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Ichijama

Ichijama生邪魔
いちじゃま

TRANSLATION: living evil spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: ichimabui, ikimaburi
HABITAT: Okinawa and islands in southern Kyūshū

APPEARANCE: Ichijama is a curse from Okinawa. It is a type of ikiryō—a spirit of a still-living person which leaves the body to haunt its victim. The magic which summons this spirit, the person who casts the spell, and the family line of that person are all referred to as ichijama. Not only people, but cows, pigs, horses and other livestock, as well as crops can be cursed by an ichijama.

INTERACTIONS: An ichijama is summoned by praying to a special doll known as an ichijama butokii. The ichijama butokii is boiled in a pot while reciting the name of the body part which is to be cursed. After the ritual is performed, a spirit which looks exactly like the person casting the spell visits the home of the intended victim. It delivers a gift to its target—usually fruit or vegetables such as bananas, garlic, or wild onions. After receiving the gift, the target develops an unidentifiable sickness in whichever body part was chanted during the spell. If untreated, the victim will die.

Omyōdō did not exist in Okinawa, so this curse could only be overcome with the help of Okinawan magic, by shamans known as yuta. This was accomplished by performing yet another curse. The yuta would bind the victim’s thumbs together and hit them with a nail while chanting bad things about the curse victim. Performing this curse would drive out the ichijama from its victim.

ORIGIN: The ability to summon an ichijama is a hereditary secret passed down from mother to daughter. Families with such magical power are said to be very beautiful and have a sharp look in their eyes. The ability to use black magic carries a strong social stigma in Okinawa. Marrying into one of these families should be avoided at all costs. But it is difficult to tell; ichijama clans are often careful about hiding their family secret.

Wara ningyō

Waraningyou藁人形
わらにんぎょう

TRANSLATION: straw doll
ALTERNATE NAMES: suge ningyō (sedge doll)

APPEARANCE: Wara ningyō are a popular kind of katashiro made of straw. Wara ningyō most commonly depict humans, but they are occasionally made in the shape of horses or other animals too.

INTERACTIONS: Wara ningyō are used extensively as wards against evil. During the Heian period, wara ningyō would be placed along the sides of the roads for protection against plague. It was hoped that the evil spirits which brought disease would nest in the straw bodies instead of living human bodies. Afterwards, the straw dolls would be discarded into a river, which would also purify the evil spirits.

Wara ningyō are popular devices in a number of dark rituals. They are combined with something from the recipient of the curse, such as a piece of hair. This transforms the doll into a substitute for the intended target. Long nails are pushed through the wara ningyō, harming the subject as well as the doll.

There are specific rules for creating different types of wara ningyō. These detail the materials to be used, the way the dolls are constructed, and the objects to be inserted into them. It can be difficult to find the materials needed to perform curses. The required items are not sold in most stores. However, some websites sell premade curse kits that contain all of the items you might need to perform a specific curse, including a wara ningyō, long nails, a mallet, pre-written curses with blanks for the recipient’s name, and other accessories. Of course, performing such rituals is illegal.

Katashiro

Katashiro形代
かたしろ

TRANSLATION: form substitution

APPEARANCE: Katashiro are human-shaped dolls. They are usually made of paper, but sometimes of wood, straw, or metal. There are different shapes and designs of katashiro to suit the many purposes they serve.

INTERACTIONS: Katashiro are a type of yorishiro—ceremonial objects used as a substitution for someone or something. Specifically they are used as a substitution for a person during a ritual. They are commonly used in purification rituals, where a person’s sins are transferred into the katashiro. The karashiro is then discarded into a river or body of water, taking the sin away with it.

Katashiro are also frequently used to ward off evil in a similar fashion. If you are suffering bad luck, a katashiro can be used to absorb the bad luck from you or prevent bad things from occurring. If you suspect that you are going to be targeted by a curse, a katashiro can be prepared as a substitute target for your person. The doll will receive all of the evil effects in place of the intended target.

Katashiro can even be used in spells or curses as a substitution for a real human target. Usually this involves inscribing the name, birthdate, and other personal information on the paper doll. The spell is performed on the doll, after which the intended effects happen to the actual person.

Tatarimokke

Tatarimokke祟り蛙
たたりもっけ

ALTERNATE NAMES: tatarimoke
TRANSLATION: curse child
HABITAT: lives inside of owls
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: A tatarimokke is the spirit of a dead baby which inhabits the body of an owl. Visually they appear no different than ordinary owls. Tatarimokke remain near the homes of the families they once belonged to. The hooting of the owls is said to actually be the sound created by the spirit of the dead baby.

INTERACTIONS: Tatarimokke are treated with respect by the families which they haunt, just like zashiki warashi. Houses that have lost a child recently will take care of any owls that appear near their homes and treat them as if they are the spirit of the lost child. In most cases, these spirits are beloved by the families they haunt, and they do not cause any harm.

In some cases, however, tatarimokke can be dangerous to people. The souls of babies whose bodies were carelessly discarded into rivers, babies who were killed by their parents to reduce the number of mouths to feed, and even the spirits of aborted fetuses could retain a grudge against the living. People passing through the places where these resentful spirits haunt might hear eerie sounds and feel unsettling sensations, see strange phenomena like floating fireballs, or may stumble on a rock and hurt themselves.

In the most extreme cases, tatarimokke truly do bring terrible curses upon those who are perceived as having wronged them. Particularly in the case of people who were murdered in particularly violent and gruesome fashion. In these cases, the tatarimokke is not the spirit of a newborn baby, but instead is the spirit of the murder victim. These tatarimokke lay a curse their assailant so powerful that it not only brings ruin to the murderer, but to his entire family, for generations to come.

ORIGIN: Long ago in Japan, babies were not considered fully human until some time after they were born. Therefore, when a newborn died, it was not given a proper funeral and placed in a cemetery, but was usually buried quietly in or around the house. The spirits of these children would float out, and were believed to easily get “stuck” to owls, thus becoming a tatarimokke.

The name tatarimokke comes from tatari (curse) and moke, which means “infant” in some northern dialects. It is usually written phonetically, but is sometimes also written with characters that mean “curse” and “frog.” In this case, the character for frog is actually read as “moke,” and refers to the local word for a newborn baby.

Tatarigami

Tatarigami祟り神
たたりがみ

TRANSLATION: curse god, curse spirit
DIET: vengeance

APPEARANCE: Tatarigami are powerful spirits which bring death and destruction, fire and famine, plague, war, and all forms of calamity. They are some of the most powerful evil spirits that haunt Japan, and have done much to shape the culture and politics over the country’s long history. Tatarigami can refer to powerful gods of destruction, or to the ghosts of powerful people. Famous tatarigami include gods such as Emperor Gozu, the bull-headed demon god, and Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed eight-tailed dragon. Also included are the onryō of important historical figures such as Mononobe no Moriya, Emperor Sutoku, Sugawara no Michizane, and Taira no Masakado. In the case of historical figures, they are almost always ancient nobles who died in anguish and transformed into onryō.

INTERACTIONS: Tatarigami wreak havoc upon those who wronged them—usually other nobles. In order to appease their vengeful spirits, shrines honoring them have been built across Japan. Through proper appeasement, their curses can be lifted, or at least abated.

The Gion Matsuri in Kyōto, one of the most famous festivals in Japan, is an example of a ceremony initially designed to appease a tatarigami. During the Heian period, Kyōto suffered a number of outbreaks which were thought to be caused by Susanoo and Gozu tennō—two powerful gods of disease and destruction. In order to appease their wrath, a festival was held in their honor at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion. To keep the city free from disease, the festival was repeated every year. Eventually the connection to Susanoo and Emperor Gozu was lost, but the festival traditions remain to this day.

The appeasement of tatarigami remained an important part of religious life throughout the Heian period and beyond. The duty of pacifying these curse spirits fell to the onmyōji, and popular belief in this superstition helped onmyōdō rise in power.

Ushi no koku mairi

Ushinokokumairi丑の刻参り
うしのこくまいり

TRANSLATION: shrine visit at the hour of the ox
ALTERNATE NAMES: ushi no toki mairi

APPEARANCE: Ushi no koku mairi is one of the most famous and dreaded black magic spells. It takes place between 1:00 and 3:00 in the morning, during the hour of the ox. This is the period of darkest night, when the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead is weakest. During this hour, evil spirits are at their greatest power.

INTERACTIONS: There are a number of complicated steps required to perform this curse ritual, and they vary from account to account. In general, you must first construct a wara ningyō containing a small piece of the intended target’s body—a piece of hair, blood, fingernails, or skin, for example. Alternatively, you may use an image of their target, or a piece of paper with the target’s name written on it. Then, you put on the ceremonial dress—a white kimono and obi, with thick white face powder. An upturned trivet is placed on your head, and you attach tapers to its legs and light them. Tall, single-toothed geta are worn on your feet. A mirror is carried over your breast, a dagger is tucked behind the obi, and a comb is held between your teeth.

Thus prepared, you must sneak into a shrine during the hour of the ox and approach the shrine’s sacred tree. Then, you hammer a long iron nail through the wara ningyō into the tree—symbolically breaking the barrier between the world of the living and the spirit world. You call out to evil spirits, demons, and yōkai to come into the world. This ritual must be repeated every night for many nights, and it is very important that the person performing the curse not be seen. If there are any witnesses, they must be killed immediately. Otherwise the evil of this curse will rebound onto the caster.

Once the ritual is completed, something—it is not clear what—terrible happens. According to some accounts, the curse victim dies an agonizing death upon completion of the ritual. In other accounts, the entire process is torture for the victim, causing days of suffering while the curse is being performed. In some stories, the curse summons yōkai which haunt the victim, and in other stories, the person performing the ritual transforms into a powerful oni or kijo.

LEGENDS: A few shrines are well-known for this sort of black magic. Kifune Shrine and Jishu Shrine in Kyōto, and Ikurei Shrine in Okayama Prefecture (old Bitchū Province) are the most famous ones. In the old days, these were popular locations for jealous lovers to perform this curse. Even today, every now and then, shrine officials find wara ningyō hammered into trees at these shrines.

Taira no Masakado

Taira no Masakado平将門
たいらのまさかど

APPEARANCE: Taira no Masakado was a samurai of the Heian period, a powerful warrior, and a great leader. He was born either in the late 800s or early 900s CE and was killed in 940. After his death, his spirit is said to have returned as a vengeful ghost and brought destruction across the country. Along with Emperor Sutoku and Sugawara no Michizane, he is one of the Nihon San Dai Onryō—Three Great Onryō of Japan.

Though Taira no Masakado’s birth date is unknown, he is believed to have been born sometime around when Sugawara no Michizane died. A Meiji period biography of Taira no Masakado suggests that he may have been Sugawara no Michizane’s reincarnation; his revolt against the emperor may actually have been a continuation of Michizane’s curse.

ORIGIN: Taira no Masakado was born into the Kanmu Heishi, the clan of Taira descended from Emperor Kanmu. It was an elite family. Masakado had a privileged childhood in the capital, after which he settled down in Shimosa Province in Eastern Japan, northeast of modern day Tokyo. His troubles only began after his father died. Inheritance laws at this time were not firmly established, and his uncles tried to steal most of his father’s land. They claimed their royal lineage gave them the right to do so.

In 935 CE, the dispute with his family members broke into outright battle. Masakado was ambushed by one of his uncles and a number of Minamoto warriors. But Masakado was a powerful warrior. He quickly defeated them, and then took his revenge by burning their lands, ravaging the countryside, and slaughtering thousands. This brought him into conflict with other relatives by blood and by marriage, who brought their dispute to the emperor.

Taira no Masakado was summoned to court to answer charges of the relatives of the dead Minamoto warriors. Masakado was not only brave, he was also smart. He had taken great pains to remain within the law and proved that he had good reason for his killings. After only a few months, he was fully pardoned when the court offered a general amnesty in commemoration of Emperor Suzaku’s coming of age.

Taira no Masakado returned to his home, but soon found himself under attack. This time, it was his father-in-law and his relatives. Again, Masakado quickly defeated them. To avoid stirring up more political trouble, Masakado received a warrant to apprehend his attackers. Now, with legal sanction for his military action, he stormed into their lands on a quest for revenge.

In 938 CE, Taira no Masakado received another court summons for questioning about a quarrel with one of the cousins who had attacked him. This time, Masakado ignored the summons. He raised a large force and invaded Hitachi Province. He conquered eight provinces: Shimotsuke, Kozuke, Musashi, Kazusa, Awa, Sagami, Izu, and Shimosa. The whole time, he maintained his innocence, insisting that his campaign was legal under the terms of his warrant.

The government was seen as ineffectual and the nobles as abusive by the peasants of the time. Taira no Masakado, on the other hand, treated the peasants of his conquered domains much better than their former masters did. His insurrection was seen as a salvation by many peasants. They welcomed him gladly. The court feared that Taira no Masakado was preparing to overthrow the government and declare himself the new Emperor of Japan. He was condemned as a rebel and a traitor.

A number of warriors—including Masakado’s ally Fujiwara no Hidesato and some his own relatives—were commissioned by the government to take his head. They caught up with Masakado’s army in Shimosa province on the fourteenth day of the second month of 940 CE. They attacked during a night ambush and quickly defeated the rebels. Masakado’s men were outnumbered ten to one. Masakado was beheaded, betrayed by his friends and family. The head was brought back to Kyoto to be displayed in the east market as a message to would-be rebels.

LEGENDS: Strangely, Taira no Masakado’s head did not decompose. Many months after it was first displayed in the east market, it still looked as fresh as the day it was severed. The eyes had grown fiercer, and the mouth twisted up into a hideous grimace. Night after night the head would call out, “Where is my murdered body!? Come here! Reattach my head and let me fight once again!” And then things got really strange.

One night the head began to glow. It flew off into the sky, across the country, towards Shimosa. The head eventually grew tired and landed to rest in a fishing village called Shibazaki (which would one day grow into the city of Edo). The villagers who found the head cleaned it and buried it. A shrine was erected over the grave and named Kubizuka—the mound of the head. Masakado was honored and worshipped by the peasants as a true warrior, a symbol of justice who stood in heroic defiance of a corrupt and lazy nobility. He was seen as an underdog who was repeatedly betrayed and eventually murdered by those he should have been able to trust. Despite his deification and popularity among the lower classes, his ghost was not appeased. A few years after his head was buried, the ghost of a samurai began to be seen in the neighborhood of his shrine.

In the early 1300s, a great plague struck Edo. Many people died. The plague was attributed to Taira no Masakado’s anger. In order to appease him, his spirit was moved from his small shrine to the larger and more prestigious Kanda Shrine. He was designated one of the main gods, and his spirit was placated—for a while. In 1874, Emperor Meiji visited the Kanda Shrine. It was viewed as inappropriate for an enemy of the imperial family like Masakado to be honored when the emperor was visiting, and so his deity status was revoked. His shrine was moved to a smaller building outside of the main shrine.

Taira no Masakado’s anger returned in 1928. After the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of the city, the site of his Kubizuka was chosen as the temporary location for the Ministry of Finance. Shortly afterwards, the Minister of Finance became sick and died. Over a dozen other employees died, and even more became sick or were injured in falls and accidents in the building. Rumors about the curse ran began to spread. The Ministry of Finance building was demolished and a memorial service for Masakado was held at the Kanda Shrine.

Throughout the 20th century, a number of other accidents, fires, sicknesses, and mysterious sightings were attributed to the curse of Taira no Masakado. Each time, purification rituals were performed. Finally, in 1984, in response to public pressure, his deity status was reinstated. Today, great pains are taken not to anger his ghost. For example, it is common practice for television stations to visit the grave of his head, still located in what is now Otemachi, Tokyo. They pay their respects to him before his character appears on any show. The Kubizuka is maintained by an organization of local businesses and volunteers who have taken on the responsibility of upkeeping of his grave.

Hannya

Hannya般若
はんにゃ

TRANSLATION: wisdom; specifically the Buddhist concept of Perfect Wisdom

APPEARANCE: Hannya refers to demons or oni; more specifically to female demons called kijo—even more specifically to those kijo which appear in noh theater. They were once human women who were consumed by jealousy and transformed into demonesses. The name hannya also refers to a specific type of demon mask used in noh theater.

There are three grades of hannya: namanari, chūnari, and honnari. Namanari hannya are kijo that still resemble human women. They have small horns and use dark magic to perform their evil deeds, such as summoning ikiryō to attack their enemies. They are not completely evil; there remains a chance for these beginner demons to return to humanity. Chūnari hannya are mid-level demons. They have long, sharp horns, tusk-like fangs, and more powerful magic. However, they are still vulnerable to Buddhist prayers. Honnari hannya are true demons and the most powerful of the three. They have serpentine bodies and breathe fire. Honnari hannya have embraced their jealousy so deeply that there is no calming their fury.

ORIGIN: Hannya originate from the Sanskrit term for wisdom—specifically Prajñāpāramitā, the highest form of Buddhist wisdom which leads to enlightenment. The juxtaposition of the highest form of wisdom and creatures who represent direct opposition to that wisdom comes from the use of the hannya mask in noh. In the play Aoi no Ue, a shugenja (an ascetic mystic) exorcises the spirit of the hannya Lady Rokujō from Lady Aoi. As it is driven away, the evil spirit cries out, “Oh, how horrible! The voice of wisdom is like a demon!” Since then, demon masks and wisdom have been associated with each other.

The three most famous hannya from Japanese literature are Lady Rokujō from Aoi no Ue, Kurozuka from Kurozuka, and Kiyo-hime from Dōjō-ji.

Usutsuki warashi

Usutsukiwarashi臼搗童子
うすつきわらし

TRANSLATION: mortar-pounding child
ALTERNATE NAMES: notabariko
HABITAT: warehouses, storage sheds, under floorboards
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: One particularly unpleasant variation of the zashiki warashi is the usutsuki warashi, named for the eerie thumping noise that this low-ranking house spirit makes.

BEHAVIOR: Unlike its more bright and cheerful cousins, this ghost crawls out from the dirt underneath the floorboards and roams about the house at night. It makes creepy noises, creaking and thumping, and tracks dirty footprints throughout the house. It does not cause any actual harm, though it spreads uneasiness and discomfort in houses that it haunts. Usutsuki warashi do not bring any particular good fortune to their home, either. However, a house which drives this spirit away due to its creepiness will still fall into ruin, just like a house that drives away the more pleasant zashiki warashi.

ORIGIN: This ghosts origins are similar to that of the yamauba. It comes from the old and terrible practice of kuchiberashi, or “reducing the mouths to feed” by thinning out families during times when food was scarce. Some houses with too many mouths to feed had no other choice but to sacrifice the newly born in order that the rest might eat. The cost of a funeral also being too high, these children were buried underneath the house, or in a storage shed. Instead of a tombstone, often an usu, a large mortar, was placed as a grave marker.

Chōpirako

Choupirakoチョウピラコ
ちょうぴらこ

TRANSLATION: none
ALTERNATE NAMES: often simply referred to as zashiki warashi
HABITAT: inner parlors and living rooms
DIET: none, but enjoys candies and treats left out for it

APPEARANCE: Chōpirako are very similar to ordinary zashiki warashi, only they are much more beautiful. Their skin and clothing glows with pure, radiant white light, and their features are more beautiful than they were in life. They are usually found in the homes of families that had only one child, who was loved and lavished with gifts.

BEHAVIOR: Like other zashiki warashi, chōpirako bring richness and prosperity to the houses they haunt, and promote happiness and well-being among the inhabitants. They often require more maintenance to keep them happy than most zashiki warashi do, but in return they almost always improve the house by bringing more wealth and good luck that other kinds of house ghosts.

ORIGIN: Rich families who could afford it often presented lavish funerals for deceased children, with a beautiful burial gown, lavish toys, and a room dedicated to the child’s spirit. The souls of these children which return as zashiki warashi return as this higher-class variation. When such a child dies, his or her room is often turned into a shrine, full of toys, books, and games that the child would have loved in life. The chōpirako resides in the this room, rather than in the zashiki, and very few people are allowed to enter the room in order to keep it in the pristine condition this ghost requires.

A few inns in Japan advertise that they are haunted by zashiki warashi or chōpirako in order to attract ghost-hunting guests or people seeking good luck and fortune.

Zashiki warashi

Zashikiwarashi座敷童子
ざしきわらし

TRANSLATION: zashiki child
ALTERNATE NAMES: many, depending in the region and variety of ghost
HABITAT: zashiki (a kind of sitting room covered in tatami mats) and other rooms
DIET: none, but enjoys candies and treats left out for it

APPEARANCE: Zashiki warashi are house spirits, fond of mischief, loved by all, and believed to bring great fortune and riches to those whose houses it haunts. They appear as ghost-like five or six year old children with blushing red faces. They can be boys or girls, and usually wear tradition clothes; child-sized warrior costumes for boys, patterned kimonos, with short, bobbed, or long, tied back hair for girls. Rarely they appear as wild, hairy brutish figures. Often it is difficult to make out any details other than a vague child-like shape. Direct sightings of these ghosts are rare. In some instances it is said that only the house’s owners, or only children, are able to see these spirits. Because of this, they are usually known only by their pranks.

BEHAVIOR: Zashiki warashi love mischief. Often the first signs that one’s house may be haunted by one is a trail of children’s footprints going through ashes or soap powder. Other mischief includes making phantom noises which sound like spinning wheels turning all night long, paper crinkling, children’s voices, or kagura – Shinto holy music. Most hauntings involve a single ghost, while some involve multiple spirits.

INTERACTIONS: Zashiki warashi are considered guardian spirits of the house, and gods of luck. It is said that a house with a Zashiki warashi will prosper and grow rich, and a house that drives away such a spirit will fall into decline and ruin. In one account, a family witnessed a zashiki warashi leaving from their home, and soon they all succumbed to food poisoning and died. In another well-known legend from Iwate, a wealthy man’s son shot a zashiki warashi with a bow and arrow, and soon after the family’s fortunes collapsed.

In many homes, these spirits befriend the children of the house, teaching them songs, games, and nursery rhymes. They keep elderly or infertile couples company, and these couples often treat the zashiki warashi as if it were their own child. The desire to attract and keep these friendly yokai has led to customs like setting food out in the zashiki for them, and even laying coins in the foundation when building a new house. The Japanese take great care to maintain their zashiki, so as not to drive out any guardian spirits dwelling there.

OTHER FORMS: Their common name comes from the zashiki, the formal reception room for guests in a Japanese house where they most often reside. They are known by many different names in other areas, such as kurabokko (“warehouse child”) and makuragaeshi (“pillow turner”). Countless variations of zashiki warashi exist from place to place, with minor difference in their appearance and habits.

Onryō

Onryou怨霊
おんりょう

TRANSLATION: grudge spirit, vengeful ghost
HABITAT: found all throughout Japan
DIET: none; survives solely on its wrath

APPEARANCE: The most dreaded type of yūrei is the onryō. They are the ghosts of people who died with such strong passions –jealousy, rage, or hatred – that their soul is unable to pass on, and instead transforms into a powerful wrathful spirit who seeks vengeance on any and everything it encounters. Onryō appear as they did when they died. Often they were victims of war, catastrophe, betrayal, murder, or suicide, and they usually display wounds or marks indicative of the way they died.

INTERACTIONS: Their motive is always the same: vengeance. Onryō are easily powerful enough to swiftly kill any person; however, they prefer letting the object of their hatred live a long life of torment and suffering, watching those he knows suffer and die. They inflict a terrible curse on the people or places that they haunt. This curse can be transmitted to others through contact like a contagious disease, creating a circle of death or destruction that is far more devastating than any ordinary ghost. They make no distinction in whom they target with their grudge; they just wants to destroy. Moreover, this vengeance can never be satisfied as it can for most ghosts. While most yūrei only haunt a person or place until they are exorcised or placated, an onryō’s horrible grudge-curse continues to infect a location long after the ghost itself has been laid to rest.

Occasionally, an onryō’s curse is born not out of hatred and retribution, but out of intense, passionate love which perverts into extreme jealousy. These onryō haunt their former lovers, exacting their wrath onto new romances, second marriages, their children, and eventual end up destroying the lives of the ones they loved so much in life. Whatever the origin, the onryō’s undiscriminating wrath makes it one of the most feared supernatural entities in all of Japan.

LEGENDS: Unquestionably the most well-known onryō, and one whose grudge-curse exists to this very day, is the ghost of Oiwa: a young woman who was brutally disfigured and then murdered by her wicked and greedy husband in an elaborate plot. Her story is told in Yotsuya Kaidan, The Ghost Story of Yotsuya, and has been retold many times, in books, ukiyo-e, kabuki, and film. Like with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, legend has it that a curse accompanies her story, and that those who retell it will suffer injuries and even death. To this day, producers, actors, and their crews continue to visit the grave of Oiwa in Tokyo before productions or adaptations of Yotsuya Kaidan, praying for her soul and asking for her blessing to tell her story once again.

Dorotabō

Dorotabou泥田坊
どろたぼう

TRANSLATION: muddy rice field monk
HABITAT: unused, overgrown fields
DIET: none; survives on vengeance alone

APPEARANCE: Dorotabō are the transformed ghosts of old men who toiled so hard on their rice fields, only to see them lie in waste by a neglectful owner after their death. They appears as one-eyed, three-fingered humanoid figures rising out of the mud at night. It is said that the five fingers of the human hand represent three vices and two virtues: anger, greed, ignorance, wisdom, and compassion. The ghostly dorotabō appears with only the three fingers representing the vices, because he is a spirit of vengeance and rage, angry at the vices which now shame his life’s work.

BEHAVIOR: Dorotabō roam the overgrown fields, calling out in a mournful voice, “Give me back my rice field!” They haunt their fields night after night, preventing sleep and otherwise causing feelings of unease to the new inhabitants of their lands. They continue haunting until the wasteful owners changes their ways or give up and flee, selling the field to someone who will take proper care of it.

ORIGIN: Most of Japan’s land is bound up in inhospitable mountain ranges where farming is impossible, so the land that is usable by humans is extremely valuable. Families can save for a life time just to buy a small plot of precious farmland in hopes to leave it to their offspring after they die. Of course, children do not always follow their parents’ wishes, and a prodigal son who forsakes his father’s hard-earned fields in favor of vices like gambling and drinking is usually the cause of this eerie specter.

Taka onna

Takaonna高女
たかおんな

TRANSLATION: tall woman
ALTERNATE NAMES: taka jo
HABITAT: red light districts
DIET: as a normal person

APPEARANCE: Taka onna appear as ordinary, homely human women most of the time, but they have the power to elongate their bodies and grow to several meters in height. Like other brothel yokai, they are rarely seen outside of brothels and red light districts. They are fairly common yokai nonetheless. Sightings of these yokai peaked during the Edo period and continued up to the post-war period, when brothels and “pleasure districts” were at their height in Japan.

BEHAVIOR: Taka onna are frequently spotted peering into the 2nd-story windows of brothels and homes where romantic liaisons are taking place. Their activities are generally limited to peeping into second floor windows. Though they rarely attack humans physically, taka onna do enjoy scaring and harassing both men and women who frequent the pleasure districts, jealous of the physical pleasure they were never able to know in life.

ORIGIN: Taka onna were originally ordinary women who were too unattractive to marry (or to find work in the red light districts which they haunt). Through jealousy, they became twisted and corrupted, and transformed into ugly, malicious monsters who prey on others’ sexual energy.

LEGENDS: Taka onna encounters were often the subject of bawdy anecdotes, as they generally revolve around trips to the pleasure districts. In one account, though, a woodcutter describes how he discovered that his own wife was a taka onna. His child mysteriously disappeared one day, and over a short period his servants also began to disappear one by one. Unable to figure out what was happening, the woodcutter began to investigate his wife. One night while pretending to sleep in bed, he witnessed his wife jump into a well and then elongate her body and climb back out. He leapt out of bed and fled into the mountains, never to return.

Kerakera onna

Kerakeraonna倩兮女
けらけらおんな

TRANSLATION: cackling woman
HABITAT: alleys near red light districts
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kerakera onna are gigantic, horrid yokai found in red light districts, who get their name from the cackling sound of their laughter. They appear as an enormous, middle aged woman in colorful brothel kimonos, with thick make-up and slathered-on lipstick. They skulks around in alleyways and on empty roads, dancing, laughing, and mocking the profession that worked them to death. They are rarely seen outside of the pleasure district responsible for their creation.

INTERACTIONS: When a man passes a lonely street or alley haunted by a kerakera onna, she unleashes a horrible, shrill cackle that can only be heard by him. A weak-hearted man faints right on the spot, but one who has the constitution to run away finds that no matter where he goes or who he turns to, the cackle echoes in his ears, and nobody but he can hear it. Eventually these men are driven insane by the incessant laughing – repayment for the lifetime of abuse the kerakera onna went through.

ORIGIN: During the Edo period, the average lifespan of a prostitute was only 23 years, as the demands and hardships of such a life were too much for most to bear. Work hours were long and difficult, pay was low, and abuse was commonplace, both from clients and employers. Very few women made it to middle age, but like most long-lived things in Japan, those who did were said to become very powerful. When a prostitute died after serving in such a painful world for so long, her ghost could not pass quickly and easily on to the next life. These ghosts become the kerakera onna.

Futakuchi onna

Futakuchionna二口女
ふたくちおんな

TRANSLATION: two-mouthed woman
HABITAT: usually occurs in married women
DIET: as a normal person, only twice as much

APPEARANCE: Families which notice their food stocks are shrinking at an alarming rate while the women in their houses rarely eat a bite may be the victims of a futakuchi onna infestation. Futakuchi onna appear just as a regular women until their terrible secret is revealed: in the back of their skulls, buried beneath of long, thick hair, is a second mouth, with large, fat lips, and full of teeth. This second mouth is ravenous, and uses long strands of hair like tentacles to gorge itself on any food it can find.

ORIGIN: In the folk tales of Japan’s eastern regions, futakuchi onna are most often thought to be shapechanged yama-uba posing as young women. In the western regions they are frequently shapechanged kumo, or magical spiders. In the other tales they are the result of curses brought about by wicked deeds, similar to rokuro-kubi. In each story, regardless of its true nature, this yokai is used as a punishment upon a greedy man or woman for wickedness and extreme parsimony.

LEGENDS: In a small rural village in Fukushima there lived a stingy miser who, because he could not bear the thought of paying for food to support a family, lived entirely by himself. One day he met a woman who did not eat anything at all, and he immediately took her for his wife. Because she never ate a thing, and was still a hard worker, the miser was thrilled with her. However, his stores of rice were steadily decreasing, and he could not figure why, for he never saw his wife eat.

One day the miser pretended to leave for work, but instead stayed behind to spy on his new wife. She untied her hair, revealing a second mouth on the back of her head, complete with ghastly lips and teeth. Her hair reached out with tentacle-like stalks and began to scoop rice balls into the second mouth, with cooed out with pleasure in a vulgar, raspy voice.

The miser was horrified and resolved to divorce his wife. However, she learned of his plan before he could act on it, and she trapped him in a bathtub and carried it off into the mountains. The miser managed to escape, and hid in a heavily-scented lily marsh, where the futakuchi-onna could not find him.

Another story tells of a wicked stepmother who always gave plenty of food to her own daughter, but never enough to her stepdaughter. Gradually the stepdaughter grew sicker and sicker, until she starved to death. Forty-nine days later, the wicked stepmother was afflicted with a terrible headache. The back of her head split open, and lips, teeth, and a tongue formed. The new mouth ached with debilitating pain until it was fed, and it shrieked in the voice of the dead stepdaughter. From then on the stepmother always had to feed both of her mouths, and always felt the hunger pangs of the stepdaughter she murdered.

Nukekubi

Nukekubi抜け首
ぬけくび

TRANSLATION: removable neck
ALTERNATE NAMES: frequently referred to as rokurokubi
HABITAT: occurs in ordinary women
DIET: regular food by day, blood by night

APPEARANCE: This variant type of rokurokubi, known as the nukekubi, is similar in most respects to the first type, except that the head detaches itself completely from the body rather than stretching out on an elongated neck.

BEHAVIOR: Nukekubi are often much more violent than rokurokubi. Because their heads are detached, they can travel farther distances than the rokurokubi’s head can. Additionally they often possess a thirst for blood. The flying head usually sucks the blood of its victims like a vampire, but occasionally brutally bites humans and animals to death.

ORIGIN: Uncured, this curse has the potential to tear a family apart, particularly due to the more violent nature of this variant. A diagnosis reveals that nukekubi suffer from an infliction similar to somnambulism; only instead of walking about at night, the patient’s entire soul and head depart from the body. Treatments for the curse of the rokurokubi and nukekubi have been long sought after, particularly because these women can often pass their curse on to their daughters, who begin to shows signs of it as they mature. Girls afflicted with this curse were usually sold off to live in brothels or human circuses, or else forced submit to an honorable death by suicide to preserve their families’ honor.

LEGENDS: A famous account from Echizen tells of a young woman afflicted with the curse of the nukekubi. Her head flew about the capital city at night, chasing young men through the street and all the way back to their houses. Locked out, the head would scratch and bite their doors and gates during the night, leaving deep gashes in the wood. When the young girl eventually discovered her curse, she was so ashamed that she asked her husband to divorce her. She ritually cut off all of her hair in repentance for her curse, and then committed suicide, believing it was better to die than to live the rest of her life as a monster.

According to lore from Hitachi, a man married to a nukekubi heard from a peddler that the liver of a white-haired dog can remove the curse. He killed his dog and fed its liver to his wife, and sure enough she was cured of the affliction. However, her curse had been passed on to her daughter, whose flying head took to biting white dogs to death. Other accounts claim that by removing the sleeping body to a safe place during the night, the head will not be able return, and will eventually die – however this is not a cure that most families are happy to try.

Rokurokubi

Rokurokubi轆轤首
ろくろくび

TRANSLATION: pulley neck
HABITAT: occurs in ordinary women; also frequently found in brothels
DIET: regular food by day, lamp oil by night

APPEARANCE: By day, rokurokubi appear to be ordinary women. By night, however, their bodies sleep while their necks stretch to an incredible length and roam around freely. Sometimes their heads attack small animals, sometime they lick up lamp oil with their long tongue, and sometimes they just cause mischief by scaring nearby people.

ORIGIN: Unlike most yokai which are born as monsters, rokurokubi and their close relatives nukekubi are former humans, transformed by a curse resulting from some evil or misdeed. Perhaps they sinned against the gods or nature, or were unfaithful to their husbands. In many cases their husbands or fathers actually committed the sin, but by some cruel twist of fate the men escape punishment and the women receive the curse instead; in all known instances the curse of the rokurokubi affects only women, even though the cause of it may not be their own.

LEGENDS: A lord noticed that the oil in his lamps was vanishing at an alarming rate, and so suspected one of his servant girls to be a rokurokubi. He decided to spy upon the girl to find out. After she had fallen asleep, he crept into her room and watched over her. Soon he noticed vapors and an ectoplasm forming around her chest and neck. A little while later, the servant girl rolled over in her sleep, however only her body moved! The head stayed in its place, and the neck lay stretched out between the two. The next day he fired her. She was fired from every place at which she subsequently worked. The poor girl never understood why she had such back luck with her jobs, and never found out that she was a rokurokubi.

An old tale from Totomi tells of a monk who eloped with a young lady named Oyotsu. While traveling, Oyotsu became sick. Treating her would have used up all of their travel money, so the monk murdered Oyotsu and stole the remaining money. On his travels, he stayed at an inn owned by a man with a beautiful daughter. The wicked monk shared a bed with the innkeeper’s daughter, and during the night her neck stretched and her face changed into that of Oyotsu, and angrily accused him of murdering her. The next morning, the monk, regretting his evil deeds, confessed the murder of Oyotsu to the innkeeper, and also told him what he had seen the night before. The innkeeper confessed that he, too, had murdered his wife for her money, which he used it to build his inn –and that as a punishment his own daughter was transformed into a rokurokubi. Afterwards, the monk rejoined his temple, built a grave for Oyotsu, and prayed for her soul every day. What happened to the innkeeper’s daughter is never mentioned.

Bakekujira

Bakekujira化鯨
ばけくじら

TRANSLATION: ghost whale
ALTERNATE NAMES: hone kujira (bone whale)
HABITAT: Sea of Japan
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Bakekujira are animated whale skeletons which sail near the surface of the sea, rising as they did in life when they would have had to breathe. They are followed by a host of eerie birds and strange fish. They appear on rainy nights near coastal whaling villages.

INTERACTIONS: In the old days, when whales were still plentiful in the Sea of Japan, a whale sighting was a blessing for the residents of a poor fishing village. A village could reap huge amounts of wealth from the meat and oil in a single whale. Such a bounty did not come without a price, however, and many fishermen claim that the souls of these whales live on as bakekujira, seeking revenge against the humans who took their lives. Those who witness a bakekujira are infected with its horrible curse, which they bring back to their villages when they return home. The whale’s curse brings famine, plague, fires, and other kinds of disasters to the villages it hits.

LEGENDS: One rainy night long ago, some fishers living on the Shimane peninsula witnessed an enormous white shape off the coast in the Sea of Japan. Squinting their eyes, it appeared to them to be a whale swimming offshore. Excited for the catch, they rallied the townspeople, who grabbed their spears and harpoons and took to their boats to hunt down and catch their quarry.

They soon reached the whale, but no matter how many times they hurled their weapons, not one of them struck true. When they looked closer, through the dark, rain-spattered water’s surface, they realized why: what they thought was a white whale was actually a humongous skeleton swimming in the sea, not a single bit of flesh on its entire body.

At that very moment, the sea became alive with a host strange fish that nobody had ever seen before, and the sky swarmed full of eerie birds which nobody could recognize and the likes of which had never been seen before. The ghost whale then turned sharply out to sea, and swiftly vanished into the current, taking all the strange fish and birds with it, never to be seen again.

The terrified villagers returned home, realizing that the skeletal whale must have been a bakekujira – the ghost of a whale turned into a vengeful ghost. While the ghost whale was never seen again, other villages in Shimane felt the whale’s curse, being consumed by conflagrations and plagued by infectious diseases following whale beachings.

Ningyo

Ningyo人魚
にんぎょ

TRANSLATION: human fish; mermaid, merman
HABITAT: seas, oceans, and other large bodies of water
DIET: omnivorous; fish, seaweed, and other aquatic foods

APPEARANCE: Mermaids are known as ningyo in Japanese, but they are very different from the mermaids of Western tradition. Ningyo more closely resemble fish than humans, with a varying level of human-like features, ranging from just an ugly, deformed fish-like face, to an entire human torso with long, bony fingers and sharp claws. They can range in size from the size of a human child to the size of a large seal. Unlike the mermaids of the Atlantic and Mediterranean legends, ningyo from the Pacific and the Sea of Japan are hideous to behold, resembling more of an otherworldly nightmare than a seductive siren.

Mermaids resembling the breeds known throughout the West – with an attractive human torso and a piscine lower body – are not unheard of in the Japanese islands. Particularly since the end of the Edo period and the opening of Japan to the West, more and more Western-style Atlantic mermaids have been seen in Japanese waters. However, the most common Japanese mermaid is more beast than beauty.

INTERACTIONS: Ningyo sightings go back to the earliest written histories of Japan. The first recorded mermaid sightings in Japan are found in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history, dating back to 619 CE. The flesh of a ningyo is believed to grant eternal life and youth to those who eat it, and thus it is the subject of many folk tales. However, it carries with it a danger that most people are not willing to risk. Ningyo can place a powerful curse on humans who try to wound or capture them, and some legends tell of entire towns that were swallowed by earthquakes or tidal waves after a foolish fisherman brought home a ningyo in one of his catches. While their grotesque appearance and supernatural powers make them an intriguing subject, they are best avoided at all costs.

Abura sumashi

Aburasumashi油すまし
あぶらすまし

TRANSLATION: oil presser
HABITAT: mountain passes; native to Kumamoto
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The abura sumashi is a rare yokai native to Kumamoto. It looks like a squat humanoid with a large ugly head like a potato or a stone, wearing a straw-woven raincoat. It is extremely rare, only found deep in the mountains or along mountain passes in the southern parts of Japan – throughout the range where wild tea plants grow.

BEHAVIOR: Very little is known about the lifestyle and habits of this reclusive yokai. The most well-known abura sumashi lives in the Kusazumigoe Pass in Kumamoto, but only ever appears briefly to travelers. Occasionally, an old grandmother walking the pass with her grandchildren will say, “You know, a long time ago, an abura sumashi used to live in these parts.” And occasionally a mysterious voice will call out in reply, “I still do!” Sometimes the abura sumashi even appears to the travelers, materializing out of thin air.

ORIGIN: The name abura sumashi means “oil presser,” and comes from the act of pressing oil out of the seeds of tea plants which grow in Kumamoto. Though its origins are a mystery, it is commonly believed that abura sumashi are the ghosts of oil thieves who escaped into the woods. Oil was a very difficult and expensive commodity to make, requiring a lot of time and hard work to extract it from tea seeds, and so its theft was a very serious crime. Those thieves who went unpunished in life were reincarnated as yokai – a sort of divine punishment for their sins.

Katawaguruma

Katawaguruma片輪車
かたわぐるま

TRANSLATION: crippled wheel
HABITAT: Hell; encountered on roads and mountain passes, and occasionally villages
DIET: souls

APPEARANCE: Instead of a giant monk’s head stuck in a wheel, katawaguruma appears as a tormented naked woman riding a single, flaming ox-cart wheel, eternally suffering and burning with pain.

BEHAVIOR: Katawaguruma looks and acts in much the same manner as wa-nyūdō, rolling along the roads of Japan, occasionally stopping in towns to hunt for impure souls to drag back to her hellish masters.

INTERACTIONS: These demons bestow powerful curses on any who see them, and this curse spreads rapidly through town, by the sharing of news and gossip about the katawaguruma. Eventually this can bringing calamity upon an entire village. Despite this, there is evidence that the katawaguruma has a capacity for mercy alien to its male counterpart.

LEGENDS: In a 17th century record, when a katawaguruma attacked a village in what is now Shiga, she abducted the child of a woman who dared to peek at her through a crack in her door, saying “Instead of watching me you should have been watching your child!” The woman was distraught and realized her own curiosity was responsible for the loss of her child. She composed a poem expressing her faults, and displayed it all around town, warning others to watch their children more carefully. The next night, the katawaguruma returned and saw that the woman was truly regretful, and returned the child unharmed. The katawaguruma was never seen in that village again.

Wa nyūdō

Wanyuudou輪入道
わにゅうどう

TRANSLATION: wheel priest
HABITAT: Hell; encountered on roads and mountain passes, and occasionally villages
DIET: souls; occasionally snacks on babies

APPEARANCE: Wa nyūdō is a giant, fearsome man’s head trapped within a flaming ox-cart wheel. His head is shaved like a monk’s in penance for his sins during life.

BEHAVIOR: Wa nyūdō are servants of Hell, but spend most of their time on Earth, patrolling for the wicked. They are in constant suffering from the flames and the wheel, and take a sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain on others. When they capture a victim – ideally a wicked criminal or a corrupt priest, but often enough just an ordinary person – they drag their victim back to Hell to be judged and damned. Then the wa nyūdō returns to Earth to repeat his work until the sins of his former life have been redeemed.

INTERACTIONS: When a wa nyūdō is sighted, smart townspeople keep off the roads at night and stay away from all doors and windows to avoid any notice by this demon. The extra-cautious decorate their homes with prayer charms in hopes that the monster will be repulsed and not come near. Merely witnessing the wa nyūdō is enough to strike calamity upon a whole family. Most have their souls torn from their body and brought to hell by the wheel.

LEGENDS: One famous story from Kyoto tells of a woman who peeked out her window at a wa nyūdō as he passed through town. The demon snarled at her, saying, “Instead of looking at me, have a look at your own child!” She looked back at her baby, who was screaming on the floor in a pool of blood – both of its legs had been completely torn from its body. When she looked back at the wa nyūdō, the child’s legs were in its mouth, being eaten by the mad, grinning monster.