Japanese Ghosts and Monsters
Japan is a very old country, and with age comes countless stories (some boring, like the 31st renditioning of how your grandpa drove past this particular liquor store). Some, however, are quite good, which are the ones I'll be sharing with you today. These ghost stories are both traditional and modern, and most Japanese people will know what you're talking about if you bring them up. I'll list each ghost/monster by name, give a basic description, and then tell you some stories about them. This list is by no means comprehensive, and is entirely biased in that I chose it based on what I found funny and/or creepy.
Kappa Zushi (sushi)
Japanese Ghost or Monster #1:The Kappa（河童）
This little guy may have been a scary beast back when he was first invented, but nowadays he more often takes on the role of company mascot or cute Halloween costume rather than lead beast in the summer's hottest horror flick.
Description: The Kappa is covered in scales and boasts an impressive beak. On its head he has a concave dish (or just an indent in some stories) that's filled with water. If you take a gander at the pictures, you'll also notice a handsome turtle shell on the Kappa's back and webbing on his hands and feet. At this point you've probably guessed that this monster lives primarily in the water and, if so, you're 100% correct. Apparently, the Kappa loves cucumbers (there's a sushi called kappa maki, which is a rolled sushi with cucumbers in the middle), and his one weakness lies in the dish on his head. If the dish breaks, or the water inside of dish dries up or spills out, he becomes weak or dies. If confronted by a mischievous Kappa, the trick is to somehow get him to return your polite bow, causing the water on his head to spill.
Why he's a monster: Depending on which local legend you prescribe to, what the Kappa likes to do, or has done, differs greatly. Generally speaking, though, the Kappa likes to cause terror. If you're caught walking too closely to a body of water, or are swimming near a kappa's hideout, chances are he will grab you, drag you deep into the water, and drown you. Alternatively or in conjunction with the above practice, Kappas like to engage in a certain mysterious act that involves removing something from a human's body. This something is called "shiri-ko-dama", which translates roughly to "small butt bead/ball." According to Japanese myth, when your shirikodama is removed from your butt, you'll lose your source of backbone, guts, manliness, or what have you. Kappa treasure the balls as food, and would either kill you to get at them, or kill you by stealing it. A possible scientific explanation for the myth is that when people found drowned corpses and did their primitive autopsies, they'd notice that the anus would be round, like a ball was pulled out of it. Of course this was just due to muscle relaxation associated with death, but perhaps to the olden folks the explanation of Kappas treasuring your precious innard beads was more plausible. Kappas are also thought to like sumo, are sometimes considered water gods (or kami, which is explained on my Shintoism Hub here), and are widely debating regarding their appearance, whether they're good or bad, where they live, and so on. With all the material available, I could write a whole Hub on just Kappa, but let's move on.
The Kappa Sushi mascots
The Yuki Onna
Japanese Ghost or Monster #2: Yuki Onna (Snow lady, 雪女)
The tale of Yuki Onna is a very famous one, and each area of Japan has its own legend about her. In some stories she's benign, but in most cases she's evil and provides you with no fair means of escaping a death by her hands. One famous legend is that Yuki Onna will stand on a path in the middle of a blizzard (usually in the mountains) while holding a child. When a traveller passes by, she'll ask him/her if they would be so kind as to hold her child for her. If they agree, the child slowly becomes heavier and heavier in their arms, until they finally collapse, get buried under snow, and freeze to death. If you refuse, you get pushed into a snowy ravine and suffer the same fate.
In a more humorous story, the Yuki Onna goes to the door of an old man's home and knocks (whenever blizzard winds rattle your door, it's Yuki Onna knocking). When he opens the door, she asks him for some water. Instead of plain water on a cold winter night though, he decides to give her hot tea. When she drinks it she melts away into the winter air. Popular belief is that if you do give her water instead, she'll simply eat your soul.
There's no single legend of the Yuki Onna, but a multitude of various folk legends that don't really contradict each other per se, but rather they can't agree on all points. The general story though, is of people dying slowly and alone in the snow, or the Yuki Onna visiting people who are lonely in life, giving them hope in the form of whatever they most want, but ultimately disappearing.
Japanese Ghost or Monster #3: Ubume (the pregnant woman ghost, 産女)
What is an Ubume?
This one is genuinely creepy, and the concept may be a little disturbing. According to ancient Japanese legend, when a woman dies in childbirth without birthing the child and is then buried that way, she will become an Ubume. This led to the widespread practice of posthumously removing the child and placing it in the arms of the mother before burial. If that was impossible, a doll would be used in its stead. Once again, the stories surrounding ubume are too many to feasibly list here, so I've chosen the most popular tales.
According to legend in Fukushima prefecture, Ubume roam the streets at night in their bloody attire, searching for people to hold their babies. If one finds you, she forces you to hold the child while, relieved of her burden, she ascends upward to heaven. Fair, right? At this point, the baby will ungratefully proceed to bite your neck. However, if you have any spare piece of clothing on your body, like a handkerchief, you can throw it at the Ubume before she forces her child on you. While she's distracted by your fashionable projectile, you're advised to flee the scene. Alternatively, if forced to hold the baby, you can simply hold it so its face is turned away from yours (what to do after that is not recorded).
Another famous tale is that of the Ubume who is less malevolent, and simply wishes for her child to be taken care of. The story is as follows: A grumpy old shop owner of a candy store closes his doors early due to lack of business. However, later in the night he hears some knocks on his door. He opens it, wondering who it could be at that hour, and standing there is a pale faced woman. She apologizes for the hour, but insists that she desperately needs candy for her child. The man obliges and gives her some candy for her coins. This continues for 2 more nights, when eventually the old man's curiosity leads him to follow her once she leaves his store. They walk and walk until they eventually get to a temple, where the woman's image disappears. The old man, perplexed, walks into the temple and is greeted by a monk. The old man describes the woman, and sure enough the monk says that he recently buried a woman matching that description. They go to the grave, exhume the body, and bam, there's a live, crying baby in the coffin. The shopkeeper takes the baby and raises it, and they then live a fairly prosperous and happy life together. The end.
Generally speaking, Ubume are nasty creatures and were once quite feared. Older generations of Japanese went to great lengths to make sure pregnant women were buried properly to avoid creating Ubume. Perhaps more effort should have gone to improving birthing practices, rather than preventative anti-ghost measures.
A preview for the movie of "Kuchi Sake Onna" (Skip to around 1:25 for a visual of her). I left it small so as not to scare you too much.
Japanese Ghost or Monster #4: Kuchi Sake Onna (Torn Mouth Girl, 口裂け女)
Flashing forward to a more contemporary urban legend, the story of Kuchi Sake Onna is pretty scary. Although it's considered to be modern, this story has its roots in the Edo period, where an account was written similar to the one I'm about to tell you.
The Historical Account
According to the Edo legend, a fox transforms into a woman and is walking the streets in the middle of a rainstorm without an umbrella. A man in his late teens, seeing this, tells the woman to come under his umbrella to get out of the rain. When the woman turns around to respond to him, he notices that the skin that goes from the corner of her mouth to her ear has been torn, resulting in a huge Joker-like smile. He falls down in surprise, and then notices his teeth falling out, his face growing old, his loss of speech, and then, finally, the passing of his last breath.
The Modern Legend
The modern story of Kuchi Sake Onna first came into noticeable popularity in the spring of 1979. Causing a widespread fear in elementary and middle school aged kids, it resulted in groups of children walking home in huge numbers, and a higher rate of police cars being dispatched (this only lasted until summer vacation though, when schools became unavailable as rumor-mills).
Kuchi Sake Onna is said to have originally been a girl who suffered from a medical/plastic surgery error, and subsequently became crazy. Other origins have been suggested as well, such as a girl who suffered atomic bomb scars, a horrific traffic accident, and a skull found in a river that had the bone broken from the mouth to the ear. But folks all agree that she lurks in the night near places that have the number 3 or the Japanese word for three (san) in their names. Her other favorite haunts are Jinjyas (Shinto shrines), underneath the stage in school gymnasiums, and the more cliché (but still popular) graveyard.
Her Physical Description
Although descriptions differ, she either wears clothes that are red so as to camouflage her blood, or white, so as to show it off. She has 130 teeth (making it easy for her to crunch up children) and the eyes of a snake. Her voice is supposed to resemble cat's meows and howls. There's debate over what she carries, but it's usually either a scalpel, scissors, or a butcher's knife (check out the video for a good visual example).
What to do if you encounter Kuchi Sake Onna
On your way home from school or work you're forced to walk down your classic dark alleyway. Near a lamppost with "3rd block" etched onto it, you see the figure of a woman who starts walking towards you. You notice that she has a surgical mask on (people commonly wear them in Japan to prevent virus and germ spreading), and is somewhat pretty in the dark. She asks you "Am I pretty?", to which you reply slyly, "Yes". After hearing this, she rips off her mask and shows you her mouth, which is about 3 inches longer than it should be. She then asks you, "Am I still pretty now?!". Of course, here's where you're stuck. If you say yes in an attempt to appease her, she'll take her scalpel or scissors and say "Then I'll make you look like me," and will proceed to carve up your face (legend has it you get to live, at least). If you say no, then she'll just outright kill you. "Darn," you're thinking, "this woman is pretty unreasonable," and I empathize. Here's how you escape from her.
To her standard question, rumor has it you should reply with a "So so" or "You're normal." Then, while she's thinking about what exactly society dictates as "so so," you run away. Although she's said to be able to run faster than a police motorcycle, if you can manage to get to a record store or to a building with more than 2 stories and then get up to the 3rd floor or higher, you're safe. Lastly, as a genetic defense, if you're blood type O, you're also said to be safe from her.
Kuchi Sake Onna is such a widespread urban legend that the details about how she kills you, her questions, and how to escape from her differ widely based on region. I'm sure if you already know of her you might have heard of some escape plans that weren't listed here, and I'd love to see some creative or funny ways to deal with her in the comments section. On to the next and last ghost for now.
Japanese Ghost or Monster #5: Nopperabō (The Faceless Ghost,野箆坊)
Although this ghost isn't particularly violent, scary, or grotesque, it is well known and was actually introduced to the west by Lafcadio Hearn under the name "Mujina". The basic story is as follows:
The Story of Nopperabō
Once upon a time (in the 1600's to be exact), there was a merchant walking the streets of Tokyo late at night. While trying to hurry home, he stumbled upon a lone girl, crouched over and crying violently at the edge of a moat. Worried that she was considering suicide, he rushed over to her hoping to help her. When he got closer, he noticed that she was wearing expensive clothes, and from a glance at her back, one could say that she was pretty. He asked her, "Why are you crying?" Receiving no answer, he continued, "Tell me what's wrong, and if there's anything I can do to help, I will." The woman still didn't respond and continued crying, all the while hiding her face with her long sleeve. The merchant persisted despite his failed initial attempt, and tried to make his voice sound softer. "Please listen to what I have to say. This is no place for a young girl such as yourself. I beg you to stop crying! Whatever I have to do to make you stop, I'll do it." After hearing this, the woman rose with her back to the merchant, still wailing into her sleeve. The merchant gently laid his hand on her shoulder and said, "Please, even if for a second, listen to what I've said.". At this point, the body who the merchant thought to be a young woman turned towards him, and dropped her arm. She then took her hand, and rubbed her face. When she finished, the merchant saw that she had no mouth, eyes, nose, or ears. Her face had become as smooth as an egg, and completely blank. The merchant screamed and ran into the pitch blackness of the road. WIthout the nerve to turn around and see if she was following him, he continued to flee. Eventually, he saw a lantern that belonged to a noodle shop. Desperate to tell someone of the incident, he burst through the door and the noodle shop owner asked, "Did someone rob you? Have you been attacked?" The merchant shook his head and said, "I saw something by the moat, something that I couldn't speak of no matter how hard I tried." The noodle shop owner replied, "Oh? Was it something like this?" The merchant watched in the now darker store as the store owner rubbed his face, making his features completely disappear.
Not That Scary, Right?
To our presently jaded horror sensors, this story is probably nothing more than a casual Sunday read, on par with perhaps Family Circus for fright value. However, often times I find myself desperately hoping to not see anyone with their back turned towards me as I walk the narrow and asphyxiating streets of Japan's back alleys. Sure, the merchant doesn't die, but emotional scarring is pretty serious if you ask me.
I've read lots of good reviews about this. It rides the boundary between scholarly work, and a good, fun read
Japanese folklore, and even urban legends, are chock full of facts, history, and variations, and what I've provided here is really just the tip of the iceberg. Anyway, I hope that some of these images come back to haunt you when you're walking alone down a deserted street, or when you're in a graveyard somewhere, doing some recreational ghost-provoking.