Baku (獏 or 貘) are Japanese supernatural beings that devour dreams and nightmares. According to legend, they were created by the spare pieces that were left over when the gods finished creating all other animals. They have a long history in Japanese folklore and art, and more recently have appeared in Japanese anime and manga.
The Japanese term baku has two current meanings, referring to both the traditional dream-devouring creature and to the Malayan tapir. In recent years, there have been changes in how the baku is depicted
The traditional Japanese nightmare-devouring baku originates in Chinese folklore and was familiar in Japan as early as the Muromachi period (14th-15th century). Hori Tadao has described the dream-eating abilities attributed to the traditional baku and relates them to other preventatives against nightmare such as amulets. Kaii-Yōkai Denshō Database, citing a 1957 paper, and Mizuki also describe the dream-devouring capacities of the traditional baku.
An early 17th-century Japanese manuscript, the Sankai Ibutsu (山海異物), describes the baku as a shy, Chinese mythical chimera with an elephant’s trunk, rhinoceros‘ eyes, an ox‘s tail, and a tiger‘s paws, which protected against pestilence and evil, although eating nightmares was not included among its abilities. However, in a 1791 Japanese wood-block illustration, a specifically dream-destroying baku is depicted with an elephant’s head, tusks, and trunk, with horns and tiger’s claws. The elephant’s head, trunk, and tusks are characteristic of baku portrayed in classical era (pre-Meiji) Japanese wood-block prints (see illustration) and in shrine, temple, and netsuke carvings.
Writing in the Meiji period, Lafcadio Hearn (1902) described a baku with very similar attributes that was also able to devour nightmares. Legend has it, that a person who wakes up from a bad dream can call out to baku. A child having a nightmare in Japan will wake up and repeat three times, “Baku-san, come eat my dream.” Legends say that the baku will come into the child’s room and devour the bad dream, allowing the child to go back to sleep peacefully. However, calling to the baku must be done sparingly, because if he remains hungry after eating one’s nightmare, he may also devour their hopes and desires as well, leaving them to live an empty life. The baku can also be summoned for protection from bad dreams prior to falling asleep at night. To this day, it remains common for Japanese children to keep a baku talisman at their bedside.[
BAKU, DREAMS, & FIRST DREAM OF NEW YEAR
Sometime in Japan’s Edo period (1603 to 1868), pictures of Baku, or ideograms of the Chinese character for Baku (獏), or drawings of the Treasure Boat of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods with the kanji for Baku written on the sail (see below photos), were placed under one’s pillow to provide protection against bad dreams. Pillowcases with a depiction of Baku were also widely sold.
These beliefs continue in modern times with Japanese traditions surrounding Hatsu Yume 初夢 (lit. “first dream” of the new year). Children are encouraged to stay up late and welcome in the New Year. On the evening between Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, children are likewise encouraged to place an image of the Treasure Boat of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods under their pillow to ensure a good Hatsu Yume. The treasure boat (Takarabune 宝船) is laden with treasure (Takara 宝). Says JAANUS: “The Chinese character for BAKU 獏, a Chinese imaginary animal thought to devour nightmares, is sometimes found written on the sail. Often auspicious cranes and tortoises are depicted in the sky and the sea. Although the origin of treasure-boat paintings is not clear, one Edo-period record indicates they originated in the Muromachi period.” <end quote> If you have a lucky dream that night, you will be lucky for the whole year, but you must not tell anyone about your dream — if you do, you forfeit its power. If you have a bad dream, you should call upon Baku — “Oh Baku, devour my bad dream” — or set your picture adrift in the river or sea to forestall bad luck
Says F. Hadland Davis in Myths and Legends of Japan (pp. 358-359): “When a Japanese peasant awakens from an evil nightmare, he cries ‘Devour, O Baku, devour my evil dream.’ At one time pictures of the Baku were hung up in Japanese houses and its name written upon pillows. It was believed that if the Baku could be induced to eat a horrible dream, the creature had the power to change it into good fortune.”
nagakiyo no/ tou no nemuri no/ mina mezame/ naminori fune no/ oto no yokikana
長き夜の/ 遠の眠りの/ 皆目覚め/ 波乗り船の/ 音のよきかな [Awakening from a deep sleep after a long night, I seem to hear the sweet sound of a boat sailing through the waves].
Another curious custom involving the treasure boat
is the chanting of a song-like palindrome (a verse that
reads the same backward or forward yet only in Hiragana). Children are told
to chant the verse three times before going to sleep. In the
photo at left, the palindrome is shown in the red circle.
There are many variations of this palidrome 回文歌.
One widely known verse is:
ながきよ の とをのねぶりのみなめさめ
A sailboat, hokakebune 帆掛船 at full sail, loaded with rice bushels and treasures takara 宝, often bearing the seven gods of good fortune *shichifukujin 七福神. Paintings or prints of this boat usually include a special and auspicious poem which reads the same when read backwards from the end; nagakiyo no/ tou no nemuri no/ mina mezame/ naminori fune no/ oto no yokikana 長き夜の/ 遠の眠りの/ 皆目覚め/ 波乗り船の/ 音のよきかな [Awakening from a deep sleep after a long night, I seem to hear the sweet sound of a boat sailing through the waves]. The Chinese character, baku 獏, a Chinese imaginary animal which is thought to devour (i.e. prevent) nightmares, is sometimes found written on the sail . Often auspicious cranes and tortoises are depicted in the sky and the sea. Although the origin of treasure-boat paintings is not clear, one Edo period record indicates that they were started in the Muromachi period. According to a different source, they were originally imperial gifts to high-ranking courtiers in celebration of the New Year. It became a popular custom among common people in the Edo period to place takarabune pictures under one’s pillow on the second night of the New Year to induce auspicious dreams and resulting good fortune. In the event of a bad dream, one custom was to set the painting adrift in the river or sea to forestall bad luck. Simple, uncolored woodblock prints of the treasure-boats came to be sold on the streets by roving vendors from the early 18c until the mid-Meiji period. There are numerous examples of the treasure- boat done as inexpensive woodblock prints that still exist. However, there are also fine hanging scrolls painted usually in ink by first-rate artists of the Edo period, such as Ogata Kourin 尾形光琳 (1659-1716) and Tani Bunchou 谷文晁 (1763-1840). *Ukiyo-e 浮世絵 print artists also introduced variations such as *mitate-e 見立絵 of the seven gods of good fortune replaced by seven beauties or by popular *kabuki 歌舞伎 actors of the day.
On New Year’s Eve, the seven enter port together on their Takarabune 宝船 (treasure ship) to bring happiness to everyone. On the night between Jan. 1 and 2, tradition says, children should put, under their pillow, a picture of the seven aboard their treasure ship, or a picture of the mythological Baku (eater of nightmares). If you have a lucky dream that night, you will be lucky for the whole year, but you must not tell anyone about your dream — if you do, you forfeit its power. If you have a bad dream, you should pray to BAKU 獏 or set your picture adrift in the river or sea to forestall bad luck <Sources: Chiba Reiko, Kodo Matsunami, and JAANUS.>
The treasure ship (Takarabune 宝船) is laden with treasure (Takara 宝). Says JAANUS: “The Chinese character BAKU 獏, a Chinese imaginary animal thought to devour (i.e. prevent) nightmares, is sometimes found written on the sail. Often auspicious cranes and tortoises are depicted in the sky and the sea. Although the origin of treasure-boat paintings is not clear, one Edo-period record indicates that they were started in the Muromachi period.”
- Hat of Invisibility = Kakuregasa 隠れ笠, and Cloak of Invisibility (Lucky Raincoat) = Kakuremino 隠れ蓑. Allows one to perform good deeds without being seen.
- Robe of Feathers = Hagoromo 羽衣. A long loose flowing garment giving one the gift of flight. Attribute of Benzaiten.
- Magic Mallet, Mallet of Good Fortune = Uchide no Kozuchi 打出の小槌. Brings forth money when struck against an object or when shaken. Common attribute of Daikokuten.
- Bag of Fortune = Nunobukuro 布袋 (lit. cloth bag). Includes an inexhaustible cache of treasures, including food and drink. Common attribute of Hotei.
- Never-Empty Purse or Moneybag = Kanabukuro 金袋. Bag of unlimited wealth, prosperity & fortune.
- Key to Divine Treasure House = Kagi 鍵. The treasure house is symbolized by the stupa (pagoda) held by Bishamonten.
- Rolls of Brocade = Orimono 織物. Scarves and clothing were considered treasures in ancient times and used in various rituals. Not sure of its meaning here.
- Scrolls of Wisdom & Longevity = Makimono 巻物. Common attributes of Jurōjin and Fukurokuju, who are said to be two different manifestations of a single deity (the god of wisdom and longevity).
- More details in Chiba Reiko’s book (pp. 9-12).