing that’s related kanashibari, and that’s a whole other can of worms, so I’m going to talk about that next time.

So for today, I’m going to end with sleep paralysis/kanashibari, fudo miyoo/the unmovable one, and the adorable, freaky-looking makura gaeshi/pillow flipper! Next episode, I’ll get into a personal story and how I learned about another visitor who can visit while you’re lying, paralyzed and helpless in your futon, unable to even scream for help. But that’s next time.

Sending a great big thank you to all my Patrons. You are absolutely wonderful! Whether it’s my 2-year anniversary on Patreon, or my birthday, or that I’m getting dangerously close to fifty episodes, I’m still giving away stickers to every patron who wants one, old or new. There are also a lot of Bedtimes Stories, some binaurally miked sounds, behind the scenes shows, as well as some recipes I’ve been working on that I’ll be putting up soon.

Thank you everyone for listening. I will talk to you very soon. Bye bye!


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura

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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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