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Oni hitokuchi


TRANSLATION: one bite from an oni
ALTERNATE NAMES: kamikakushi (spirited away)

APPEARANCE: When people vanish without warning or without a trace, their disappearance is often blamed on evil spirits. There are a number of different words describing this phenomenon. When a person is said to have been kidnapped and taken to the other world by spirits, they are said to be a victim of kamikakushi, or spiriting away. These victims often come back to the world many years later, profoundly changed by the traumatic experience. Sometimes, however, a person never returns after going missing. In these cases, the victim is often said to have been taken–or rather eaten–by an oni. Oni hitokichi describes such a situation, where the victim was gobbled up in a single bite, never to be seen again.

LEGENDS: A famous example of oni hitokuchi appears in the Heian Period story collection Ise monogatari. Poet and playboy Ariwara no Narihira lusted after a beautiful and high ranking noble lady named Fujiwara no Takaiko. Because of the her high social status, it was impossible for them to have a legitimate relationship. To Narihira’s dismay, their affair could only be conducted in secret. Unhappy with the situation, one night Narihira snuck into Takaiko’s room and kidnapped her. He fled into the wilds with the girl, when a terrible storm struck. They discovered a cave and sheltered there. Takaiko stayed in the far back end of the cave, and Narihira stood watch by the entrance with his bow and arrow ready. In the morning, when the storm had cleared, Narihira went to retrieve Takaiko from the cave, but she was not there. An oni who lived in it had gobbled her up, and there was not even a single piece of her left. Her screams had been drowned out by the sounds of the storm during the night.



TRANSLATION: candlestick spirit, candlestick demon

APPEARANCE: A tōdaiki is a magical lamp created using black magic and a living human being.

ORIGIN: Stories about people visiting strange lands and being transformed, or disappearing into another world and never returning are not uncommon in Japanese folklore. Fanciful stories like these might have originated in true but unsolved disappearances of loved ones.

LEGENDS: The most famous tōdaiki story involves a real historical figure. Hitsu no Saishō was the nickname of Fujiwara no Arikuni, a Heian period noble who lived from 943-1011 CE.

Long ago, during a period of great movement of culture and ideas between China and Japan, a government minister named Karu no Daijin was sent on a diplomatic mission to Tang China. He never returned, and his family in Japan, including his young son, Hitsu no Saishō, were left not knowing even knowing whether he was alive or dead.

Many years later, when Hitsu no Saishō was an adult, he traveled to China to search for news of his missing father’s whereabouts. He traveled far and wide, and in a particular location he came across something he had never seen before: a a candlestick fashioned out of a living human being! The man had been installed like a piece of furniture onto a fancy platform, and a large candle had been affixed to his head. Every inch of his body was covered in strange tattoos. And by some combination of strange drugs and sorcery, the man’s throat had been blocked up and ability to speak had been removed.

As Hitsu no Saishō looked in amazement at the strange creation, the tōdaiki began to shed tears. Unable to speak, the man bit hard into his finger tip until it began to bleed. Then, using his finger, he wrote out a poem in his blood:

Long ago I came to China from Japan. I have the same family name as you.
The bond between father and son transcends even the seas and mountains that have separated us.
For years I have cried in this horrible place. Every day I think of my parents.
I have been transformed into this candlestick in this faraway land. I just want to go home.

Upon reading this, Hitsu no Saishō realized in horror that the tōdaiki was his own father whom he had come to China looking for!



TRANSLATION: spirit calling incense

APPEARANCE: Hangonkō is a legendary incense from ancient China which has the power to bring forth the spirits of the dead before those who burn it. Those who burn the incense will see the spirits of the dead within the smoke.

ORIGIN: Hangonkō is made from the hangonjū, a magical tree with leaves and flowers that resemble those of a maple or Japanese oak. Its smell can be picked up from over 100 ri away. To make hangonkō, you steam the hangonjū’s roots until the sap comes out. Then you knead the sap to make the incense. Even a small piece of this resin is strong enough to recall the spirits of those who died from sickness or disease. There is a catch, however. Hangonkō only returns the spirit for a short time, and they only exist within the smoke of the burning incense.

LEGENDS: The incense was famously used by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty in China. After his beloved concubine Li Furen passed away, the emperor fell into deep depression. A Taoist sorcerer, in an attempt to ease the emperor’s grief, provided him with a bit of hangonkō so that he might see Lady Li one more time.

Hangonkō was a popular subject in Japanese literature as well. It appears in a number of Edo period works, from ghost story books to theater, kabuki, rakugo, and bunraku. The Japanese versions star different characters connected to famous Japanese figures; for example in one story a man is overcome with grief at the death of his beloved prostitute, and a hōkan—a male geisha—recommends he try summon her using a secret incense handed down by the onmyōji Abe no Seimei.

All of the variations of the story share the same moral: after the person uses the incense to meet their lover’s spirit, it only leaves them sadder and more grieved than they were before. Hangonkō doesn’t alleviate their loneliness, it makes it worse. This story is an allegory. Smoke can be a symbol of delusion, such as attachment to the material world, or the inability to let go of a loved one after death. In Buddhism, this delusion is the ultimate cause of all suffering. The smoke of this incense prevents people from properly letting go of their loved ones and moving on. They’re stuck in the past, in a delusion, and will be forever miserable unless they learn to let go.



TRANSLATION: torch shadow
ALTERNATE NAMES: shokuryū (torch dragon)
HABITAT: Mount Shō
DIET: none; he does not need to eat, nor drink, or breathe

APPEARANCE: Shokuin is a mighty god with the face of a human, and the body of a red dragon. His body is said to be 1000 ri long (an ancient unit of distance which varies quite a bit from age to age and place to place)—an immeasurable distance, meaning that he is impossibly large. He lives at the foot of Mount Shō, near the northern sea. His eyes glow like beams from a lighthouse, and his breath is so strong that it changes the seasons.

BEHAVIOR: When Shokuin opens his eyes, day falls upon the earth. When he closes them, it becomes night. When he inhales it becomes summer. When he exhales it becomes winter. Shokuin does not need to eat, drink or breathe to survive, but when he does decide to breathe it causes huge gusts of wind.

ORIGIN: Shokuin originally comes from China. Shokuin is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that make up his name; in China he is known as Zhuyin or Zhulong. Many yōkai were lifted straight from Chinese by Japanese authors—some of them more or less word for word, others undergoing quite a bit of a transformation and reinterpretation, depending on how much liberty the authors decided to take. Toriyama Sekien’s description of Shokuin doesn’t undergo too much of a change from his source: the Sengaikyō (Chinese: Shanhaijing), an encyclopedia of fantastical Chinese mythological creatures. However, Shokuin appears in a number of other Chinese books, many of which contain contradictory statements about precisely where he lives and other details about him. It isn’t clear where exactly his home of Mount Shō is located, but Toriyama Sekien describes it as being near the Arctic Ocean.

Due to his size and the effects that his blinking and breathing has on the day/night and seasonal cycles, Shokuin may have been an ancient Chinese solar or fire deity, or even a personification of the sun. It has also been suggested that Shokuin may have been the aurora borealis. An ancient Chinese name for the northern lights was “red spirit,” and the location of Shokuin far to the north further supports this theory. To the ancient Chinese, the aurora may have looked like a giant red dragon thousands of kilometers long writhing across the northern sky.

Jakotsu babā


TRANSLATION: snake bones hag
HABITAT: Bukan, a mythical country far to the west
DIET: as a human

APPEARANCE: Jakotsu babā is a scary old hag and a shaman with the power to control snakes. She is described as carrying a blue snake in her right hand and a red snake in her left hand.

BEHAVIOR: Very little is recorded about jakotsu babā’s history or life, so her behavior is the subject of speculation by storytellers. Generally, she supposedly lives near a place called “the snake mound.” She scares those who stay too close to her home by attacking them with her snakes.

ORIGIN: It’s not quite clear where this yōkai originally comes from. She was recorded in 1780 by Toriyama Sekien in his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. Because she carries two snakes, Sekien speculated that Jakotsu babā originally came from the mythical country of Bukan (also called Fukan; known as Wuxian in Chinese). Bukan is recorded in the Shan hai jing, which Toriyama Sekien uses as his source for this record. It was supposedly located far to the west, past China on the Asian continent. The race of people who lived in Bukan were shamans, and they used snakes prominently in their divinations.

According to Sekien, long ago there was an important man in Bukan named Jagoemon who lived in a place known as “the snake mound.” His wife was known as Jagobā (i.e. “Jago’s wife”). Over time, her name was corrupted into jakotsu babā. Jagoemon is not a famous historical or mythical figure, so Sekien’s reference may have just been invented for fun. Prior to Konjaku hyakki shūi, the name jakotsu babā appears in various pulp fiction and kabuki plays of the 1760’s and 1770’s—although it was just used as a vulgar slang word for an old woman, rather than a yōkai or a shaman. Some scholars believe that Sekien may just have taken a popular buzzword of his time, transformed it into a yōkai and attached a simple backstory to it.




TRANSLATION: based on the Chinese name for the same creature; literally “evergreen lord”
HABITAT: forests
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The hōkō is a nature spirit which inhabits 1000-year old trees. It resembles a black dog with no tail and a human-like face.

BEHAVIOR: Being a tree spirit, the hōkō is said to be similar to a kodama or a yamabiko, although Toriyama Sekien goes out of his way to specifically mention that despite the similar appearance it is a separate yōkai from the yamabiko.

INTERACTIONS: Most hōkō encounters are accidental. They usually involve an old woodcutter chopping into a camphor tree with an axe, and blood comes out from the tree—because a hōkō was living inside. Nevertheless there are a number of records of hōkō appearing in Japanese and Chinese chronicles. Hōkō are recorded as being edible; the ancient Chinese records that mention them include accounts of them being stewed and eaten. Apparently they taste sweet and sour, and similar to dog meat.

ORIGIN: Hōkō is the Japanese pronunciation of this spirit’s Chinese name: penghou. Because of gradual changes in the writing systems of China and Japan, the characters used to write hōkō do not translate perfectly in Japanese. Legends generally refer to the hōkō being found inside of camphor trees. However, the first characters in its name can refer to a different kind of evergreen in Japanese: the sakaki (Cleyera japonica), which is an important sacred tree in Shinto. The second character in its name was used as a title for feudal lords. It’s not really clear that these were the intended meanings in the original Chinese though. According to legend, its name was recorded in the yōkai encyclopedia Hakutaku zu—the last surviving copy of which was lost thousands of years ago—so its true meaning is difficult to decipher.

Oshiroi babā



TRANSLATION: face powder hag
ALTERNATE NAMES: oshiroi bāsan
HABITAT: dark streets at night, particularly near snowy mountains
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Oshiroi babā are ghastly old hags who appear in mountainous areas near the end of the year. They are accompanied by a telltale jara jara sound, as if someone were dragging along a mirror as they hobble through the streets. Their backs are hideously twisted and bent like an old woman’s after a lifetime hard work. They carry a cane in one hand, and a sake bottle in the other, and wear a broken straw hat. Their most defining feature is their wrinkly old face caked with thick, sloppy, white face powder.

INTERACTIONS: Oshiroi babā don’t interact with humans too often. For the most part, their looks alone are awful enough that anyone who sees them quickly runs away. They occasionally accost people, demanding makeup or trying to buy sake. In this way they are somewhat similar to other old hag yōkai who wander the streets at night, such as amazake babā. However, nearly every account of oshiroi babā describes them as hideous and scary, but not dangerous.

ORIGIN: According to some local legends, oshiroi babā are a variation of yuki onna. They descend from mountains into villages on snowy nights. Other legends say that they are more similar to yama uba, who occasionally demand makeup from travelers or appear at the bases of mountains to buy alcohol. According to Toriyama Sekien, oshiroi babā serve as the attendants of Shifun Senjō, the goddess of rouge and makeup.

Kokuri babā


TRANSLATION: hag of the old temple living quarters
HABITAT: old, dilapidated temples
DIET: human flesh

APPEARANCE: A kokuri babā is an old hag which inhabits temples deep in the mountains. She hides herself away in the back of the temple and feeds off of human corpses.

BEHAVIOR: A kokuri babā was once a priest’s widow at a remote, rural temple. While her husband lived, she was a dutiful wife, helping run the temple, tending to the needs of the parishioners, cooking, cleaning, washing, and taking care of the temple grounds. However, after her husband’s death, she retreated into the temple’s living quarters and became a shut in. When her food stores ran out, she began to steal the offerings left behind by people visiting the temple. Because of this grave sin, she transformed into a yokai, unable to pass on to the next life. From then on, she developed a taste for human flesh. She survived by carving up meat from the corpses of the recently dead. When there were no fresh corpses available, she would unearth previously buried corpses and peel off chunks of their rotting skin off to gnaw on.

INTERACTIONS: Kokuri babā do not usually interact with people, preferring to stay hidden away in the back rooms of their temples. However, when traveling monks pay a visit to their temple, they do not pass up the chance for some fresh meat. People who encounter a kokuri babā usually realize too late that they are in danger.

ORIGIN: Kokuri babā was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. Although it is written with words that literally mean “hag of the old temple living quarters,” Sekien was well known for using wordplay in his yōkai names, and this yōkai was no exception.

Kokuri is reminiscent of a popular folk phrase “Mukuri kokuri,” which is used as a metaphor for something scary. Indeed, Sekien points out in his description that kokuri babā is even more fearsome than Datsueba, the skin-flaying hag of the underworld. Parents would scold misbehaving children with, “Mukuri kokuri, a demon will come (if you don’t stop misbehaving)!”

Mukuri kokuri has a long history, originating in the the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. The Mongols under Kublai Khan had conquered China and Korea, and they had set their sights on Japan. The invaders were viewed by most people as the living embodiment of demons. Japan’s victory against the Mongols—thanks in no small part to two typhoons (believed to be kamikaze, or “divine winds” sent from the gods) which eradicated the two major Mongol invasion fleets—ended Mongol expansion and is had a profound impact on the identity of Japan as a nation. The memory of the invasions remained strong for generations, and became a part of folklore. The fear of invading Mongols was the basis for the phrase “Mōko Kōkuri no oni ga kuru” (“The Mongolian-Korean demons are coming!”), which over the centuries was corrupted down to just mukuri kokuri.



TRANSLATION: a nickname meaning “oni boy”

APPEARANCE: Kidōmaru is an oni who appears in Kokon chomonjū (“A Collection of Notable Tales Old and New”), a Kamakura Period complication of myths and legends of the Heian Period. He was a member of Shuten dōji’s clan, and is said to be Shuten dōji’s son. He is known for his attempts to take revenge upon the samurai who defeated his father.

LEGENDS: Kidōmaru’s was born after the legendary samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu (also known as Raikō) and his party of heroes had subjugated Shuten dōji and freed all of the women captured by his oni gang. The women were grateful to the samurai for rescuing them, and returned home to their villages. One of the women, however, didn’t return to her home. Instead, she traveled to the village of Kumohara, where she gave birth to a baby oni—Shuten dōji’s son!

The boy was named Kidōmaru. He was born with a full set of teeth, and an oni’s strength. By the time he was 7 or 8 years old, he could slay a deer or a boar by throwing a single rock at it. He was apprenticed as a temple servant to Mt. Hiei, just like his father was. And just like his father, he was eventually expelled from the temple for being a wicked, wretched little boy. He fled into the mountains and lived in a cave, turning to robbing people to survive. He studied magic and honed his powers in his secret hideout.

Many years later, Raikō was visiting his younger brother Yorinobu. Yorinobu had captured the oni bandit Kidōmaru and locked him in his bathroom. Raikō scolded his brother for being so careless and not properly subduing the oni with ropes and chains. Raikō showed Yorinobu how to tie up an oni, and made sure Kidōmaru couldn’t escape. Then Raikō spent the night just to make sure nothing bad would happen.

That night, Kidōmaru easily broke the bonds that were holding him. He wanted revenge, so he snuck up to Raikō’s room and spied on him. Raikō noticed the oni spying on him and decided to lay a trap. In a loud voice he told his attendants that the following morning they would ride to Mount Kurama to make a pilgrimage. Hearing this, Kidōmaru ran ahead to Kurama to plan an ambush for Raikō. On the road outside of Ichiharano, Kidōmaru slaughtered a cow and climbed inside of its body to hide and wait.

When Raikō and his companions arrived at Ichiharano, they easily saw through Kidōmaru’s disguise. Raikō’s best archer, Watanabe no Tsuna, shot an arrow through the cow’s body, injuring the oni. Kidōmaru emerged from the cow’s corpse and charged at Raikō with all of his might. However, Raikō was too fast: he cut Kidōmaru down with a single stroke of his blade.




TRANSLATION: thunder beast
HABITAT: thunderbolts
DIET: probably carnivorous

APPEARANCE: A raijū is the embodiment of lightning into an animal form. They had long, sharp claws and ferocious faces. Generally, they were thought to look like wolves, dogs, tanuki, or even weasels or cats. Far more fanciful forms existed too. Sometimes raijū were said to look like little dogs, but with four rear legs and two tails. Sometimes they were said to look like insects or crustaceans. Others looked like miniature dragons. Even more exotic raijū were said to be chimerical monsters composed of many different animals.

BEHAVIOR: Raijū live in the sky—a world which was totally off limits to humans before the 20th century. Because of this, almost nothing can be said about their true nature or behavior. They ride bolts of lightning to earth when thunder claps, and create mayhem wherever they land. For seemingly no reason at all they attack buildings, starting fires and causing mass destruction.

INTERACTIONS: Long ago, raijū were seen as divine beasts, akin to the thunder gods (raijin). Nothing was known about them except that they were fast, merciless, and deadly. Whenever lightning struck, people believed that a raijū had been sent by the gods to punish them for some reason or another.

Small raijū like burrow into humans’ belly buttons to hide from angry thunder gods. This is the origin of a Japanese superstition which says to cover your belly button when you hear thunder.

ORIGIN: Long ago the raijū was one of the most well known and most feared supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore. Yet today it is relatively minor, and practically unknown to the average person. This drastic reversal is due to advances in science during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Edo period and earlier, lightning and other natural disasters were believed to be the work of the gods. Only gods had the power to shake the earth and send fire from the sky. Lightning strikes so quickly and so randomly that it is impossible to observe. But it has very observable effects: the terrible booms that shake the ground, the odd burn patterns on the things it strikes, and the fires that it ignites. In old Japan when buildings were all made of wood and closely packed together, a single lightning strike could cause a lot of destruction. The damage caused by lightning was indiscriminate—it destroyed everything from peasant hovels to imperial palaces. Lightning was rightly feared by all.

During the Edo period, “real” raijū were popular sideshow attractions, along with kappa and mermaids. Mummified and taxidermined remains of cats, monkeys, and dogs were presented as raijū and toured around the country in traveling shows. Viewers could pay a few coins to get a safe, up-close look at a dead raijū in a glass case.

During the Meiji period, society was rapidly transformed due to the influx of foreign science and technology. Yōkai like raijū were one of the first victims of this modernization. People were actively discouraged from holding on to superstitions because they were perceived as an embarrassment to the country. New understandings about electricity and lightning, and the invention of the airplane explained away the raijū’s most defining features—its life in the unreachable sky, and the god-like power of lightning. Once those mysteries were gone, the raijū had no more power over peoples’ imaginations, and so it was quickly forgotten.

LEGENDS: Because they were so scary, raijū are usually presented in stories as beasts to be slain, like oni. The most famous example is probably the nue, which attacked Kyōto and was slain by Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1153. Another legend involves the samurai Tachibana Dōsetsu. One night he was taking shelter from a storm under a tree when lightning struck. He drew his sword just in time to strike the bolt. When the smoke had cleared, there was a dead raijū on the ground next to him. Afterwards, he named his sword Raikiri, or “lightning cutter.”

Okiku mushi



HABITAT: wells around Himeji Castle
DIET: herbivorous

APPEARANCE: Okiku mushi are caterpillar-like yōkai with the torso of a human woman. They are called Okiku mushi because it is believed they are born from the vengeance of Okiku’s ghost, from the story Banchō sarayashiki.

ORIGIN: According to her story, the servant girl Okiku was murdered by her lover. Her body was tied up, she was tortured, and then her body was discarded into the well of Himeji Castle. After her death, a number of strange occurrences were blamed on Okiku’s ghost. One of these was the sudden proliferation of a certain type of caterpillar—known in English as the Chinese windmill (Byasa alcinous). The chrysalis of this butterfly was thought to look like a tied up woman’s body, which the locals immediately associated with Okiku’s story. It was believed that her spirit must have come back as these bugs, spawned by whatever part of her grudge remained on this world.

While this insect is commonly known as the jakō ageha in Japan today, it is also known by its nickname Okiku mushi. This is in part due to the popularity of the Okiku story, as well as to the clever marketing of the local shopkeepers around Himeji Castle, who during the Edo period sold the chrysalises of these insects as souvenirs to tourists at the shrines near Himeji Castle.



TRANSLATION: smokey fabric
HABITAT: chimneys, bonfires
DIET: combustible materials

APPEARANCE: Enenra is a yōkai made up of wisps of smoke, which rise up into the sky from a fires, such as the takibi bonfires which farmers light to dispose of the remains of their harvests. As the smoke rises, human-like faces appear and disappear in its form.

BEHAVIOR: Enenra is essentially just a personification of smoke. It floats about as it climbs into the air, billowing in the wind, and appearing as fragile as a piece of delicate silk dancing in the breeze. It is mesmerizing and relaxing to watch.

ORIGIN: Enenra was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. It seems to be loosely based on a passage in Tsurezure gusa which describes the smoke rising from fires burned in the summer to keep mosquitoes away. Contemporary yokai scholars have also pointed out that this yōkai’s name sounds similar to the name Enma, the lord of hell and judge of the dead. As hell is a place of fire and smoke, it has been suggested that instead of the spirit of smoke itself, enenra may actually be the spirits of the dead rising up along with the smoke. For that reason, enenra only appears before those who are calm and pure of heart and mind.



TRANSLATION: minister of the four directions; one who sees in all directions

APPEARANCE: In ancient times, a hōsōshi was an official government minister and a priest in the imperial court. He wears special robes (the particular outfit varies depending on which shrine the ritual is being performed at), and carries a spear in his right hand and a shield in his left hand. The name also refers to a demon god which this priest would dress up as during yearly purification rituals. This god appears as a four-eyed oni who can see in all directions, and punishes all evil that it sees.

BEHAVIOR: During the early Heian Period, the hōsōshi’s duties included leading coffins during state funeral processions, officiating at burial ceremonies, and driving corpse-stealing yōkai away from burial mounds. By donning the mask and costume, the hōsōshi (priest) became the hōsōshi (god) and was able to scare away evil spirits. The hōsōshi’s most famous duty was a purification ceremony called tsuina.

Tsuina was performed annually on Ōmisoka—the last day of the year—at shrines and government buildings (such as the imperial palace). In this ritual, the hōsōshi and his servant would run around the shrine courtyard (covering “the four directions”), chanting and warding the area against oni and other evil spirits. Meanwhile, a number of attending officials would shoot arrows around the hōsōshi from the shrine or palace buildings, symbolically defending the area against evil spirits. Other observers would play small hand drums with ritualistic cleansing significance.

ORIGINHōsō was a concept related to divination, the four directions, and the magical barriers between the human world and the spirit world. It dealt with creating and maintaining these boundaries and barriers. It including things like planting trees or placing stones in the four corners of an area, or utilizing existing features like rivers and roads, which serve as natural boundaries. By maintaining these natural boundaries, the spiritual boundaries between the worlds could also be maintained, with the ultimate goal of keeping the imperial family and other government officials safe from supernatural harm.

The concept originated in ancient Chinese folk religion, where it is called fangxiang. The fangxiangshi wore a four eyed mask and a bear skin, and acted as a sort of exorcist. Chinese folk religion eventually became mixed with Buddhism and Taoism, and made its way to Japan. The Japanese hōsōshi’s rituals and costume were derived from this folk belief.

Over time, the Japanese version evolved further away from its Chinese roots. The hōsōshi came to be seen not as a god which keeps oni away, but as an oni itself. Rather than exorcising evil spirits, the hōsōshi became an evil spirit, and it was the imperial officials who chased away and exorcised the hōsōshi (thus symbolically chasing all evil spirits away). This may have been due to changing perceptions during the Heian period about the concept of ritual purity. The hōsōshi, who was associated with funerals and dead bodies, came to be viewed as unclean. It would be inappropriate for such a creature to be on the same “side” as the imperial household, so it became the target of the ritual instead of the officiator.

While the governmental position of hōsōshi no longer exists today, some shrines still perform annual tsuina rituals involving the hōsōshi. The celebration of Setsubun, in which beans are thrown at people wearing oni masks, is also derived from this ancient ritual.


Byōbu nozoki


TRANSLATION: folding screen peeper
HABITAT: wealthy homes

APPEARANCE: Byōbu nozoki is a depraved spirit which emerges from the decorative folding screens known as byōbu. It is very tall, stretching well over two meters (tall enough to peer over any sized folding screen). It’s body is long and lithe, and it wears white robes resembling those of a ghost. It has long black hair and blackened teeth. Despite the resemblance, byōbu nozoki it is not a yūrei, but is actually the tsukumogami of a folding screen.

INTERACTIONS: As its name suggests, a byōbu nozoki’s chief activity is leering over folding screens at the people on the other side—particularly if the people are engaged in romantic activities.

ORIGIN: Byōbu nozoki was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. According to him, this spirit manifests from a very old folding screen which has witnessed many years of sexual activity.

Sekien invented a fake history connecting it with Chinese history. Sekien describes the byōbu nozoki as tall enough to peer over a folding screen seven shaku (a unit of length approximately 30 cm) high. This recalls a story about the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, in which he leaped over a 7 shaku tall byobu to escape an assassination attempt. This legend which would have been well known to his readers during the Edo period. With this reference, Sekien both invents a funny narrative and finds a way to connect this amusing yōkai with history, legitimizing it as more than something he just made up.

Bashō no sei


TRANSLATION: Japanese banana spirit
HABITAT: the Ryūkyū archipelago
DIET: sunlight and soil

APPEARANCE: Bashō no sei are the spirits of Japanase banana trees (Musa basjoo). They are native to the islands of Okinawa, but are common in ornamental gardens across Asia. They usually appear as a human face amongst the broad, flat banana leaves.

INTERACTIONS: Bashō no sei are not particularly hostile or threatening towards people. They generally limit themselves to merely scaring humans by suddenly appearing next to them. For example, in one story a bashō no sei takes the form of a young woman, appears next to a meditating monk and asks him, “Can even inanimate plants attain buddhahood?”

They are not completely without danger, however—some local legends tell of bashō no sei assaulting and even impregnating humans. Women were warned not to walk near banana trees past 6 pm. If they did, they would run into a yōkai among the broad leaves—sometimes a monster, other times a handsome young man. Shortly after, the woman would become pregnant. When the baby was born 9 months later, it would have tusks or fangs like a demon. What’s more, the following year and again every year after that, the woman would give birth to another demon. Whenever a demon child was born, it would have to be killed by feeding it a poisonous drink made of powdered kumazasa (a type of bamboo grass); this is supposedly the reason why kumazasa is commonly found growing near houses in Okinawa.

ORIGIN: Stories about banana tree spirits are numerous across Japanese, Chinese, and Ryūkyūan folklore. The Edo period herbalist Satō Chūryō recorded his observations about these spirits in an essay. According to him, Ryūkyū’s banana orchards were so large that they contained rows of trees many miles long. If you walked past them at night, you were guaranteed to experience something strange. He observed that the spirits that come out of the banana trees did not cause any direct harm to people other than spooking them, but nevertheless could be avoided if you carried a sword. Chūryō’s theory was that banana trees weren’t necessarily unique in having spirits, but that because their leaves are so large and they were planted in such large numbers, it is particularly easy for humans to see these trees’ spirits. He believed that was the reason for the large number of superstitions about banana trees compared with other plants.

LEGENDS: A story from Nagano tells of a priest who was sitting outside and reciting suttras when a beautiful young woman appeared and attempted to seduce him. The priest grew angry. He stabbed the woman with his sword and she ran away. The next morning, the priest found a bloody trail left by the woman he had stabbed. The trail lead to the temple’s gardens, where a bashō tree was lying on the ground, cut in two. The priest then realized that the woman was actually the spirit of the tree.



TRANSLATION: monk in the flames
HABITAT: Toribeyama, a mountain in Kyōto
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kazenbō is a ghostly apparition which resembles a monk wreathed in flames, being burnt alive. They appear on a mountain in Kyoto called Toribeyama, which has been used as a grave site for many centuries

BEHAVIOR: Kazenbō appear occasionally to visitors to the mountain. They don’t do anything harmful, but their horrific appearance is very disturbing. They materialize, appear to suffer in flames which never completely consume them, and then disappear.

ORIGIN: During the Heian period, Toribeyama was an important burial ground and cremation site, especially for the nobility of the city. During major epidemics, many diseased bodies were burned there. It is said that there was an unending column of smoke rising from the mountain from all the burning bodies.

Towards the end of the 10th century, a number of monks decided to offer themselves up in ritual sacrifice by fire. They believed that in doing so, they would rid themselves of their worldy attachments, along with their bodies, and achieve enlightenment. The ceremony was open to the public, and a large number of people came to witness the event. However, it would seem that a number of these priests did not actually achieve enlightenment. They must not have been able to truly give up their attachments to the material world. So now, instead, their ghosts are doomed to haunt Toribeyama, appearing in ghostly flames as beggar-monks wreathed in the fires of ignorance and sin.



TRANSLATION: interconnected lives bird
HABITAT: Gokuraku jōdo, a realm of paradise
DIET: vegetarian

APPEARANCE: The gumyōchō is a beautiful two-headed bird that resembles a pheasant. Occasionally it is depicted as having two human heads instead of two bird heads. Their home is Gokuraku jōdo, the realm of utter paradise created by Amida Buddha.

BEHAVIOR: The gumyōchō is one of six bird species which are said to inhabit nirvana—the others being white swans, peafowl, parrots, mynah birds, and karyōbinga. Like the karyōbinga, the gumyōchō is said to have an exceedingly beautiful voice. It and the other heavenly birds sing the holy scriptures in nirvana, and those who listen to their songs can achieve enlightenment.

ORIGIN: Gumyōchō originate in the cosmology of Pure Land Buddhism. They were brought to Japan in the sixth century along with Buddhism. They are often used as ornamentation on Buddhist temples. Their story is a parable for the interdependence of all humans on one another.

LEGENDS: Long ago, a gumyōchō lived in the snowy mountains of India. It had two heads and one body. One head was named Karuda, and the other head was named Upakaruda. The bird’s two heads had different personalities and desires. When one head was sleepy, the other one wanted to play. When one head was hungry, the other one wanted to rest. Eventually, the two heads began to resent each other.

One day while Upakaruda was sleeping, Karuda feasted on delicious fruits and flowers until he was stuffed and could eat no more. When Upakaruda woke up, he wanted to eat too, but he was already full because they shared one stomach. He could not enjoy any of the food.

Upakaruda decided to punish Karuda. While Karuda slept, Upakaruda found a tree with poisonous fruit. Because they shared one stomach, Upakaruda ate the fruit in order to make Karuda sick. Sure enough, when Karuda woke up, the poison had already taken effect. Karuda writhed and suffered, and then died. Of course, because they shared one body, Upakaruda also became sick, collapsed in agony, and then died.

Just before dying, Upakaruda realized how foolish he had been. While he resented his other head, he failed to recognize that his own life depended on it. Just the same, by harming his other head, he was also harming himself. When he realized this, he realized one of the core tenets of Buddhism: interconnectedness. The birds became enlightened and were reborn in nirvana.



TRANSLATION: wind tanuki
ALTERNATE NAMES: fūseijū, fūbo, heikō
HABITAT: mountains and cliffs
DIET: omnivorous; feeds primarily on spiders and incense

APPEARANCE: Fūri are wild beasts from the mountains of China. They are about the size of a tanuki or a river otter, and their shapes resembles a monkey. They have red eyes, short tails, black fur with a leopard-like pattern, and blue-greenish manes which run from nose to tail.

BEHAVIOR: Fūri are nocturnal, and spend the daylight hours sleeping. At night they leap from tree to tree, or cliff face to cliff face, with soaring jumps. They can moves as quickly as the wind, and resemble flying birds when they leap. They can clear the distance between two mountains in a single leap.

Fūri’s diet consists of spiders and the fragrant wood from incense trees, however they have also been observed hunting. They use a special kind of grass (the species is unknown) and climb to the top of a tree. They hold the grass out in their hands to try to attract a bird. When a bird comes for the grass, the fūri is able to catch and eat the bird.

INTERACTIONS: Fūri are extremely fast, but Chinese records say that it possible to capture one with a well-placed net. A captured fūri will act embarrassed, lowering its head and looking up with big, pitiful eyes in an attempt to convince a person to release it. They are very fragile, and die immediately if they are struck. However, if you try to slice them up with a sword or knife, the blade will not cut through their skin. If you try to roast them with fire, their bodies will not burn. They have the amazing ability to revive from death merely if wind blows into their open mouths. However, they cannot revive if their skull has been broken, or if their nose is stuffed with leaves of Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus), a wetland shrub.

ORIGIN: Fūri appear in various Chinese atlases of herbology and medicine. These were referenced by Japanese authors during the Edo period, causing fūri to be incorporated into Japanese folklore. The original description of the fūri is most likely based on the colugo—a gliding mammal native to Southeast Asia. There are no colugo in Japan, which is likely why Japanese folklorists described them as a subspecies of tanuki.

Himamushi nyūdō


TRANSLATION: oven bug monk
HABITAT: houses; specifically under the floorboards
DIET: lamp oil

APPEARANCE: Himamushi nyūdō is a grotesque yōkai which lives under floorboards and crawls out at night time. It vaguely resembles a Buddhist monk, but it has a long neck, sharp claws, a body covered in thick, dark hair, and a very long tongue which it uses to lap up the oil from lamps.

INTERACTIONS: Himamushi nyūdō bothers people who are working hard or studying late at night by jumping out of the darkness and scaring them.  Although it doesn’t directly attack people, its presence is disturbing enough. It blows out the lights suddenly, and it licks up the precious lamp oil, making it difficult to continue working.

ORIGIN: According to Toriyama Sekien’s description of this yōkai in Konjaku hyakki shūi, himamushi nyūdō is born from those who were lazy in life, carelessly wasting time from birth to death.

The word “oven bug” in its name is probably a reference to cockroaches. The hima kanji in this yokai’s name can also be read kama—and likely refers to the kamado, a traditional Japanese oven. Cockroaches have quite a few nicknames in Japanese; among them himushi (“fire bug”) and hitorimushi (“lamp bug”), both of which sound similar to himamushi. Cockroaches and other pests would have fed on the fish oil in Edo period oil lamps; just like this yōkai. Cockroaches live in dark, warm spaces, such as underneath a kamado; just like this yōkai. And they crawl out of the floorboards to scare those working late at night; just like this yōkai.

Himamushi nyūdō’s name contains a number of puns. According to Toriyama Sekien, it was originally called himamushiyo nyūdō (“monks who waste time at night”). Over the years, the pronunciation gradually morphed, and it became associated with hemamusho nyūdō—a popular Edo period word doodle in which a monk is drawn using the characters in its name: ヘマムショ入道. The connection with this cartoon character would probably have amused readers during Sekien’s time.

Kuro bōzu


TRANSLATION: black monk
HABITAT: human-inhabited areas
DIET: the breath of sleeping humans

APPEARANCE: A kuro bōzu is a dark, shadowy yokai which looks somewhat like a bald-headed Buddhist monk—however, its exact appearance is vague and difficult to make out. It’s entire body is black, and it wears black robes. Its face has somewhat bestial features. It has a long tongue, and it reeks of rotting fish. Its hands and feet are said to be indiscernible. It can change its height rapidly, becoming a towering monster in an instant. It is extremely fast, and can run as fast as if it were flying.

INTERACTIONS: Kuro bōzu haunt areas inhabited by humans. They come out at night, sneaking into houses after everyone is asleep. They creep up to their victims—primarily women—and suck the breath out of their mouths. They also slide their putrid tongues into the mouths, ears, and all over the faces of their victims. Those visited repeatedly by kuro bōzu become very ill.

ORIGIN: Kuro bōzu didn’t appear in folklore until the Meiji period, so they are relatively new by yōkai standards. Because of the wide variations in reports, it is hard to come up with a clear picture of this yokai’s identity. Some experts believe they are a kind of nopperabō, due to their vague and indiscernible features. Some compare them to yamachichi, who also sneak into houses to steal the breath of sleeping humans. Its size-changing abilities and monk-like appearance suggest that it may be a variety of taka nyūdō. Still others say that it is one of the forms taken by magical kawauso.

LEGENDS: The most well known kuro bōzu report comes from the early Meiji period, from a newspaper article in the Hōchi Shinbun. The encounter took place at a certain carpenter’s house in Kanda, Tokyo. At midnight, a black, shadowy figure shaped like a monk suddenly appeared in the house. The creature entered the bedroom where husband and wife were sleeping. It climbed over the carpenter’s sleeping wife and stuck its tongue in her ears and mouth. Then it licked her all over. The creature smelled like foul garbage. The smell was so noxious that the family became ill.

Again and again for several nights, the kuro bōzu returned to assault the carpenter’s wife. Finally, she could not put up with it anymore. She left her husband and went to stay with some relatives. According to the carpenter, after his wife left, the black monk stopped coming.




APPEARANCE: Shukaku was a tanuki who lived in disguise as a human priest. He worked at Morinji, a Buddhist temple in Gunma Prefecture for many decades. Shukaku is best known for his miraculous tea kettle, known as the bunbuku chagama, which he left to the Morinji as a gift.

ORIGIN: Shukaku’s story has been told by Morinji for centuries, but different versions and variations have sprung up over the years. Its popularity spread during the Edo period thanks to a booming publishing industry, and it became well known across Japan. Although Shukaku is associated with Morinji, the structure of his story—a magical animal presenting a wonderful gift to humankind—is a recurring motif throughout Japanese folklore.

LEGENDS: Morinji was founded in 1426 by a priest named Dairin Shōtsū. While he was traveling through various countries on pilgrimage, he befriended a priest named Shukaku, and they traveled together. After Morinji was built, Shukaku stayed on to act as a head priest there for many years.

In 1570, an important religious gathering was held at Morinji. Priests from all over the country traveled to Morinji. When it came time to serve tea, the priests realized that they did not have enough kettles to serve such a large gathering. Shukaku—still serving the temple 144 years after his arrival—brought his favorite tea kettle to help serve the priests.

This tea kettle was a miraculous object, for no matter how many times you dunked a ladle in it, it was always brimming with enough hot water to make tea. It also stayed hot for many days after heating it! The kettle was given the name “bunbuku chagama”—chagama being the word for tea kettle, and bunbuku meaning “to spread luck.” The name was a pun as well: the sound of boiling water is bukubuku, which sounds very much like bunbuku. Thanks to Shukaku’s marvelous tea kettle, the gathering was a great success. The bunbuku chagama continued to be used by the temple for many years. Shukaku, as well, continued to work at Morinji for many years after that.

According to Morinji’s records, On February 28, 1587, a monk walked in on Shukaku while he was taking a nap. The monk noticed that Shukaku had a tanuki’s tail! Thus, Shukaku’s great secret was uncovered: he was not a human priest, but a tanuki in disguise. He had been living among humans for thousands of years. Long ago he had traveled through India and China. Eventually he met Dairin Shōtsū, who befriended him and brought him to Morinji, where he used his magic to serve the temple as best as he could. After his secret was uncovered, Shukaku decided it was time to leave Morinji. To apologize for the great shock he had caused Morinji, he gave them a parting gift: he used his magic to present the story of the Battle of Yashima, one of the final clashes of the Genpei War. To show their gratitude for all that he had done, the priests built a shrine to Shukaku, where he is still worshipped as a local deity. And the bunbuku chagama, which Shukaku left behind, is on display in his shrine at Morinji.



TRANSLATION: behind spirit
HABITAT: haunts cowardly people
DIET: fear

APPEARANCE: Ushirogami looks like a ghost with long black hair, and a large single eyeball located on the top of its head. It doesn’t have feet, but instead has a long, twisting body which allows it to leap high into the air.

INTERACTIONS: An ushirogami’s favorite tactic is to scare people by leaping out and appearing right behind them (thus its name). They like to tug on the hairs on the back of a person’s neck and then vanish just as they turn around to see touched them. Other pranks that ushirogami enjoy include placing their icy cold hands or breathing their hot breath onto the necks of their victims. Ushirogami particularly like going after cowardly young women walking the streets at night. They sneak up behind them and untie their hair, causing it to fall all over the place; or they run their hands through the woman’s hair and mess it around, causing it to become tangled. Sometimes they call up strong gusts of wind to blow umbrellas away.

ORIGIN: Ushirogami is thought to be a kind of okubyо̄gami—a spirit that causes cowardice, or that specifically targets cowardly people. Its name comes from the words ushiro (behind) and kami (spirit). However, there is a hidden pun in its name: ushirogami also means the hair on the back of your neck, and the phrase ushirogami wo hikikaeru (to have the hairs on the back of your neck pulled) means to do something with painful reluctance. It describes a person who has to do something that they really don’t want to do. As they search for some way out of it, they turn around and look behind them as if the hairs in the back of their head were being metaphorically pulled. The pun is that the ushirogami (spirit) is pulling on your ushirogami (hair), causing you to become cowardly and not want to do something. You turn around to see who pulled your hair, but there is no one back there. Thus the ushirogami can be explained as both an external entity which causes fear, or as the internal personification of your own cowardice or reluctance.



TRANSLATION: light rain monk
HABITAT: mountain roads
DIET: as a human (likely follows a monk’s diet)

APPEARANCE: Kosamebō are yōkai which look like Buddhist monks. They loiter about on empty mountain roads at night. As their name implies, they only appear during nights when light rain is falling.

INTERACTIONS: Kosamebō accost travelers and beg for alms such as spare change or bits of millet to eat. Though frightening—and perhaps a bit annoying—they do not pose any real danger to humans.

ORIGIN: Kosamebō appears in Toriyama Sekien’s yokai encyclopedia Konjaku hyakki shūi. Sekien describes them as appearing on the roads going through Mount Omine and Mount Katsuragi, two holy mountains in Nara Prefecture which have popular pilgrimage trails. They are also part of the local folklore of the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture.



TRANSLATION: raincoat fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: minomushibi, minoboshi, etc.; varies widely from place to place
HABITAT: wet rural areas

APPEARANCE: Minobi is a phenomenon that appears on rainy days in rural areas, particularly during the rainy season. Often it appears near bodies of water such as rivers or lakes, such as Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Minobi appears as a number of tiny fireballs which glow like fireflies. They float about in the air and tend gather in large numbers.

INTERACTIONS: Minobi gets its name from its tendency to gather around people wearing mino (traditional straw raincoats). It sticks to the raincoat and burns. When someone attempts to brush off or swat out the fire, the minobi instead multiplies, growing larger and larger. Eventually the person is forced to strip off the raincoat and leave it on the road.

ORIGIN: Minobi is found all over Japan, although often by different names and with different explanations. Sometimes this phenomenon is thought to be caused by natural gas escaping from the ground (as with other mysterious fireballs like onibi and kitsunebi). Most often it is said to be the work of a mischievous kitsune, itachi, or tanuki. Because it appears more frequently during the rainy season, sometimes minobi’s true form is believed to be a firefly or other insect, such as the minomushi (bagworm moth).



TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “to pile up; to overlap; to add on;” an alternate reading of the kanji for her original name: Rui

APPEARANCE: Kasane is the ghost from Kasane ga fuchi—The Pool of Kasane. It is based on true events which happened in the 17th century in what is now Ibaraki Prefecture, although the story has changed quite a bit from the original incident. Her tale is one of the most famous Edo period ghost stories, and she is often held up with Oiwa and Okiku as a prime example of the grudge-bearing Japanese woman ghost. Her story was later adapted into rakugo and kabuki theater, as well as numerous films.

LEGENDS: Long ago in the village of Hanyū in Shimosa Provence lived a farmer named Yoemon and his wife Osugi. Osugi had a child from a previous relationship. The child’s name was Suke, and he was terribly ugly. His face was disfigured and his leg was malformed. Yoemon hated Suke. One day, Yoemon decided to dispose of Suke. While crossing a bridge over a deep pool, Yoemon knocked Suki into the pool. Suke was unable to swim, and drowned.

The following year, Yoemon and Osugi had a baby girl. They named her Rui. Rui looked so much like her half-brother Suke did that the villagers all believed she was haunted by his spirit. Instead of Rui, they referred to her as Kasane—an alternate reading of her name which implied that the ugly Suke had been born once again in her.

Both of Kasane’s parents died while she was young, and so she lived alone. She became very sick, when a wandering stranger named Yagorō came to her house and nursed her back to health. Out of gratitude, Kasane offered to marry Yagorō and make him the inheritor of her father’s property. Although Yagorō found Kasane repulsive, he wanted her land and inheritance, and so he agreed to marry her.

Not long after they were married, Yagorō had had enough of Kasane’s ugliness. He took her out to their fields to collect beans. On the way home made Kasane carry all of the beans herself, so that she could barely walk. Just as they were crossing the pool, Yagorō pushed the overburdened Kasane into the water. Yagorō jumped in after her. He stepped on her chest, pinning her to the riverbed. He crushed and squeezed the air out of her lungs. He shoved rocks and river sand into her mouth. He stabbed her eyes with his thumbs. Then he wrung her neck until she could struggle no longer. Several townspeople witnessed Yagorō murder Kasane, but nobody moved to help her. After all, she was so ugly—there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to just leave it be.

Yagorō continued on as if nothing was different, living in Kasane’s home and maintaining her family’s lands. He remarried very quickly, and for a while was happy. However, Yagorō’s new wife died suddenly, not long after they were married. Yagorō remarried again, and again his wife died suddenly. This happened over and over again. When Yagorō had remarried six times, his wife managed to survive long enough to bear him a daughter. They named their daughter Kiku, and for a while they were happy.

When Kiku was thirteen, Yagorō’s sixth wife died. Yagorō married Kiku to a man named Kingorō and named him the successor to the Yoemon family. All of a sudden Kiku became extremely sick and collapsed to the floor. Foaming and frothing at the mouth, tears streaming from her eyes, Kiku cried that she couldn’t bear the pain. She begged for someone to help her. Suddenly, a different voice came forth from her body:

“I am not Kiku! I am your wife! The wife you murdered! You overburdened me, you threw me into the pool, you crushed me and made me drown! Don’t tell me you don’t remember me! I cursed you and all six of your wives! I am the one who killed them! I am Kasane!”

Kingorō fled the village, never to return. Kiku’s body stood up and lunged at Yagorō, but he managed to escape to the village temple. Yagorō told everyone that he had no idea what Kiku was saying; that he would never murder his own wife. The villagers, wanting to save poor Kiku, dragged Yagorō out from the temple to confront Kasane. Even as Kasane’s spirit threatened and cursed Yagorō, he defiantly proclaimed his innocence. Kasane’s spirit began naming and cursing the villagers who witnessed her murder and yet did nothing. Finally Yagorō and the others confessed their crime. Rui was such an unattractive and unpleasant person that the whole village had neglected her. Though Yagorō had performed the deed, the whole village was guilty of her murder. The villagers who didn’t witness the murder, but never bothered to ask about Rui were partially responsible too. It was their fault that Rui’s rage had created this ghost, and it was their fault that poor Kiku was suffering.

Kasane continued: “All of your ancestors are here with me in Hell!” She then proceeded to name each of their ancestors, and list their crimes. Then Kasane listed all of the crimes of the living villagers. The entire village’s pride was shattered as their sins were made public. Kasane demanded that the villagers hold a lavish memorial service and erect a beautiful stone buddha in her honor to end her suffering. However, the villagers balked at the cost to cover such a funeral. Kasane told them, “My father owned many farms around here. Sell them, and use the money to perform the services!” The villagers confessed to Kasane that her family’s lands had already been sold and distributed. Kasane’s wrath exploded. Kiku’s body twisted and floated high up into the air, and the poor girl lost consciousness.

Word of Kiku’s possession and Kasane’s curse spread far and wide. It caught the ear of a traveling priest, Saint Yūten. Yūten visited the Yoemon household to offer his prayers and try to save Kiku. He chanted the sutras and prayed and prayed with all his effort, but it had no effect. Kasane’s grudge was too powerful. Kasane’s voice taunted Yūten from Kiku’s mouth. Yūten then tried to have Kiku recite the prayers, but Kasane’s spirit interrupted and Kiku was unable to speak. Finally, Yūten grabbed Kiku’s hair with all his strength, forcing her face down onto the floor. He make Kiku bow, and demanded that she pray. Kiku was finally able to recite the sutra, and suddenly the spirit of Kasane left from her body. She was saved.

As Saint Yūten was preparing to leave Hanyū, Yagorō suddenly came to him with dire news: Kiku’s possession had returned. Yūten once again traveled to the Yoemon household, this time determined to subdue the curse no matter what the cost. When he encountered Kiku, he grabbed her hair and with all of his strength, forced her down onto the floor. As he held her down, demanding she pray, Kiku’s voice could be heard faintly mumbling. Yūten bent down close to her mouth and and listened. Then he turned to Yagorō: “Does the name Suke mean anything to you?”

Yagorō had never heard of Suke, nor had anybody else present. Saint Yūten asked the villagers, and finally an elderly man came forward. “Some sixty years ago there was a rumor that the first Yoemon’s wife had a son who was murdered and thrown into the pool. I think his name was Suke.”

“Are you Suke?” Saint Yūten asked Kiku. Kiku’s voice replied, “Yes. When you saved Rui you left me behind, and now I possess her.” Yūten wasted no item. He immediately gave Suke a kaimyō—a posthumous Buddhist name—and wrote it down on the family altar. Suke’s spirit left Kiku’s body and entered the altar. Everyone present dropped to the floor and prayed. Kiku eventually remarried, and lived a happy and prosperous life. The spirits of Kasane and Suke were never heard from again.



TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “dew”

APPEARANCE: Otsuyu is the ghost from Botan dōrō—The Peony Lantern. Along with Oiwa and Okiku, she is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Although her story was originally a Chinese folk tale, it was adapted into Japanese in the 17th century. It was later adapted for rakugo and kabuki, with various changes, extra characters, and more details added to flesh out the story. Her story takes place during Obon, when the dead are believed to return to the land of the living. Otsuyu’s story is rare among Japanese ghost stories, as her tale is one of love rather than of vengeance.

LEGENDS: Long ago lived a man named Ogiwara Shinnojō, who was recently widowed. On the first night of Obon, Ogiwara saw a beautiful woman and her servant walking down the street, carrying a lantern with a peony motif. Ogiwara was instantly smitten with the beautiful woman and invited her into his home. Her name was Otsuyu. That night they made love. Otsuyu stayed with Ogiwara until long after the moon had set and the lamplight had grown faint, when she reluctantly bid him farewell and left into the early morning.

To Ogiwara’s delight, Otsuyu and her servant returned the following evening, carrying the same peony lantern. Ogiwara fell deeply in love with Otsuyu. He quickly lost interest in seeing anybody but her. Ogiwara no longer left his house, and stopped taking care of himself. Night after night, Otsuyu visited Ogiwara’s house. Each night they made love, and each night she left before dawn.

Twenty days passed. Ogiwara’s neighbors began to grow concerned for him. Next door to Ogiwara lived a wise old man. One night, the old man heard laughing and singing coming from next door. He peeked through a hole in Ogiwara’s wall. However, instead of a beautiful woman, he saw Ogiwara entwined in the boney arms of a skeleton. When Ogiwara spoke, the skeleton nodded its head and moved its arms and legs. When the skeleton’s jaw opened, a haunting voice came from where its mouth should have been. The old man was horrified.

As soon as day came, the old man called for Ogiwara. He warned Ogiwara that Otsuyu was really a ghost, and told him to go to a temple at once. Ogiwara heeded the old man’s advice. At the temple, Ogiwara discovered Otsuyu’s grave, with her old and tattered peony lantern draped across it. The priest warned Ogiwara that he must resist Otsuyu, and gave him a magical charm to place on his house, which would keep him safe from the ghost. Ogiwara rushed home and placed the charm on his door. The charm worked perfectly, and Otsuyu no longer came to visit Ogiwara.

Although he was safe, Ogiwara became despondent. He missed Otsuyu dearly. One night, days after her last visit, Ogiwara became drunk. He carelessly wandered to the temple where he discovered Otsuyu’s grave. At the temple gate, Otsuyu appeared to him, and led him to her home: her coffin. Later, when Ogiwara had been missing for some time, the priest opened up Otsuyu’s grave. Inside was the dead body of Ogiwara, wrapped up in the boney arms of a human skeleton.



TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “rock”

APPEARANCE: Oiwa is the tragic and terrifying onryō from Yotsuya kaidan—”the ghost story of Yotsuya.” Along with Okiku and Otsuyu, she is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Oiwa’s story is based on real-life events which took place in 17th century Edo. These events were dramatized in the 1825 kabuki play Tōkaidō yotsuya kaidan, which became very popular and cemented Oiwa’s place as Japan’s most famous ghost. Countless variations and adaptations of her tale followed.

The real Oiwa died in 1636. It is rumored that her onryō still haunts the places she lived as well as those who perform her story. Mysterious disasters and deaths occurring around a number of productions (including theater, film, and television adaptations) have been blamed on the curse of Oiwa’s ghost. There have been numerous attempts to appease her angry spirit.  A small shrine and a temple dedicated to Oiwa were erected on the ruins of her family’s house in Yotsuya. After a fire destroyed the shrine in 1879, Oiwa’s shrine was moved to another part of Tōkyo. The shrine was again destroyed in the firebombings of World War 2. After the war, her new shrine as well as the original location in Yotsuya were both rebuilt. A gravestone at Myōgyōji in Sugamo, Tokyo is widely believed to be Oiwa’s actual grave. It is customary for actors and crews putting on a production of Yotsuya kaidan to visit Oiwa’s grave to pay their respects.

LEGENDS: Oiwa was married to samurai named Iemon. It was not a happy marriage, for Iemon was a wasteful man and a thief. One day, Oiwa decided to leave her husband and return to her family home. Iemon followed after her, but was stopped by Oiwa’s father, Yotsuya Samon. Samon knew of Iemon’s misdeeds—that he had stolen money from his employer—and he demanded that Iemon divorce Oiwa. Iemon drew his sword and murdered Samon. Iemon returned to Oiwa and lied that a stranger had killed her father on the road. He begged her to reconcile, and he promised to avenge her father’s murder.

Some time after that, Oiwa became pregnant and bore Iemon a son. Times were hard. They had little money. Oiwa became sickly after giving birth, and Iemon grew resentful of Oiwa. Next to their home lived a rich doctor named Itō Kihei. He had a beautiful granddaughter named Oume. Oume was instantly attracted to Iemon, and wanted to marry him. The doctor loved his granddaughter and conspired to help her marry Iemon. He prescribed an ointment for Oiwa to help her recover from her sickness. In reality, it was a poison which horribly disfigured her face. Seeing Oiwa’s scarred face, Iemon’s resentment turned into hatred. Afterwards, Kihei suggested that Iemon divorce Oiwa and marry his granddaughter instead; if he were to marry Oume, all of the wealth of the Itō family could be his to inherit!. Iemon was so disgusted by Oiwa’s face, and Oume was so young and attractive, that he agreed. Iemon began pawning Oiwa’s possessions, her kimono, her clothes—even their son’s clothes—to have enough money to marry Oume. Because he needed a legitimate reason to divorce his wife, Iemon hired his friend Takuetsu to rape Oiwa so that he could accuse her of infidelity.

On a prearranged night, when Iemon was out of the house, Takuetsu entered and approached Oiwa. Upon seeing her face, he was so frightened that he abandoned his orders. Takuetsu explained Iemon’s plan to Oiwa, and then showed her a mirror. Oiwa had not known what the ointment had done to her face. When she saw her reflection, she was horrified. She tried to cover the disfigurement by brushing her hair over it, but when she touched her hair, it fell out in large, bloody clumps. Oiwa went mad. She grabbed a nearby sword and punctured her own throat. As Oiwa lay on the floor bleeding to death, she repeatedly cursed Iemon’s name until she could breathe no more.

Oiwas’ body was discovered by Iemon’s servant Kohei. When Kohei delivered the news to Iemon, instead of become upset, Iemon was overjoyed. Kohei became suspicious of Iemon, but before he could do anything, Iemon murdered Kohei. He nailed Kohei’s and Oiwa’s bodies to a door, and disposed of them in a river. Afterwards, he made up a lie that Kohei and Oiwa had been sleeping together. He was finally free to marry Oume.

Oiwa’s curse did not wait long to take effect. On his wedding night to Oume, Iyemon had trouble sleeping. He rolled over in bed and saw, right next to his face, the horrible, disfigured face of Oiwa’s ghost! He grabbed his sword and slashed out at the ghost. Just then, the illusion ended, and Iemon saw that it was not Oiwa he had cut, but Oume. His new bride lay dead on the floor. Terrified, Iemon ran next door to seek his new father in law’s help. However, when he got to the Itō house, he was confronted by the ghost of the murdered Kohei. Once again Iemon slashed with his sword, but no sooner had he done so than the illusion ended and he saw Itō Kihei’s slain body lying on the floor.

Afterwards, Iemon fled into the night, but Oiwa’s onryō pursued him. Everywhere he went, Oiwa’s ghost was there. Her ruined face haunted his dreams. Her terrible voice cried out to him for vengeance. She even appeared to him in the paper lanterns that lit his way. Eventually, Iemon ran into the mountains, where he hid in an isolated cabin. But Oiwa followed him there too. Haunted by Oiwa’s ghost, no longer able to tell nightmare from reality, Iemon descended into madness.



TRANSLATION: a girls’ name meaning “chrysanthemum”

APPEARANCE: Okiku was the name of a servant girl who lost a precious plate, died a terrible death, and returned as a vengeful ghost. Along with Oiwa and Otsuyu, Okiku’s tale is one of the Nihon san dai kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. Her story has been retold countless times in folk tales, puppet theater, kabuki, film, and manga. Though the general outline of her story remains the same, the names, locations, and surrounding details vary quite a bit from telling to telling. The most famous version of her story is called Banchō sarayashiki—”The Dish Manor at Banchō.” It takes place in Himeji, present-day Hyōgo Prefecture.

LEGENDS: Long ago, there was a woman named Okiku who worked as a dishwashing servant at Himeji Castle. Okiku was very beautiful, and it was not long before she caught the eye of one of her master’s retainers, a samurai named Aoyama. Aoyama tried many times to seduce Okiku, but each time she rejected his advances.

Eventually, Aoyama grew impatient with Okiku and decided to trick her into becoming his lover. In the castle there was a set of ten very expensive dishes. Aoyama hid one of the them, and then called for Okiku. He told her one of his master’s fine dishes was missing, and demanded to know where it was. Okiku became frightened. Losing one of her lord’s prized dishes was a crime punishable by death. She counted the dishes, “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine…” She recounted them against and again. Each time she came up one short. Okiku was distraught.

Aoyama told Okiku that he would overlook her mistake, and tell his master that it wasn’t Okiku who lost the dish—but only if she would become his mistress. Though Okiku wanted to live, she once again refused Aoyama. This time the samurai became furious. He ordered his servants to beat Okiku with a wooden sword. Afterwards, he had her tied up and suspended over the castle well. He tortured Okiku, repeatedly dunking her into the well, only to pull her back out of the water and beat her himself. Aoyama demanded one last time that Okiku become his mistress. She refused. So Aoyama struck her violently with his sword and dropped her body down into the well.

Not long after, Okiku’s ghost was seen wandering the castle grounds. Night after night, she would rise from the well and enter her master’s house, searching for the missing dish. She would count the plates: “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine…” After counting the ninth plate, she would let out a blood curdling scream that could be heard throughout the castle. She tormented Aoyama in this way, every night, robbing him of his rest. Those who heard part of Okiku’s counting became very sick. Those unlucky enough to hear her count all the way to nine died shortly after.

Finally, the lord of the castle decided that something had to be done about Okiku’s ghost. He called a priest, and asked him to pray for her and exercise her spirit. The priest waited in the garden all night, chanting suttras. One again, Okiku’s ghost rose out of the well. She began to count the dishes: “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine…” As soon as Okiku counted the ninth dish, and before she could scream, the priest shouted out: “TEN!” Okiku’s ghost appeared relieved that someone had found the missing dish. From then on, she never haunted the castle again.

Yonaki babā


TRANSLATION: weeping hag
HABITAT: human-inhabited areas
DIET: feeds off of others’ sadness

APPEARANCE: Yonaki babā looks like an old woman with scraggly, unkempt hair and plain robes. She appears outside of houses where tragedy has struck, attracted by the sadness of those within. She remains outside of the house, weeping loudly all night long. Although it appears that yonaki babā are sharing in the sadness of others, it is sometimes said that they actually weep out of scorn, mocking those who are truly sad.

INTERACTIONS: Yonaki babā’s weeping is contagious; those who hear her cannot help but to weep as well. She may return to the same house over and over for many nights. Families which are visited by a yonaki babā night after night invariably fall into ruin.

ORIGIN: Yonaki babā’s behavior is similar to that of a class of spirits called yakubyō gami—minor deities and spirits which bring sickness and disaster wherever they go. Before modern medicine, plagues and natural disasters were often thought to be the works of these spirits. Because repeated yonaki babā appearances are often precursors to the ruin of an entire family, it has been suggested that she may be a kind of yakubyō gami.

Conversely, it has also been suggested the yonaki babā’s arrival may be a divine signal that disaster is near. Rather than bringing disease and ruin herself, yonaki babā may be a kind of divine herald with the duty of warning humans that misfortune, sickness, and death are on the way.



TRANSLATION: ceiling licker
HABITAT: cold, dark homes with tall ceilings
DIET: dirt, dust, and ceiling grime

APPEARANCE: Tenjōname is a tall yōkai with a very long tongue. It appears in houses with tall ceilings, particularly in the cold months when light cannot reach all the way to ceiling and casts weird shadows into the rafters. It’s body is covered with strips of paper which resemble a matoi—the paper flags carried by Edo period firemen.

BEHAVIOR: Tenjōname is named for its primary activity: licking ceilings. The older a house gets, the more dust and grime collects in hard-to-clean places such as the ceiling. This attracts tenjōname, who lick the dirty ceilings to feed on the filth. The telltale sign that a tenjōname has been licking a ceiling is the appearance of dark stains and splotches on ceilings, walls, and support pillars.

ORIGIN: Tenjōname first appears in Toriyama Sekien’s Hyakki tsurezure bukuro, although its appearance seems to be inspired by older yōkai scrolls. Like many of the entries in that book, it appears to be a pun based on one of the essays in Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezure gusa. Essay number fifty five gives advice on building a house, and states that too high a ceiling would make winters feel too cold and lamplight seem to dark. Toriyama Sekien references this essay in his description of tenjōname. Although it is not specifically stated, based on its appearance and the fact that most of the yōkai in Hyakki tsurezure bukuro are tsukumogami, it is likely that tenjōname is a transformed matoi.

LEGENDS: Since tenjōname was created in the 18th century, older folktales about it do not exist. However, since then a number of stories have been invented. One such story claims that a samurai from Tatebayashi Castle (the ruins of which are in present-day Gunma Prefecture) captured a tenjōname and used it to clean all the spiderwebs and grime from the ceilings of the castle. More recent legends claim that the stains left by tenjōname take the form of hideous human faces. Staring too long at these stains—particularly when they appear above your bed—can lead to madness and even death.

Shumoku musume

Shumoku musume撞木娘

TRANSLATION: hammer girl
HABITAT: mountain passes
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Shumoku musume has a head which resembles that of a hammerhead shark or a snail. She has large eyes which extend out from the sides of her head. She wears a furisode kimono, usually worn by young, unmarried women.

ORIGIN: Shumoku musume is not a major yōkai, yet her image is fairly well known. This is because she was included in obake karuta, a yōkai-themed version of the popular card matching game karuta. Although no story accompanies her in obake karuta, her card says that she appears on the Usui Pass, which separates Gunma and Nagano Prefectures.

The word shumoku refers to the wooden hammers used to strike temple bells. It is not clear if shumoku musume is a tsukumogami of a bell hammer, or if her name merely refers to the fact that her head resembles a wooden hammer’s head.



TRANSLATION: from a phrase meaning “give me mochi”
HABITAT: underwater, in the Sea of Japan
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: The appossha is a scary monster which appears in the village of Koshino in Fukui prefecture. It resembles a red oni, with a large head and dark, kelp-like hair. It wears the clothing typical of a workman.

INTERACTIONS: Appossha live in the Sea of Japan off of Fukui prefecture. They appear on land once a year, on Koshōgatsu—a holiday celebrating the first full moon of the lunar new year. On this night, the appossha crawl out of the sea and wander the village streets, banging iron tea kettles and chanting, “Appossha!” The travel from house to house, demanding food and threatening children. They ask each house if there are any ill-mannered children living there that they can take back to the sea with them. Once a household’s children have been thoroughly scared, the parents give a gift of mochi to the appossha and it leaves.

ORIGIN: The appossha tradition is said to come from long ago, when a sailor from a foreign land was shipwrecked and swam ashore in Fukui prefecture. He traveled from door to door begging for food. The name “appossha” is thought to be a heavily accented variation of the foreigner’s words, asking for some mochi to eat: “Appo (mochi) hoshiya (want).”

The appossha is part of a family of oni-like yōkai which are found all over Japan, but especially along the Sea of Japan coast. The namahage of Akita Prefecture are the most famous example. In nearby Ishikawa and Niigata Prefectures, similar yōkai named amamehagi can be found. In Yamagata they are known as amahage. Although the minor details (such as where the yōkai come from) differ, the key parts of each story are the same: these yōkai come from the wilderness around the new year, scare young children, and leave once offered a gift from the villagers.

Appossha are an example of a type of creature called a marebito. In Japanese folk religion, marebito are divine spirits—demons, gods, or otherwise—which come from the world of the dead to visit our world at set times. Some deliver prophecies or bring gifts, others bring disaster. The strange foreign spirit is welcomed as a guest, fed, sheltered, and treated kindly and respectfully. Sometimes they are revered as gods. Their coming is often welcomed in the form of festivals and rituals. Although the marebito folk religion is no longer practiced today, aspects of it are still a visible part of Japanese culture. Yōkai like the appossha and namahage, and festivals like Obon have preserved many of the elements of this ancient folk religion.


Kanazuchibou, Okka大化

TRANSLATION: a baby-talk corruption of obake (“monster”)
ALTERNATE NAMES: akaheru, chikarakoko, gamanoke (“frog spirit”); countless others

APPEARANCE: Okka is a small, bulbous yōkai. It is usually depicted as a round, bright red creature with big eyes, two clawed feet, and a diminutive tail. There are many variations of this yokai, with minor difference in color, number of appendages, facial features, and hair.

ORIGIN: Okka appears in many of the oldest yōkai picture scrolls. Since its original name was never recorded, countless names have been used to describe this yōkai. The word okka is a baby talk variation of obake, a generic word for a ghost or monster. It fits this yōkai quite well, as okka itself has a somewhat generic and baby-like appearance. It also fits an established pattern of monsters being named in baby talk; waira, otoroshi, gagoze, and uwan are also thought to be “baby-fied” variations of scary words.

It has been suggested that okka may be a frog spirit, based on its appearance. It has also been suggested that okka is a tsukumogami, as it appears alongside other tsukumogami in paintings. Though it was never given a name or an explanation, okka has yet remained a common sight in scrolls depicting the night parade of one hundred demons. Okka is frequently depicted together with kanazuchibō; it appears to be the target of kanazuchibō’s hammer. However, their frequent pairing may be no more than a coincidence. Painters frequently copied directly from earlier yōkai scrolls, and without any description there is no way of knowing if the original painting that depicts okka being targeted by kanazuchibō was done so for a specific reason, or just because it looked amusing.


Kanazuchibou, Okka金槌坊

TRANSLATION: hammer priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: daichiuchi (earth striker), ōari (giant ant), yarikechō

APPEARANCE: Kanazuchibō is an odd-looking yōkai which appears in some of the earliest picture scrolls. It is depicted in a number of different ways by different artists, but in most depictions it has long, flowing hair, big, buggy eyes, and a beak-like mouth. Some paintings portray it more bird-like, while others portray it in as a grotesque, misshapen goblin-like creature. It’s most identifying feature is the large mallet it carries. It is usually portrayed holding the mallet over its head, ready to strike another yōkai.

ORIGIN: A mallet-weilding yōkai appears in many of the earliest picture scrolls of the night parade of one hundred demons. In its oldest depictions, kanazuchibō appears with no name or description. Names like kanazuchibō and daichiuchi were added much later, during the Edo period. However no description of its behavior were ever recorded. Many artists and yōkai scholars have made guesses at its true nature.

It has been suggested that kanazuchibō may be a spirit of cowardice.  His posture and his hammer evoke the proverbs “to strike a stone bridge before crossing” (meaning to be excessively careful before doing anything) and “like a hammer in the water” (meaning to always be looking at the ground and watching your step; picture a hammer in a river, with its heavy head sinking below the surface, but its wooden handle floating upright). Perhaps this is a yōkai which haunts cowards, or which turns people into cowards when it haunts them.

Kanazuchibō is also known as ōari, or giant ant. In prehistoric Japan there was a culture which built large earthen burial mounds known as kofun. It has been suggested that in the Kofun people’s religion, ants were revered as divine creatures since they build earthen mounds. As the Kofun religion died out, those creatures formerly worshiped as kami grew resentful and warped into these ant-like yōkai. While it’s an amusing story, there’s no evidence to suggest the Kofun people actually worshipped ants. This explanation was almost certainly made up by modern storytellers.

Toriyama Sekien included a version of this yōkai in his book Hyakki tsurezure bukuro. He re-imagined it as a tsukumogami born from a keyari—a hairy spear used as decoration and in parades. He named it yarikechō, or “spear hair chief.”


Furuougi, Hasamidachi鋏裁

TRANSLATION: scissors cutter

APPEARANCE: Hasamidachi is a small yōkai with wild hair, buggy eyes, and a pair of scissors sprouting from its head.

ORIGIN: Hasamidachi appears in the earliest yokai scrolls, and has been copied many times from these early depictions, appearing over and over again in many different scrolls. Despite this, no name or description has ever been recorded. The name hasamidachi was given to it in recent years by yokai researcher Aramata Hiroshi, however it is also known by less descriptive names such as hasami no bakemono (scissors monster) or just hasami (scissors).


Furuougi, Hasamidachi古扇

TRANSLATION: old folding fan

APPEARANCE: Furuōgi is a squat, hairy yōkai with an old, worn out folding fan sprouting from its back.

ORIGIN: Furuōgi appears in some of the earliest Hyakki yagyō emaki, pictures scrolls of the night parade of one hundred demons, along with a number of other tsukumogami. Early yokai scrolls did not give names or descriptions, so nothing about furuōgi is known other than its appearance. Even its name was added much later.

Fuguruma yōhi


TRANSLATION: strange queen of the book cart
ALTERNATE NAMES: bunshō no kai (essay spirit)
HABITAT: libraries, temples, and noble houses; anywhere with book collections
DIET: none; she is fueled by emotion

APPEARANCE: Fuguruma yōhi is a spirit which resembles and ogreish human woman in tattered clothing. She is a kind of tsukumogami—an artifact spirit—which manifests out of old-fashioned book carts called fuguruma. In particular, it is the emotion and attachment built up in the piles of love letters stored in these carts which gives birth to this yōkai.

ORIGIN: Fuguruma yōhi appears alongside chirizuka kaiō in Toriyama Sekien’s collection of tsukumogami Hyakki tsurezure bukuro. Like chirizuka kaiō, her name is a pun based on essay 72 from the medieval essay collection Tsurezure gusa. The essay discusses the folly of overabundance. Having too many possessions is a bad thing which distracts you from that which is important; however there is no such thing as having too many books on your book cart. The fuguruma yōhi is what Toriyama Sekien imagined might appear if you actually did have too many books on  your book cart. The desire and attachment written in each single love letter may not amount to very much, but if there are enough letters, enough attachments may pile up that a yōkai can be born from them.



TRANSLATION: unknown; possibly a misspelling of “amabiko”
HABITAT: oceans
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Amabie is a mermaid-like yōkai with a mixture of human and fish features. It has long hair and a scaly body. It has a beak-like mouth, and three legs. It glows with a bright light that can be seen from the shore. They are auspicious yōkai—keeping a picture of an amabie can protect you from disease.

ORIGIN: Little is known of the amabie’s characteristics. However, its story is very similar to other prophetic yōkai such as jinja hime and kudan, which deliver a prognostication and then disappear. These yōkai began appearing during a period when diseases like cholera were killing people all over the world. Images of protector yōkai that could be used as charms against sicknesses were in high demand. It is very possible that amabie was a sort of copycat yōkai, following the trends of the time.

The origin of the name amabie is a mystery. There is only one record of amabie in existence, and it appears very similar to another yokai with a similar name: amabiko. There are numerous recorded amabiko sightings, and all of them are minor variations on the same theme: a three-legged creature that appears on the water to deliver a prophecy about abundant harvests and disease. Similarly, amabiko instructs people to spread its image around to protect them from the disease. “Amabie” may have been a simple typographical error, or else it may be a regional variation of the amabiko.

LEGENDS: The only recorded sighting of an amabie comes from Higo Province (present-day Kumamoto prefecture) in April of 1846. For some nights in a row, a bright light could be seen in the waters off shore. One night, a government official went out to see to investigate the strange light. When he approached, a strange creature appeared to him. The creature introduced itself as an amabie. It told the government official that a six-year bumper crop was coming. It also said that should there be an outbreak of disease, he should immediately show the amabie’s picture to people everywhere, as it would protect them against harm. After that, the creature returned to the sea. Shortly after, the amabie’s story along with a woodblock print image of it was featured in the newspaper to be distributed to as many people as possible.

Chirizuka kaiō


TRANSLATION: strange king of the dust heap
HABITAT: dirty, cluttered places
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Chirizuka kaiō is a red, hairy demon who resembles a small oni. His clothing is old and tattered. He has wild hair and wears a crown on his head. He is the king of the dust heap, but is also sometimes thought of as the king of the tsukumogami—the animated spirits of trash and discarded objects.

BEHAVIOR: Chirizuka kaiō appears in picture scrolls depicting the night parade of one hundred demons. In these scrolls he is prying open a Chinese-style chest and releasing a horde of tsukumogami—presumably the objects that were stored in the chest and forgotten.

ORIGIN: Chirizuka kaiō’s earliest appearance comes from the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573 CE). In the earliest scrolls he is depicted without name or explanation. His name first appears in the Edo period, where he is depicted in Toriyama Sekien’s tsukumogami encyclopedia Hyakki tsurezure bukuro. This book contains a number of yokai based on puns. Chirizuka kaiō’s name appears to be a pun based on essay 72 from Tsurezure gusa, a popular collection of essays from the 14th century. This essay discusses the folly of having too many things—too much furniture in your home, too many pens at your inkstone, too many Buddhas in a temple, too many rocks and trees in a garden, too many children in your home, and so on. However, there is no such thing as having too many books on your book stand, or too much dust upon your dust heap.

In his description of chirizuka kaiō, Toriyama explains that there is nothing in creation which does not have a leader; the kirin is king of the beasts, the hōō is king of the birds, and so this chirizuka kaiō must be the king of the yama uba. The phrase is actually another pun, and refers to a line from the noh play Yamanba. The line explains that worldly attachments pile up like dust, and if you let them build up into a dust heap then you may turn into a yama uba. Despite this phrasing, chirizuka kaiō has come to be interpreted as the king of tsukumogami rather than yama uba. This is most likely because he appears in Hyakki tsurezure bukuro, which is full of tsukumogami. There is no other connection between chirizuka kaiō and yama uba, as chirizuka kaiō has only ever been depicted releasing yōkai from a chest. Perhaps Toriyama used the word yama uba as an allusion to yōkai born from worldly attachment and ignorance. Yama uba are created when one’s improper attachments pile up like a dust heap. Tsukumogami are born out of forgotten household objects whose owners could not bring themselves to properly dispose of. The same kind of improper attachment is what forms both of these yōkai.



TRANSLATION: monkey god, monkey spirit
HABITAT: mountains
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Sarugami look just like the wild monkeys that are found across the Japanese islands. However, they are bigger, more vicious, and much smarter. They can speak, and sometimes they are seen wearing human clothes as well. They are thought to be the remnants of an ancient monkey worshiping cult. All that is left of this religion today are wicked monkey spirits who have degenerated into yōkai.

BEHAVIOR: Sarugami behave for the most part like wild monkeys. They live in the mountains and tend to stay away from human-inhabited areas. Because they are bigger and smarter than most of the animals around them

INTERACTIONS: When sarugami interact with humans it almost always ends in violence. Most legends follow a similar pattern: a sarugami kidnaps a young woman from a villager, and heroes are called upon to go into the wilderness and exterminate the sarugami. Like oni, giant snakes, and other monsters, sarugami are beasts meant to be slain by brave samurai.

ORIGIN: According to folklorist Yanagita Kunio, sarugami are a prime example of “fallen” gods—spirits once revered as gods, but who have since been forgotten. These beliefs never entirely vanish, though, and such spirits often remain as degenerate versions of their former selves, i.e. yōkai. Long ago, before Buddhism arrived, monkeys were worshiped as gods in parts of Japan. The southern part of Lake Biwa in modern-day Shiga Prefecture was an important center of monkey worship, based at Hiyoshi Taisha. Monkeys were seen as messengers and servants of the sun, in part because they become most active at sunrise and sunset. Because of this, monkey worship was popular among farmers, who also awoke and retired with the sun. Over the centuries, as farming technology improved, people became less reliant on subsistence farming. More and more people took up professions other than farming. As a result, monkey worship began to fade away, and the monkey gods were forgotten. Today, monkeys are viewed as pests by farmers, as they dig up crops, steal food from gardens, and sometimes even attack pets and small children.

Though the early monkey cults have vanished, sarugami worship continued throughout the middle ages in esoteric religions such as Kōshin. Monkeys came to be viewed as servants of the mountain deities, or as mountain deities themselves, acting as intermediaries between the world we live in and the heavens. The famous three wise monkey statues—mizaru, kikazaru, and iwazaru (“see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil”)—come from Kōshin and are a prime example of sarugami worship.

An apocryphal legend says that long ago the Buddha appeared at Hiyoshi Taisha. Just before this occurred, a large gathering of monkeys arrived in the area. The Buddha took the form of a monkey, and foretold the fortunes of the faithful worshipers at Hiyoshi Taisha. Thousands of years earlier, Cang Jie—the legendary inventor of Chinese writing (c. 2650 BCE)—foresaw this appearance of the Buddha. Thus, when he invented the word for god (), he constructed it out of characters meaning indicate () and monkey () to foretell this event. In other words, “monkey indicates god.” Although entertaining, this is a false etymology, and the true origin of the word for gods has nothing to do with monkeys.

LEGENDS: In Mimasaka Provice (present-day Okayama Prefecture) there was a giant monkey who lived in the mountains. Every year this sarugami would demand a sacrifice of a young woman from the villages around the mountain. One year, a hunter happened to be staying at the house of the young woman who was chosen to be that year’s sacrifice. Her family was devastated at the thought of losing their daughter, and the hunter took pity on them. He volunteered to take her place as a sacrifice. The hunter and his dog were loaded into a large chest and taken up into the mountains by some priests to be delivered to the sarugami. After some time, a giant sarugami more than two meters tall emerged from the woods, along with his entourage of over one hundred monkeys. The hunter and his dog leaped from the chest and attacked. One by one, the monkeys fell, until only the sarugami remained. Just then the creature possessed one of the priests and spoke through him. The sarugami asked for forgiveness and promised never to demand another sacrifice. The hunter allowed to sarugami to run away, and the sarugami has never asked for another sacrifice since.

In Ōmi Provice (present-day Shiga Prefecture) there lived an elderly farmer and his young daughter. The farmer toiled in his fields to exhaustion every day, while his daughter waited to be married off. But there were no suitors. One day, the farmer mumbled to himself, “Even a monkey would be ok, if only there was someone I could marry my daughter to so they would come work in my field!” Just then a giant monkey appeared and completed all of the old man’s farm work. The following day, the sarugami returned and demanded the old man’s daughter as payment for his work. When the old man refused, the saru grew angry at him for breaking his word, and he stole the man’s daughter and ran into the mountains. Back in his den, the sarugami kept the daughter tied up in a sack. Meanwhile, the old man begged a local noble to rescue his daughter. One day, while the sarugami was away from his den, the noble snuck in and freed the girl. In her place, he put his dog in the sack. When the sarugami returned to his den later he opened the sack to check on his prisoner. The dog leaped out and killed him.



TRANSLATION: fish-tiger
HABITAT: oceans
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Shachihoko are fearsome sea monsters. They have the body of a large fish and the head of a tiger. Their broad fins and tails always point towards the heavens, and their dorsal fins have numerous sharp spikes. Shachihoko live in colder, norther oceans. They are able to swallow massive amounts of water with a single gulp and hold it in their bellies. They are also able to summon clouds and control the rain.

INTERACTIONS: Shachihoko are often found adorning the rooftops of Japanese castles, temples, gates, and samurai residences. They are placed facing each other on opposite ends of a roof. They serve as protector spirits, similar to the oni roof tiles also commonly found on castles. It was believed that in the event of a fire, the shachihoko could protect the building by summoning rain clouds or by spitting out the massive amounts of water they had previously swallowed.

ORIGIN: Shachihoko as an element of construction evolved from shibi, large, ornamental roof end tiles. Shibi originated in China during the Jin dynasty and were popularized in Japan during the Nara and Heian periods. During the Sengoku period, when castles rapidly began appearing all over Japan, shibi were reimagined as large fish, and the image of the shachihoko was popularized. From them on, shachihoko remained popular elements of Japanese roof construction.

The shachihoko’s origins may go even further back, to India. In Hindu mythology, there is a large sea monster named Makara who is half-fish and half-beast (sometimes depicted as an elephant, a deer, a crocodile, or another animal). Makara was a powerful protector and servant of various deities. Images of Makara were commonly used in temple architecture, particularly over archways and doorways, or as rain spouts. Japanese versions of Makara tend to resemble the shachihoko more than they resemble the original Hindu creature.

Today, the Japanese word for the orca is shachi—no doubt because of its similarity to this creature.

Jinja hime


TRANSLATION: shrine princess
HABITAT: deep lakes and oceans
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: A jinja hime is a serpentine creature roughly six meters long. It has two horns on its head, a long tail, a dorsal fin, and flippers. Its face is that of a human woman. It resembles a ningyo, the Japanese mermaid.

BEHAVIOR: Jinja hime spend most of their lives underwater, and as a result rarely interact with humans. They are the servants of Ryūgū, the palace of the sea dragon king.

ORIGIN: Jinja hime was first sighted in Hizen Province (present-day Saga and Nagasaki Prefectures) in 1819 by the Edo period scholar Katō Ebian. He recorded the encounter in his book Waga koromo. According to Katō, he encountered a fish-like creature on a beach in Hizen. The creature spoke to him: “I am a messenger from Ryūgū, called jinja hime. For the next seven years there will be a bumper crop. After that, there will be an epidemic of cholera. However, those who see my picture will be able to avoid hardship, and instead will have long life.” After delivering her prophecy, the jinja hime disappeared into the sea. Katō printed an illustration of the jinja hime in Waga koromo so that all could see it and be protected.

The news of the jinja hime and her prognostication became so popular that it spawned numerous copycat stories across Japan. Not long after the sighting of jinja hime, stories about other yokai with foresight, such as kudan and amabie, began popping up all over Japan. Jinja hime is thought to be the basis for all of these stories.

The giant oarfish strongly resembles the size and description of jinja hime. Its name in Japanese is ryūgū no tsukai, which means “servant of Ryūgū.”



TRANSLATION: giant priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: daidarabō, daidabō, daidara hōshi, daitarōbō, deidarabotchi, dairanbō, dendenbome, reirabotchi, ōki bochabocha
HABITAT: mountains all over Japan
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Daidarabotchi are colossal humanoids which resemble bald-headed priests. They have big, rolling eyes, long, lolling tongues, and pitch black skin. They share a lot of similarities with other giants, like ōnyūdō and umi bōzu, but they are by far the largest giants found in yōkai folklore.

BEHAVIOR: Daidarabotchi are so large that their movements shape the world. They build mountains by piling up rocks and dirt. They even pick up and move mountains to other places. When they walk, they leave lakes and valleys behind in their footprints. Because of this, many places across Japan are believed to have been made by daidarabotchi. Some are even named after them.

ORIGIN: Because daidarabotchi legends are found all over Japan, they have countless local name variations.

LEGENDS: Mount Fuji is sometimes said to have been made by a daidarabotchi. The giant scooped and dug up all of the dirt in Kai Province (Yamanashi Prefecture) to make the mountain, and that is why the area around Mount Fuji is a large basin. He gathered more dirt for the mountain by digging in Omi Province (Shiga Prefecture), and the area he dug became Lake Biwa.

The towns of Daita in Setagaya ward of Tōkyō and Daitakubo in Saitama are named after daidarabotchi. These towns are said to have been created by daidarabotchi.

Daizahōshi Pond in Nagano Prefecture is named after a daidarabotchi, and is believed to have been created by one. Senba Lake in Ibaraki Prefecture is also said to fill the footprint of a particularly large daidarabotchi.

The Takabocchi Plateau in Nagano’s Yatsugatake quasi-national park is said to have been formed when a daidarabotchi lay down to rest his back for a bit.



TRANSLATION: giant centipede
HABITAT: mountains and caves; any dark and humid place big enough to hold it
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Ōmukade are monstrous mukade–centipedes (Scolopendra subspinipes) with dark bodies and bright orange legs and heads. They are often depicted with dragon-like features. While their non-monstrous cousins can grow up to 20 cm in length, the upper size limit on yōkai mukade is not known.

BEHAVIOR: Like their smaller relatives, ōmukade are vicious and highly aggressive. The bite of a regular mukade is venomous and very painful, but rarely fatal. Ōmukade, on the other hand, are much more venomous and very strong. They have even been known to torment dragons.

An ōmukade’s exoskeleton is so tough that it can’t be pierced by weapons. They do have one weakness though: human saliva is toxic to them. A weapon coated in saliva may be able to pierce through its armor and wound it.

INTERACTIONS: Ōmukade are extremely rare. When they are seen, they pose a threat to all in the area. Throughout history, the responsibility of exterminating these monsters has fallen on the shoulders of brave warriors.

LEGENDS: There is a famous bridge in Shiga Prefecture known as Seta no Karahashi. Long ago, a great serpent appeared on the bridge and would not move. The villagers were too afraid to approach the serpent, and so they could not cross.

One day, the brave warrior Fujiwara no Hidesato came to the bridge. He was not afraid of the serpent, and he crossed the bridge, crunching its great body under his feet. The serpent slithered back into the lake, and the bridge was clear again.

That night, a beautiful woman visited Hidesato. She introduced herself as the daughter of the dragon king of Like Biwa. The dragon king had sent her to Hidesato to ask for his help. Her family was being tormented by an ōmukade who lived on Mount Mikami. She knew that Hidesato must be a brave warrior, because he had so fearlessly trampled her body. Hidesato agreed to help the dragon king. He took up his sword and his bow and headed to the mountains.

Upon reaching Mount Mikami, Hidesato saw an enormous centipede coiled around its top. Its was so long that its body wrapped around the mountain seven and a half times. He fired his arrows at it until only one arrow remained, but he was unable to pierce the beast’s armor. Hidesato coated the tip of the arrow in his saliva, and said a prayer to Hachiman, the god of warriors. This time his arrow struck true, and he brought down the ōmukade.

The dragon king’s daughter was so grateful to Fujiwara no Hidesato that she gave him marvelous gifts: a bag of rice which never became empty no matter how much rice was taken from it; a roll of silk which never ran out no matter how much was cut from it; a cooking pot which always produced the most delicious food without the need for fire; and a large temple bell, which Hidesato donated to Mii-dera. The grateful dragon king also told Hidesato the secret to defeating Taira no Masakado, the rebel whom Hidesato had been charged with bringing down.



TRANSLATION: yaksha; demon gods from Buddhist cosmology
HABITAT: rivers, forests, and mountains
DIET: omnivorous; occasionally man-eating

APPEARANCE: Yasha are a race of powerful, high ranking nature spirits which appear in Buddhist cosmology. They are a type of kijin, or demon god–both worshiped as benevolent gods and feared as wrathful demons. They are fearsome warriors, and serve as guardians of the treasures of the earth. They have varied forms, but generally are humanoid in appearance, with brightly colored skin, spiked hair, sharp teeth, and fierce eyes. They are usually depicted carrying weapons and wearing ornate armor.

BEHAVIOR: Yasha are one of the members of the the Eight Legions–eight supernatural races who listened to the sermons of Shaka Nyōrai and converted to Buddhism. Along with the ten, tatsu, kendatsuba, ashura, karura, kinnara, and magoraka, they serve as guardians of the Buddhist teachings.

Yasha serve Buddhism in a number of ways. Most importantly, the Twelve Heavenly Generals (the twelve most fearsome yasha), serve as the personal bodyguards of Yakushi Nyōrai, the buddha of medicine. They wage war on sickness and fight the enemies of Buddhism. They are also important in astrology–as there are twelve of them, they are associated with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, the hours of the day, the months, and the directions. Their leader, General Kubira, is also an important kami in the Shinto faith. He is believed to be the manifestation of Konpira, a god of fishing, seafaring, and farming. He is enshrined as Ōmononushi in the Kotohira shrine of Kagawa Prefecture, alongside Sutoku Tennō.

Yasha, along with another kind of demon called rasetsu, are used as soldiers in the armies of Bishamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings. Bishamonten is often depicted trampling a tiny, evil yasha (called a jaki or amanojaku) under his feet. His armor is also often decorated with scowling yasha faces. In this way yasha also serve as a symbol the triumph of virtue over wickedness.

ORIGIN: Yasha come from Hindu mythology. They were originally benevolent nature spirits and caretakers of the trees and earth. In Buddhism, they were interpreted as evil, ghost-like spirits who preyed upon travelers, but later gave up their wicked ways upon hearing the sermons of the Buddha. The Buddhist version of yasha is very similar to another class of Hindu spirits: the ogrish, man-eating demons known as rasetsu. When Buddhism was brought into China, it mixed with Chinese folk religion and astrology, and yasha grew even further away from their Hindu origins.

When Buddhism was brought to Japan from China, the Chinese interpretation of yasha was brought along with it. In Japan, yasha were often viewed as Buddhist manifestations of local evil spirits, like amanojaku and oni. Yasha took on some of the characteristics of these spirits, and sometimes even became synonymous with them.



TRANSLATION: a phonetic rendition of its sanskrit name, kalaviṅka
ALTERNATE NAMES: myōonchō (exquisite sounding bird)
HABITAT: Gokuraku jōdo, a realm of paradise
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Karyōbinga are celestial beings from Buddhist cosmology. They have the head and arms of a bodhisattva, the body of a bird, and long, flowing tail feathers similar to that of a hōō. They live in a realm of paradise called Gokuraku jōdo.

BEHAVIOR: Karyōbinga possess voices of incomparable beauty. They begin singing while still inside of their eggs. After they hatch, they begin to dance and play heavenly musical instruments as well. They sing of the holy scriptures and the words of the buddhas.

ORIGIN: Karyōbinga come from Indian mythology. They originated in Buddhist scripture, which was brought to Japan from China. They differ very little from their Indian counterparts. They are usually used in paintings and sculpture as symbols of paradise and the Buddha’s words. They are a reminder that by living a holy life, one can be reborn into Gokuraku jōdo after their death. Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism make reaching this paradise their goal. Gokuraku jōdo is a pure land of utter bliss–a celestial kingdom created by Amida Buddha. Its inhabitants can practice Buddhism directly under Amida’s tutelage, listen to the songs of karyōbinga, and achieve enlightenment themselves.



TRANSLATION: congratulations, long life
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The kotobuki is an auspicious chimera whose body contains parts from all twelve animals of the zodiac. It has the head of a rat, the ears of a hare, the horns of an ox, the comb of a rooster, the beard of a sheep, the mane of a horse, the neck of a dragon, the back of a boar, the shoulders and belly of a tiger, the front legs of a monkey, the rear legs of a dog, and the tail of a snake.

ORIGIN: The kotobuki was first documented in the Edo period. Woodblock prints of it were popular gifts. Almost no explanation about the creature was included in these prints, other than that it was said to come from India, it could understand human speech, and was called kotobuki. Merely possessing an image of the kotobuki was thought to be enough to protect a person from sickness and disease.

Good luck charms featuring the animals of the zodiac were popular during the Edo period. Even without a description, customers would recognize the twelve zodiac signs hidden in this beast. Further, the name kotobuki is a celebratory and congratulatory word, which makes this creature instantly identifiable as a powerful and auspicious creature.



Gyouchuu, Kitai, Mimimushi鬼胎

TRANSLATION: uterus evil spirit; uterus ghost
HABITAT: the uterus

APPEARANCE: Kitai is a grotesque infectious yōkai which begins as a blood clot the size of a large sake cup. Its life cycle begins in the left abdomen, and as it grows it migrates to the uterus. Gradually, it develops a face that looks like a frightful cow, bright red with black horns. It grows a long body which coils around like a snake’s. Kitai has a very short temper, but moves extremely slowly, like a slug. Because of this it tends to feel a lot of stress, which it passes on to its host.

INTERACTIONS: Once a kitai takes on its adult form it is difficult to recover from. When a kitai slithers about inside of its host, it causes bouts of hysteria. It is difficult to treat with acupuncture, because the needles often cause the kitai to become stressed, which worsens the condition. There are secret ways of treating slow moving bugs like the kitai, but they are passed on orally from master to student.


Gyouchuu, Kitai, Mimimushi蟯虫

TRANSLATION: intestinal worm; pinworm
HABITAT: the genitals

APPEARANCE: Gyōchū are infectious yokai with six arms and long red tongues. They are extremely fond of chatting and gossiping. They live and reproduce in the sex organs, making them a sexually transmitted yōkai. Gyōchū reproduce in the sex organs on Kōshin night, a holy night which occurs every sixty days in the esoteric Kōshin religion. Gyōchū leave their hosts on these nights and visit Enma Daiō, the king of hell and judge of the damned. They tattle on their hosts, telling all of their dreams, desires, and sins to Enma, who will inflict his divine wrath on them accordingly.

INTERACTIONS: There is no treatment for a gyōchū infection. The only way to keep safe from this infection is to avoid any chance of contracting an infection by abstaining from sex on Kōshin night. Traditionally, Kōshin night is reserved for praying. Believers gather together and refrain from sleeping for the whole night, so faithful practitioners should have no problem avoiding contracting gyōchū. People who have sex on these holy nights are committing a grave sacrilege, which the gyōchū will report to King Enma. During the feudal era, terrible diseases (leprosy, for example) were believed to be divine punishments for those who disrespect the gods.

Today, the name gyōchū refers to the pinworm.


Gyouchuu, Kitai, Mimimushi耳虫

HABITAT: the ears and heart

APPEARANCE: Mimimushi is an infectious yōkai with long ears and a spotted, snake-like body. It writhes and slithers back and forth as it migrates between the ears and the heart, causing discomfort in its host.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with mimimushi crave cold foods and avoid hot food. Their stomachs appear swollen and bloated. Infections can be treated with remedies made from the herb byakujutsu (Atractylodes japonica) and the mushroom bukuryō (Poria cocos).



TRANSLATION: water spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: kenmon, kawataro, yamawaro
HABITAT: the Amami islands
DIET: primarily fish and shellfish
CRITICAL WEAKNESS: octopus and giant clams

APPEARANCE: Kenmun are hairy water and tree spirits from the Amami islands in southern Japan. They look like a cross between a kappa and a monkey. They also closely resemble their Okinawan cousins, kijimunā. Their bodies are covered in dark red or black hair, and they have long, thin legs and arms. They are slightly larger in size than a human child. They have pointed mouths, and on top of their heads is a saucer-like depression which holds a small amount of oil or water. Their bodies smell like yams, and their drool smells terrible.

BEHAVIOR: Kenmun make their homes in banyan trees and spend their days playing in the mountains or near the water in their family groups. They particularly enjoy sumo wrestling, at which they are very skilled. As the seasons change, they migrate back and forth from the mountains to the sea.

Kenmun have a number of strange abilities. They are able to change their shapes. They often disguise themselves as people, horses, or cows. They can change into plants and blend in with the surrounding vegetation, or even disappear entirely. Kenmun can also create light. Their drool glows eerily, as do their fingertips. They have the ability to create fire from the tips of their fingers. Sometimes they use this fire to light the oil in their head-dishes. When mysterious lights are seen in the mountains or on the shores of the Amami islands, it is called kenmun machi by locals.

Kenmun like to hunt at night, lighting up their fingertips to search for food in the dark. They primarily feed on fish and small shellfish. They also enjoy slugs and snails, pulling off the shells and rolling them up like rice balls. (It is possible to identify a banyan tree inhabited by a kenmun by the sheer amount of snail shells piled up among its roots.) They absolutely hate octopus and giant clams, and will have nothing to do with them.

INTERACTIONS: Kenmun stay away from inhabited areas and run away when large groups of people are nearby. They will occasionally aid lone woodcutters and people gathering firewood by carrying heavy loads for them. They remember those who treat them kindly or do them favors. A fisherman who saves a kenmun from being attacked by an octopus is sure to earn its eternal gratitude. Some elderly islanders who have befriended kenmun are to call friendly kenmun out from the mountains to show to their grandchildren.

In general, kenmun do not harm people. They do, however, love competition, and cannot resit the chance to challenge a human to a sumo match. When their head-dish is filled, they have supernatural strength and cannot be beaten. However, kenmun like to mimic people, so if a challenger stands on their head or bows very low, their head-dish will empty out and they can be beaten.

While kenmun are not evil, they do enjoy playing pranks on humans from time to time. They may shape shift into animals and try to scare humans, or offer directions to people that get them totally and helplessly lost. They also have no shame about stealing food or even utensils from humans. Kenmun are very sensitive about being insulted, particularly about their body odors. Because of this, if a person talks about bad smells or farting while in the mountains, any kenmun who overhear it will become upset.

Kenmun do occasionally do wicked things to humans. There are stories of children who wandered into the woods and had their souls stolen by kenmun. Afterwards, the children behaved like kenmun, living in banyan trees and leaping from tree to tree when the villagers tried to catch them. Adults can have their souls stolen by kenmun as well. Kenmun like to force feed them snails, or pull them into rivers. These people are often later found unconscious beneath a banyan tree. If a banyan tree in which a kenmun lives is cut, the kenmun will place a curse upon the woodcutter. The kenmun’s curse causes its victims eyes to swell up, and then go blind. Eventually the cursed person will die.

Some families hang pig foot bones or Japanese pittosporum branches from the eaves of their roofs in order to keep kenmun from coming close. To drive away a kenmun, all it takes is to threaten it with an octopus. Merely threatening to throw an octopus at them is enough to send them running. If an octopus is not available to throw at them, they will also run away from a giant clam, or anything else you throw at them as long as you pretend it’s an octopus.



TRANSLATION: doll god, doll spirit
HABITAT: homes

APPEARANCE: Hinnagami are powerful spirits from Toyama Prefecture. They reside in dolls and grant their owners’ wishes.

INTERACTIONS: A hinnagami will grant its owner any wish that he or she desires. Families who own hinnagami quickly become rich and powerful; and people who become rich and famous very quickly are sometimes suspected of owning hinnagami.

Hinnagami come with a catch: if a new request is not made as soon as a wish is granted, the hinnagami will demand, “What is next?” As soon as that request is fulfilled, the hinnagami demands another, and another, and another. This pattern never ends. Because their creation comes out of human greed and desire, hinnagami cling to their creators obsessively and never leave their sides. A hinnagami’s attachment is so powerful, in fact, that even death cannot separate it from its master. When a hinnagami’s creator dies, the hinnagami will follow them to hell and haunt them for all of eternity.

ORIGIN: Hinnagami are created through a long and complicated ritual. There are a few methods of creating a hinnagami, which vary bit by bit depending on who you hear the story from.

In the most common ritual, the person who wishes to create a hinnagami must begin collecting grave earth that has been trampled on by people during the day. Grave earth must be collected in this way every night for three years. For an even stronger hinnagami, they should take earth from seven different graveyeards in seven different villages. Once collected, the grave earth is mixed with human blood until it becomes clay-like. Then it is molded into a doll shape representing a god or a spirit that its creator worships. This doll is placed and left in a busy road until it has been trampled upon by one thousand people. Then the creator retrieves the doll, which has become a hinnagami.

An alternative method is to collect graveyard stones and carve them into one thousand small dolls, each about nine centimeters long. These dolls are boiled in a large pot until only one of them rises to the surface. The doll that rises is said to contain the combined souls of all one thousand dolls. It becomes a special type of hinnagami called a kochobbo.



TRANSLATION: horse kan (kind of infection)
HABITAT: the heart

APPEARANCE: Umakan is an infectious parasite with the appearance of a splendid, fast horse. Its head, neck, and back are deep red. It’s tail, belly, and legs are white. It acts up in bright sunlight, or the light from a large fire.

INTERACTIONS: Umakan victims suffer from a weak heart and fainting spells. Upon waking up, they seem perfectly fine with no other problems. To treat this sickness, the victim must continuously build up strength in their heart. There are a number of effective ways to treat it with acupuncture as well, which are passed down orally from teacher to student.

Sori no kanmushi


TRANSLATION: back-bending liver bug
HABITAT: the liver
DIET: spicy foods

APPEARANCE: The sori no kanmushi is a terrible parasitic bug with wide, bugging out eyes, a blue back, and a white belly. Its hands are like flippers and its tail is brush-like. It likes spicy foods. It lives in the liver, but the symptoms it causes affect the spine.

INTERACTIONS: Sori no kanmushi bites the back of its host, causing great pain. Its victim develops a warped or curved spine, a condition which long ago was called sori (thus this creature’s name). Mokkō (Saussurea costus) and byakujutsu (Atractylodes japonica) are effective medicines against this bug.

Taibyō no kesshaku

Taibyounokesshaku, Kakurannomushi, Kishaku大病の血積

TRANSLATION: terrible disease blood shaku (a type of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: kesshaku, chishaku
HABITAT: the stomach
DIET: blood

APPEARANCE: This yōkai infects hosts after they have suffered from a terrible sickness. It’s body is shaped like a flexible bulb. It has flippers and a broad tail which help it swim about the stomach. Its head it shaped like a hammer, and it uses it to smash through the stomach wall and enter the heart, where it feeds off of its host’s blood.

INTERACTIONS: A person infected with a taibyō no kesshaku becomes pale, with thin and emaciated cheeks. The victim’s entire body becomes weak and worn out. This infection can be cured by vomiting up the taibyō no kesshaku and sprinkling it with shukusha (medicine made from black cardamom seed). When a taibyō no kesshaku is smashed, its body rips open and an enormous blood clot is released.

Kakuran no mushi

Taibyounokesshaku, Kakurannomushi, Kishaku霍乱の虫

TRANSLATION: vomit and diarrhea bug
HABITAT: the stomach

APPEARANCE: Kakuran no mushi is a parasitic yōkai which lives in the stomach. It has a black head and a red body. It has tiny legs interspersed across its long body. Its facial expression resembles that of a person who is about to vomit; its mouth is open and its eyes are tiny pinpoints.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with kakuran no mushi suffer symptoms similar to food poisoning: frequent diarrhea and vomiting. This infection can be cured by taking goshuyu, a medicine made from a dried, unripe fruit (Tetradium ruticarpum).

In one record of a kakuran no mushi infection, this yōkai’s head was briefly visible in its host’s mouth during a particularly violent bout of vomiting. A friend of the victim grabbed the kakuran no mushi’s head to try to pull it out, but when he did, the victim became very weak and seemed as if he was about to lose consciousness. The friend let go of the head, and the kakuran no mushi retreated back into its hosts body. Afterwards, the victim died. When an autopsy was performed, the doctor found the kakuran no mushi wrapped up around its host’s liver so tightly that he couldn’t remove it. The doctor ground up shazenshi (Plantago asiatica) and mokkō (Saussurea costus) and sprinkled it on the kakuran no mushi, and the creature disappeared.


Taibyounokesshaku, Kakurannomushi, Kishaku気積

TRANSLATION: mind/spirit/mood shaku (a type of infection)
HABITAT: the stomach
DIET: oily foods

APPEARANCE: Kishaku’s most distinguishing feature is its mouth, which is split three ways. It has a red, furry body with a white stripe and a black tail. It loves greasy, oily foods. It lives in the stomach and feeds off of the oily foods, such as fish and chicken, that its host eats. It completely ignores rice and other foods that it doesn’t like.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with kishaku experience an extreme increase in sexual desire. This sickness can be cured with medicine made from a tiger’s intestines.


Koseu, Oozakenomushi小姓

TRANSLATION: page, apprentice
HABITAT: between the heart and the diaphragm
DIET: prefers sweet sake

APPEARANCE: Koshō is a parasitic yōkai with a snakelike body and a child-like face. It has a white, scruffy beard. It has an umbrella-like protrusion on the top of its head. It can speak, and is constantly chattering like a child. It loves sweet sake. In lives in between the heart and the diaphragm, where neither medicine nor needles can reach.

INTERACTIONS: A koshō infection is a terminal illness. Not even the best doctors have ever come up with a way to treat it. The umbrella-like protrusion on its head blocks medicine, and it hides too deep in the body for acupuncture to be effective.

Ōzake no mushi

Koseu, Oozakenomushi大酒の虫

TRANSLATION: heavy drinking worm
HABITAT: the abdomen

APPEARANCE: Ōzake no mushi has a bright red body with a number of worm-like appendages branching out. It’s is quite warm, and becomes warmer when its host drinks alcohol. It looks like a lumpy satchel tied up at the top.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with ōzake no mushi become heavy drinkers. If the satchel-like “shell” is broken, the ōzake no mushi erupts with what looks like red sand throughout the body. In fact, these are countless other worms which live inside its red body. Even after its host dies, these parasites will live inside of the abdomen.


Hizounomushi, Akuchuu, Hizounokasamushi悪虫

HABITAT: the spleen
DIET: prefers rice

APPEARANCE: Akuchū is a very dangerous bug which infects the spleen. It can easily move throughout its host with its flexible segmented body and broad tail. It has six sharp claws with which it strongly grasps the spleen.

INTERACTIONS: Akuchū clings to the spleen and steals the food that its host eats with its hooked bill. No matter how much food is ingested, it is very difficult to gain weight or receive nourishment while infected with an akuchū.

Akuchū infections can be easily cured with mokkō (Chinese medicine made from a species of thistle).

Hizō no kasamushi

Hizounomushi, Akuchuu, Hizounokasamushi脾臓の笠虫

TRANSLATION: capped spleen worm
HABITAT: the spleen

APPEARANCE: Hizō no kasamushi get their name from the bright red cap-like feature on top of their heads. They have a long, worm-like body covered in short red hairs, which ends in a hairy forked tail.

INTERACTIONS: The hizō no kasamushi’s cap interferes with the normal intake of food, so people infected with this worm become pale and weak. It can cause rapid weight loss as well as extreme weight gain.

This bug is very difficult to remove the from body, but its symptoms can be somewhat relieved by taking Chinese medicine made from agi (dried gum from the roots of ferula plants) and gajutsu (made from the stems and roots of turmeric plants).

Hizō no mushi

Hizounomushi, Akuchuu, Hizounokasamushi脾臓の虫

TRANSLATION: spleen worm
HABITAT: the spleen

APPEARANCE: Hizō no mushi lives in the spleen and attacks the liver and muscles. It has a bright red body which is very hot. Its limbs are tipped with sharp claws. It staggers throughout the body on its thin legs.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with hizō no mushi take on some of its characteristics; most notably the staggering style of walking about, with left and right arms spread wide. When hizō no mushi reaches out from the spleen and grasps the liver in its talons, its victims develop hyperthermia. When hizō no mushi grasps the muscles in its talons, the victim’s body becomes hot and he begins to feel dizzy as if hit on the head.

A hizō no mushi infection can be cured by taking Chinese medicine made from mokkō (a species of thistle) and daiō (a kind of rheum).


Hishaku, Hinoshu脾ノ聚

TRANSLATION: spleen shu (a type of infection)
HABITAT: the spleen

APPEARANCE: Hinoshu is microbial yōkai with a lumpy, boulder-like appearance and an extremely large mouth. It infects the spleen.

INTERACTIONS: Hinoshu attacks occur when its host is relaxing outside, and when the host is among a crowd of people. It rolls about inside the body, bruising every part and causing a lot of pain. The victim feels as if he has fallen from a height onto an enormous boulder. Viewing beautiful rocks, such as in a zen garden, causes this infection to act up much more strongly, as the hinoshu becomes excited at all of the beautiful rocks.

When an infection takes this form, it becomes very difficult to recover from this illness.  Traditionally, acupuncture is used to treat it, however the treatment is too complicated to learn in a book. It must be learned orally, from someone who has treated a hinoshu before.


Hishaku, Hinoshu脾積

TRANSLATION: spleen shaku (a type of infection)
HABITAT: near the belly button

APPEARANCE: Hishaku is a microbe which lives near the belly button and infects the spleen. It has a fuzzy, yellowish, wolf-like body and a long red tongue. It has no legs. A large red pentagon-like shape appears on the hishaku’s side; this is a representation of the belly button.

INTERACTIONS: Hishaku mainly infect women. They cause in their hosts an extreme fondness for sweets, as well as a yellow tinge in the face. Hishaku hosts tend to hum non-stop. They can cause extremely heavy menstrual bleeding as well as irregular vaginal discharge. Women infected this way have difficulty getting out of bed. Hishaku infections are most likely to occur during the changing of the seasons. This is because hishaku are related to the element of earth in Chinese element theory, and those days are also closely related to the element of earth.

Hishaku can be treated with acupuncture in an area about one centimeter around the belly button. The techniques for this treatment are only passed down orally.


Haimushi, Haishaku, Kiukan牛癇

TRANSLATION: cow kan (kind of infection)
ALTERNATE NAMES: kiukan, hainoju, haikan (lung kan)
HABITAT: the lungs

APPEARANCE: Gyūkan is a type of kan no mushi—a creature which causes distemper and irritability in children. Kan no mushi can take many shapes and infect many parts of the body. A gyūkan is a kan no mushi which takes the shape of a cow and infects the lungs. It has a long tongue and sharp hooves. The lower part of its body is red.

INTERACTIONS: Gyūkan tend to act up when their hosts eat and drink. From their position in the lungs, they can sense when food enters the throat. They become very excited, and cause their hosts to faint.

There are many of ways to treat it with acupuncture. However, as it grows older its horns become longer and sharper, and recovery becomes more difficult.


Haimushi, Haishaku, Kiukan肺積

TRANSLATION: lung shaku (a type of infection)
HABITAT: the lungs

APPEARANCE: Haishaku originates under the right armpit and gradually migrates into the lungs. It grows from a smaller larval form into a large, white, lumpy shape that envelops the lungs and causes sickness. Its nose opens directly into the lugs, so it is extremely sensitive to smells.

INTERACTIONS: People infected with haishaku develop smooth, white skin. They begin to dislike strong smells, whether good or bad, and instead prefer raw, fishy smells. They prefer spicy foods over bland ones. They also commonly become pessimistic and depressed. Because the haishaku is shaped like a cloud, their hearts too become cloudy and subdued. Tears will also flow like rain.

Haishaku infections can be treated with very gentle and shallow acupuncture. Anything stronger than that will be too painful for the victim.


Haimushi, Haishaku, Kiukan肺虫

TRANSLATION: lung worm, lung bug
HABITAT: the lungs
DIET: cooked rice

APPEARANCE: Haimushi is a tiny moth-like creature with a segmented body and four wings. They live in the lungs most of the time, but occasionally leave the body and fly through the air. They have red faces with a triple-forked mouth, and white bodies like that of a maggot. They have colorful, feathery wings. They feed mainly on cooked rice.

INTERACTIONS: Haimushi infect the lungs and cause various health problems. If a haimushi leaves its host and gets lost, the person will die and the haimushi will transform into a fireball and burn up.

A haimushi infection can be treated with byakujutsu, a traditional remedy made from the powdered root of the herb Atractylodes japonica.



TRANSLATION: human-eating ghost
HABITAT: old temples and ruins
DIET: human corpses

APPEARANCE: Jikininki are ghouls which feast on the bodies of the dead. They appear as ordinary humans for the most part, except their features are more monstrous. They have sharp, pointed teeth which they use to peel the flesh off of the recently deceased.

BEHAVIOR: Jikininki are found near villages, usually in abandoned temples or old ruins. They avoid excessive contact with humans, but remain close to human settlements, as humans are their main source of food. Jikininki gain their sustenance by devouring the flesh and bones of the recently deceased. They do not enjoy their existence and do not find pleasure in eating the dead. It merely temporarily relieves some of the pain of their eternal hunger.

Jikininki exist somewhere between the living and the dead. They exhibit some ghost-like traits; they and their dwellings are often invisible during the day, appearing only to unsuspecting travelers during the night. They usually hunt their prey at night as well, slipping into temples when the dead are lain there for funerary prayers.

ORIGINS: Jikininki are closely related to gaki—hungry ghosts of Buddhist cosmology who are constantly starving but unable to eat anything. A jikininki is born when a person performs evil deeds, corrupting his soul. Some jikiniki were corrupt priests who could not properly pass on after their deaths. Others were once humans who, for some reason or another, developed a taste for human flesh. As time went on and they continued eating people, they gradually transformed into these monsters.

LEGENDS: Long ago, a monk named Musō Soseki was traveling on a pilgrimage when he became lost deep in the mountains. As day began to fade, he came across a dilapidated old hermitage, where an elderly monk gave him directions to a village not far away. Soseki traveled on, and just as night fell he arrived in the village.

The son of the village chief welcomed Soseki and invited him to stay in his house as a guest. “However,” he said, “my father passed away earlier today. In our village, we have a custom. When one of us dies, we all must spend the night away from the village. If we do not do this, we will be cursed. But you are tired from your journey, and seeing as you are a priest, and also not a member of this village, I see no reason why you too must leave. Please feel free to stay in my house this night while the rest of us leave the village.” Soseki gratefully accepted. The villagers all left the village, and Soseki was alone.

That night, the monk recited funerary prayers over the body of the village chief. All of a sudden, he felt a presence nearby. Soseki felt his body freeze up, and he was unable to move. Then, a dark, hazy shape crept through the house and up to the body. The creature devoured the remains of the village chief, and then slipped away as quietly as it had arrived.

The following morning, when the villagers returned, Soseki told them what he had seen during the night. The village chief’s son told him that this was just as the local legends say. Soseki was surprsied, and asked why the monk living in the hermitage did not perform the funeral prayers for the village. The village chief’s son seemed confused. “There is no hermitage nearby. What’s more, there haven’t been any monks in this region for many generations…”

Soseki traced his steps through the mountains to the old hermitage he had seen the night before. The old monk welcomed him into the hovel and told him, “I apologize for showing you such a sight last night. The monster you saw in the village chief’s house was me. Long, long ago I was a priest. I lived in that village, and I performed many funeral services for the dead. However, all I could think of was the payment for my services, and not the souls of the deceased. Because of my lack of conviction, when I died I was reborn as a jikininki. Now, I am forced to feed off the bodies of the dead. Please, save my soul and release me from my torment!”

In that instant, the elderly monk and the dilapidated old hermitage both disappeared. Soseki was sitting on the dirt, surrounded by tall grass. The only feature nearby was an ancient, moss-covered gravestone.



TRANSLATION: shell boy
HABITAT: decorative shell boxes
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kaichigo is the spirit of a shell box come to life. It takes the form of a small, doll-like boy in a kimono.

BEHAVIOR: Kaichigo haunt the shell boxes used to store beautiful and expensive painted shells. They come out when nobody is around and play with the shells, flipping them over and moving them around into different positions.

ORIGIN: Kaichigo’s origins lie in kaiawase (“shell matching”), a popular Heian period game which uses painted seashells. Beautiful shells of the right size and color were collected and decorated, their insides lined with gold and painted with scenes from popular stories, such as The Tale of Genji. The two halves of the same shell would be painted with the same scene, and players of the game would try to match the two sides. Beautifully decorated shell boxes, or kaioke, were used to store the shells while not in use.

Kaiawase gradually became replaced by other matching games, such as karuta, which use less exquisite playing pieces. The kaioke and shells themselves came to be viewed as precious art objects instead of toys. Because each shell half will perfectly fit its matching half and no other, expensive kaiawase sets came to be used as wedding dowries—symbolizing a perfect and unique match between bride and groom. Some boxes have been passed down from mother to daughter over and over for centuries. Those kaioke which have been around for a very long time and are no longer used as games begin to resent their existence. They grow restless and want to be played with once again, and develop a soul: the kaichigo.



TRANSLATION: belly exposer
HABITAT: old temples and homes
DIET: unknown, but has a fondness for sake

APPEARANCE: Haradashi is a goofy-looking yōkai that can change into various different forms. Occasionally a haradashi will appear as a headless torso with arms, legs, and comical facial features on its belly. Other times it looks like a kind, elderly nun, or a goofy female monster with long black hair. Whatever form it takes, the defining characteristic of a haradashi is the large, silly-looking face which appears on the creature’s enormous stomach.

BEHAVIOR: Unlike most yōkai, haradashi do not do anything harmful. They are cheerful and agreeable yokai, and enjoy amusing others and cheering people up. They frequently disguise themselves as ordinary humans and then use their belly faces to surprise people and make them laugh.

INTERACTIONS: Haradashi appear to sad and lonely individuals, particularly those who are at home drinking alone. Haradashi will slip into these peoples’ houses to cheer them up. When offered a drink, a haradashi happily accepts it, and then bares its belly and performs a ridiculous dance. Those who entertain a haradashi in their homes find that their troubles and worries vanish, and they become filled with hopes and dreams.

Haradashi don’t only perform house calls. They make their homes in old temples and invite in those who need help. They call out to people who are lost or seeking shelter from the snow or rain, and invite them to stay the night in their temple. A haradashi will present its guest with a warm room and a hearty meal, and of course entertain with its signature belly dance.

Aka manto


TRANSLATION: red cloak; red vest
ALTERNATE NAMES: aoi manto, akai kami, akai hanten, akai chanchanko, akai te
HABITAT: school toilets
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Aka manto is an urban legend related to toilets—particularly those in elementary schools. This phenomenon is known all over Japan, with countless variations on the same theme. It usually takes place in a specific stall in a specific bathroom in the school. Usually it is an older or seldom used bathroom, often in a stall with an older style squat toilet.  Often the fourth stall is the cursed one, as the number four is associated with death.

Most stories follow this general pattern: while at school late in the evening, a student suddenly finds him or herself in desperate need of a toilet. The closest restroom available is one that is normally avoided by the students; it is older and less well-kept, separated from the rest of the school, and is rumored to be haunted. But with no time to search for a different restroom, the student enters. He or she does their business, and when they have finished, they reach for the toilet paper only to find that there is none. Then they hear a strange voice: “Do you want red paper? Or blue paper?” The student answers, “Red paper,” and a moment later is stabbed and sliced up so violently that blood sprays everywhere, soaking their body and making it look as if they were wearing a bright red cloak. Some time later, another student finds him or herself in need of a toilet in a similar situation. They know the rumors that a student died in the restroom, but they have no choice and use the bathroom anyway. Sure enough, a voice asks them, “Red paper or blue paper?” Remembering the legend, this student says, “Blue paper.” Then, all of the student’s blood is sucked out of their body, leaving them dead and blue-faced on the floor.

Plenty of variations of this legend exist, each with minor differences. The true identity of Aka manto is one of these. Sometimes it is said to be a person hiding in the adjacent stall—a serial killer in many stories. Other times it is a ghost who appears as a tall man with a sickly, bluish-white face. In some places it is even blamed on a hairy yōkai called a kainade who lives in the toilet and likes to stroke people’s rear ends with its hand. In the kainade’s case, the end result is markedly less violent: a hairy arm of the chosen color rises out of the toilet to stroke the student’s behind.

In some cases, instead of draining your blood, “blue paper” gets you strangled until your face turns blue. Sometimes answering “red paper” gets your skin flayed so that it hangs off of your back like a red cape (a play on the “aka manto” name). In other versions, instead of being killed, the student’s skin color will change permantly to whatever color he or she chose. Sometimes those who survive and tell the story to others fall terribly ill and die shortly after. And sometimes the consequences are worse than death, such as being dragged into the netherworld, never to be seen again.

The questions have many variations as well, including “red vest or blue vest,” “red hand or blue hand,” or “red tongue or blue tongue.” Sometimes the colors are red or white, instead of blue. When the choices are red or white paper, red often results in a red tongue rising up out of the toilet to lick the student’s rear end, while white results in a white hand rising up to stroke the student’s rear end. Less common choices are red paper or purple paper: choosing purple allows the student to escape unharmed, while choosing red causes the student to be pulled down through the toilet into the plumbing.

As with many urban legends, there is usually no escape from your horrible fate—though that doesn’t stop people from trying. Clever students who bring extra toilet paper with them discover that it vanishes before they are able to use it, and still find themselves having to answer to Aka manto. People who choose a different color other than those offered in hopes to confuse the spirit are met with an equally horrible death (one common version has a student say “yellow paper,” and the result is that their face is pushed down into the dirty toilet water and held there until they drown). In some instances, students have been able to escape by saying “I don’t need any paper,” buying them just enough time to run out of the bathroom before anything happens.

ORIGIN: Tracing the origin of urban legends can be difficult. Aka manto is fairly old as far as urban legends go. It is recorded as a popular schoolyard rumor as early as the 1930’s, and its popularity hasn’t faded even as newer toilet legends (such as Toire no Hanako-san) have come into existence. One explanation for Aka manto’s origin and continued popularity is in its nature. It may be a reflection of the anxiety inherent in being a student. Aka manto asks children an impossible question to which any answer results in something terrible. That feeling is not too different from having to answer a difficult problem on a test, or a teacher’s question in front of the whole classroom when you don’t know the answer.

Aka manto’s appearance has changed over time along with the Japanese lexicon. Today, manto is the Japanese word for a cloak or a cape, and so aka manto is usually depicted wearing a long red hooded cloak. However, in the 1930’s when this urban legend was born, manto referred to a shorter, sleeveless kimono jacket. As a result, different generations have different visual impressions of what Aka manto looks like.



TRANSLATION: demon bear
HABITAT: mountain forests
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: A bear which has lived for a very long time and transformed into a yōkai is called an onikuma, or demon bear. Onikuma continue growing and reach sizes much larger than even the largest natural bears. They walk on two legs and are large enough to carry off cows and horses, and can easily move aside boulders than ten men could not budge. They are so powerful that they can even crush a monkey with the palm of their hand.

BEHAVIOR: Onikuma behavior is very similar to that of ordinary bears. They live deep in the mountains, far away from humans. They are nocturnal. They hunt and scavenge and are able to eat just about anything. They rarely venture out of their habitats, but like ordinary bears, will occasionally emerge from the forests into villages to look for food.

INTERACTIONS: Due to their reclusive nature, encounters between onikuma and humans are very rare. When they do happen, however, they are often violent. Onikuma sometimes wander into human-inhabited areas when there is easy food to be had—this usually means livestock. Onikuma are capable of stealing cows and horses and walking off into the forest with them in hand. When this happens, the villagers have no choice but to try to hunt and kill the onikuma.

To hunt an onikuma, special tactics are required. First, hunters use strong timber to build a sturdy wooden structure resembling a square well casing. This is covered with wisteria vines and inserted to plug up the entrance of the onikuma’s den. Then, sticks and brush are pushed in through the narrow openings around the den plug. The onikuma will pull these things into the den and pile them up in the back, like a nest. As more and more are inserted, the den will fill up until there is no more space, and the onikuma will push its way out through the vine-covered plug. Then, it is stabbed with a long spear and shot with a rifle.

Such a tactic was used during the Kyōhō era (1716-1736) to kill an onikuma. The hide taken from the beast was large enough to cover more than six tatami mats.



TRANSLATION: the hour of meeting evil spirits

APPEARANCE: Ōmagatoki is the twilight hour between when the sun sets and the sky goes dark. It is not quite day, but not quite night. Shadows swallow everything. Your eyes start to play tricks on your mind. The border thins between sekai—the world we live in, belong to, and recognize—and ikai, the “other” world. Ikai is where the spirits live, a world about which we humans know next to nothing. During ōmagatoki, the evil spirits, the chimimōryō, wake up and move about freely. This is the hour when yōkai, yūrei, and other dark things cross over into our world.

The appearance of yōkai during ōmagatoki is said to be accompanied by a few telltale signs: a cold wind blowing; a strange smell in the air, like that of fish or blood; a sudden onset of darkness; a sudden chill that causes one’s hairs to stand on end.

INTERACTIONS: Humans and spirits normally have separate existences in different worlds. When those worlds come together, things become chaotic—particularly for humans. In order to avoid meeting the things that prowl the night, people would head home as the sun set and stay inside until morning. Woodcutters sleeping in mountain huts something heard the cutting down of trees at night, but found no evidence of it in the morning. Phantom waterfalls could be heard where there was no waterfall for miles around. Strange laughter and voices of inhuman things echoed throughout the forests. Children who wandered away from the village and got lost in the mountains could be spirited away by otherworldly things and taken to another world. Sometimes they would return years later, changed in some way.

ORIGIN: The first tales of encounters between humans and spirits came from woodsmen, travelers, criminals, and people whose livelihoods forced them away from the safety of their homes and villages at night. These men would return to their villages in the morning with stories of eerie experiences after twilight. Over time, these stories developed into the earliest superstitions, helping shape Japanese folklore, religion, and society into what they are today.

Ōmagatoki can be written two different ways: 逢魔時 literally means the hour of meeting evil spirits; 大禍時 literally means the hour of great calamity. Both of these readings illustrate the fear and apprehension that the ancient Japanese people felt towards the things that came at twilight.




APPEARANCE: Hinode, the break of dawn, signals the end of the power of evil spirits over the waking world. The holy light of the sun banishes yōkai, ghosts, and demons back to the places from which they came. As the morning light fills the shadows, unknown things no longer lurk. As the sun’s rays pierce the dark forests, strange shapes no longer hide among the trees. The time of meeting evil spirits is over. Once again the world is safe for humans.

ORIGIN: The sun has always been a central part of Japanese religion. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is the most important deity in Shinto and is worshipped across Japan. The importance of the sun in Japanese culture can be seen in Japan’s nickname—the land of the rising sun—on the Japanese flag, and in the native word for Japan itself: Nihon, “the origin of the sun.”

In Japanese artwork, the sun often appears as the final scene in picture scrolls depicting yōkai and the night parade of one hundred demons. Similarly, Toriyama Sekien’s second illustrated yōkai encyclopedia, Konjaku gazu zoku hyakki, opens with ōmagatoki and closes with hinode, depicting the monsters that rule the world from dusk until dawn.



TRANSLATION: human face tree
HABITAT: mountain valleys

APPEARANCE: The ninmenju is a strange tree which bears flowers looking like human heads. These heads cannot speak, but they do smile and can even laugh. In the autumn, they bear face-shaped fruit which tastes sweet and sour.

INTERACTIONS: If a person laughs at the tree, the head-shaped flowers will laugh back at that person. If they laugh too strongly, the heads will wilt and fall off the trees.

ORIGIN: The ninmenju is an example of folklore that has traveled over great time and distance to become what it is.

Ninmenju first appears in Japan in the Edo period encyclopedia Wakan sansai zue, which documents animals, plants, and yōkai from both inside and outside of Japan. The description is paraphrased from the Sancai tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609. Sancai tuhui describes ninmenju as originating in the foreign land of Daishi-koku (大食国). Daishi was the Japanese pronunciation of the Ming Chinese name for the Islamic world, which came from the Persian word tāzī. Tāzī was the Persian word for Muslims, derived from the Tayy, an Arabic tribe which flourished under the Abbasid Caliphate.

The waq waq tree of Islamic folklore is very similar to the ninmenju. This tree was described as bearing fruit shaped like humans and animals. The fruit could speak, but would die a few days after being picked. These trees grew on the mythical island of Waq Waq in the land of Zanj, an area in Africa near present-day Zanzibar. Legend has it that Alexander the Great had his death foretold by one of these trees. The waq waq tree may be the same tree from Daishi-koku that the Sancai Tuhui refers to. Through trade between Ming China along the Silk Road, it is possible that this Arabic myth is the model for what eventually became the ninmenju.



TRANSLATION: promoted giant triton
HABITAT: migrates from mountains, to valleys, and finally to seas

APPEARANCE: Like many animals, giant tritons (Charonia tritonis)—a kind of sea snail similar to a conch—can turn into yōkai after living for a very long time. When a giant triton reaches an age of several thousand years old, it turns into a draconic creature called a shussebora.

BEHAVIOR: Long ago, it was believed that giant tritons lived deep in the mountains. They spend their lives buried under the earth. They grow larger and larger, until after three thousand years they descend from the mountains into the valleys during landslides. They spend three thousand more years living near human villages, until they finally burrow into the sea. After three thousand more years underwater, they transform into a mizuchi—a kind of sea dragon.

INTERACTIONS: Because they spend their years buried in the earth or deep in the sea, shussebora very rarely ever interact with people. However, the caves they leave behind during their migrations serve as a testament to their existence. All over Japan, after landslides people have discovered large caves which shussebora were thought to have lived in. These discoveries were even documented in newspapers during the Meiji period.

The flesh of a shussebora was said to bring very long life to anyone who eats it. However, as there is no documented evidence of this, and nobody who has actually eaten a shussebora has come forth, this is thought to be just rumor.

ORIGIN: Because of the ambiguous nature of these creatures—the rumors about their life-giving meat, and the lack of any evidence other the caves they allegedly lived in—the phrase “hora wo fuku” (“to blow a conch shell”), meaning “to brag,” is said to have originated from this yōkai.



TRANSLATION: shark person
HABITAT: oceans; particularly the South China Sea
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Kōjin are aquatic humanoids that closely resemble ningyo. Unlike the merfolk of Western legends, Asian merfolk are monstrous in appearance. Kōjin have black, scaly shark-like bodies, and ugly, human-like facial features and arms.

BEHAVIOR: Kōjin are native to the South China Sea, where they live a life similar to other merfolk. They are well known for their skill at weaving, and they spend much of their lives working on their looms. The sea silk that they weave is of the finest quality and doesn’t get wet even in the water. They are very emotional, and cry frequently. When they cry, pearls (or precious gems, by some accounts) fall from their eyes instead of tears.

ORIGIN: The kōjin is better known in the West by the alternate reading of its kanji—samebito. This is because of Lafcadio Hearn, who included a story about a samebito in his book of Japanese folk tales, Shadowings.

LEGENDS: Long ago, a man named Tawaraya Tōtarō lived on the shore of Lake Biwa. One day, he came across a strange looking creature crouching near the base of a bridge. It resembled a man, but its body was inky black, it had the face of a demon and the beard of a dragon, and its eyes were like green emeralds. Although Tōtarō was scared, the green eyes seemed gentle to him, and so he approached the creature. The creature introduced himself as a samebito. He had served as an officer under the Eight Great Dragon Kings in the dragon palace of Ryūgū-jō, but was banished from the palace and exiled from the sea due to a small mistake he had made. Since then, he had been wandering, unable to find food or shelter. He begged Tōtarō for help.

Tōtarō pitied the samebito. He took the samebito back to his home, where he had a small garden with a pond. He told the samebito that he could live there for as long as he wanted, and he could have as much food as he wanted to eat. For six months they lived together, and every day Tōtarō brought the samebito fresh food fit for a sea creature.

During the seventh month, Tōtarō went to a festival at Mii-dera, where a great pilgrimage of women had come. There, he met a woman of extraordinary beauty and refinement, with skin as white as snow, and a voice like a nightingale. Her name was Tamana, and Tōtarō fell in love with her at first sight. Totaro followed Tamana home, and discovered that she lived in the same town in which he had met the samebito. He also learned that she was unmarried, and that her family wanted her to marry a man of rank. They demanded as a betrothal gift a casket of ten thousand jewels from whomever wished to marry Tamana.

Tōtarō fell into despair, knowing that even if there were ten thousand jewels in all of Japan, he would never be able to procure them. Though it seemed impossible that he could ever make Tamana his wife, he could not get her lovely face and sweet voice out of his mind. It haunted him so much that he refused to eat or sleep, and became so ill that he could not even lift his head from his pillow. It seemed that he would die of a broken heart. The samebito, whom Tōtarō had cared for in his time of despair, entered the house to care for Tōtarō in his last days. Tōtarō apologized to the samebito, fearing that after his death, the samebito would lose his home and his means of survival, and would die as well. The samebito was so touched by Tōtarō’s compassion that he began to cry. Great tears of blood spilled from his green eyes and down his black cheeks, but by the time they hit the floor they had hardened into splendid rubies.

At this sight, Tōtarō instantly found new strength, and began to gather the jewels. The samebito, astonished at Tōtarō’s recovery, stopped crying. Of course, the flow of jewels also stopped. Tōtarō begged the samebito to continue crying until he had ten thousand jewels, but the samebito regretfully replied that he could only weep when he felt true grief in his heart. Seeing that Tōtarō’s sickness was cured, the samebito was filled with nothing but relief, and thus could not cry anymore. The samebito suggested that they visit the bridge where they had first met to reminisce, and perhaps he could cry again.

The next day, Tōtarō and the samebito visited the bridge. They ate fish and drank wine, and watched the setting sun. Seeing the sun set over the sparkling sea, and with a little help from the wine, the samebito thought about his former life in the sea and his happy days in the dragon palace. He was overcome with homesickness and began to weep profusely. A great shower of jewels covered the bridge. Tōtarō began gathering them up. When he had collected ten thousand jewels he shouted for joy. At the same moment, a delightful song was heard far away in the sea. Like a cloud, a glorious palace made of coral the color of the setting sun rose out of the water. The samebito leaped with joy. He explained to Tōtarō that the Eight Great Dragon Kings must have granted him amnesty and were calling him back home. He bade his farewell to Tōtarō, thankful for his kindness and their friendship, and then dove into the sea.

Tōtarō never saw the samebito again. He brought the casket of ten thousand jewels to Tamana’s family and presented them as a betrothal gift. Shortly after, Tōtarō and Tamana were married.



TRANSLATION: horse head
ALTERNATE NAMES: mezuki (horse head demon)
HABITAT: Meido and Jigoku

APPEARANCE: In Japanese Buddhism, Gozu and Mezu are the demon generals who guard the gates of hell. They appear as terrible oni with animal heads; an ox head for Gozu, and a horse head for Mezu. They are extremely powerful and have the strength to move mountains. They are servants of Great King Enma, the ruler of hell, and are among the chief torturers and punishers of the wicked.

INTERNACTIONS: Gozu and Mezu are the first demons that one encounters upon entering hell. Should a person manage to escape from hell, Gozu and Mezu are sent out to bring them back.

ORIGIN: Though Gozu and Mezu are the most famous and most commonly depicted in story and art, they are not the only animal-headed demons in Great King Enma’s employ. Deer, tiger, lion, and boar-headed demons are also said to serve among the upper ranks of the guardians of hell. They operate the great torture chambers of Jigoku and oversee the torment of countless souls. Gozu, Mezu, and other animal-headed demons originate in Indian mythology, which was imported along with Buddhism to Japan by way of China.



ALTERNATE NAMES: gozuki (ox head demon)
HABITAT: Meido and Jigoku

APPEARANCE: In Japanese Buddhism, Gozu and Mezu are the demon generals who guard the gates of hell. They appear as terrible oni with animal heads; an ox head for Gozu, and a horse head for Mezu. They are extremely powerful and have the strength to move mountains. They are servants of Great King Enma, the ruler of hell, and are among the chief torturers and punishers of the wicked.

INTERNACTIONS: Gozu and Mezu are the first demons that one encounters upon entering hell. Should a person manage to escape from hell, Gozu and Mezu are sent out to bring them back.

ORIGIN: Though Gozu and Mezu are the most famous and most commonly depicted in story and art, they are not the only animal-headed demons in Great King Enma’s employ. Deer, tiger, lion, and boar-headed demons are also said to serve among the upper ranks of the guardians of hell. They operate the great torture chambers of Jigoku and oversee the torment of countless souls. Gozu, Mezu, and other animal-headed demons originate in Indian mythology, which was imported along with Buddhism to Japan by way of China.



TRANSLATION: clothes-stealing old woman
ALTERNATE NAMES: sōzukaba, ubason
HABITAT: Meido, along the banks of the Sanzu River

APPEARANCE: Datsueba and Keneō are a terrifying pair of elderly oni. They guard the bridge and the banks of the Sanzu River. All souls must pass by them before moving on to Meido to be judged.

INTERACTION: During a Japanese funeral, 6 mon (and old form of currency) are placed in the coffin to be used as a toll to enter the underworld. Upon reaching the Sanzu River, the souls must cross either by bridge (if they were good in life), by wading in the shallows (if they were only somewhat good), or by swimming across the deepest part of the river (if they were wicked).

After crossing the river, each soul encounters Datsueba, who accepts the toll and strips the souls of the clothes on their backs. Datsueba hands the clothing to her partner, Keneō, who hangs it from a tree by the riverside. The amount that the branch bends under the weight of the clothes serves as a measure of the weight of the sin each soul carries, and is used as evidence in the trials to come. Of course, the clothes of those who had to ford the river or swim across are heavy and wet, which only makes the branches of the tree sag lower. If a soul arrives with no clothes, Keneō flays his or her skin and hangs it from the tree instead.

Datsueba and Keneō perform a little bit of torture themselves, breaking the fingers of those guilty of theft, and so on. They also roam the banks of the river, tormenting the souls of children who are too young to cross the river and must wait for salvation to come to them instead.

According to some accounts, Datsueba is the wife of King Enma. In the Edo period, she became a popular object of folk worship, and temples dedicated to her began to spring up around Japan. Prayers and charms dedicated to Datsueba were used as wards against disease and coughs, in particular for children’s coughs.

Enma Daiō

Enma Daiou閻魔大王

TRANSLATION: Great King Enma

HABITAT: Jigoku and Meido

APPEARANCE: Enma Daiō is the ruler of hell (both Jigoku and Meido) and the foremost of the 13 judges of the dead. He has dresses in the robes of an ancient government official from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, and wears a fearsome expression upon his face. He is served by two secretaries, Shiroku and Shimyō, as well as a number of other demonic servants—the chiefs of which are Gozu and Mezu. His name often is invoked by parents who scold their children, “If you tell a lie, Enma will rip out your tongue!”

BEHAVIOR: Enma’s chief duty is to judge the souls of the newly dead and send them on to their next location. He keeps a great scroll in which he records all of the good and evil deeds of each and every person to use as evidence against them when their time of judgment comes. He oversees the torturing and suffering in hell, making sure that each soul gets enough punishment.

ORIGIN: Like many demonic figures in Japanese folklore, Great King Enma has a honji, or “true form,” which is that of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Enma’s true form is Jizō Bosatsu, the guardian of the underworld, god of travelers, and protector of children. Jizō is a warm and compassionate, beloved across Japan, deity who made a solemn vow not to become a full Buddha until all souls have been freed from suffering in hell. It is not uncommon to see small, red-bibbed, stone Jizō statues along roads and paths, and in graveyards all over Japan. While Enma may seem fearsome and terrifying, at heart, he is a kind and compassionate god, and he truly wishes to save each soul from damnation—this may be why the souls of the dead are given so many tests and trials to avoid going to hell.

Enma’s origins lie in India. In Vedic mythology he is known as Yama, the god of death. From the Vedas, the idea of Yama spread into Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Buddhism traveled to China, bringing Yama with it, and mixed with local religions and superstitions before being brought to Japan during the Tang Dynasty. As Chinese Buddhism mixed with Japanese religions and superstitions, he gradually developed into the god known as Great King Enma.



TRANSLATION: Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus)
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōsanshōuo, hanzake, hazako
HABITAT: rivers and streams
DIET: mainly insects, frogs, and fish

APPEARANCE: Hanzaki are monstrous versions of the Japanese giant salamander. These animals normally grow up to one and a half meters long, however the yōkai versions of this animal can grow much larger. They have rough, mottled, brown and black skin, tiny eyes, and enormous mouths which span the entire width of their heads. They live in rivers and streams far from human-inhabited areas.

INTERACTIONS: Hanzaki and humans rarely come into contact with each other. When they do, it is usually because the hanzaki has grown large enough to eat humans or livestock and is causing trouble to nearby villagers.

ORIGIN: The name hanzaki is a colloquialism for the Japanese giant salamander. They are called hanzaki for their regenerative powers; it was believed that a salamander’s body could be cut (saku) in half (han) and it would still survive. The call of the salamander was said to resemble that of a human baby, and so the word is written with kanji combining fish () and child ().

LEGENDS: There was once a deep pool in which a gigantic hanzaki lived. The hanzaki would grab horses, cows, and even villagers, drag them into the pool, and swallow them in a single gulp. For generations, the villagers lived in fear of the pool and stayed away from it.

During the first year of Bunroku (1593 CE), the villagers called for help, asking if there was anyone brave enough to slay the hanzaki. A young villager named Miura no Hikoshirō volunteered. Hikoshirō grabbed his sword and dove into the pool. He did not come back up; he had been swallowed by the hanzaki in a single gulp! Moments later, Hikoshirō sliced through the hanzaki and tore it in half from the inside out, killing it instantly. The slain creature’s body was 10 meters long, and 5 meters in girth!

The very day the hanzaki was slain, strange things began to happen at the Miura residence. Night after night, something would bang on the door, and something screaming and crying could be heard just outside the door. However, when Hikoshirō opened the door to check, there was nothing there at all.

Not long after that, Hikoshirō and his entire family died suddenly. Strange things began to happen through the village as well. The villagers believed the angry ghost of the dead hanzaki had cursed them. They built a small shrine and enshrined the hanzaki’s spirit as a god, dubbing it Hanzaki Daimyōjin. After that, the hanzaki’s spirit was pacified, and the curse laid to rest.

A gravestone dedicated to Miura no Hikoshirō still stands in Yubara, Okayama Prefecture. The villagers of Yubara still honor Hanzaki Daimyōjin by building giant salamander shrine floats and parading them through town during the annual Hanzaki Festival.


Taizan Fukun no Sai

Taizan Fukun no sai泰山府君祭

TRANSLATION: the Taizan Fukun (Lord Taizan) ceremony

APPEARANCE: Taizan Fukun no Sai is one of the most secret and powerful onmyōdō rituals. It is jealously guarded by the few who know it, and strongly coveted by those who don’t.

ORIGIN: This spell was developed in ancient China by Taoist philosophers. It is named for Lord Taizan, the god of the mountain Taishan in Shandong, China and one of the kings of hell. He is one of the most important deities in Onmyōdō. In this ritual, the supplicant beseeches Lord Taizan, Great King Enma, and the other judges of Meido and Jigoku to lengthen a person’s life span, save someone from death, or even restore life to the dead. Gold, silver, silk, saddled horses, and human life—usually substitutes in the form of katashiro, or paper dolls—are offered to the gods. No mantras or magical worlds are spoken; the gods are simply invited to sit down and participate. A formal letter of request is read to them, detailing the offerings and the virtues of the supplicants, and the precise divine intervention desired.

The Abe clan was famous for their knowledge of this spell. It is one of the reasons they were able to maintain a monopoly on the imperial Bureau of Onmyōdō. Under their offices, this spell was routinely performed for the emperors in order to increase their life spans and protect the country.

LEGENDS: Abe no Seimei is particularly famous for his use of Taizan Fukun no Sai. He resurrected his father, who was murdered by Ashiya Dōman, and used it many other times in the service of the emperor and country.

Once, a high ranking monk of Mii-dera known as Chikō fell gravely ill. It was determined that his illness was the result of karma, and thus could not be cured with medicine. Abe no Seimei was summoned. He divined Chikō’s fortune, and discovered that death was imminent. However, Abe no Seimei said that if someone was willing to trade life spans with Chikō, he could perform the Taizan Fukun no Sai and save the priest’s life.

The priests all looked at each other uncomfortably. As much as they loved and admired Chikō, nobody was willing to sacrifice his own life in order to save him. Finally, a young man named Shōkū—an average pupil who had been studying for many years yet had never attracted the attention of Chikō or the other teachers—stepped forward and offered his own life.

Abe no Seimei accepted the offer. He immediately performed the Taizan Fukun no Sai. Shōkū writhed in anguish, his life span shrinking away, while Chikō rapidly began to recover. Finally, Chikō was cured, and Shōkū lay on death’s door. As the young pupil’s last breath left his body, he prayed with all his heart to a nearby painting of Fudō Myōō. Just then, tears poured from the painted eyes of Fudō Myōō, and the god’s voice was heard:

“If you would take the place of your teacher, then let me take your place instead.”

Suddenly, Shōkū and Chikō sat up, both of then restored to life.



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.




TRANSLATION: ceremonial spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: shikijin, shiki no kami
DIET: varies

APPEARANCE: Shikigami are servant spirits used by onmyōji in rituals for various purposes. Some are used as charms for good fortune, some are used as amulets for protection, and some are used as curses. To call a shikigami means to call a god, a demon, a yōkai, or a ghost and to utilize its power for some deed or another.

INTERACTIONS: Shikigami can be powerful and dangerous. They come in many forms. The most common are enshrined in small objects, such as strips of paper or amulets. Others may come in the form of animal possessions, using the bodies of chickens, cows, or dogs as vessels. The most dreadful shikigami take the form of humans, ghosts, yōkai, or oni.

While shikigami are powerful and terrifying, perhaps their most horrifying aspect is that they never act under their own will; they are slaves in the service of human magic users who tell them what to do.

Wara ningyō


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.



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.

Abe no Seimei

Abe no Seimei安倍晴明

APPEARANCE: Abe no Seimei is perhaps the most famous onmyōji in Japanese history. A descendent of the famous poet Abe no Nakamaro, he lived from 921 to 1005 CE. Due to his success as an astrologer and diviner, he was widely believed to be a genius—and a wielder of magical powers and secret knowledge.

ORIGIN: Abe no Seimei’s fame comes from the success he had as an onmyōji in the 10th century. He was a student of Kamo no Tadayuki and Kamo no Yasunori, and succeeded Yasunori as astrologer and diviner for the imperial court. Seimei’s duties included foreseeing the gender of unborn babies, diving the location of objects, advising on matters of personal conduct, conducting exorcisms and crafting wards against dark magic and evil spirits, and analyzing and interpreting events such as celestial phenomena. He wrote numerous books on divination and fortune telling, including Senji Ryakketsu, containing six thousand forecast and thirty-six fortune telling techniques using shikigami, and a translation of Hoki Naiden, detailing secret divination techniques.

Abe no Seimei was so renowned that the Abe family remained in control of the Bureau of Onmyō until it was shut down in 1869. After his death, stories about Seimei began to spread rapidly and continued to do so for hundreds of years. Eventually, the details of his life became so intertwined with countless legends that the truth was no longer distinguishable from myth.

LEGENDS: It was believed that Abe no Seimei’s magical aptitude derived from a supernatural lineage. His mother was said to be a kitsune, making him half-yōkai. Seimei’s father, Abe no Yasuna, saved a white fox which was being chased by hunters. The fox transformed into a beautiful human woman and said her name was Kuzunoha. Out of thanks for saving her life, Kuzunoha became Yasuna’s wife and bore him a son, Seimei.

By age five, Abe no Seimei’s yōkai lineage was becoming apparent. He was able to command weak oni and force them to do his bidding. One day, he witnessed his mother in her fox form. Kuzunoha explained to Seimei that she was the white fox his father once saved. She then fled into the forest, never to return again. Kuzunoha entrusted her son to the onmyōji Kamo no Tadayuki in order to ensure that he would not grow up to be evil.

Abe no Seimei had many rivals. One of them was a famous priest from Harima named Chitoku Hōshi. Chitoku was a skilled sorcerer, and wanted to test Seimei to see if he was truly as great as people said he was. Chitoku disguised himself as a traveler and visited Seimei’s house, and asked Seimei to teach him magic. Seimei saw through the disguise instantly. Even more, he saw that the two servants Chitoku had brought with him were shikigami—summoned servant spirits—in disguise.

Seimei decided to have a little bit of fun with Chitoku. He agreed to train him, but said that it was not a good day, and that he should come back tomorrow. Chitoku went back to his home, while unbeknownst to him, Seimei unsummoned both of the shikigami. The next day, Chitoku realized that his servants were gone, and he approached Seimei to ask him to return his shikigami. Seimei laughed at him, angrily scolding him for trying to trick him. Any other person, he said, would not be so kind to return shikigami that were employed against him! Chitoku realized that he was in way over his head; not only could Seimei see through his disguise, but he was able to manipulate all of his spells as well. He bowed low, begged for forgiveness, and offered to become Seimei’s servant.

Abe no Seimei’s chief rival was a sorcerer from Harima named Ashiya Dōman. Dōman was much older than Seimei, and believed that there was no one in the land who was a better onmyōji than he was. Upon hearing of Seimei’s genius, he challenged him to a magical duel.

On the day of the competition, many officials and witnesses came to watch. The two sorcerers met in the imperial gardens for the contest. First, Dōman picked up a handful of sand, concentrated over it for a moment, and threw it into the air. The particles of sand turned into countless swallows which began to flit around the garden. Seimei waved his folding fan one time, and all of the swallows turned back into grits of sand.

Next, Seimei recited a spell. A dragon appeared in the sky above. Rain began to fall all around them. Dōman recited his spell, however as hard as he tried, he could not cause the dragon to vanish. Instead, the rain grew fiercer and fiercer, filling the garden with water up to Dōman’s waist. Finally, Seimei cast his spell again. The rain stopped, and the dragon vanished.

The third and final contest was a divination challenge: the contestants had to guess the contents of a wooden box. Dōman, indignant at having lost the previous round, challenged Seimei: “Whoever loses this round will become the other’s servant!” Dōman confidently declared that there were 15 oranges inside of the box. Seimei contradicted him, saying that there were 15 rats in the box. The emperor and his attendants who had prepared the test shook their heads, for they had put 15 oranges in the box. They announced that Seimei had lost. However, when they opened the box, 15 rats leaped out! Not only had Seimei divined the contents of the box, he had transformed the oranges into rats, tricking Dōman and the entire court. Victory went to Seimei.

Ashiya Dōman continued to hold a grudge against Abe no Seimei, and continued to plot against him. He seduced Seimei’s wife and convinced her to tell him Seimei’s magical secrets. She showed him the stone box in which Seimei kept Hoki Naiden, his book of spells. Hoki Naiden was a book of secrets which had been passed down since time immemorial from India to Tang, China. It came into the possession of the Japanese envoy, Kibi no Makibi. When Kibi no Makibi returned to Japan from Tang, he presented the secret book to the relatives of his friend Abe no Nakamaro, who remained in China. From there it was passed down and eventually inherited by Abe no Seimei.

One night when Seimei returned home, Dōman boasted that he had acquired Seimei’s secret magic book. Seimei scolded him, saying that was impossible. So impossible, in fact, that if Dōman did have the book, he could cut Seimei’s throat. Dōman triumphantly presented the book, and Seimei, realizing that he had been betrayed by his wife, offered his throat to Dōman. Dōman gladly cut it open. Seimei died.

When Seimei was murdered, Saint Hokudō—the Chinese wizard who had given Hoki Naiden to Kibi no Makibi—sensed the loss of a great sorcerer. He traveled across the sea to Japan, collected Seimei’s bones, and restored Abe no Seimei to life. The pair of them set out to get revenge on Dōman and Seimei’s ex-wife, who was now married to Dōman.

Saint Hokudō paid a visit to Seimei’s home, where Dōman and his wife were now living. He asked if Abe no Seimei was home, to which Dōman replied that, unfortunately, Abe no Seimei had been murdered some time ago. Saint Hokudō said that was impossible, for he had just seen Seimei earlier that day. Dōman laughed at him, saying that was impossible. So impossible, in fact, that if Seimei was actually alive, he could cut Dōman’s throat. Saint Hokudō called out to Abe no Seimei, who presented himself. He then promptly cut open the throats of Ashiya Dōman and his wife.

Today, Abe no Seimei is worshipped as a god at many shrines throughout Japan. His main shrine is located in Kyōto, and sits on the site of his former house.

Maneki neko


TRANSLATION: inviting cat
HABITAT: towns and cities
DIET: carnivorous; as a regular cat

APPEARANCE: The maneki neko is a popular variation of the bakeneko which brings good luck and fortune. It is most commonly seen in the form of decorative statues in homes and stores. It is depicted with one or both paws in the air in a beckoning motion.

ORIGIN: Cats have long been connected with the supernatural in Japan. While some superstitions link cats with bad luck, curses, and strange fires, there is also a long tradition of cats being revered and seen as good creatures. Particularly in agricultural and sericulture, where cats would eat mice and other pests who attack crops and silkworms, cats were seen as lucky creatures, and images of cats were used as charms.

Statues of maneki neko became popular items in the urban areas of Japan towards the end of the Edo period. Cats with their right hand raised are said to bring economic fortune, while cats with their left hand raised are said to attract customers. The cat’s colors of the can be significant as well. Long ago, black cats were said to be lucky cats due to their ability to see in the dark, and so black maneki neko were used as talismans against evil spirits. Red was believed to repel smallpox and measles, so red maneki neko were used as talismans against sickness.

The origins of these statues lie in folkloric tales about strange cats who bring riches to their masters, or who save their masters from disaster. There are a number of famous stories based on variations of these themes.

LEGENDS: In the Yoshiwara please district of Edo, there lived a very famous courtesan named Usugumo. Usugumo was a tayū (the highest rank of oiran) in the esteemed brothel of Miura Yashirōzaemon. Usugumo was a cat lover, and was particularly fond of her tortoiseshell cat whom she always carried with her wherever she went. So great was her love for her cats that rumors began to spread that Usugumo had been possessed or bewitched by a cat.

One day, as Usugumo tried to visit the bathroom, her tortoiseshell cat began acting extremely clingy. It refused to leave her side, clawing at her dress and meowing noisily. Seeing this, the brothel owner thought that the cat was attacking Usugumo. He quickly drew his sword and slashed at the cat. The cat’s head flew through the air into the bathroom, and sunk its teeth into a large venomous snake which was hiding out of site near the toilet.

Usugumo was overcome with grief for her pet cat, which even in death had saved her life. To ease her sadness, the brothel owner had a statue in the likeness of her cat made by the finest woodcarver out of the finest wood. The carving was so masterfully done and so lifelike that Usugumo was overjoyed and was able to find her happiness once again.

Everyone who saw the carving of the cat wanted one just like it. That year, copies of the figure were sold in the Asakusa markets. This is often thought to be the origin of the maneki neko statue.




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.



TRANSLATION: heavenly woman, celestial woman
HABITAT: Tendō, the realm of heaven in Buddhist cosmology
DIET: as a human

APPEARANCE: Tennyo are extraordinarily beautiful creatures who resemble human women. Aside from their unparalleled grace and elegance, and supernaturally attractive faces and figures, there is little way to differentiate them from ordinary women. They wear beautiful gowns called hagoromo (literally “feather cloth”), which allow them to fly.

BEHAVIOR: Tennyo are servants and courtesans for the emperor of heaven, and companions of buddhas and bodhisattvas. They sing, dance, play music, recite poetry, and do much of the same things as their earthly counterparts in human imperial courts; though they do them all with more grace, refinement, and beauty. They aid and entertain the other inhabitants of heaven, and they even occasionally fly down to earth to visit.

ORIGIN: Tennyo are a female-only subgroup of tennin, one of many celestial races native to Tendō. They are based on the Indian apsaras, celestial nymphs from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. They were brought to China from India along with Buddhism, where they developed into the tennyo we know today. The Chinese Buddhist tennyo was later brought over to Japan.

LEGENDS: Tennyo are a popular subject of folklore throughout all of Japan. Legends often involve love stories and marriage between tennyo and human men. The most famous story is the Noh play Hagoromo.

Long ago, in what is today Shizuoka, a fisherman named Hakuryō was walking along the pine-covered beaches of the Miho peninsula. It was a beautiful spring morning, and Hakuryō stopped for a moment to admire the beautiful white sand, the sparkling waves, the fluffy clouds, and the fishing ships on the bay. A pleasant fragrance filled the air, and it seemed that ethereal music was dancing on the winds. Something caught his eye; draped over a nearby pine branch was a robe of the most splendid fabric he had ever seen. It was made of a soft, feathery material, and was woven in fantastic colors, so he decided to take it home and keep it as a family heirloom.

Just as Hakuryō was preparing to leave, a young woman of breathtaking beauty appeared in the nude before him. She had flowers in her hair, and smelled just as beautiful as she looked. She said that he was holding her hagoromo robe, and asked him to return it. Hakuryō realized that this beautiful maiden was a tennyo. He refused to return to robe, saying it would bring good luck and fortune to his village.

The woman grew sad, and lamented that she would not be able to fly home to heaven without her robe. She dropped to her knees and cried, her tears falling like beautiful pearls into the sand. The flowers in her hair wilted. She looked up at the clouds above, and heard a flock of geese flying by, which only saddened her more as they reminded her of the celestial karyōbinga birds back home in heaven.

Hakuryō was moved by the beautiful maiden’s sadness. He told her that he would return her robe, but first she must perform a celestial dance for him. She agreed to perform the dance, but told Hakuryō that she needed her hagoromo to perform the dance. Hakuryō refused to return the robe. He thought she would just fly off to heaven without performing for him. The tennyo replied to him that deception was a part of his world, not hers, and that her kind do not lie. Hakuryō  felt shame, and returned the dress to her.

The tennyo donned her hagoromo and performed the dance of the Palace of the Moon. She was accompanied by celestial music, flutes, koto, and the wind in the pines. The moon shown through the trees and sweet fragrances filled the air. The waves grew calm and peaceful. Her long sleeves danced upon the wind, and she danced in sheer joy. As she danced, she slowly floated up into the sky. She flew over the beach, higher and higher, above the pines, through the clouds, and beyond the top of Mt. Fuji. She disappeared into the mists of heaven.



TRANSLATION: derived from the Hindu deity Garuda
ALTERNATE NAMES: konjichō (golden winged bird)
HABITAT: Shumisen (aka Mount Meru)
DIET: dragons

APPEARANCE: Karura are a race of enormous, fire-breathing demigods. They are humanoid in appearance, with the heads and wings of eagles. They have red skin, and red and gold feathers. Karura are fearsome. They breath fire from their beaks. The flapping of their wings sounds like thunder, and creates gusts of wind so strong they can dry up lakes, knock down houses, and cover entire cities in darkness. Their gigantic wingspans are 330 yojanas wide, and they can leap 3,360,000 li in a single bound. (The lengths of one yojana and one li vary greatly from country to country and era to era—a yojana can measure anywhere between 1.6 km to over 13 km long, and one li can measure anywhere between 400 m and 3.9 km.)

BEHAVIOR: Karura inhabit Tendō, the realm of heaven. They are found on Shumisen (known as Mount Meru in English), a sacred mountain with five peaks which exists at the center the universe. They make their homes in trees, and live in cities rules by kings. They are the mortal enemies of the naga—a group of beings which includes dragons and serpents—and feed upon them as their main diet.

INTERACTIONS: Karura are are worshiped in some branches of esoteric Buddhism. Because karura are the enemies of dragons and serpents, they are seen as a counter to things associated with these creatures. They are guardians who keep venomous snakes and dragons away. They protect against poison and disease. They are even helpful against excessive rains and typhoons. Because they are such fierce predators, they are also viewed as destroyers of sin, devouring the spiritual impurities of the faithful just as they devour dragons.

ORIGIN: Karura comes from the Hindu deity Garuda, a giant eagle who served as the mount of Vishnu. Garuda was incorporated into Buddhist folklore, where he became a race of powerful eagle-like devas. They were then later brought along with Buddhism to China, and finally to Japan. The name karura comes from the Japanese pronunciation of Garuda.

Karura are one of the hachi bushū—the eight legions. These are the eight classes of supernatural beings who were converted to Buddhism by Buddha. The eight races of the hachi bushū are the ten (deva in Sanskrit), tatsu (naga), yasha (yaksa), kendatsuba (gandharva), ashura (asura), karura (garuda), kinnara, and magoraka (mahoraga). All of these creatures are inhabitants of Tendō (the highest state of existence) except for the ashura, who live in Ashuradō (the third highest state of existence).



TRANSLATION: dark warrior
ALTERNATE NAMES: genten jōtei (dark emperor of the heavens), showan’ū
HABITAT: the northern sky

APPEARANCE: Genbu is a large tortoise or turtle combined with a snake. Sometimes he is represented as two creatures—a snake wrapped around a tortoise—and sometimes he is represented as a single creature—a tortoise-snake chimera. His home is in the northern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the snake’s neck is located in Sagittarius. The constellations which makes up the tortoise’s shell are located in Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pegasus. The constellations which make up the snake’s tail are located in PEgasus and Andromeda.

INTERACTIONS: Genbu is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Genbu is the guardian of the north. He is associated with the Chinese element of water, the season of winter, the planet Mercury, and the color black. He represents the virtue of knowledge. He controls the cold. He is enshrined in the Genbu Shrine, north of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.

ORIGIN: Genbu is named differently than the other shijin; rather than directly describing a color and animal, i.e. Black Tortoise, his name is written as gen, meaning dark, occult, or mysterious, and bu, meaning warrior. The word tortoise is not used for his name, because it was also used as a slur in China. So this euphemistic name was used to refer to the Black Tortoise. His name comes from Chinese mythology, where it is with the Taoist god Xuan Wu (the Chinese pronunciation of Genbu). Xuan Wu was a prince who lived in prehistoric northern China. He lived in the mountains, far from civilization, where he studied Taoism as an ascetic. He learned that to achieve full divinity, he would have to purge both his mind and body of all impurities. While his mind had become enlightened, he still had to eat earthly food, and so sin remained in his stomach and his intestines. So he cut them out and washed them in a river to purify them. When he did this, his stomach turned into a large demon tortoise and his intestines into a demon snake. The demons began to terrorize the countryside. Xuan Wu subdued them, and instead of destroying them he allowed them to atone for their sins by serving him. They became his generals: a snake and a tortoise. It is these two generals which became Xuan Wu’s—and Genbu’s—symbols.

Genbu is associated with yin energy—the forces of darkness and shadow—and in ancient China was worshipped as a god of the moon (another strong yin force) in addition to being the god of the north. Because the shell of a tortoise is like a suit of armor, Genbu is also viewed as a warrior deity. The tortoise shell is a symbol of heaven and earth, with the flat part of the lower shell representing the world and the dome of the upper shell representing the heavens. As tortoise shells were a popular tool in divination, Genbu was also viewed as having soothsaying powers and the ability to travel between the lands of the living and the dead. The tortoise is a symbol of longevity and immortality, while the snake is a symbol of reproduction and multiplication. It was believed that all tortoises were female and had to mate with a snake to reproduce. The intertwining of the two was a symbol not only of long life and fertility, but also of the balance of yin and yang.

In later centuries, as belief in onmyōdō waned, the Four Symbols were gradually replaced by the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Genbu and his symbols were largly absorbed and supplanted by the Buddhist king Tamonten.



TRANSLATION: white tiger
HABITAT: the western sky

APPEARANCE: Byakko is a celestial white tiger. His home is in the western sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the rear of the tiger is located in Andromeda and Pisces. The constellations which makes up the middle of the tiger are located in Ares and Taurus. The constellations which makes up his front legs and head are located in Orion.

INTERACTIONS: Byakko is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Byakko is the guardian of the west. He is associated with the Chinese element of metal, the season of autumn, the planet Venus, and the color white. He represents the virtue of righteousness. He controls the wind.

ORIGIN: Byakko and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Byakko and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.



TRANSLATION: vermilion bird
ALTERNATE NAMES: sujaku, shujaku, chūchue
HABITAT: the southern sky

APPEARANCE: Suzaku is a large, scarlet, phoenix-like bird. His home is in the southern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the left wing of the bird is located in Gemini. The constellation which makes up his head feathers or comb is located in Cancer. The constellations which make up his head, beak, and body are located in Hydra. The constellation which makes up his right wing is located in Hydra and Crater. The constellation which makes up his tail feathers is located in Corvus.

INTERACTIONS: Suzaku is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Suzaku is the guardian of the south. He is associated with the Chinese element of fire, the season of summer, the planet Mars, and the color red. He represents the virtue of propriety. He controls heat and flame. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō and Heian-kyō were each guarded on the south by a large gate called Suzakumon (Suzaku Gate). Beyond Suzakumon was a wide avenue called Suzaku Boulevard, which served as the main north-south road. In Kyoto, this road ran from the Imperial Palace to the gate at the southern end of the city, Rashōmon. Today, though the gates are long gone, Suzaku Boulevard (now called Senbon Avenue) remains an important road in the city.

ORIGIN: Suzaku and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Suzaku and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Because they look very similar, Suzaku is often confused with hōō, the Chinese pheonix. The attributes and symbolism of one are sometimes mixed or swapped with each other. Though it has been suggested that they may share a common origin—perhaps going back to the mythical bird Garuda in Indian mythology—there is no strong evidence linking these creatures to each other.



TRANSLATION: azure dragon
ALTERNATE NAMES: shōryū, seiryō, sōryū, chinron
HABITAT: the eastern sky

APPEARANCE: Seiryū is a large blue-green dragon with a long tongue. His home is in the eastern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellations which make up the horn and neck of the dragon are located in Virgo. The constellation which makes up the chest of the dragon is located in Libra. The constellations which make up his heart, belly, and tail are located in Scorpius. The final constellation makes up his dung, and is located in Sagittarius.

INTERACTIONS: Seiryū is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Seiryū is the guardian of the east. He is associated with the Chinese element of wood, the season of spring, the planet Jupiter, and the colors blue and green. He represents the virtue of benevolence, and symbolizes creativity. He controls the rain. He is enshrined in Kyoto at Kiyomizu Temple, in the eastern part of the city.

ORIGIN: Seiryū and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō, and Heian-kyō were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Seiryū and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.



TRANSLATION: eight-span (i.e. giant) crow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sansokuu (three-legged crow), kin’u (golden crow)
HABITAT: the sun
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Yatagarasu is a three-legged which inhabits the sun. It is found across East Asian folklore.

ORIGIN: A three-legged crow has been used as a symbol of the sun since neolithic times in China. It may have originated as a personification of sunspots by ancient astronomers. In Japan, the crow has also been a symbol of the sun since ancient times, appearing in Japan’s earliest written works. It is a holy creature and a servant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The name Yatagarasu means “eight span crow.” One “span” was the length between the outstretched thumb and middle finger—roughly 18 centimeters—but this moniker is mainly just a poetic way to say “very large.” Originally Yatagarasu was depicted with two legs, but in the 930’s CE, the Chinese myth of the three-legged crow was merged into the story of Yatagarasu. Since then, Yatagarasu and the three-legged crow have been synonymous with each other.

The three-legged crow has long been used in religious and astrological symbolism across China and Japan, particularly among those involved with sun worship and onmyōdō. The three legs of the bird represent heaven, the earth, and humanity, while the crow itself represents the sun. This symbolizes that heaven, earth, and mankind all come from the same sun, and are like brothers to each other. They are also said to represent the three virtues of the gods: wisdom, benevolence, and valor. The three legs may also represent the three powerful clans of ancient Kumano—Ui, Suzuki, and Enomoto—who use a three-legged crow as their clan crest.

LEGENDS: Yatagarasu is an important figure in the mythical history of Japanese. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi—today enshrined in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. As Yatagarasu, he led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, through the mountains to establish his country.

Jimmu’s clan originated in Kyushu, in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture. He and his brothers led an eastward migration from along the Seto Insland Sea, looking for a better homeland, and subduing the various tribes they encountered along the way. They suffered many hardships. When they reached Naniwa (present-day Osaka), Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse, leader of the expedition, was killed in battle. Jimmu realized that they had lost because they were fighting facing eastwards, fighting against the sun. He led his troops around the Kii peninsula, to Kumano (present-day Mie Prefecture), and began a westward push. His expedition became lost in the mountains of Kumano. Seeing this, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Takamimusubi, one of the creator gods, ordered Kamo Taketsunumi to act as a guide to Jimmu. Kamo Taketsunumi took the form of a giant crow, and flew to Jimmu’s side to show him the way. With Yatagarasu leading the way, Jimmu was able to navigate the mountains of Kumano and reach Yamato (in present-day Nara Prefecture), where he would found his capital and become Japan’s first emperor.

According to legend, Jimmu’s great-grandfather Ninigi was the grandson of Amaterasu. Thus, Jimmu, and the entire Japanese imperial line are the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Yatagarasu, as a guide to Jimmu, played a small roll with a very big impact on the future of the imperial dynasty.



TRANSLATION: jade rabbit
ALTERNATE NAMES: tsuki no usagi, getto (moon rabbit)
HABITAT: the moon
DIET: unknown; presumably mochi

APPEARANCE: The dark spots visible on the full moon are said to resemble a rabbit who lives in the moon.

BEHAVIOR: In Japan, the rabbit is described holding a wooden mallet which he uses to pound mochi (rice cakes) in an usu, or mortar. The mallet and mortar as also visible as dark spots on the moon. In China, the rabbit is believed not to be creating mochi, but is instead mixing the medicine of eternal youth.

ORIGIN: The myth of the rabbit in the moon is very ancient. The earliest written version comes from the Jātaka tales, a 4th century BCE collection of Buddhist legends written in Sanskrit. The legend was brought along with Buddhism from India to China, where it was blended with local folklore. It came to Japan in the 7th century CE from China, where it was again adapted and adjusted to fit local folklore.

The Japanese word for pounding mochi in a mortar like the rabbit is doing—餅搗き (mochitsuki)—and the word for the full moon—望月 (mochitsuki)—are homophones.

LEGENDS: The Japanese version of the Sanskrit tale appears in Konjaku monogatarishū. A fox, a monkey, and a rabbit were traveling in the mountains when they came across a shabby-looking old man lying along the road. The old man had collapsed from exhaustion while trying to cross the mountains. The three animals felt compassion for the old man, and tried to save him. The monkey gathered fruit and nuts from the trees, the fox gathered fish from the river, and they fed the old man. As hard as he tried, the rabbit, however, could not gather anything of value to give to the old man. Lamenting his uselessness, the rabbit asked the fox and monkey for help in building a fire.  When the fire was built, the rabbit leaped into the flames so that his own body could be cooked and eaten by the old man. When the old man saw the rabbit’s act of compassion, he revealed his true form as Taishakuten, one of the lords of Heaven. Taishakuten lifted up the rabbit and placed it the moon, in order that all future generations could be inspired by the rabbit’s compassionate act. The reason it is sometimes difficult to see the rabbit in the moon is because of the smoke which still billows from the rabbits body, masking his form somewhat.



TRANSLATION: white-spotted char; literally “rain trout”
HABITAT: cold streams and lakes, occasionally seagoing
DIET: carnivorous, ranging from small fish and plankton up to and including large boats

APPEARANCE: Amemasu is the Japanese name for the white-spotted char (Salvelinus leucomaenis leucomaenis), a species of trout which is found in Northeast Asia. They are a popular target of game fishing and are also raised in fisheries.

BEHAVIOR: Amemasu spend most of their lives in the water, away from humans. They are found mostly in rivers and streams, but seagoing varieties exist as well. They are more common in Hokkaido, the northern parts of Honshu, and along the Sea of Japan—however legends of amemasu are occasionally found in the southern parts of Japan as well. They feed on whatever they can eat—from plankton to insects, to fish and any other aquatic lifeforms they can fit into their mouths. Yōkai amemasu can grow to colossal sizes, sometimes spanning an entire lake from head to tail. These giant amemasu also occasionally thrash and sink ships, devouring any poor souls who happened to be on the ship. In Ainu folklore, the wild thrashing of giant amemasu is believed to be what causes earthquakes—much like giant catfish are thought to cause earthquakes in the rest of Japan.

INTERACTIONS:  Amemasu can transform into human shape and walk about on land. They usually take the form of young, beautiful women in order to seduce young men. Shape-changed amemasu can be identified by their skin, which feels cold and clammy like that of a fish.

LEGENDS: A number of lakes in Hokkaido are believed to be the home of giant amemasu. According to Ainu folklore, these amemasu are thought to be the guardian deities of their respective lakes. Lake Mashū is home to an amemasu the size of a whale. Lake Shikotsu contains an amemasu so large that its head touches one end of the lake and its tail touches the other.

A legend from Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture tells of a mysterious whirlpool that appeared in a deep pond. A giant amemasu lived in the pond. Every spring, she would emerge from the pond in the form of a beautiful woman. For two or three days she would catch young men and take them away—where to nobody knows, but they were never seen again. The only way to know that it was a fish and not a woman was from her cold, clammy skin. One day, a cormorant dove into the pond to go hunting. The giant amemasu swallowed the bird in a single gulp. However, after a short time, the amemasu’s body floated up to the surface of the pond, dead. The cormorant burst out of its stomach. A shrine was built at that spot to honor Konpira-san, which still stands today.



TRANSLATION: giant snake, great serpent
ALTERNATE NAMES: orochi, daija
HABITAT: wilderness
DIET: carnivorous, very fond of alcohol; gluttonous

APPEARANCE: Uwabami are enormous serpents. Apart from their incredible size, they closely resemble ordinary snakes. They make their homes in the wilderness, far from civilization.

BEHAVIOR: Uwabami’s most notable feature is their appetite. They are capable of eating things that are much larger than their bodies, and in quantities that seem like more than they should be able to eat. They are also extremely fond of drinking, and can consume huge quantities of sake. Like many animals, snakes are believed to have a variety of magical powers. They can shape-shift into various objects and creatures, including humans. They can even control the elements to some extent. Natural disasters such as floods and rock slides are often attributed to uwabami.

INTERACTIONS: In addition to eating large volumes of food and alcohol, uwabami also like to feed on people. They set up ambushes and assault travelers in mountain passes. Because of their size, they can easily swallow a full grown human whole—and they often do. However, they are sometimes outsmarted by clever people, who live to tell others of what they saw.

ORIGIN: Snakes have been a part of Japanese mythology since the earliest times, in part to their peculiar behaviors. Snakes are symbols of life and death, and eternal youth—the shedding and regrowing of their skin was viewed as a magical ability. Because they can slip into the tiniest cracks, and can penetrate deep, dark places that are inaccessible to humans, they are viewed as tenacious and clever creatures. Because of these traits, snakes have long been considered to be kami or yōkai. During different periods of history, they have been referred to as orochi, daija, and uwabami, but all of these refer to the same creature.

The name uwabami has roots going back to archaic Japanese. The first part of the name, uwa, meant skillful or superior. Gradually this shifted to a similar sounding word, uha, which meant great or large. The second part of the name is from an archaic word for snake, hami. This word derives from the word for eating, hamu, which refers both to the snake’s fondness for biting and its ability to eat things that appear much larger than it. So uwabami were “skillful eaters” which over time became “giant snakes.”

Another linguistic point of interest is that the word “uwabami” also has the colloquial meaning of “heavy drinker.” The reason for this is the uwabami’s great love for sake and its ability to drink in far alcohol more than even a creature as large as it should be able to.

LEGENDS:  A famous tale comes from Ōnuma Lake in Nagano Prefecture.

Long ago, there was an daija who lived in Ōnuma Lake. Every year he would transform into an extremely handsome young man and travel to the eastern mountains to view the cherry blossoms. One spring, he spied a beautiful young woman all by herself under the blossoms. The woman was Kuro hime, the daughter of Takanashi Masamori, a powerful lord of Shinano Province. Kuro hime also spied the handsome man who was watching her and found him irresistable. The two became acquainted and soon fell in love.

Some time later, the handsome young man paid a visit to the castle of Takanashi Masamori. He introduced himself as the great snake who lives in Ōnuma Lake, guardian deity of the Shiga Highlands. He explained that he and Kuro hime were in love, and asked the lord for her hand in marriage. Masamori immediately snapped that he would never give his daughter to someone that was not human.

The young man did not give up, and returned day after day to ask for Kuro hime’s hand in marriage. Finally, the lord relented and gave his conditions: “If you can keep up with me on horseback and complete seven laps around my castle, I will give you my daughter.” The young man eagerly accepted and agreed to return to the castle in a few days for the race.

Masamori was not about to let his daughter marry a snake. He devised a plan to kill the creature so it would leave him and his daughter alone forever. He had his servants plant swords in the grass all around the castle. Masamori was an expert rider and knew where the swords were hidden, so he would easily be able to avoid the traps.

When the day of the race came, the young man showed up at the castle as promised. The race began, and Takanashi Masamori spurred his horse into action. He was indeed an expert rider, and the young man could not keep up with the lord. He had to transform back into a snake in order to keep pace with the horse. The swords planted around the castle perimeter pierced and tore the snakes body, but he did not give up. Finally, the lord and the snake completed their seven laps. The snake’s body was ragged, and rivers of blood flowed from his body. Immediately upon finishing his final lap, the daija collapsed. Masamori’s trap had worked.

After some time had passed, the daija awoke. It looked around, and seeing nobody it realized that Masamori had lied. Trembling with rage, the daija returned to the Shiga Highlands. It summoned all of its family, servants, and clan members. All of the spirits of the Shiga Highlands arose and summoned a great storm. Rain the likes of which had never been seen before fell. Ōnuma Lake swelled in size and burst forth, flooding everything around. All of the villages surrounding the lake were annihalated. Houses were knocked down. Fields were flooded and washed away. No humans or animals were able to escape destruction. However, the mountains around the Takanashi Masamori’s castle acted like a shield, and the castle stood firm.

Kuro hime looked down from the castle and watched the torrent wash away wash away the entire region. She heartbroken when she saw the destruction. Realizing that only she had the power to stop the disaster, she left the castle by herself and traveled down to Ōnuma Lake. Kuro hime threw herself into the flood and was never seen again. When the daija realized what had happened, it immediately scattered the storm clouds and caused the flood to recede. Ōnuma Lake shrank back to its original borders.

The daija is still worshiped today as the guardian deity of the Shiga Highlands. There is a small shrine called Daija Jinja located near Ōnuma Lake where the snake is enshrined. Every August, the villagers gather there to perform the Daija Matsuri and remember the story of Kuro hime.