Japanese Voodoo Dolls: Wara Ningyo

Have you ever hated someone so much that you constructed multiple dolls, stayed up until the dead of night, snuck into a temple, and nailed those bad boys to sacred trees to call harm and misfortune to your enemies? No? Yes? Cursing others seems to be pretty universal across cultures, so why not learn about Japanese voodoo dolls?

Where Do Wara Ningyo (藁人形) Come From? A Brief History

The straw doll traces its origins back to the Edo period, as most things in Japan do. There is a reference in an old book of classics called the Nihon Shoki of a spell cast back in 587, well before the Edo period, but it doesn’t seem like they specify it was a wara ningyo. There have also been archaeological digs that brought up some relics dating back to the 8th century that look like wara ningyo, but we don’t know much about the rituals surrounding their use.

With this in mind, we must say that, for now, the ritual we associate with the wara ningyo developed in the Edo period. You can often see the most common practitioners of this craft– scorned women– in different pieces of art from the period.

More typical-looking wara ninyo (from Yanajin33 via Wikimedia Commons 3.0 CC License)

The thing is, nowadays, these are not very popular. At all. They aren’t really seen anywhere outside of horror films and anime, and are often associated with the past and older times. That gives them a bit of a creepy-old-thing vibe, to be certain.

How to Use the Wara Ningyo (Ushi no Toki Mairi (丑の刻参り) – Ox-Hour Shrine Visit)

First, you have to have the correct materials to create the straw doll. This usually involves something from the intended recipient of your curse (hair, usually). This can be a bit troublesome to pull of individually, but fear not: The Internet has you covered! You can buy curse kits online for all of your cursing needs!

Fresh outfit! (via Wikipedia JPN)

In addition to the doll, there is a specific ritual needed to carry out the curse known as Ushi no Toki Mairi, or the Ox-Hour Shrine Visit. The Ox-Hour is from 1 AM to 3 AM, the hour of the Ox in the old Japanese time-keeping system. Historically, you’ll want to wear all white, an iron crown with three lit candles on it, and bring a hammer and 5-inch nails with you. You then hammer the straw doll to the shrine’s sacred tree. Rinse and repeat seven days in a row and you will have killed your target.

In Popular Culture

Are these bad boys in Japanese pop culture? You’d better believe it!

A panel from the manga showing Basil Hawkins and his powers (via 12Dimension, copyright Shonen Jump and Shueisha)

One such character is Basil Hawkins from One Piece (the biggest manga and anime pretty much ever), whose mysterious devil fruit powers allow him to take hits from opponents and transfer that damage to another, causing him to shed a wara ningyo from the wound. He can also transform into a monstrous wara ningyo!

Nobara Kugisaki (via Wikipedia)

Another example is Nobara Kugisaki from the popular manga and anime. She learned her battle skills from her grandmother, which include fighting with a straw doll, hammer and, wait for it, nails!

The Mystery of The Vladimir Putin Wara Ningyo

So here’s a modern example that stunned and excited (maybe?) the Japanese internet for a few weeks: In Matsudo, small city in Chiba prefecture, several wara ningyo have appeared in at least ten Shinto shrines with one target: Vladimir Putin. It baffled local authorities for all of a week before a suspect was arrested and charged with vandalism (nails he used to place the dolls have damaged temple property–the trees–which is against the law here in Japan!) and trespassing (the shrines are closed and technically off-limits when he snuck in). The man was a 72-year-old resident who crafted the dolls, snuck into the shrines, offered prayer, and then pinned up the dolls. It seems he really just wanted to curse Putin and not cause damage or mischief for the local shrines.

Please also be aware that using wara ningyo is against the law in Japan: It can count as a threatening crime and there have been cases in the past that have helped clarify and solidify laws against it. Given that Putin probably won’t press charges, it looks like these charges won’t be brought up against our elderly magician.

UPDATE (07-01-22): The man was being held, but the shrine where the video footage was captured did not decide to pursue charges. If there is any further evidence of his involvement at other shrines, they could potentially bring up charges, but for now, the man walks free to curse another day.

A bit spooky! Are there any curses or objects for cursing in your culture that remind you of the wara ningyo? Let us know in the comments below!

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