Famous for sushi, geisha, Godzilla, and sumo, Japan’s urban legends and folklore are also a big part of Japanese culture and superstition. Japan is known for having some of the scariest ghosts and horror movies in the world.
Movies like Juon or The Ring not only cemented Japan as a country with a dark and supernatural aura but revolutionized how the genre of horror was presented in media.
The long black-haired woman in a white gown slowly creeping up on its victims has now become popularized all over the world. Japan’s Aokigahara Forest also known as the suicide forest has also been widespread and adds to the eerie and ominous image of Japan’s dark side.
This obsession with the morbid and macabre roots from ancient legends and tales. Here are six spooky ghost and monster tales that are popular in Japan.
Kuchi-sake Onna (Split-mouth Woman)
According to Wikipedia, the legend of Kuchi Sake Onna dates back to Japan’s Edo Period which was from the 17th to 19th century but re-emerged and gained much more popularity in the 1970s.
Stories of the disfigured woman started hitting newspapers and weekly magazines causing so much panic and fear that many kids were afraid to walk to school by themselves and had to have members of the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) walk with them.
There are different versions but a popular telling starts with the story of a woman who was a wife to a samurai. However, she committed adultery and was caught out by her husband. As punishment for her infidelity, he sliced her face, with her mouth being split from ear to ear.
Shamed and disfigured, she was angry at the world and when she died, her vengeful spirit continued to haunt the land. She would wear a mask (similar to a surgical mask) to cover the lower half of her face. She would also carry a large sharp object (sometimes described as large scissors) and would wait for victims, usually children.
She would approach people and ask them, “Am I beautiful?” If the person replied, “No,” she would kill them with her weapon. If they responded, “Yes,” she would remove her mask showing her bloodied and disfigured mouth.
She would then ask them again, “Am I beautiful?” If they answered “No,” she would kill them. But if they once again answered, “Yes,” she would spare their life but would use her scissors to disfigure their face to look like hers.
There was however a third option. It seemed the only way to escape Kuchisake Onna was to confuse her. When she asked the question, “Am I beautiful?” a person should answer with an ambiguous answer like, “well, you’re okay, that depends, or some might find you good looking” which would make her stop and pause giving the person enough time to run away.
Another option was to throw money or caramel candies at her and when she bent down to pick them up, the person could also slip away to safety.
Kappa is a mythical green creature that lives in rivers and ponds across Japan. They are part amphibian and part human-like. With green skin, webbed hands and feet, and a turtle shell. They also have a dish-shaped indentation on their head that is the source of their power and must remain wet at all times.
Though they are the size of children, they are powerful and stronger than most men. They have three anuses and waterproof skin making them excellent swimmers. They are known to be weak on land so prominently live in the water.
According to a myth and folklore website, Kappas are very intelligent, can learn many languages, and eat cucumbers and the innards of humans. In fact, they are known to be violent and crude. Their behavior can be quite light-hearted like loudly farting in public or looking up women’s kimonos to attacking cows and horses for no reason at all.
In the water, they are also known to snatch humans who are swimming in the water and drown them or bite them to death. They tend to target people’s anuses which they bite and pull the person down into the depths of the water to be drowned and eaten.
Despite their violent actions, they can be loyal and always keep their promises. Since they are weaker on land and have honorable characteristics, the best way to ensure a good relationship with a Kappa is to greet them and bow. They are very polite and will bow back, which in turn will cause the water in their indented heads to fall.
Weakened and needing replenishment, they will befriend you if you keep them hydrated. Once they are loyal to you, they will help with fishing, medicine, and irrigation tasks. Japanese people often offer cucumbers during the summer festival to Kappa to remain on good terms with them.
Aka Manto (Red Cape)
Aka Manto is the story of a creature dressed in a mask and red cape that haunts toilets and bathrooms in Japan. A male spirit, he is mostly known to haunt women’s bathrooms in both public areas and schools. He usually haunts the last stall of the bathroom.
According to legends, Aka Manto was a good-looking young man in his days but now wears a mask after his death. Some stories also mention that he was a serial killer in his life and continues his murderous streak in death as well. The story was quite popular in the 1930s, especially with school children.
He appears when someone is sitting on the toilet. He then asks if the person would like blue toilet paper or red toilet paper. Choosing red means Aka Manto will slice up your body and bloody the stall. However, choosing blue means the spirit will strangle you until you turn blue or will drain your body of all blood. Either way, the victim dies.
Those trying to outsmart the ghost and ask for a different color of paper will be dragged down to hell with Aka Manto so the best way to escape him is to not answer. Ignoring him and running away is the best way to ensure survival but is not guaranteed. Facing the Red Manto ghost usually means death.
The legend of Yamauba refers to old women who live in the mountains of Japan. Spotted all across Japan’s mountainous areas like Hokkaido, Nagano, and Shizuoka, these sinister crones target merchants, travelers, and anyone who happens to be passing through the mountainous regions where they live.
Listed in Yokai.com, a Japanese ghost index, the Yamauba live alone in isolated huts high up in the mountains and eat human food and even human flesh. Women who were single, widowed, or had been abandoned by their families because of economic hardship were forced to make a life for themselves in the mountains.
Originally old women, over time because of their hatred and vengeance toward society, they transformed into monsters and witches and have a disheveled appearance. Usually, Yumauba have messy hair, wrinkled skin, stained kimonos, and sometimes even horns or fangs.
Yamauba act as friendly and frail old ladies who offer meals and shelter to those passing by and then prey on them once they are vulnerable. Usually at night, using magic, they will attack their victims and attempt to eat them.
There is no real information on how to escape Yumauba but stories of the Yumauba were told throughout the generations supposedly told by those who were able to escape and survive. Many parents often tell kids to be good or Yamauba will come to get them as a scare tactic towards disobedient children.
This seems to be the oddest creature on the list as Shirime quite simply is a man-like creature with an eye in his anus.
Shirime have a human-type body but no face. They wear a kimono and usually wait for people walking by late at night. It has no facial features but tries to get the attention of people by making noise.
Once the person notices Shirime standing there, it quickly pulls off its kimono, being naked underneath. It turns around, bends over, and spread its butt cheeks revealing a large glowing eye.
It doesn’t attack, say anything, or have any evil intentions. It simply likes scaring people and lives off the joy of startling passersbys. A practical-joker ghost, its appearance, and the purpose of having an eye in the anus are unknown to humans.
Hanako san of the toilet
Similar to Aka Manto, Hanako san haunts toilets, specifically school toilets. An urban legend that began in the early 1950s, variations state that Hanako was a schoolgirl who died. Some variations list her as a girl who died in an air raid during World War II while she was hiding in the bathroom. Others claim she was a girl who was murdered by someone in the toilet and remains to haunt it.
Hanako seems to be described by folklorist authors as a young girl with a bobbed haircut and a red dress or skirt. Unlike Red Manto who waits for children to prey on, Hanako san only appears if she is summoned.
To summon Hanako san, a person must enter the girl’s bathroom and knock on the third stall three times. After knocking they should ask, “Hanako san, are you there?” If she is present she will reply and the person summoning her will see a bloody hand.
The hand is known to grab the person and pull the person into the toilet which leads to an opening into Hell. Alternative stories also say that Hanako changes into a three-headed lizard and devours the person.
There are actually hundreds of different ghosts and creatures that have been popularized over the generations through word of mouth, poetry, art, and more recently movies, anime, and manga.
Whether the stories are hauntingly scary, creepy, or just plain bizarre, they are engrained in the Japanese supernatural beliefs and culture. The unique aspects of Japan’s culture can be witnessed through their storytelling over the ages. Hopefully, these stories will give you some fresh material for your next Halloween scary storytelling get-together.