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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.

Akateko

Akateko赤手児
あかてこ

TRANSLATION: red child’s hand
HABITAT:  Japanese honey locust (Gleditsia japonica) trees
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The akateko appears—just as the name implies—as a red, disembodied hand belonging to a child. It is found hanging in Japanese honey locust trees.

INTERACTIONS: Akateko drops down from trees as people pass underneath them. Aside from giving its victims a nasty surprise and the general creepiness of a disembodied red child’s hand, it is not known for causing any great harm.

Some people have seen the figure of a furisode-wearing beautiful girl of 17 or 18 years standing underneath an akateko’s tree. Those who witness her are immediately struck with a powerful fever. It is not clear what relationship she has to the akateko, if she is part of the same apparition or another spirit entirely.

ORIGIN: The origin of akateko is usually given as a certain tree in front of an elementary school in the city of Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture. However, there are local versions of it in Fukushima and Kagawa Prefectures as well. In these prefectures, akateko sometimes work together with another yokai called aka ashi. They grab at the feet of pedestrians, causing them to stumble and fall. It has also been suggested that akateko and aka ashi are two forms of the same yokai.

Tsurara onna

Tsuraraonnaつらら女
つららおんな

TRANSLATION: icicle woman
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsurara nyōbō
HABITAT: snowy areas; only seen during winter
DIET: loneliness; can also eat ordinary food

APPEARANCE: Tsurara onna are beautiful woman that are created from the loneliness of single men during the winter time. When a man gazes longingly at a strong, beautiful icicle hanging from a roof and reflects upon his loneliness, a tsurara onna may appear shortly afterwards. On the surface, a tsurara onna appears to be an ordinary—though exceptionally beautiful—woman. They are very similar in appearance and behavior to yuki onna, which inhabit the same areas during wintertime. When the winter snows melt and icicles can no longer be seen hanging from roofs, tsurara onna disappear along with the cold weather.

INTERACTIONS: Despite their icy origins, tsurara onna can be quite warm and loving spirits. In fact, many stories of tsurara onna involve one which has fallen in love with and married a human. These marriages invariably end in tragedy. The beautiful bride inevitably leaves when the spring comes, leaving her mate confused and heartbroken. And any future encounters the following winter usually do not end well for either party, if the legends are to be believed.

Because they look and behave like ordinary human women, it is often very difficult to identify a tsurara onna. One recognizable warning sign is an unwillingness to enter a bath. Occasionally, stories tell of a woman who refuses to take a bath no matter how much her husband pressures her. Eventually, tired of fighting, she relents and enters the bath. When the husband checks on her later, all he sees are a few tiny shards of ice floating in the tub, and his wife is nowhere to be found.

LEGENDS: There are countless tales of tsurara onna. They are found in every prefecture where snow falls, and each one has its own unique twist. However, there are a few common motifs found in most versions of the story. Many of them are similar or even identical to yuki onna stories. Themes of love, marriage, and betrayal are common.

One iconic example from Echigo Province—modern day Niigata Prefecture—goes like this: a young, single man gazed out his window on a cold, snowy night. He sat there, wistfully admiring the lovely winter scene. He wished in his heart that he could find a wife as beautiful as the icicles hanging from his roof. Suddenly, he heard a knock at his door. A woman’s voice called out, and it was as beautiful and clear as ice.

“Excuse me! I was traveling along this road, but the snowstorm became too fierce and I cannot journey any further. Might I lodge at your house for the night?”

The young man of course accepted (what young man would refuse such a request?), and he was delighted to see the woman’s face was as beautiful as her voice. He worked hard to make sure her stay was as enjoyable as possible.

Several months later, the woman was still staying at the house… In fact, she and the young man had fallen deep in love and she forgot about her journey entirely. They had gotten married and were very happy together.

One spring morning, the beautiful young bride went out shopping. That night she did not return. The young man waited her return night after night. The snows melted, the plum blossoms bloomed, and soon it was spring. The young man asked everyone he met if they had seen his wife. He searched all around, but there was no sign of her at all. Nobody he met could tell him anything either. He slowly forced himself to accept that she had left him. Over time, the young man’s broken heart healed, and he was remarried to young woman from his village.

The following winter, during a snowstorm, the young man found himself looking out the window at the long icicles hanging from his roof. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The beautiful woman from the previous winter was standing outside of his house. The young man was shocked.

“I searched for you every day! What is the meaning of this? How could you just vanish like that without a word?” he cried.

The woman replied, “People have different circumstances you know… But we promised to love each other forever. You said that our bond was as long and as solid as the beautiful icicles hanging from your roof. And yet… you have remarried.”

The beautiful woman left the house with a sad look on her face. The young man started after her, when suddenly there was a voice from inside the house. It was his new wife, asking what was going on.

“It’s nothing. Stay inside.”

Suddenly there was loud crash followed by a shriek near the front of the house. The new wife ran to the front door to see what had happened. There, lying in the front yard, was her husband. He was dead, pierced through the brain by an enormous icicle which had fallen from the roof.

Amazake babā

Amazakebabaa

甘酒婆
あまざけばばあ

TRANSLATION: amazake (a sweet, low-alcohol content form of sake) hag
ALTERNATE NAMES: amazake banbā
HABITAT: dark streets at night, particularly in urban areas
DIET: amazake and sake

APPEARANCE: Amazake babā is a haggardly old woman from northeastern Japan. She is practically indistinguishable from an ordinary old woman, which makes her difficult to recognize as a yōkai until it is too late.

INTERACTIONS: Amazake babā appears on winter nights and travels from house to house. She knocks on doors and calls out, “Might you have any amazake?” Those who answer her, whether the answer is yes or no, fall terribly ill. A cedar branch hung over the door is said to keep the amazake babā from approaching your house.

A variation of amazake babā from Yamanashi prefecture is called amazake banbā. She travels from house to house trying to sell sake and amazake. The consequences of replying to her are the same as with amazake babā, but the way to keep her at bay is slightly different. If you hang a sign at the front door that says “we do not like sake or amazake,” she will leave you alone and go on to the next house.

ORIGIN: Originally amazake babā was considered to be a god of disease—specifically smallpox. During smallpox outbreaks, there was a large increase in amazake babā sightings in major urban centers across Japan, not just in the northeast. Rumors of old women roaming the streets at night selling sake and bringing sickness were rampant in large cities such as Edo, Kyōto, Osaka, and Nagoya. Fear of smallpox was a major concern in urban centers, and contributed to the popularity of amazake babā rumors.

Since the eradication of smallpox, the sickness spread by amazake babā’s has changed from smallpox to the common cold. Even today, statues of her can be found in cities. Mothers visit these statues to leave offerings of sake and amazake so that that their children will not become sick.

Unagi hime

Unagihime, Takonyuudou

鰻姫
うなぎひめ

TRANSLATION: eel princess
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōunagi
HABITAT: lakes and deep ponds, especially in Miyagi Prefecture
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Unagi hime are large, shape-shifting eels which take on the appearance of beautiful women.

BEHAVIOR: Unagi hime live at the bottom of lakes and ponds. Very little is known about them, and stories about them are short and lacking in detail. Sometimes they are said to weave clothing on looms at the bottom of their ponds. The clacking sound of a loom can be heard near the banks of a pond where an unagi hime lives.

INTERACTIONS: Unagi hime rarely interact with humans due to the fact that they live deep underwater. When human fishermen come in contact with an eel yōkai, they usually leave the area where it was encountered alone and try not to disturb it. Fishermen who catch eels near a ponds inhabited by unagi hime are scolded by their peers.

ORIGIN: In Miyagi Prefecture, eels were believed to be guardians of the ponds they inhabit. A number of local legends tell of eels which battle with other guardian animals such as crabs and spiders. The eels usually take the form of beautiful women and try to recruit the help of humans in their fights. Sometimes the human is a famous warrior or priest, other times he is unnamed, but in most stories the eel loses the battle.

LEGENDS: There is a pond nearby which a warrior named Genbē lived. One rainy summer night, Genbē took a walk around the pond. The eel who owned the pond appeared before Genbē in the form of a beautiful woman. She told the warrior that on the following night, the spider who owned a nearby pond would come and fight her. She begged the warrior to stay by the pond and protect her, for with his help she would surely win the battle. Genbē promised to help. However, on the following evening, he grew cowardly and stayed at home, shaking. The next morning, he returned to the pond and found the severed head of a giant eel. Its unblinking eyes stared at him with such hatred that he lost his mind. He threw himself into the pond and drowned.

Amanojaku

Amanojaku天邪鬼
あまのじゃく

TRANSLATION: heavenly evil spirits
ALTERNATE NAMES: amanjaku

APPEARANCE: Amanojaku are wicked monsters which have been known since before written history in Japan. They are described as evil kami, minor oni, or yōkai who cause mischief and perform evil deeds. In particular, they are known for provoking humans into acting upon the wicked, impious desires buried deep within their hearts. They spread spiritual pollution wherever they go.

ORIGIN: Although they predate Buddhism in Japan, amanojaku are frequently depicted in Buddhist imagery as symbols of wickedness being defeated by righteousness. In particular, the Four Heavenly Kings are depicted as standing on top of demons, squashing them—those squashed demons are said to be amanojaku. The god Bishamonten’s armor is also decorated with demonic faces, which are said to be this evil spirit.

Amanojaku originate in ancient mythology. Though their true origins are a mystery, they appear to have developed out of ancient myths of wicked Shinto deities. Amanozako, Amenosagume, and Amenowakahiko all share aspects of this spirit’s undermining nature. It is widely believed that amanojaku originated from one or even all of them.

LEGENDS: The most well-known tale about amanojaku is the story of Uriko hime. In this story, a childless elderly couple discovered a baby girl inside of a melon. They took her home and raised her as their own, and named her Uriko hime. She grew into a beautiful young woman, and one day a request for her hand in marriage arrived. Delighted, her parents went off to town to purchase her dowry and prepare for her wedding. Before leaving, they warned her not to open the door for anybody, no matter what!

Shortly afterwards, Uriko hime heard a knock at the door. “Uriko hime, please let me in!” She refused to open the door. The voice replied, “If you won’t open the door, then at least open the window a crack…”

Reluctantly, Uriko hime opened the window just a crack. As soon as she had done so, a long, clawed finger slipped into the crack and smashed the window open. It was an amanojaku! The amanojaku leaped at Uriko hime, tearing at her clothes. The young woman fought for her life, biting and kicking at the demon, but she was not strong enough. The amanojaku snapped her neck, and she died.

The amanojaku didn’t stop there, however. It flayed Uriko hime’s skin and wore it like a suit, hiding itself in her clothes and disguising itself as the young girl. When the girl’s parents came home, they were fooled into thinking their daughter was still alive.

Finally the wedding day arrived. The elderly couple brought the amanojaku-in-disguise to its husband-to-be. However, a crow in a nearby tree called out, warning the couple that their daughter was not what she seemed. They grabbed the bride tight and held her down. They washed her body until the flayed skin sloughed off, and the amanojaku was revealed.

The amanojaku ran for its life, but the elderly couple chased after it. More and more people joined them, until a whole host of villagers chased the demon through the village. Finally, the townspeople caught up to the amanojaku and hit it with sticks, stones, and tools. They beat the demon into a bloody mess, and it died.

Ryūtō

Ryuutou龍燈
りゅうとう

TRANSLATION: dragon lights
HABITAT: oceans, coasts, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Ryūtō are kaika which appear just above the surface of the water on calm, peaceful nights. They create no heat, nor do they burn anything. They are only found in bodies of water which are home to dragons.

BEHAVIOR: Ryūtō start out as single orbs of flame which hover a few meters above the surface of the water. They soon begin to multiply, until there are countless orbs. These fireballs float about aimlessly along the water, stretching and shrinking and morphing their shapes. Some of them sink back into the water. Others float up into the sky or nestle into the treetops. At dawn, they merge back together into one orb before vanishing back into the sea.

INTERACTIONS: Ryūtō are considered by the Japanese to be a manifestation of light caused by the dragons which inhabit bodies of water. Areas where ryūtō routinely appear often have shrines near them, and the lights themselves are considered sacred. On nights that ryūtō appear, people gather along the shore to watch these dancing and changing holy flames.

LEGENDS: The Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture (old Bingo and Aki Provinces) is not only one of the most famous shrines in Japan, but also a popular sightseeing location for watching ryūtō. The lights appear on the tranquil surface of Hiroshima Bay for about a week starting on New Year’s Day. They are believed to appear because the Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the gods of the sea and thus is connected with Ryūjin.

Namahage

Namahage

なまはげ

TRANSLATION: from a phrase meaning “peeled blisters”
ALTERNATE NAMES: amahage, amamehagi, namomihagi, appossha
HABITAT: mountainous regions in northern Japan
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Namahage are a frightful demon-like yōkai which live in the mountains along the northern coast of the Sea of Japan. They look like oni, with bright red or blue skin, wild hair and eyes, large mouths full of sharp teeth, and often have horns sprouting from their forehead. They wear straw leggings and raincoats, and carry large blades.

INTERACTIONS: Once a year, during koshōgatsu—the first full moon of the New Year—the namahage descend from the mountains to scare villagers. They go from door to and brandish their knives, saying things like, “Any bad kids here?” They particularly enjoy scaring small children and new brides. Despite their ferocious appearance and behavior, they are actually well-meaning yōkai. They are sent down from the mountain as messengers of the gods to warn and chastise those who have been lazy or wicked.

ORIGIN: The name namahage comes from another taunt the namahage use: “Have your blisters peeled yet?” In the cold winter months, a lazy person who spent all of his or her time in front of the fireplace would get blisters from being too close to the heat for too long. Namomi is a regional name for these heat blisters, and hagu means to peel. The combination of those words became namahage.

Today, the namahage play a major part in New Year’s festivities in Akita Prefecture (old Dewa Province). Villagers dress up in straw raincoats and leggings, don oni masks, and wield large knives. They go from house to house and play the part of namahage. Residents visited by these namahage give presents such as mochi to their “guests,” while the namahage chastise kids and warn them to be good. Newlywed couples are also harassed by these namahage. They are expected to give an account of all of the evil deeds they did during their first year together, as well as serve sake and food to the namahage before sending them off.

While the name namahage is unique to Akita Prefecture, very similar yōkai are known by many different local names in neighboring regions: in Yamagata Prefecture they are known as amahage, in Ishikawa Prefecture they are known as amamehagi, and in Fukui Prefecture they are known as appossha.

Kiyo hime

Kiyohime清姫
きよひめ

TRANSLATION: Princess Kiyo

APPEARANCE: Kiyo hime is one of the most famous antagonists in Japanese literature, and an example of a honnari hannya—a demon woman who has attained the maximum level of power. She appears in The Legend of Anchin and Kiyo hime, or Princess Kiyo, an ancient tale from Wakayama prefecture. Versions of the story appear in a number of ancient books. Her tale is retold in the famous noh play Dōjō-ji.

LEGENDS: Long ago, during the reign of Emperor Daigo, the young priest named Anchin was traveling from Mutsu to Kumano on a pilgrimage. Every year he made the journey, and every year he would lodge at the manor of the Masago no Shōji family. He was an incredibly good looking young man, and he caught the eye of Kiyo hime, the manor lord’s daughter. She was a troublesome young girl. Anchin joked to her that if she were a good girl and behaved herself, he would marry her and take her back to Mutsu.

Every year Kiyo hime waited for Anchin to come again for his pilgrimage. When she came of age arrived, she reminded him of his promise and asked him to marry her. Anchin, embarrassed that she had taken his word seriously, lied that he would come for her as soon as he finished his pilgrimage. On his return, he avoided the Masago no Shōji manor and headed straight for Mutsu.

When Kiyo hime heard of Anchin’s deception, she was overcome with grief. She ran after the young priest, barefoot, determined to marry him. Anchin fled as fast as he could, but Kiyo hime caught him on the road to the temple Dōjō-ji. There, instead of greeting her, Anchin lied again. He pretended not to know her and protested that he was late for a meeting somewhere else. Kiyo hime’s sadness turned into furious rage. She attacked, moving to punish the lying priest. Anchin prayed to Kumano Gongen to save him. A divine light dazzled Kiyo hime’s eyes and paralyzed her body, giving Anchin just enough time to escape.

Kiyo hime’s rage exploded to its limits—the divine intervention had pushed her over the edge. She transformed into a giant, fire-breathing serpent. When Anchin reached the Hidaka River, he paid the boatman and begged him not to allow his pursuer to cross. Then, he ran to Dojō-ji for safety. Ignoring the boatman entirely, Kiyo hime swam across the river after Anchin.

Seeing the monstrous serpent, the priests of Dōjō-ji hid Anchin inside of the large, bronze temple bell. However, Kiyo hime could smell Anchin inside. Overcome with rage and despair, she wrapped herself around the bell and breathed fire until the bronze became white hot. She roasted Anchin alive inside the bell. With Anchin dead, the demon Kiyo hime threw herself into the river and drowned.

Nyūnai suzume

Nyuunaisuzume入内雀
にゅうないすずめ

TRANSLATION: imperial palace-penetrating sparrow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sanekata suzume (Sanekata sparrow)
HABITAT: the imperial palace of ancient Kyoto
DIET: all of the emperor’s breakfast

APPEARANCE: Nyūnai suzume has the appearance of an ordinary russet sparrow, but in reality it is the ghost of an imperial attendant named Fujiwara no Sanekata.

LEGENDS: During the reign of Emperor Ichijō (960-1011 CE) lived a nobleman named Fujiwara no Sanekata. One day he got into a quarrel over some gossip started by Fujiwara no Yukinari, and in a rage, Sanekata snatched Yukinari’s hat and threw it away. For his bad temper, Sanekata was demoted and exiled far away to a solitary island in Mutsu province in the northeast. There, Sanekata nursed his resentment towards those back in the court at Kyoto, growing ever more resentful of them. Three years into his exile, he died, with thoughts of vengeance poisoning his heart.

When the news of Sanekata’s death reached Kyoto, a strange thing began to happen: every morning, when the servants would place food out for the imperial court to eat at the Seiryōden palace, the nyūnai suzume would swoop in and gobble up all of the food in an instant, and then fly off. No matter how much food was laid out, the sparrow would devour every grain of rice, leaving nothing for the palace inhabitants.

It was not long before the court began to grow very scared of this bird. It began destroy all of the crops in the fields, as well, and nobody knew how to stop the sparrow’s attacks.Rumors began to spread that the sparrow could only be the vengeful ghost, or onryō, of Fujiwara no Sanekata, desperate to return and take revenge upon the imperial court.

At the same time, the high priest of Kangaku-in, Saint Kanshi, had a sparrow visit him in a dream. The sparrow identified itself as the spirit of Sanekata, desperately longing to return to his beloved Kyoto, and asked the priest to chant and pray for him. The next morning, Kanshi discovered the body of a single sparrow lying dead at the base of a tree on the temple grounds. He recognized the sparrow as the transformed spirit of Fujiwara no Sanekata, and built a small grave for the sparrow, mourning it and praying for its soul.

After the sparrow’s grave was built, the attacks stopped. Years later, Kangaku-in’s name changed to Kyōjaku-ji, or Sparrow Temple, and while the Kyoto has changed dramatically since that time, the little grave where the sparrow was buried still remains to this day.

Fujiwara no Sanekata’s legacy lives on, too, in the common Japanese name for the russet sparrow: nyūnai suzume.

Furutsubaki no Rei

Furutsubaki no Rei古椿の霊
ふるつばきのれい

TRANSLATION: old tsubaki spirit
HABITAT: tsubaki trees
DIET: water, soil, and sunlight

APPEARANCE: In Japanese folklore, almost anything, upon reaching an old age, can develop a spirit and become a yokai. When a tsubaki tree (Camellia japonica, or the rose of winter) reaches an old age, it’s spirit gains the ability to separate itself from its host tree, along with other strange and mysterious powers, which it uses to bewitch and trick humans.

ORIGIN: The tsubaki is an evergreen tree which has the strange behavior of not losing its flowers gradually, petal by petal, but dropping them all at once to the ground. As a result, it long been associated with death and strangeness in Japan (and is also taboo to bring as gifts to hospitals or sick people).

LEGENDS: Long ago in Yamagata prefecture, two merchants were walking along a mountain road when they passed a tsubaki tree. Suddenly a beautiful young woman appeared from out of nowhere on the road beside one of the merchants. She breathed on him, and instantly he transformed into a bee. She then disappeared into the tsubaki tree, and the bee followed her and landed on a flower. The fragrance of the tree had turned into poison, however, and as soon as the bee smelled it, it dropped to the ground. The flower soon fell off of the tree too. The other merchant picked up both the bee and the flower and rushed to a nearby temple to save his friend. The priest recited prayers and read the sutras over the bee, but it sadly did not return to life or to its former human form. Afterwards, the surviving merchant buried the bee and the flower together.

In Akita prefecture, long ago, a man heard a sad and lonely voice coming from the tree one night. A few days later, a disaster befell the temple. This happened again and again, and soon the priests at the temple realized that the tsubaki would cry a warning every time something bad was going to happen. The tree was dubbed Yonaki Tsubaki, or “night-crying tsubaki,” and still stands today in the temple Kanman-ji, where it has stood for over 700 years.

In Ōgaki, Gifu, there is an ancient burial mound. One year, historians excavated the burial mound and discovered some ancient artifacts, including a mirror and some bones; however, shortly after the man who discovered the artifacts died. The locals blamed it on a curse, and returned the artifacts to the mound, planting a tsubaki on top of it. When the tsubaki grew old, it transformed into a yokai tree. Since then, the glowing figure of a young, beautiful woman has been seen by the roadside near the burial mound at night.

Makuragaeshi

Makuragaeshi枕返し
まくらがえし

TRANSLATION: pillow flipper
ALTERNATE NAMES: makura kozō
HABITAT: bedrooms
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Makuragaeshi are a kind of zashiki-warashi: a child ghost which haunts specific rooms of a house. They are found all over Japan, though details about them vary from region to region. They take the form of a small child dressed as a Niō, a monk, or a samurai, and appear in bedrooms late at night.

BEHAVIOR: Makuragaeshi gets it is named for its primary activity: flipping pillows. People who sleep in a room haunted by a makuragaeshi often wake up to find that their pillow has been flipped and is now at their feet. Makuragaeshi are also known for other minor pranks, such as running through ashes and leaving dirty footprints around the rooms they haunt.

While most stories about makuragaeshi present them as harmless pranksters, there are a few stories that describe scarier powers. Some don’t flip the pillow, but lift up and flip people instead. Others pick up entire tatami mats that people are sleeping on and bounce them around.  Still others are said to sit on their victim’s chest while he or she sleeps, pressing down hard and squeezing the wind out of the lung. They occasionally cause kanashibari, or sleep paralysis. The most extreme stories say that anyone who sees a makuragaeshi loses consciousness, after which the makuragaeshi steals their soul, leaving them dead.

ORIGIN: There are as many theories as to where makuragaeshi come from as there are variants of zashiki-warashi. Most often they linked to the ghosts of people — particularly children — who died in the room they come to haunt. As makuragaeshi are generally lower in rank than zashiki-warashi, they are often the result of ghosts which died tragically, such as murder victims. However, some makuragaeshi have also been attributed to shape-shifting, prank-loving yokai such as tanuki or saru. Others still have attributed this spirit to the actions of monster cats such as kasha.

Kasha

Kasha火車
かしゃ

TRANSLATION: fire cart
HABITAT: populated areas
DIET: fresh human corpses

APPEARANCE: Kasha are a type of bake-neko, or monster cat. They are large, bipedal felines as large as or larger than a human. They are often accompanied by hellish flames or lightning. They like to appear during rainy or stormy weather, and most often during the night. Their name sometimes causes confusion with other yokai; while their name means “fire cart,” they do not use vehicles of any kind.

INTERACTIONS: Kasha, being bake-neko, often live among humans, disguised as ordinary house cats or strays. However, they reveal their true forms during funeral services, when they leap down from rooftops to snatch corpses out of their coffins. Kasha are occasionally employed as messengers or servants of hell, in which case they are tasked with collecting the corpses of wicked humans spiriting them off to hell for punishment. Other times, they steal corpses for their own uses — either to animate as puppets or to eat.

It is nearly impossible to retrieve a person’s remains after they have been snatched by a kasha. This makes passing on to the next life difficult. The best defense is to be prepared; temples in areas where kasha are said to prowl have devised unique ways of defending against these monster cats. In Yamagata, clever priests have taken to holding two funeral ceremonies for the deceased. The first ceremony is a fake — the casket is filled only with rocks, so if a kasha comes for the body it will end up with nothing. The real ceremony takes place afterwards, when the risk of a kasha encounter is lessened. In Ehime, a head shaving razor may be placed on top of the coffin as against kasha. In Miyazaki, priests chant, “baku ni wa kuwasen” and “kasha ni wa kuwasen” (“don’t be eaten by a baku, don’t be eaten by a kasha”) twice times in front of the funeral procession in order to keeps evil spirits away. In Okayama, the priests play a myōhachi — a type of cymbal used in religious ceremonies — in order to keep the kasha away.

ORIGIN: Kasha were once ordinary house cats. Like other animals, as they age in years and their tails grow longer, cats begin to develop magical powers. Some turn into bake-neko, more powerful cats turn into neko-mata, and beyond that some turn into kasha. Fear of such demonic cats has long existed in Japan, and since ancient times, folk wisdom tells us, “Don’t let cats near dead bodies,” and, “If a cat jumps over the coffin, the corpse inside the coffin will rise.” Fears such as these have given rise to superstitious traditions such as cutting a cat’s tail short in order to prevent it from learning magic.

Amikiri

Amikiri網切
あみきり

TRANSLATION: net cutter
HABITAT: villages and towns, particularly fishing villages
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Amikiri are small, crustacean-like yokai which resemble shrimp or lobsters. They have a long body, a red, segmented shell, a bird-like beak, and two scissor-like claws on their forearms. They fly through the air as a fish swims in water, and are quite shy, rarely appearing before humans.

BEHAVIOR: Amikiri don’t interact with humans very much, except for one particular activity which is the reason that they are called “net cutters.” For some strange reason, amikiri love to cut nets, whether it be a fishing net, a screen door or window, or a kaya — a Japanese hanging mosquito net. While they are not directly harmful, this mischief is not entirely benign either: the life of a fisherman is tough, and a fisherman whose nets have been shredded by an amikiri could find his livelihood ruined.

ORIGIN: It’s unclear where amikiri come from, although they bear a very strong resemblance both in name and shape to an arthropod-like yokai called kamikiri. Stories about amikiri are rare, and their name and shape may actually be a pun; the word ami means net in Japanese, but it also is the name of a type of tiny shrimp.

LEGENDS: A story from Yamagata prefecture tells of a fisherman who one day found that his fishing net had been shredded to the point of worthlessness. He suspected the work of an amikiri. The next day, he took special care to hide his nets at his home where they could not be found by any wandering yokai. That night, however, the amikiri snuck into his room while he slept and cut up the kaya covering his bed. The man woke up with his entire body covered in painful, itchy mosquito bites.

Kurozuka

Kurozuka黒塚
くろづか

TRANSLATION: the black mounds; named for the area she haunted

LEGENDS: Kurozuka is the most well-known demon woman in Japanese folklore, and a very popular subject in the arts, starring in everything from paintings to ukiyoe prints to noh plays. She has gone by many names. Kurozuka, or the witch of “the black mounds,” is the most famous one, but she is also known as the Demon of Adachigahara, or even just simply Onibaba, “the demon hag.”

Her story has changed over the years and through various adaptations. A popular version of the story goes like this:

Long ago, a wealthy noble couple had a daughter whom they loved very much. However, their daughter was sickly, and by the age of five she had still never spoken a single word. The worried couple consulted with priests and doctors, until finally one doctor told them that the only way to cure their daughter was to feed her a fresh liver from an unborn fetus.

The couple summoned their daughter’s nanny and put the task of retrieving the liver to her. Expecting that it would take some time to find someone willing to give up their baby’s liver, the nanny prepared for a long journey. She gave the daughter a protection charm and promised not to return without the liver, then left.

The nanny traveled for days, months, and eventually years without finding any family willing to give up their baby’s life. Eventually, her travels brought her to the moors of Adachigahara, in Fukushima. Despondent, she decided that if nobody would give her a liver, she would have to take one. She made camp in a cave off of the toad and decided to wait for a pregnant woman to pass by.

Many more years passed, and finally a lone pregnant woman came walking by on the road. The nanny leaped out of the cave and slew the traveler with her knife, carving her belly open, killing the fetus, and taking its fresh liver. Only after the deed was done, the nanny looked down at her victim, and noticed the young woman was wearing a very old but very familiar protection charm: the very same one that she had given the daughter so many years ago! The knowledge of what she had done weighed so heavily on her that the nanny went insane, and transformed into a yokai.

The demon of Adachigahara developed fearsome magical powers. She learned to lure travelers into her shelter and invite them to spend the night, after which she would murder them in their sleep. She remained there on the moors of Adachigahara for many many years, murdering any lone travelers who passed by her cave and eating their remains.

In the noh version of her story, the demon woman is eventually visited by traveling Buddhist priests, whom she plans to kill. While she is out gathering firewood, the priests find a room full of dead bodies and bones, and they recognize her as the Demon of Adachigahara. She chases after them, but they are able to hold her back with their Buddhist prayers, and drive the evil spirit from her, banishing it forever. When the demon spirit is driven from her body, she becomes an old woman and dies. The monks bury her remains and build a grave among the black mounds where she haunted.

Kanashibari

Kanashibari金縛り
かなしばり

TRANSLATION: bound up with metal

APPEARANCE: Kanashibari is the Japanese term for sleep paralysis, a phenomenon when REM sleep overlaps with waking consciousness. The victim’s body is still paralyzed in sleep, but the eyes are open and the mind is half-awake; and the real and dream worlds mix together. Stories about kanashibari go back all the way to ancient times, and it was attributed to a supernatural force enacted upon the body. There are a number of legends about kanashibari, and each one points at a different cause.

ORIGIN: The most common form of kanashibari comes from possession. When a person is possessed by inugami, kitsune, tanuki, or other kinds of tsukimono, one of the possible symptoms they can develop is immobility or sleep paralysis. This sort of possession could sometimes be overcome if a shugenja — a kind of priest — recited Buddhist sutras to drive out the possessing animal spirit. Once the spirit was driven out, the kanashibari would disappear, and all would be well again.

Other kinds of yokai can inflict kanashibari. The makura-gaeshi, a kind of zashiki-warashi from Ishikawa prefecture, haunts rooms at night, flipping over the pillows of the sleeping inhabitants. Victims sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, feeling a crushing weight on their chest, and find the ghost of a small child sitting on them. This can occur sporadically, or even every night, depending on the mood of the makura-gaeshi. Though not actually harmful, this is a terrifying experience for the victim.

Kanashibari can even be caused by humans — usually priests or sorcerers. The tale of Kiyohime features one passage where the jealous princess is chasing after her lover, Anchin. Trying to escape her advances, Anchin asks the priest at a Kumano shrine for help, and they are able to trap Kiyohime in kanashibari, giving Anchin time to flee.

Finally, kanashibari can be caused by ghosts. A famous account comes from a popular ghost story in Iwate prefecture. There are many variations, but generally what happens is this: during the middle of the night, a person wakes up with an ominous, foreboding sense of dread. He (or she) realizes that he can’t move, even though he is wide awake. It feels like powerful arms are gripping him tight, keeping him immobile. Suddenly, an invisible force tugs on his legs and drags him out from under his futon — usually in the direction of an open window, or a river, or some other dangerous place! After a desperate struggle, he finally snaps out of the sleep paralysis, and sees the ghost of a middle aged woman rising up into the ceiling.

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.

Tanuki

Tanuki
たぬき

TRANSLATION: tanuki (raccoon dog)
ALTERNATE NAMES: bakedanuki; referred to as mujina or mami in some areas
HABITAT: mountains and forests; found throughout Japan
DIET: carnivorous; feeds on small wild animals, with a fondness for alcohol

APPEARANCE: The tanuki rivals the kitsune for the most well-known animal yokai. Sometimes called the raccoon dog in English, it is an East Asian canine that resembles a badger or a raccoon. These shy nocturnal animals can be found on all of the Japanese isles, and tanuki statues are popular decorations in homes and shops. They are beloved not only for their cuteness, but also for the tales of mischief and trickery associated with them.

BEHAVIOR: Tanuki possesses powerful magical abilities. They are similar to kitsune in their superb ability to change shape. They have a jovial nature, and delight in playing tricks on humans.

Aside from their powerful ability to change their shape, perhaps the most famous attribute that tanuki possess is their large and magical testicles, which they can adapt to any need. They are used as weapons, drums, fans to keep cool, even umbrellas. Often, tanuki incorporate their testicles into their disguises: the tanuki becoming a shopkeeper and its testicles transforming into the shop; or perhaps a palanquin complete with servants to cart the tanuki from place to place. A famous nursery rhyme about tanuki testicles is learned by children everywhere:

Tan tan tanuki no kintama wa/Kaze mo nai no ni/Bura bura
Tan-tan-tanuki’s balls/Even when there is no wind/They swing, swing

INTERACTIONS: In the ancient religions of the Japanese isles, tanuki were considered gods and rulers over all things in nature. With the introduction of Buddhism, they gradually lost that status; like other magical animals, they took on the role of messengers of the gods and guardians of local areas. While tanuki are not generally feared or considered malicious yokai, they are not entirely harmless either. Like humans, each one is a unique individual, and while many tanuki are jovial do-gooders who love the company of humans, some locals tells of horrible tanuki who snatch humans to eat, or spirit them away to become servants of the gods.

OTHER FORMS: The most intelligent and magically adept tanuki have been known to adopt human names and practices, such as gambling, drinking, even administration and religious activities. Many go through their whole lives living among humans without ever being detected. In human form, tanuki have proven to be as corruptible as the humans they emulate, and some tanuki have well-earned reputations as thieves, drunkards, liars, and cheats.

Additionally, many use their shapeshifting powers to transform into stones, trees, statues, and even ordinary household items in order to play tricks on people. Some even transform into giants and horrible monsters, either to terrorize humans for pleasure, or else to scare them away from places they shouldn’t be.

Mujina

Mujina
むじな

TRANSLATION: badger
ALTERNATE NAMES: anaguma; known as tanuki or mami in some regions
HABITAT: forests and mountains
DIET: carnivorous; feeds on small wild animals

APPEARANCE: Mujina, or badgers, live in the mountains, generally farm from human society. These days, ordinary badgers are usually called anaguma, while the term mujina usually refers to their yokai form. They are frequently confused with tanuki because of their similar size, appearance, and magical prowess. Additionally, in some regions tanuki are called mujina, while mujina are called tanuki. In others, the term mami is used to apply to both animals.

BEHAVIOR: Mujina are a slightly less famous as yokai than other shape-changing animals. They are very shy, and do not normally like to be seen by or interact with humans. Mujina encounters are much less common than those with other animal yokai. The few mujina which do live among human society take great care not to betray their disguise in any way, unlike other animals which are often much more careless.

INTERACTIONS: When it is dark and quiet, and there are no humans around, it is said that mujina like to shift into a humanoid form – usually that of a young boy wearing a tiny kimono – and sing songs in the street. If approached by a stranger, they run away into the darkness and transform back into animal form.

OTHER FORMS: The most well-known form mujina take is that of a nopperabō, a seemingly normal human form, but with no facial features whatsoever. They use this form to scare and panic humans who wander mountain or village roads at night time. Because of this, the two yokai are often confused, and noppera-bō are sometimes referred to mistakenly as mujina. However, other animal yokai do take up this same form, and there are non-animal noppera-bō as well, so care should be taken to avoid this misunderstanding.

Kawauso

Kawauso
かわうそ

TRANSLATION: river otter
HABITAT: rivers, wetlands, freshwater bodies
DIET: carnivorous; feeds on fish and small animals, with a fondness for sake

APPEARANCE: River otters can be found in the wilds all over Japan. They are under a meter in total length, and well-loved for their shy, playful nature and cute faces.

BEHAVIOR: As with most wild animals in Japan, kawauso develop magical powers upon reaching old age. They are particularly skilled at shape-changing and accurately copying sounds. They love alcohol, and are usually only seen in human areas when trying to acquire sake. They are playful yokai, well known for tricks and mischief, but very rarely dangerous.

INTERACTIONS: Kawauso are fond of playing pranks on humans, especially by mimicking sounds and words. They enjoy calling out human names or random words at strangers walking in the street and watching their confused reactions. They are fond of magically snuffing out lanterns in the night and leaving travelers stranded in the dark. Others transform into beautiful young women and try to seduce young men, and then run away laughing.

Occasionally kawauso do commit more violent deeds. In a few instances near castles in Ishikawa, a kawauso dressed up as beautiful young woman was found luring men to the water’s edge in order to catch and eat them, discarding the half-eaten bodies into the moat.

OTHER FORMS: A Kawauso’s favorite disguise is the form of a young beggar child wearing a big straw hat. They use this child form to sneak into towns and try to buy alcohol from shops. The ruse often falls apart when the disguised creature is asked who it is, or where it came from. Caught off-guard, it simply repeats the last word spoken to it, or makes funny nonsensical noises, ruining its disguise and giving away its supernatural nature.

Hitotsume kozō

Hitotsumekozou一つ目小僧
ひとつめこぞう

TRANSLATION: one-eyed priest boy
HABITAT: found all throughout Japan; often encounters on dark streets
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Child-like and mischievous, hitotsume kozō are little one-eyed goblins who are well-known in all parts of Japan. They have a single, enormous eye, a long red tongue, and wear shaved heads and robes, like tiny Buddhist monks.

BEHAVIOR: Hitotsume kozō are relatively harmless as far as yokai go; their most alarming trait is appearing suddenly and surprising people on dark streets, which they seem to enjoy doing. Hundreds of encounters have been reported over the years, most of them very similar to each other, and they simply detail a mischievous spirit who likes to spook people late at night.

INTERACTIONS: In East Japan, it is said that every year on the 8th of December, hitotsume kozō travel the land, recording in ledgers the families who have been bad that year in order to decide each family’s fortunes for the next year. They take their reports to the god of pestilence and bad luck, who brings misfortune on those bad families in the coming year. However, they leave their ledgers with the guardian deity of travels for safekeeping until February 8th. In a mid-January ceremony, local villagers burn down and rebuild that deity’s roadside way-shrines in hopes that the fires will also burn the hitotsume kozō’s ledgers before they come to pick them up (thus escaping disaster that year).

ORIGIN: Though similar in name to other one-eyed monsters like hitotsu-me-nyūdō, there is little evidence suggesting a relation between the two. Many believe that hitotsume kozō’s origins are connected in some way with Enryaku-ji, the head temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Others believe that they were once local mountain deities who over time became corrupted and changed into yokai.

LEGENDS: A man named visited a friend on business. While waiting in the reception room, a young boy of about 10 appeared and began to mischievously roll and unroll the hanging scroll in the room’s alcove. When the man scolded the boy for being mischievous, the boy turned around and squawked, “Be quiet!” However, the boy’s face had only one eye! The man screamed and fainted, and had to be carried back to his own home. He was bed-ridden for 20 days, but made a full recovery.

In an account from Fukushima, a young lady was walking the street at night. A little boy approached her from behind and asked, “Ma’am, would you like some money?” She laughed and sweetly replied yes, and turned to face the boy. He was a hitotsume kozō, and he was grinning staring so intensely at her with his single eye that she fainted in shock on the spot.

A similar tale from Okayama tells of a particular street where an eerie, pale blue glow was seen one night. A man went to investigate and witnessed a ghostly one-eyed boy playing around. The man collapsed, paralyzed with fear, and was unable to move. The apparition approached the helpless man and licked him from head to toe with his long, slobbery tongue.

Uwan

Uwanうわん

TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; named for the sound it makes
HABITAT: empty temples, abandoned houses
DIET: lives off of the fear it causes

APPEARANCE: Very little is known about this monster, which is more often heard than seen. It is named for the distinctive sound it makes, crying out from the darkness: “Uwan!” No written record of its physical appearance exists, and the creature was thought to be utterly formless for centuries. It wasn’t until the Edo period that uwan were considered anything more than phantom sounds, when yokai artist Sawaki Sūshi gave the creature the shape we know today.

INTERACTIONS: Uwan are occasionally encountered outside of old buildings and temples, where they like to assault lone passersby by leaping out of the shadows and shouting, “Uwan!” Any weak-willed individuals who faint at the surprise will never wake up again, as the uwan steals their soul and runs away into the darkness. However, if a brave individual shouts back, “Uwan!” this yokai will flee and never bother him or her again.

LEGENDS: A famous uwan encounter took place in Akita prefecture during the Edo period. A young newlywed couple had bought an old mansion and moved in together. On their first night in their new house, they were awoken suddenly by a loud voice shouting, “UWAN!” The shocked couple searched all over and around the house, but couldn’t find the source of the voice. The shouting continued sporadically all night long, every night for some time, and the couple was not able to sleep at all.

Some time later, the couple’s neighbors began to ask why he and she were always so tired-looking, with blood-shot eyes and disheveled hair. The husband tried to explain about the mysterious voice, but none of his neighbors claimed to have heard the shouting, and so of course, nobody in the neighborhood believed the couple. Instead, gossip quickly began to spread that the newlyweds weren’t getting any sleep on account of nocturnal activity of a different kind… Embarrassed, the couple ceased asking about the strange sounds.

Otoroshi

Otoroshiおとろし

TRANSLATION: a regional corruption of osoroshii, meaning “scary”
ALTERNATE NAMES: odoroshi, odoro odoro, keippai
HABITAT: shrines, temples, and homes; found above gates and doors
DIET: small animals and wicked people

BEHAVIOR: Otoroshi is known by many regional names, most of them being wordplays denoting this monster’s course, wild mane which covers its body, and its fearsome appearance. They appear as hairy, hunched, four-legged beasts with fierce claws and tusks. They can have blue or orange skin.

APPEARANCE: Little is known about this rare and mysterious creature, though its existence has been known of for centuries. Otoroshi are masters of disguise and are rarely seen except for when they want to be. They are most commonly spotted in high places like roofs and gates above temples, and the torii archways at shrines, which separate the physical world from the realm of the gods. They eat the wild animals found in shrines and temples – particularly pigeons, sparrows, and other birds.

INTERACTIONS: Otoroshi act as a kind of guardian of these holy places. They attack humans only rarely: when they spot a wicked or imprudent person near a holy place, or when one tries to enter through the gateway they are guarding. Otoroshi attack by pouncing down on their victim them from above, tearing him to shreds and devouring the remains.

ORIGIN: While its name implies ferocity and its appearance is quite grotesque, it is not known to be particularly dangerous. The name otoroshi, while not a word itself, appears to be derived from variations in regional dialects. It is generally accepted to be a corruption of osoroshii, meaning “scary.” Nothing at all is known of its origins, but it is speculated to be related to a similar yokai, the waira, due to their common habits and environment.

Aka shita

Akashita赤舌
あかした

TRANSLATION: red tongue
ALTERNATE NAMES: aka kuchi (red mouth)
HABITAT: rice fields and farming villages; commonly found in Tsugaru
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Aka shita is a mysterious spirit which takes the form of a dark cloud with sharp claws and a hairy, bestial face. Its most prominent feature and namesake is its long, bright red tongue and mouth. It appears during the summer months, when rain and water are most valuable to ensure a successful growing season. Only the shape of its hairy, monstrous face and long, bestial claws are known. The rest of its body is perpetually hidden inside of the dark, black clouds in which it lives.

BEHAVIOR: Aka shita are agents of bad luck and evil, and are primarily known as punishers in water disputes. Because plenty of water is essential for keeping rice paddies flooded, Japan’s farmlands are interlaced with an intricate series of interconnected aqueducts and canals meant to deliver water to all of the farmers equally. In times of drought, however, a wicked farmer may open up the sluice gates and drain his neighbor’s water into his own field. Such a serious crime can cost a family its livelihood, and such criminals usually face the violent wrath of their neighbors. Water thieves who never get caught may think they’ve gotten away with their crime, but it is to these farmers that the aka shita comes, draining the water out of their fields and snatching them up with its long red tongue.

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.

Hone onna

Honeonna骨女
ほねおんな

TRANSLATION: bone woman
HABITAT: dark streets, alleys, graveyards
DIET: none; though has a large sexual appetite

APPEARANCE: Not all who die turn into vengeful beings of grudge and jealousy. Hone onna retain an undying love that persists long after their flesh has rotted away, allowing them to continue to be with the object of their affection despite having died. These ghosts appear as they did in life – young, beautiful women in their prime. Only those unclouded by love or with strong religious faith are able to see through their disguise to their true form: rotting, fetid skeletal corpses returned from the grave.

INTERACTIONS: At night, a hone onna arises from the grave and wanders to the house of her former lover. Her appearance is a great shock to those who had believed her to be dead. This shock quickly turns into such joy that it blinds them to any clues that something might be wrong. Even the hone onna herself does not know of her condition, as she is driven only by love; she exists as a ghost only to continue the love she had in life. She spends the night and leaves in the morning, and this unholy coupling can continue for days or even weeks without being noticed. Each night she drains some of her lover’s life force, and he grows ever sicker and weaker. Without intervention, he will eventually die, joining his lover forever in death’s embrace.

In most cases, a friend or a servant of her lover will see through her illusion and alert someone to her true identity. Though her human lover may be repulsed by her when the truth is revealed to him, the ghost never realizes her condition and continues to visit every night. A home can be warded with prayers and magic charms against entry by ghosts, but they only work as long as the master of the house wills them to. As her body decays further, her enchanting allure only increases, and eventually most men succumb and let her into their homes one last time, sacrificing their own lives to the ghost of the woman they loved.

LEGENDS: Perhaps the most famous hone onna story is the of Otsuyu from Botan Dōrō, the Tale of the Peony Lantern. It has been adapted into puppet shows, kabuki plays, rakugo, and film, and remains a famous and influential ghost story today.

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.

Umi bōzu

Umibouzu海坊主
うみぼうず

TRANSLATION: sea monk
ALTERNATE NAMES: umi-nyūdō, umi-hōshi
HABITAT: seas, oceans, bays
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Perhaps no other aquatic yokai is as mysterious as the giant umi bōzu. Their true form is unknown, as they are only ever seen from the shoulders up, but they appear to be roughly humanoid in shape, with inky black skin and a pair of large, round eyes. Eye-witnesses report a great range in size, from slightly larger than a ship, to a size so unimaginable that only the creature’s bulbous face is visible above the water. Its head is smooth and round like that of a venerable monk, and its body is nude and as black as shadow. Some reports make them out to be more serpentine, while others make them out to be more ghostly, like a gigantic kind of funa-yūrei.

INTERACTIONS: Umi bōzu appear on calm nights, when there is no sign of anything out of the ordinary. All of a sudden, with no warning, the waves and the weather whip up into a furious condition, and out from the tumult rises a titanic creature. It moves to destroy the ship, either by smashing the hull in a single blow, or taking it down bit by bit, depending on the size of both the ship and the umi bōzu.

Occasionally, instead of smashing the ship, an umi bōzu will demand a barrel from the crew. It uses this to pour huge amounts of water onto the deck, quickly sinking the boat and drowning the crew. If given a barrel with the bottom removed, the umi bōzu will scoop and scoop to no effect, and the sailors will be able to make a lucky escape.

ORIGIN: Some say that the umi bōzu are the spirits of drowned priests, cast into the sea by angry villagers (this may also be implied by their name). These priests were then transformed into ghosts due to the horrible nature of their death, making them cousins of the similarly dreaded funa-yūrei, with whom they share some similarities. Others, however, say that umi bōzu are a sea monster which lives in the deeps of the Seto Inland Sea, and that they are the progenitors of a large variety of other aquatic yokai. Because sightings are rare and almost always fatal, it is likely that the true nature and origin of this spirit will remain a mystery for a long time.

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.

Shōjō

Shoujou猩々
しょうじょう

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: coasts, islands, and shallow waters; found throughout Japan
DIET: omnivorous; extremely fond of sake

APPEARANCE: Along the mountainous coasts of Japan lives a race of ape-like, intelligent, red-haired sea spirits known as shōjō. They look like man-sized apes, with long, shaggy red hair, and reddish faces blushed with alcohol. They are bipedal like humans, and occasionally wear clothes or skirts made of seaweed.

BEHAVIOR: Shōjō spend their lives playing in the sea and on the sand of secluded beaches, drinking large quantities of alcohol. They revel in drunken silliness, singing, dancing, and enjoying life. Despite their silly appearance and demeanor, they are said to be very wise. They are extremely fond of sake and other types of alcohol. In fact, they are excellent brewers themselves, and can distil a powerful brine wine from seawater. The taste of the wine varies depending on the imbiber; if he is a good person, the wine will be delicious, but if he is a wicked person it will taste like a foul poison, and even may kill him if he does not change his evil ways.

INTERACTIONS: Shōjō can understand human languages and even parrot a number of words, and they are curious and gentle towards friendly humans. They are generally gentle and peaceful, and keep to themselves, preferring to remain apart from the world of mankind. Occasionally there have been stories of groups of shōjō harassing sailors and ships which stray too close to their homes, but these stories are rarely violent. Usually the shōjō flee into the water after they have stolen a few barrels of sake from the ship.

ORIGIN: The name shōjō is the Japanese version of the Chinese name for these ape-like spirit. Its name connotes liveliness, a fitting match for the lively personality of this creature. These days, the name is applied to the orangutan in both Japan and China, due to the ape’s physical resemblance to this yokai. Additionally, the term shōjō can be used to refer to a person who is a heavy drinker. The famous artist and yokai painter Kawanabe Kyōsai jokingly referred to himself as a shōjō in this way.

Yuki onna

Yukionna雪女
ゆきおんな

TRANSLATION: snow woman
HABITAT: mountain passes; anywhere there is snow
DIET: life energy; can also eat ordinary food

APPEARANCE: Yuki onna prey on travelers lost in the heavy snowstorms that blanket the Japanese Alps in winter. They have an otherworldly beauty, with long black hair and piercing eyes colored deep violet. Their skin is ageless and as white as snow. Their bodies are as cold as ice, and a mere touch is enough to give a human a deep, unshakable chill. She feeds on human life force, sucking it from their mouths into hers with an icy breath that often freezes her victims solid.

INTERACTIONS: Yuki onna sometimes fall in love with their intended prey and let them go free. Some marry humans and live happily together with their husbands. As supernatural spirits never age, however, they never age, and their husbands inevitably discover their true identities, ending these happy marriages. Most yuki onna are not this congenial, however, and spend their lives hunting humans in the snow. They stay near mountain roads and prey on the travelers coming and going, or break into homes and flash-freeze all of the inhabitants during the night.

LEGENDS: In Niigata, an elderly man operated an inn on a mountain trail with his wife. One snowy night, the inn was visited by a young lady who was traveling alone. She warmed herself by the fire and ate together with the innkeeper and his wife. She was sweet and charming and extremely beautiful. In the middle of the night, during a fierce blizzard, she stood up and made to leave the inn. The innkeeper begged her not to go outside, and took her hand to hold her back. It was as cold as ice, and merely touching it sucked all the warmth from the innkeeper’s body, causing him to shiver violently. As he tried to keep her in the house, her entire body turned into a fine icy mist, and shot up the chimney and out into the night.

A man from Yamagata claimed that he had been married to a yuki onna. His wife was beautiful, with piercing eyes and skin as white as a marble statue. While he loved to take long hot baths every night, his wife always refused to bathe, which puzzled him greatly. One particularly cold and snow night, he insisted that his wife take a bath, lest she freeze to death in the cold. She protested, but there was no reasoning with the man, and finally she acquiesced. When he went in to check on her a few minutes later, all he found remaining in the tub were thin, half-melted icicle fragments.

Tsurube otoshi

Tsurubeotoshi釣瓶落とし
つるべおとし

TRANSLATION: dropping like a well bucket
HABITAT: heavily wooded areas; particularly coniferous trees
DIET: carnivorous; large ones prefer humans, crushed or mashed

APPEARANCE: Tsurube otoshi are a gigantic disembodied heads of either a human, tengu, or oni. Sometimes they appear wreathed in flames and look like large fireballs with facial features. They live deep along paths in the forest, or just outside of town where travelers are likely to pass, spending most of their lives high in the trees (preferring pine, kaya, and other conifers for their height). They range in size from an ordinary head’s width to two meters in diameter.

BEHAVIOR: Tsurube otoshi lurk in the treetops late at night and wait for unsuspecting creatures to pass underneath. When they need to feed, they drop quickly to the ground like a stone (the reason for its name, which means “falling well bucket”). The goal is to trap an animal (a human, if the head is large enough) and eat it up. Then they slip back up into the trees, sometimes singing a monstrous taunt, challenging others to try to pass underneath. They enjoy this style of killing, letting out a horrible, guffawing laugh as they hunt and devour their prey. When they are not hungry, tsurube otoshi will sometimes drop down and crush people just for fun instead of eating them. They also else drop large rocks or even well buckets (they have a sense of humor) on their victims from up high, laughing at the damage they inflict. Travelers passing under tall trees late at night would be wise to keep their heads up, or else they may be crushed by a falling tsurube otoshi.

Tsurube otoshi encountered in Kansai usually are most often solitary, gargantuan heads. In Tohoku, however, tsurube otoshi are usually encountered in larger groups of slightly smaller heads.

Azuki babā

Azukibabaa小豆婆
あずきばばあ

TRANSLATION: the bean hag
ALTERNATE NAMES: azukitogi babā (the bean grinding hag)
HABITAT: forests and occasionally villages in Northeast Japan
DIET: humans

APPEARANCE: The people of Miyagi prefecture tell of a much more sinister member of the azuki family of yokai. Rather than the benign and cute azuki arai known throughout most of the country, this northeastern variation takes the form of a fearsome old hag dressed all in white, singing in a husky, ugly voice. Azuki babā only appears at twilight – particularly on rainy or misty autumn nights. Their song is similar to the azuki arai’s, except that azuki babā usually follow through on the threat to catch and eat humans.

BEHAVIOR: Witnesses of azuki babā who have survived to tell their experience describe and eerie white glow visible through the thick white mist. From the mist, the husky voice of an old hag can be heard singing her ghastly song and counting beans as she washes them in the river with a strainer. Those who don’t turn back at this point never make it back.

INTERACTIONS: Despite their ferociousness, azuki babā are much more rare than their harmless bean-washing counterparts, and are usually just used as stories to scare children into behaving properly. Of all the variations of azuki-related yokai, this one is the most likely to actually be a shapeshifted an evil itachi, tanuki, or kitsune, imitating the harmless azuki arai in order to attract a curious child to catch and eat.

Jorōgumo

Jorougumo絡新婦
じょろうぐも

TRANSLATION: entangling bride; alternatively whore spider
HABITAT: cities, towns, rural areas, forests, and caves
DIET: young, virile men

APPEARANCE: In Japan, some spiders are known to possess amazing supernatural powers. One of these, the jorōgumo, known as the golden orb-weaver in English, is the most well-known of the arachnid yokai. Jorōgumo are found all over the Japanese archipelago, except for Hokkaido. Their body size averages between two to three centimeters long, but they can grow much larger as they age; some are large enough to catch and eat small birds. These spiders are renowned for their large size, their vividly beautiful colors, the large and strong webs they weave, and for the cruel destruction they wreak on young men. Their name is written with kanji that mean “entangling bride.” However, these characters were added on to her name much later to cover up the original meaning of the name: “whore spider.”

BEHAVIOR: Jorōgumo live solitary lives, both as spiders and as yokai. When a golden orb-weaver reaches 400 years of age, it develops magical powers and begins to feed on human prey instead of insects. They make their nests in caves, forests, or empty houses in towns. They possess a cunning intelligence and a cold heart, and see humans as nothing more than insects to feed on. They are skillful deceivers and powerful shapeshifters, usually spending their lives appearing as young, sexy, and stunningly beautiful women.

INTERACTIONS: Jorōgumo’s favorite prey is young, handsome men who are looking for love. When a jorōgumo spots a man she desires, she invites him into her home, and he is usually never seen again. They can spin silk threads strong enough to ensnare a grown man so that he cannot escape. They also have a powerful venom that can slowly weaken a man day by day, allowing the spider to savor the long and painful death her victim suffers. They can control other, lesser spiders, even employing fire-breathing spiders to burn down the homes of any who grow suspicious of them. A jorōgumo can operate like this for years and years, even in the middle of a busy city, while the desiccated skeletons of hundreds of youth build up in her home.