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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: 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: 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.


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 (kimnara), 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.



TRANSLATION: the Japanese reading of its Ainu name, atuy kakura
ALTERNATE NAMES: atsuuikakura
HABITAT: Uchiura bay in Hokkaido
DIET: mainly a scavenger; occasionally eats ships

APPEARANCE: Atuikakura is an enormous sea cucumber which lives deep in Uchiura Bay in Hokkaido.

BEHAVIOR: Atuikakura is rarely seen due its underwater lifestyle. It spends most of its time deep in the water, occasionally attaching itself to chunks of driftwood and floating to other parts of the bay.

INTERACTIONS: Despite rarely being seen, Atuikakura can be very dangerous to ships on the bay. When Atuikakura gets startled, it thrashes about wildly, smashing or capsizing ships which happen to be bear it. It also sometimes mistakes a wooden boat for a piece of driftwood, attaches its mouth to it, and drags the ship under the waves.

ORIGIN: Atuikakura is the Japanese transcription of its Ainu name, atuy kakura. Atuy is the Ainu word for the sea, and kakura means sea cucumber. According to local legend, Atuikakura was formed when a mouru—the traditional undergarment of Ainu women—washed down a river and into the bay. The mouru settled at the bottom of Uchiura Bay and and turned into a giant sea cucumber.



TRANSLATION: this is the Japanese version of its Ainu name, Atkor Kamuy
HABITAT: Uchiura Bay in Hokkaido
DIET: omnivorous; it can swallow ships and whales whole

APPEARANCE: Akkorokamui is a gigantic octopus god which resides in Hokkaido’s Uchiura Bay. When it extends its legs, its body stretches over one hectare in area. It is so big that it can swallow boats and even whales in a single gulp. Its entire body is red. It is so large that when it appears the sea and even the sky reflect its color, turning a deep red.

INTERACTIONS: Any ship foolish enough to sail too close to Akkorokamui will be swallowed whole. Therefore, for generations, locals have stayed away from the water when the sea and sky turn red. Fishermen and sailors who had no choice but to be on the waters would carry scythes with them for protection.

ORIGIN: Akkorokamui comes from Ainu folklore, where it is known as Atkorkamuy. Its name can be translated as “string-holding kamuy.” String-holding likely refers to the octopus’s string-like tentacles, while kamuy is an Ainu term for a divine being—similar to the Japanese term kami. In Ainu folklore, Akkorokamui is both revered and feared as a water deity, specifically as the lord of Uchiura Bay.

LEGENDS: Long ago, in the mountains near the village of Rebunge, there lived a gigantic spider named Yaushikep. Yaushikep was enormous. His great red body stretched over one hectare in area. One day, Yaushikep descended from the mountains and attacked the people of Rebunge. He shook the earth as he rampaged, destroying everything in his path. The villagers were terrified. They prayed to the gods to save them. The god of the sea, Repun Kamuy, heard their prayers and pulled Yaushikep into the bay. When the great spider was taken into the water, he transformed into a giant octopus, and took over charge of the bay as its god. Ever since then, he has been known as Atkor Kamuy, or Akkorokamui in Japanese.



TRANSLATION: a portmanteau of slug and whale; slugwhale
HABITAT: homes and gardens; as a regular slug
DIET: leaves and plants

APPEARANCE: As its name implies, the namekujira is a very large slug.  Its body is described as reddish-brown in color, with a long stripe running down its back. From its head to its neck, it is covered in black spots.

BEHAVIOR: Namekujira live in gardens and behave just like ordinary slugs. It is their size that makes them so strange. They crawl across doors and fences, leaving behind enormous, silvery slime trails up to 100 hiro in length—almost 182 meters.

ORIGIN: Namekujira is described in the Kujirazashi shinagawa baori, a comical Edo-period book featuring different types of pun-based whale yōkai. Its name is a play on words, combining the words namekuji (slug) and kujira (whale). In addition to its name, this yōkai’s description contains one more pun. There is a dish made from whale intestines called kujira no hyakuhiro. The name literally means “whale’s 100 hiro,” which comes from the great length of the whale’s intestines. So the gag is that while kujira no hyakuhiro refers to a delicious meal, namekujira no hyakuhiro is just a 182 meter long slime trail.



TRANSLATION: together-diver; diving with
HABITAT: coastal areas where shellfish are found
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Tomokazuki are aquatic yōkai who are found underwater and appear to ama, the deep-diving women who gather oysters, urchins, and other sea creatures. They appear on cloudy days. They are a kind of diving doppelganger; they take on the appearance of the ama who see them. The only way to tell them apart from actual women is the length of the headbands they wear; tomokazuki have much longer headbands.

INTERACTIONS: Tomokazuki appear to divers deep underwater. They beckon the divers closer to them, offering shellfish and sea urchins as a way to lure them deeper. They continue to lure the divers deeper and farther away from safety. Eventually the divers are either lured too deep or too far from the shore, and they drown.

In order to protect themselves from tomokazuki, superstitious ama will carry magic charms with them while diving; usually in the form of the seiman and dōman symbols on their headbands.

ORIGIN: One popular explanation among believers is that tomokazuki are the ghosts of drowned ama. Since they are only ever seen by ama deep under the water, belief in tomokazuki is not common. Most of the time, tales of tomokazuki encounters are written off as hallucinations or delirium brought on by the stresses of deep diving—high pressure, lack of oxygen, physical exhaustion, and the fear of being swept away.

In one story from Shizuoka, an ama and her husband took a boat out to sea to dive for shellfish. While deep underweater, the ama saw a tomokazuki and quickly surfaced to tell her husband. He mocked her for believing such stupid things, and ordered her to keep working. The ama dove back down as her husband commanded. She was never seen again.

In Fukui Prefecture there is yōkai called an umiama, which is very similar to a tomokazuki. When an ama dives down to the sea floor, the umiama surfaces. Then, when the ama surfaces, the umiama dives down to the sea floor. Because of this, it is very difficult to spot this yōkai. However, those unlucky few who do manage to see it become gravely ill shortly afterwards.



TRANSLATION: crazy bones
HABITAT: wells
DIET: none; it is powered solely by vengeance

APPEARANCE: A kyōkotsu is a ghostly, skeletal spirit which rises out of wells to scare people. It is wrapped in a ragged shroud, with only its bleached skull and tangled hair emerging from its tattered clothes.

BEHAVIOR: Kyōkotsu are formed from bones which were improperly disposed of by being discarded down a well. The bones may come from a murder or a suicide victim, or someone who died after accidentally falling into a well. The lack of a proper burial—and the egregious disrespect shown by discarding bones in this manner—creates a powerful grudge in those bones. This transforms the deceased into a shiryō. Like other ghosts, they pass their grudge on to those they come in contact with. A kyōkotsu lies at the bottom of its well until it is disturbed, then it rises up to curse anyone unfortunate enough to be using the well.

ORIGIN: Kyōkotsu was invented by Toriyama Sekien for his book Konjaku hyakki shūi. In his description, he writes that this yōkai’s name is the origin of the word kyōkotsu, which means fury and violence. While there is a word in a local dialect of Kanagawa which does match this description, there is no evidence actually linking it to this yōkai. It is more likely that Toriyama Sekien—who was fond of wordplay—actually created this yōkai based on words in local dialects and just made up a false etymology to make the story more interesting.



TRANSLATION: torso face
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Dōnotsura’s body appears much like that of a human’s, except that it is missing everything from the neck up. Its extremely large facial features are prominently displayed on its torso, just as its name implies.

ORIGIN: Dōnotsura appears on yōkai picture scrolls, but only his name and illustration appear. Like many picture scroll yōkai, no stories exist explaining what it does or where it comes from. However, its most likely origin is as a play on words. There is an expression in Japanese—”dono tsura sagete“—which is used to scold a person who looks inappropriately calm when they should be ashamed of something they’ve done. The connotation of this idiom is to lower a mask over one’s face, as in, “How dare you come here wearing that face!”; however, taken literally it means to “lower a face,” just as this yōkai’s face has been lowered down to his torso.



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

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

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

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

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

Shiro ukari


TRANSLATION: white floater

APPEARANCE: Shiro ukari is a ghost-like spirit with a very long tail. It is white, with large eyes that stare off into the distance as if lost in thought. It floats about in the air, aimlessly wandering about.

ORIGIN: Shiro ukari appears on a few Edo period scroll paintings, and nowhere else. It was invented by an artist rather than recorded from folklore. Aside from its name, nothing is written about it. Everything about it, including its behavior and its origin, is unknown and unexplained. However, its name may be a clue to its origin.

While it shiro ukari literally means “white floater,” both of these words carry a number of nuances which could refer to this spirit’s true nature. Shiro not only refers to the color white, but to a state of total innocence or naivety. Whereas ao (blue) is used in many yokai to refer to a novice or an apprentice, shiro can refer to a state of total, absolute naivete. It has a negative connotation, akin to a “fool” or a “country bumpkin” in English. The urban socialites of Edo looked down on the “shiro” people who lived in the rural areas outside of the capital. While not specifically stated, the vacant expression on this yōkai’s face could be an allusion to this alternate meaning of shiro.

Ukari comes from the word for floating, which has a number of different implications. The most literal meaning is to float about from place to place. There is also a nuance of absentmindedness or disconnect from others. Tourists who feel out of place in a strange city might be described as floating about in this way. It can also refer to merrymaking, particularly in a way that is disconnected with the real world. This is the same origin as the word ukiyo, which refers to the “floating world”—the urban, pleasure-seeking lifestyle of old Edo. In a spiritual sense, this word can also refer to spirits which have not been able to pass on to the next world due to the weight of their sins. They float about, but never ascend, and are doomed to haunt this world.

Perhaps shiro ukari is a pun describing the uncouth, naive rural bumpkins who Edo urbanites thought had no business being in their city. Their experience in the capital might be something like a wide-eyed ghost floating from place to place. Perhaps it is a yōkai which seeks out the impermanent pleasures of life just as the humans of old Edo did. Or perhaps it is the spirit of someone who is unable to ascend into the next world, and they are forced by the weight of their sins to float about and wander aimlessly for the rest of their existence.



TRANSLATION: none; this is his name

APPEARANCE: Shōki (also known by the Chinese rendering of his name, Zhong Kui) is a legendary hero and deity from ancient China. He is ugly, with a large, hulking body, a long, flowing beard, and fearsome, piercing eyes. He is usually shown carrying a sword and wearing a court official’s cap. Shōki is known as “the demon queller” for his ability to vanquish, exorcise, and even control oni and other demons. He is so feared by oni that even his image is said to scare them away. The demons he defeats sometimes become his servants. It is said that he commands 80,000 demons.

ORIGIN: Shōki originated in ancient China during the 700’s. His story reached Japan by the late Heian period, and his popularity reached its height during the Edo period. Paintings and statues of him are still used as a good luck charms. His image appears on flags, folding screens, and hanging scrolls. Small statues of him can sometimes be seen on the roofs of older houses in Kyoto as well. Shōki is strongly associated with Boys’ Day, a holiday in May. He is revered as a god of protection from demons and sickness (particularly smallpox, which was believed to be spread by evil spirits), and also as a god of scholarship.

LEGENDS: Shōki lived in Shanxi Province in China during the Tang dynasty. His life’s goal was to become a physician in the court of Emperor Xuanzong. Shōki was a smart and diligent student. He trained hard and passed all of the exams to become a physician. He placed first out of all of the applicants and should have easily received the position. However, Shōki was a very ugly man. When the emperor saw his face, he immediately rejected Shōki’s application even though he was the most qualified for the job.

Shōki was devastated. His dreams shattered, he committed suicide on the steps of the imperial palace. The emperor was moved by Shōki’s dedication. He felt great regret for denying the application of such a talented and brilliant man on account of his looks. The emperor ordered that Shōki should receive a state burial of the highest rank—usually only reserved for royalty—and posthumously awarded him the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.”

Years later, the emperor became gravely ill. Delirious with fever, he dreamed that he saw two oni. The larger one was wearing the clothing of a court official. It grabbed the smaller oni, killed it, and ate it. Then, it turned to the emperor and introduced itself as Shōki. He vowed to protect the emperor from evil. When the emperor woke up, his fever was gone.

Xuanzong commissioned the court painter to make an painting of Shōki based on his dream. Shōki became a popular deity across China (and later, Japan). He was revered as a god of scholarship for his great devotion to his studies, and as a protector against disease and evil spirits.

Tsurara onna


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s nothing. Stay inside.”

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

Amazake babā



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

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

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

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

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

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




TRANSLATION: salt sprayer
HABITAT: oceans and coastal areas
DIET: unknown; probably fish

APPEARANCE: Shihofuki is an elusive aquatic yokai with elephantine ears and a trunk-like mouth. It has human-like arms, but its hands are webbed and resemble the fins of a fish. Its body is covered in fine hairs which the salt in the ocean sticks to.

BEHAVIOR: Shihofuki lives in the ocean far away from civilization. It is only seen when it rises up from the waves to spray salty water into the air. Everything else about the lifestyle and habits of this creature is a mystery.

ORIGIN: Shihofuki is not very well known. In fact, the only reference to it anywhere is the Bakemono tsukushi emaki, a yōkai scroll painted in 1820 by an anonymous author which depicts unique yōkai found nowhere else in folklore. No text accompanies its illustration, so everything about this yōkai is purely speculative.

Kitsune tsuki


TRANSLATION: fox possession

APPEARANCE: Some kitsune are able to possess human beings and cause them to behave in strange ways. Compared with other types of animal spirit possessions, kitsune tsuki is a relatively common form of possession in humans. A person possessed by a fox spirit often develops physical features that appear fox-like, such as sharper teeth or a streamlined, pointy face. For much of Japanese history—until modern medicine was introduced—mental illness and insanity were usually blamed on kitsune tsuki.

INTERACTIONS: There are three main types of kitsune possession: possession of an individual, possession of a family, and possession for use as a medium.

When a kitsune possesses an individual, it is often in retaliation for something done to the kitsune—killing one of its family members, for example. The possessing spirit causes its host to behave erratically and emotionally, making them prone to violent outbreaks and hysteria. People possessed by kitsune sometimes run naked through the streets, foam at the mouth, and yelp like a fox. Kitsune can speak through their hosts mouths. Victims are often able to speak and read languages that they previously had no knowledge of. Kitsune can even control their hosts like a puppet, causing them to do all sorts of evil things. According to folklore, women are more susceptible to fox possession than men. Kitsune are also said to possess people who are weak-minded.

When a kitsune possesses a family, that family becomes rich and fertile. These families were called kitsune mochi, and were able to manipulate the possessing kitsune spirits. In addition to bringing prosperity to their owners, kitsune could be used to bring ruin upon a family’s enemies. Kitsune mochi people used these spirits to place curses, possess, or bring sickness to others. Kitsune mochi families kept their fox spirits for generations, handing down their secrets from parent to child. A kitsune mochi family would honor and care for its possessing spirit, for it could just as easily bring the same ruin upon their entire family line. People suspected of belonging to kitsune mochi families were mistrusted for their unnatural abilities and feared by their neighbors. Even today, in some parts of Japan, people belonging to these lineages occasionally have trouble finding marriage partners, as few parents would allow their son or daughter to join such a family.

Kitsune tsuki for use as a medium involves inviting a kitsune to possess a willing person in order to perform divinations. A kitsune would enter the medium’s body and speak through her mouth, predicting the future or giving secret knowledge. This was a very dangerous practice, as it relies on the willingness of the kitsune to leave the body after the possession—and kitsune are very powerful creatures.

Recognizing possession in a person can be difficult if the victim does not display any obvious physical signs. However, there are a few ways to diagnose kitsune possession. Despite living in a human’s body, kitsune retain certain traits which can betray their presence. All kitsune love fried tofu and azuki beans. A possessed person will strongly crave these foods, often eating them large amounts and not filling up. A possessed person also develops a strong fear of dogs. In addition, a small lump can often be found hidden on the victim’s body. This is the place where the fox spirit resides. If pushed or pricked, this lump slips away and hides in another part of the body. It cannot be caught or removed by any physical means.

Because of widespread belief in fox possession, a number of folk cures have been invented over the centuries to deal with it. Exorcism was usually performed at Inari shrines, as foxes are sacred to Inari. One fairly benign treatment included having the victim licked from head to toe by dogs, which foxes fear intensely. Other less fortunate victims were beaten or burned in attempts to drive out the fox spirit. In some cases, priests would burn fresh pine leaves, suffocating the patient in thick, toxic smoke in an attempt to drive out the possessing spirit. Unfortunately this sometimes killed the patient before driving out the kitsune. In the end, even if the victim was cured of the possession, the families of people accused of kitsune tsuki often suffered ostracism and social isolation for the rest of their lives.



TRANSLATION: kudzu leaves
ALTERNATE NAMES: Shinodazuma (the Wife of Shinoda)

ORIGIN: Kuzunoha is a byakko, or white kitsune. She is most famous for being the wife of Abe no Yasuna and the mother of Abe no Seimei. Her story is preserved in a number of kabuki and bunraku plays. The Inari shrine near where Abe no Yasuna first met Kuzunoha still stands today, and is popularly known as the Kuzunoha Shrine.

LEGENDS: During the reign of Emperor Murakami (946—967 CE), the onmyōji Abe no Yasuna sought to rebuild his family house. The Abe family had once been a rich and powerful one, but their land and status were lost years before by Yasuna’s father, who had been tricked by con men. While rebuilding his house, Yasuna regularly traveled to the Inari shrine in Shinoda, Izumi Province, to pray for the god’s blessings.

One day, while walking through the woods of Shinoda, a beautiful white fox jumped in front of Yasuna’s path. It was being chased by a hunter, and it asked Yasuna to save it. Yasuna knew that white foxes were holy to Inari, and he helped the creature to escape. Shortly afterwards, the hunter came to where Yasuna was and the two got into a fight. Yasuna was wounded in the fight, and fell to the ground.

After the hunter left, a young woman came out of the forest to Yasuna’s side. She told him her name was Kuzunoha. She took Yasuna all the way back to his home, and nursed him back to health. The woman continued to visit Yasuna, caring for him and checking up on his recovery. At some point during her visits, Kuzunoha and Yasuna had fallen in love, and so when he was better they got married.

Eventually Kuzunoha became pregnant, and she bore Yasuna a son. They three of them lived happily for some time. However, when their son was five years old, he witnessed something strange. Some say it was when she looked in a mirror, others say it was while she was sleeping; but his mother accidentally let her true form appear for a brief second: she a white-furred kitsune!

Her secret having been discovered, Kuzunoha had no choice but to leave her beloved family. Holding a brush in her mouth, she wrote a farewell tanka on the paper door and vanished:

If you love me, come and visit, in the forest of Shinoda in Izumi, the resentful kudzu leaf

When Yasuna read her poem, he realized that his beloved wife was the fox whom he had saved years earlier. He and their son traveled to the forests of Shinoda, where Kuzunoha had first entered the world of humankind. There, Kuzunoha appeared before them one last time. She presented them a crystal ball and a golden box as parting gifts, and then she left her human family forever.

Kuzunoha and Yasuna’s son grew up to become a powerful sorcerer, thanks to the magical gifts his mother had given him, her yōkai lineage, and his father’s onmyōji training. He took the name Abe no Seimei, and became the most powerful onmyōji in all of Japanese history.



TRANSLATION: a high ranking title for court ladies
ALTERNATE NAMES: byakko (white fox)
HABITAT: shrines and places sacred to Inari
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Myōbu are celestial fox spirits with white fur and full, fluffy tails reminiscent of ripe grain. They are holy creatures, and bring happiness and blessings to those around them.

INTERACTIONS: Myōbu statues are most often found at Inari shrines, taking the place of the koma inu which adorn other shrines. These foxes act as both guardians and symbols of good luck and blessing. People often leave offerings of holy sake, sekihan (red rice and red beans), inarizushi, and fried tofu at these shrines. These foods are all said to be foxes’ favorites.

ORIGIN: Foxes were considered holy animals since long before recorded history began in Japan. The farmers of ancient Japan revered foxes, which preyed on the mice and rats which destroy crops. Foxes have long been associated with Inari, the god of the harvest. Inari is said to use foxes as servants and messengers, and the majority of the foxes in his employ are the holy, white-furred kind known as myōbu.

Myōbu statues are commonly found at Inari shrines. They often carry sacred objects in their mouths, such as the round jewel often carried by koma inu in other shrines. Myōbu can also be seen carrying spiral keys, sheaves of grain, and scrolls. These all carry special significance in Inari worship. The round jewel represents both the soul of Inari, and its form is a symbol of a grain storehouse. The spiral key is an archaic design of the keys used with traditional farm warehouses. The key represents the desire to unlock the storehouse; i.e. soul of Inari. The sheaves of grain represent the five grains (wheat, rice, beans, awa millet, and kibi millet) which are important in East Asian traditions. Finally, the scroll represents knowledge and wisdom.



TRANSLATION: bitter smile
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: hatred and ill-feelings

APPEARANCE: Nigawarai are large, ugly yōkai with horns and green-tinged, hairy bodies. They wear dirty rags. Their hairy mouths are twisted into what looks like a forced smile. Their hands end in sharp, poisonous claws, which are powerful enough to paralyze small animals.

BEHAVIOR: Nigawarai are created out of the negative feelings of human beings—particularly, ill-humor and forced, feigned amusement. As their name suggests, they are related to the uncomfortable smiles that people make when trying to hide their feelings of discomfort. They cause ill-will, disgust and encourage arguments among those around them. They both feed off of and spread these negative feelings.

INTERACTIONS: When used in cooking, the poison from a nigawarai’s claws makes food terribly bitter. However, it also has the ability to cure stomach pain, making nigawarai a useful yōkai for medicinal purposes.

ORIGIN: The earliest references to nigawarai go back to the Muromachi period, where they appear in monster scrolls. These paintings appeared without description, so the original intent of the artists in describing this yōkai is unknown. Over the centuries, nigawarai continued to appear in other monster scrolls. Through the work of numerous artists, they eventually developed the traits that they are known for today.

Unagi hime

Unagihime, Takonyuudou


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tako nyūdō

Unagihime, Takonyuudou


TRANSLATION: octopus priest
HABITAT: Sea of Japan; particularly near Shimane Prefecture
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Tako nyūdō is an octopus yōkai which takes on a vaguely humanoid form. It has a bulbous octopus-like head with the face of a bearded old man. It has eight tentacles, and wears human clothing. It looks like an old, bald priest, hence the name.

BEHAVIOR: Little is known about the natural behavior of tako nyūdō. A famous scroll called the Bakemono Emaki, painted in 1666 by Kanō Munenobu, depicts a tako nyūdō dangling a fish above the head of an unagi hime. It appears to be teasing or perhaps seducing her, however no description or story accompanies the painting. Like the regular octopus, this yōkai octopus’s natural habitat is hidden from the human world, leaving its lifestyle a mystery.

INTERACTIONS: In Shimane Prefecture, tako nyūdō are feared by fishermen who live along the Sea of Japan. They are said to attack boats, grabbing fishermen off of them and dragging them down beneath the waves.

ORIGIN: The phrase tako nyūdō is sometimes used to mockingly refer to bald-headed old men, as their smooth scalps resemble the heads of octopuses.




TRANSLATION: shin rubber
ALTERNATE NAMES: sunekkorogashi, sunekkorobashi, sunekajiri
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Sunekosuri are small, mischievous spirits from Okayama Prefecture. They appear on rainy nights in streets and alleys where people travel. They are most often described as dog-like in appearance, though they are also occasionally said to resemble cats.

INTERACTIONS: Sunekosuri run up behind people walking on dark, rainy nights. They rub against their shins, weave in and out of their legs, nuzzle against the knees, and otherwise make it difficult to walk. They do not intentionally cause any harm to humans, although occasionally their rubbing is strong enough to make a person stumble or even knock them down.

A few local of the local variations are slightly more aggressive than the sunekosuri. The sunekkorogashi and sunekkorobashi both mean “shin toppler.” The sunekajiri means “shin biter.” Although not as violent as other kinds of yōkai, these spirits are blamed for the occasional bruise or bloody nose.

ORIGIN: Sunekosuri is a relatively modern yōkai. It did not appear in writing until the 1935 yokai encyclopedia Genkō Zenkoku Yōkai Jiten, although it is impossible to tell how far back oral traditions go. Despite its relative recentness, it is a fairly well-known and well-loved yokai, most likely due to its cute depictions and manga and film.

Teke teke



TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; the sound of her walking on her hands
ALTERNATE NAMES: shaka shaka, pata pata, kata kata, koto koto, hijikake babā
HABITAT: urban areas and roads
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Teke teke is a ghost who appears in a number of urban legends. Teke teke are almost always women (though in a few versions of the urban legend, the ghost is male). She has no lower half; she runs about on her arms, creating the distinctive “teke teke” sound from which she gets her name.

INTERACTIONS: Teke teke chases its victims down dark roads. Despite having no legs, a teke teke can run incredibly fast—so fast, in fact, that it can even catch up to victims who are speeding away in cars. When it catches them, something terrible happens—the legends are not always clear what. In some variations of the story the teke teke carries a sickle. It slices its victims in half at the waist and steals their legs.

ORIGIN: Like with most urban legends, there are so many versions of the teke teke story that it is impossible to know what the original story was or where it began. Every locality has its own version with different details. In some stories, the teke teke was the victim of a tragic accident; in others, it was suicide. In some stories, certain magic charms can protect you from its wrath; in others nothing can protect you and you will certainly die. In some versions, the teke teke’s victims become teke teke themselves. There are a number of threads in common between many of the variations, and the most common ones point towards a woman from Hokkaidō named Kashima Reiko.

LEGENDS: In the years after World War 2, an office worker in Muroran, Hokkaidō was assaulted and raped by American military personnel. That night, she leaped off a bridge onto the railroad tracks and was hit by an oncoming train. The impact was so forceful that her body was torn in half at the waist. The severe cold of the Hokkaidō night caused her blood vessels to contract and prevented her from bleeding out quickly. Instead, she squirmed and wriggled about for help for several minutes. She crawled all the way to a train station and was seen by an attendant. Instead of trying to help her, the station attendant just covered her with a plastic tarp. She died a slow, agonizing death.

According to legend, three days after hearing this story, you will see the ghost of a woman with no lower half. The ghost is that of the woman hit by the train. The ghost will try to catch you, and escape is impossible even in a car; the ghost can crawl at speeds of up to 150 km per hour. Some say that the ghost is searching for her legs, which were lost when she was cut in half. Others say that she is angry at humanity for not helping her when she was dying, and that she is simply out to slaughter as many people as she can. When she catches you, she will tear you in half and steal the lower half of your body.

Shortly after hearing the legend, she will ask you a riddle, either in a dream, or in a mysterious phone call. The only way to escape death is to answer her questions exactly the right way. She will ask you: “Do you need your legs?” You must reply: “I need them right now.” Then, she will ask you: “Who told you my story?” You must reply: “Kashima Reiko. Ka as in mask (仮面), shi as in death (), ma as in demon (), rei as in ghost (), and ko as in accident (事故).” If you answer her riddles without mistake, she may just let you live.

Kosodate yūrei



TRANSLATION: child-rearing ghost
HABITAT: towns, cities; anywhere it can find people to haunt
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kosodate yūrei are the ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth or shortly after childbirth. They return to the world of the living because of their strong attachment to their child, and their lingering motherly duties. Like all yūrei, these ghosts appear as faint images of their former selves. They often appear wearing burial clothing, or else the clothes that they wore in their lifetime. However, kosodate yūrei often appear less horrific—even slightly loving—when compared to scarier types of yūrei. They appear to shopkeepers or travelers on the road at night, and often return to the same place over and over again.

INTERACTIONS: Kosodate yūrei exist to fulfill one purpose: to see to the well-being of their child. They try to do this by buying candy or other things for their children. They have no money, so they pay with whatever they can—sometimes even with dead leaves. They seek out living people, whom they try to lead back to the location of their waiting baby. If the baby is discovered and taken care of, the kosodate yūrei can finally rest. Until then, though, she will appear every night to find help for her child.

LEGENDS: Kosodate yūrei stories are very common. Although the details vary from place to place, one common version goes like this:

One rainy night, a shopkeeper was closing up his shop when he heard a tapping sound at the window. Looking out, he saw a woman standing pathetically in the rain, cold and drenched. He asked her if she needed help, but all she said was, “One candy please.” Even though the shop was closed, the shopkeeper felt sorry for the poor woman, so he sold her the candy. She paid him one mon—a very low denomination coin—and vanished into the night.

The next night, she came at the very same time, looking forlorn and disheveled. Again, she asked the shopkeeper, in a voice almost too faint to hear, “One candy please.” The shopkeeper gave her a candy, and again she paid with one mon, and left just as quietly as she had come.

Every night for six nights, this exact scenario played out. On the seventh night, she returned, but this time had no money. When she asked “One candy please,” she presented a handful of leaves. The shopkeeper told her that he could not accept leaves as payment. “Then take this instead,” she said, handing him her coat. The shopkeeper protested, but she insisted. Finally he gave in and accepted the trade.

The next day, a merchant from a neighboring village passed through the town. He stopped in his friend’s shop, and the shopkeeper told him of the strange woman who came visiting every night, and of the coat that she gave him as payment. When the merchant saw the strange woman’s coat hanging in the shop, he went pale. “That is the coat of my friend’s wife!”

“Really? Perhaps it was she who came to the store?”

“That is impossible! She died one week ago. She was buried in this coat!”

The merchant and the shopkeeper looked at each other in disbelief. They went to the temple where she was buried to tell the head priest what the shopkeeper had seen. The priest scolded them for believing in such superstitions. Afterwards he took them to the woman’s grave to show them that all was okay. When they reached the grave, however, they heard the unmistakable screaming of a newborn baby coming from under the earth!

They dug up the grave and discovered that it was indeed the corpse woman who had been visiting the shop! What’s more, entwined in her arms, a living baby wrapped up in cloth. The woman had given birth posthumously in her coffin. Wrapped up with the baby were the six mostly-eaten pieces of candy, which had kept the baby from starving during the week. Its mother had bought the candy with the six mon traditionally placed with a corpse to pay the guardians of the underworld.

They took the baby from the corpse and returned it to its family. When they reburied the woman’s body, the corpse had a serene expression on its face. And the ghostly visitor to the candy store was never seen again.




TRANSLATION: high priest
ALTERNATE NAMES: Kurama tengu, Kurama sōjōbō

APPEARANCE: Sōjōbō is the name given to a daitengu who lives on Mount Kurama in the northern part of Kyōto. His home is in Sōjōgatani—”the valley of the high priest”—located deep within the interior of the mountain. He has long, white hair, an incredibly long nose, and possesses the strength of one thousand tengu. Sōjōbō is first in rank among the tengu, and is often referred to as their king.

ORIGIN: Sōjōbō is known through his connection to Kurama Temple, an isolated temple which practices a unique branch of esoteric Buddhism. Kurama Temple has long had a connection with yamabushi and ascetic mountain religions, and the tengu which these religions worship. Because Sōjōbō resides there, Mount Kurama is also considered to be the most important mountain to tengu. According to Kurama Temple, Sōjōbō is either one rank below Maō-son—one third of the holy trinity which is central to the Kurama faith—or is in fact another form of Mao-son.

LEGENDS: Not much is written about Sōjōbō, although his name is well known. The most famous legend about Sōjōbō is that he trained a young boy named Ushiwakamaru. As the king of the tengu, Sōjōbō possesses a knowledge of magic, military tactics, and swordsmanship unsurpassed by any other. The young Ushiwakamaru wished to learn from him, and traveled deep into Sōjōgatani to undergo a long and arduous training. This was a very dangerous quest, as tengu are fierce and unpredictable, and Sōjōbō was rumored to eat children who wandered too deep into the forest. However, Sōjōbō was impressed with the young boy’s bravery and agreed to train him.

Ushiwakamaru grew up to become Minamoto Yoshitsune, who lived from 1159-1189 CE. Yoshitsune remains of Japan’s most celebrated warriors, and is one of the main heroes in the Tale of the Heike. His umatched swordsmanship is credited to the training he received from the tengu of Mount Kurama.



TRANSLATION: a local phrase meaning “give me a piggyback ride”
ALTERNATE NAMES: bariyon, onbu obake, ubariyon, obosaritei
HABITAT: inhabited areas, roadsides
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Obariyon is a child-sized monster from Niigata prefecture which loves to ride people piggyback style.

BEHAVIOR: Obariyon lurks in bushes and trees by the side of the road, and when a traveler walks by, it leaps out onto their back crying out, “obariyon!” If the traveler relents and carries the obariyon on his back, the monster becomes heavier and heavier with each footstep, nearly crushing the traveler under its weight. In addition, this mischievous yokai chews the scalp of a person good enough to carry it, further adding to his misery. In order to protect against the head-chewing that obariyon inflict, some villages developed a custom of wearing metal bowls on their heads for protection.

INTERACTIONS: According to some tales, as the obariyon becomes heavier and heavier, it eventually crushes its victim under its weight. However, more commonly, when a person has dutifully carried the obariyon the whole way home, he or she finds that the strange burden was a sack of money all along, and becomes incredibly rich.

ORIGIN: The name obariyon comes from a phrase in local Niigata dialect meaning “give me a piggyback ride!” Differences in local dialects are reflected in the many different local names for this spirit. Though its name varies from place to place, it is always a local variant for a childish request to be carried piggyback style.

Although the exact origins of this particular creature are unclear, folk tales about yokai which demand to be carried or cared for are quite common across Japan. There is a recurring theme among folk tales that those who persevere when dealing with children will prosper. Just as those who put up with the strange demands of the obariyon may find themselves blessed with a bag of gold, those who manage to deal with the demands of raising young children will eventually reap treasures beyond belief. Obariyon is probably a direct metaphor about child-rearing. While the demands of the obariyon may be selfish and extremely burdensome, those who are willing to put up with it for the entire journey find the payoff was well worth the investment.




TRANSLATION: blood clot
HABITAT: under the floorboards of its birth house
DIET: its own mother

APPEARANCE: Kekkai are a kind of sankai—childbirth monster—from Saitama, Kanagawa, and Nagano prefectures. They are small and ugly, resembling a monkey. Their hair is said to grow in backwards, and they have two tongues: one red and one white. They are sometimes born from pregnant mothers instead of human babies.

BEHAVIOR: When a kekkai emerges, covered in blood and amniotic fluid, it quickly scampers away from its mother and tries to escape. This is most often accomplished through the irori, or earthen hearth, a common feature in old country houses. It either burrows down beneath the floorboards, or climbs up the long pothook which hangs above the irori and flees. If the kekkai is able to escape, it will return later to kill its mother while. It does this by burrowing up through the floorboards and into its sleeping mother, tearing her apart.

INTERACTIONS: A few traditional precautions exist to protect against kekkai. The most important is preparation. A large shamoji—a spatula—is placed by the irori. When the kekkai tries to climb up the pothook, it must be swatted down and caught before it has a chance to escape.

Another common precaution is to surround the floor around the mother with byōbu—folding screens—to prevent a kekkai from escaping. This practice is the source of a play on words surrounding this yōkai’s name: the byōbu creates a spiritual barrier, or kekkai (結界), which prevents the kekkai from escaping.

ORIGIN: Kekkai are almost certainly a way to explain the dangers surrounding childbirth and the existence of birth defects. Before modern medicine was invented, death from complications relating to childbirth was not uncommon. A grieving family might be easily convinced that a mother’s death was caused by some evil spirit—some kind of spiritual punishment for the family’s sins. Similarly, it is not hard to imagine how earlier cultures might have seen premature, stillborn, or deformed babies as monsters. Referring to them as yōkai may have been an attempt to understand the unknown and unexplainable.




TRANSLATION: giant catfish
ALTERNAtE NAMES: jishin namazu (earthquake catfish)
HABITAT: rivers, seas, oceans, and subterranean caverns
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: As their name suggests, ōnamazu are gigantic catfish which live in the muck and slime of the waterways around Japan. They also inhabit large caverns deep underground.

BEHAVIOR: Ōnamazu behave much like their smaller cousins. They dig in the muck, and thrash about when disturbed or excited. Due to their titanic mass, the thrashing of ōnamazu is considerably more violent than ordinary catfish, to the point where they are dangerous to humans. When these monstrous fish get excited, they shake the earth with their violent thrashing, causing devastating earthquakes in the areas near where they live.

INTERACTIONS: Ōnamazu do not normally interact with people, however during the Edo period they were popularly depicted in newspaper illustrations. Usually these pictures showed a huge, grotesque catfish being subdued by a large number of people, gods, or even other yokai, desperately trying to calm its thrashing.

ORIGIN: Long ago, common belief was that earthquakes were caused by large dragons which lived deep in the earth. During the Edo period, the idea of catfish causing earthquakes gradually began to displace dragons in popular lore as the origin of seismic activity. By the 1855 Great Ansei Earthquake, the ōnamazu had become the popular culprit to blame for earthquakes. This was due mostly to the hundreds of illustrations of thrashing catfish which accompanied newspapers reporting the news of that disaster. They were so popular they spawned an entire genre of woodblock print: namazu-e (catfish pictures).

The reason catfish came to represent earthquakes was due to a large number of witnesses observing catfish behaving oddly—thrashing about violently for seemingly no reason—just before the earthquake. Rumor quickly spread that that catfish had some kind of ability to foresee the coming disaster. Since then, the catfish has regularly appeared as a symbol for earthquakes—either as the cause or as a warning sign of the coming disaster. Recent studies have shown that catfish are in fact very electrosensitive and do become significantly more active shortly before an earthquake hits—showing that there is more to this myth than meets the eye!

LEGENDS: The Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki prefecture is the source of a famous story about ōnamazu. The deity of the shrine, a patron deity of martial arts named Takemikazuchi, is said to have subdued an ōnamazu. He pinned it down underneath the shrine, piercing its head and tail with a sacred stone which still remains in the shrine today—the top of the stone protrudes from the ground. Earthquakes that take place during the 10th month of the lunar calendar—”the godless month,” when the gods all travel to Izumo—are said to be due to Takemikazuchi’s absence from the shrine.

During the 2011 Tōhoku disaster, the Kashima Shrine was badly damaged by an earthquake. The large stone gate was destroyed, stone lanterns were knocked down, and the water level in the reflecting pond changed. The gate was rebuilt in 2014.



TRANSLATION: riverbank priest boy
HABITAT: rivers and riverbanks
DIET: fish

APPEARANCE: Gangikozō are hairy, monkey-like water spirits which inhabit rivers. They live along the riverbanks, where they hunt fish. Their bodies are covered in hair, and the hair on their head resembles the the bobbed okappa hair style once popular among children in Japan. Their most notable features are their webbed hands and toes, and their long teeth which are sharp and jagged like files. They are close relatives of the much more well-known kappa.

BEHAVIOR: Gangikozō are not encountered outside of the riverbanks, and there may be a good reason for this; according to one theory, they are a transitional form of kappa. According to many legends, kappa transform from river spirits into hairy mountain spirits when the seasons change. The specific details differ quite a bit from place to place. However, in Yamaguchi prefecture, there is a hairy mountain spirit called a takiwaro which transforms into a water spirit called an enko (a variety of kappa). Some folklorists believe that the gangikozō is a kind of takiwaro, and thus is merely a transitional form of a kappa. This would explain why so little is known of them.

INTERACTIONS: Gangikozō normally stay away from people, but occasionally encounter fishermen along the rivers they inhabit. When meeting a gangikozō, fishermen often leave their largest, cheapest fish on the riverside as an offering.

ORIGIN: Gangikozō do not appear in any local legends, though stories of very similar-looking yokai do. The first and only written record of them is in Toriyama Sekien’s yokai encyclopedias. It is therefore possible that gangikozō was made up by Toriyama Sekien based on the numerous legends of transforming kappa.

According to Mizuki Shigeru, the name gangikozō can be written with another set of kanji, 雁木小僧. These characters can mean “stepped pier” or “gear tooth” depending on the context. This writing reflects both the habitat of the gangikozō as well as its mouth full of sharp teeth, which resembles a toothed gear.




TRANSLATION: none; this is the creature’s name
HABITAT: oceans, seas, and lakes
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Wani are sea monsters that live in deep bodies of water. They have long, serpentine bodies, fins, and can breathe both air and water. Wani are able to shapeshift into humans, and there are even tales of wani and humans falling in love.

BEHAVIOR: Wani are the rulers of the oceans and gods of the sea. They live in splendid coral palaces deep on the ocean floor. Wani have a complex political hierarchy which mirrors that of the surface world. There are kings and queens, princes and princess, courtesans, servants, and so on. Ōwatatsumi, also known as Ryūjin, is the greatest of them. He rules the sea from his palace Ryūgū-jō. He controls the ebb and flow of the ocean using the tide jewels kanju and manju.

ORIGIN: Wani appear in the earliest written records of Japanese myths, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Their stories almost certainly date back even further, into the mists of prehistory. Scholars disagree over whether the earliest legends of wani originated in Japan or were imported from other cultures, citing similarities between wani and the Chinese long or the Indian naga. Wani play an important role in Japanese mythology, including in the mythological founding of Japan.

The word wani first appears in the Kojiki written with man’yōgana (an archaic phonetic syllabary). Later it came to be written with the kanji . Wani came to refer to sharks and other “sea monsters” that sailors and fishermen might encounter out at sea. The sea was a dangerous and mysterious place, and sailors may have thought that sharks were the powerful serpents of legends. Over time, the meaning of the word expanded to include to crocodiles as well as sharks, and then shifted to refer only to crocodiles. Today both the kanji and the name wani mean “crocodile” and are rarely used to refer to sea dragons.

LEGENDS: One of the most famous wani legends is the story of Toyotama hime, the daughter of Ōwatatsumi. She married a surface dweller named Hoori. Hoori and his brother Hoderi were grandchildren of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. One day Hoori borrowed and lost Hoderi’s fish hook. Hoderi insisted that Hoori find and return the lost hook, so Hoori went into the ocean to look for it. He was unable to find the hook, but instead he discovered the palace where the dragon king of the sea, Ōwatatsumi, lived. Hoori visited the palace and asked Ōwatatsumi for help finding the hook. With the dragon god’s help, Hoori found the hook, but in the meantime, Hoori had fallen in love with Toyotama hime, the daughter of the dragon god.

Hoori and Toyotama hime were married, and they lived together at the bottom of the sea for three years. Eventually, Hoori became homesick and longed to see country again. Together, he and his wife returned to the surface world with Hoderi’s lost hook. While on land, Toyotami hime gave birth to a son. When she went into labor, she asked Hoori not to look upon her, because she had to change into her true form in order to bear her child. Hoori became curious and sneaked a peak at his wife while she gave birth. He was shocked to see, instead of his wife, a huge wani cradling their newborn son. The wani was, of course, Toyotama hime in her true form. Toyotama hime was unable to forgive his betrayal, and was so ashamed that she fled back into the ocean and never saw Hoori or her son again.

Although Toyotama hime abandoned her son, her sister Tamayori came to raise him in her absence. The boy, Ugayafukiaezu, grew up to marry Tamayori, and together they had a son. Their son was Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.




TRANSLATION: none; written with characters that mean “human” and “cow”
HABITAT: farms across Japan, but particularly in Kyushu and western Japan
DIET: milk; rarely lives long enough to eat anything else

APPEARANCE: Kudan are prophetic creatures that take the form of baby cows with human faces. Very rarely, they are also said to take the reverse appearance: a cow’s face on a human body. They are born from cows, and their birth is often said to be an omen of some significant historical event. A kudan never lives for more than a few days.

BEHAVIOR: Kudan are able to speak human languages from the day they are born. Immediately upon being born, a kudan gives one or more prophecies. The content of their prophecies varies. Some kudan have spoken of great harvests or terrible famines, some have foretold plagues and droughts, while others have predicted wars. The prediction of a kudan never fails to come true. Upon delivering its prophecy, a kudan immediately dies.

ORIGIN: Kudan are a relatively recent yokai, having entered the public zeitgeist during the end of the Edo period. This was a period of great social and political upheaval. The fall of the shogunate and the return of imperial authority, combined with the rapid changes brought about by the opening of trade with the West were responsible for a lot of uncertainly and turmoil throughout Japan. During this time, stories of kudan being born popped up up in newspapers all across the country.

Kudan sightings continued through the end of the Edo period until after World War 2. Among some of the events supposedly predicted by kudan are the Russo-Japanese War and the Pacific War. Because of their uncanny ability to predict the future, the word of a kudan was viewed as absolute truth. During the Edo period, newspapers looking to add credibility to a story would include the words “kudan no gotoshi,” or, “as if a kudan had said it” to their articles. This phrase remains in use in the Japanese language today as a way of assuring the reader of the truth of a story.

Because of its reputation for honesty, images of kudan were used as talismans for good luck, prosperity, and protection from sickness and disaster. Newspapers advised their readers to hang the printed images of kudan on their houses for protection and good fortune. Kudan were such popular yokai that their mummified remains were often carted around in traveling sideshows. These “kudan” could be made of stillborn deformed calves, or of different animal parts stitched together to create a chimera-like stuffed animal. Visitors paid a small fee to gawk at these specimens and hopefully receive some of their good luck. A few of these mummified remains survive in museums today.