A mid-19th century title reads Daimotsu-no-ura ayakashi no zu, 大物の浦罔像[あやかし]の圖, which I would translate as Picture of the 'Sea Phantoms' at Daimotsu-no-ura.

  1. I cannot grasp why the kanji 罔像 have been used to represent the word ayakashi. Preliminary research indicates that 1. 罔 can have a Goon reading of (もう), Kan'on reading of (ぼう), and Kun reading of ami (あみ), shiiru (しいる), nai (ない), basic definition of "net," and 2. 像 has a reading of (ぞう, historical hiragana ざう), meaning "image, figure, statue, picture, portrait" and "figure, form, shape, appearance." I can't find 罔像 in any online dictionaries, and originally pondered whether 罔像 might allude to some kind of "deceptive image" or "deceptive figure" given other compounds using the character 罔. Any insights?

  2. The furigana あやかし in the title definitely indicates that 罔像 should be read as ayakashi. Wikipedia indicates that ayakashi is usually seen as 妖 - which brings me to the other part of my question: how does 妖 read as ayakashi when 妖 = yo/yō (よう); yao (やお); aya (あや); but the kashi is not accounted for? (妖) can be interpreted as "mysterious, bewitching, unearthly," or "weird." Zack Davisson ('What Does Ayakashi Mean in English?', and 'What Does Yokai Mean in English?'), suggests that (妖) hints at paranormal or supernatural phenomena that are perplexing, intriguing, and enchanting, rather than phenomena that are frightening or horrifying, and is seen compounded in words such as yoka (妖花), an "ethereally beautiful flower," or ayashii (妖しい), "bewitching, charming." So why is ayakashi represented by a single kanji?

The word Ayakashi is said to be a collective name for yōkai (妖怪, ようかい), ghostly forms that appear above the surface of water, that is, tend to appear at boundaries - the places where one thing becomes another thing - the boundary between the ocean and the air rather than the dark depths. They might be thought of, or translated as, "strange phenomenon of the sea." General references indicate that ayakashi are sea ghosts, apparitions, phantoms, or spectres: in various Japanese prefectures they are largely considered to be "atmospheric ghost lights that appear above water," and are clearly linked to the funayūrei (船幽霊, ふなゆうれい, "boat ghosts"), for in Yamaguchi and Saga prefectures ayakashi refer to yūrei who drowned at sea and try to sink boats and drown swimmers either for revenge or to swell their ranks. They are known to float up to the surface of the water, appearing first as kaika, then transforming into figures. Zack Davisson also mentions that in Noh theatre the "male mask of a ghost or violent god is called ayakashi" though the word uses particular kanji, 怪士 (ayaka, 怪, "strange," and shi, 士, "warrior").

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    I'm assuming you're not familiar with ateji? In Japanese, kanji are very often used to creatively represent new words with great artistic liberty, simultaneously with little regard to the words they represented originally. The only airtight and systematic connection is between kanji and on'yomi words (as Kanji were first created to represent Chinese words).
    – dROOOze
    Mar 16, 2018 at 12:54

1 Answer 1


As you've noted,「アヤカシ」 is the name of a class of Japanese demons (yōkai) that appear on the surface of water. 「アヤカシ」is the core word that gives the meaning, regardless of the kanji used to represent this word.

The kanji representation「罔像」is indeed uncommon. To understand where it came from, firstly note that「像」and「象」are variants when it comes to the meaning image, appearance.「象」(elephant) was borrowed as a phonetic loan character for this meaning ever since Old Chinese, as the word representing elephant and image were homophones (and are still homophones in modern Chinese and Japanese on'yomi).

Then, note that「罔像」is more commonly written as「罔象」.「罔象」is a complete word attested as early as Guoyu:

《國語・魯語下》: “水之怪曰龍、罔象。”

The monsters/demons of the water are called「龍」and「罔象」.

「罔象」is thought to be a variant of「[魍魎]{もうりょう}」, maybe formed as a result of dialectical corruption of some variety of Ancient Chinese languages. This makes the characters「罔象」phonetic loans (characters used to represent a word regardless of meaning). In any case, it originally referred to a monster in Chinese folklore, but due to the similarity* of this monster to the Japanese water demon the kanji representation was sometimes borrowed for the latter.

The earliest appearance of「罔象」in Japanese literature may be from the Nihon Shoki for the god「[闇罔象]{くらみつは}」(dark water spirit, alternatively rendered as 闇御津羽), so most likely the use of「罔像」to represent「アヤカシ」is a reference to water spirits existing back from ancient Japanese folklore.

*Note that folklore and legends also travelled around East Asia as well, where they would merge with existing traditions.

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    @musha Please read the Wikipedia article on ateji; the kanji used as ateji do not really have to obey any rules. Basically, someone in history decided that the character「妖」captured the meaning of ayakashi very well, and this way of writing stuck around. Words that are not on'yomi generally may not have kanji representations that follow any logical morpheme boundaries.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 16, 2018 at 16:45
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    @musha, Old Japanese (the stage of the Japanese language current when the Nihon Shoki was written) did not have any /h/ sound, as far as researchers can tell. All the /h/'s in modern Japanese were reconstructed as /p/ sounds that far back. So くらみつは was probably read as something like kurami tu pa. Over time, phonetic change turned /p/ into /f/ or /w/ (depending on sounds before and after), and then /h/ arose from that or the consonant vanished. More here, looking at how these sound changes affected verb conjugations. Mar 16, 2018 at 21:40
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    @Eiríkr Útlendi, very useful comment and link to your previous post, thank you. Droooze, reading up on ateji won't completely lift the veil and halt the flow of my naïve at worst, obscure at best, questions! With no background in Japanese, learning on the go, and given the C18-19th writing I'm looking at (rule #1, don't go through Alice's door), it takes a while to absorb. I have made 3 pages of notes after going through your links and roaming more broadly for context... all that to understand two kanji: the <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wangliang> was useful. Your insights—invaluable.
    – musha
    Mar 18, 2018 at 23:48
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    In the context of ateji_—and given 罔象 referred to the water demon Wǎngxiàng in Chinese folklore, then 罔象 found expression in the name of the "dark water-spirit" Kuramitsuha (闇罔象) in Japanese, then 罔像 was used in the context of _ayakashi (妖, あやかし)—I hope I have this right by saying that's an example of jukujikun (熟字訓), where combinations of kanji characters have no direct correspondence to individual on'yomi or kun'yomi—that characters are used semantically, for their meaning/association and not their sound (?). Is that a thumb's up?
    – musha
    Mar 18, 2018 at 23:55
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    @musha unfortunately I don't think it can be called Jukujikun (Jukujikun are when the standard kanji for a word are related to the meaning - 罔象 is very unlikely to be the standard kanji used for あやかし). As of now, I haven't done enough reading to determine whether みつは actually came from a merger between Chinese 罔象 and a native Japanese demon, or whether the kanji 罔象 was just matched with the demon. If it's the latter, the characteristics of the Chinese demon is less relevant - just know that the etymology of the Kanji is tied with a Chinese word.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 19, 2018 at 0:07

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