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

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

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

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

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



TRANSLATION: 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: 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.

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.

Sutoku Tennō

Sutoku Tennou崇徳天皇

TRANSLATION: Emperor Sutoku

APPEARANCE: Sutoku Tennō is one of the three most famous yōkai to ever haunt Japan. After he died, he transformed—some say into a terrible onryō, some say into a great tengu—and inflicted his wrath upon the imperial court at Kyōto. Along with Tamamo no Mae and Shuten dōji, Emperor Sutoku is one of the legendary Nihon San Dai Aku Yōkai—the Three Terrible Yōkai of Japan. Along with Sugawara no Michizane and Taira no Masakado, he is one of the legendary Nihon San Dai Onryō—the Three Great Onryō of Japan.

ORIGIN: Prince Akihito was born in 1119 CE, the first son of Emperor Toba. At least that was on the official registry. It was an open secret, known by everyone in the court, that Akihito was actually sired by the retired former Emperor Shirakawa. Akihito was not well liked by his “father,” who constantly referred to him as a bastard. His true father Shirakawa may have been the former emperor, but he still wielded considerable power in his retirement. When Prince Akihito was 5 and Emperor Toba was 21, Shirakawa forced Toba into retirement. Akihito became Emperor Sutoku.

After Shirakawa died in 1129, retired Emperor Toba began orchestrating his trap against Emperor Sutoku. He convinced him that the cloistered life of retired emperor was much better than being the actual emperor. He suggested that Sutoku adopt Toba’s son Prince Narihito, and retire. In 1142, Sutoku finally did so. Toba oversaw the process, and made sure to record that the emperor was retiring and passing the throne on to Narihito instead of his own progeny. This ensured that Sutoku would wield no power over the young emperor, nor would any future son ever become emperor. The 3-year old Narihito became Emperor Konoe, and the retired Emperor Toba wielded all of the power behind the throne. Toba sent Sutoku’s allies to distant provinces, and filled the capital with his own allies. There was nothing Sutoku could do.

Emperor Konoe remained sickly and childless his whole life. He passed away without an heir in 1155 at the age of 17. By this time, Sutoku had his own son. He saw an opportunity to recover his standing. Sutoku and his allies claimed that the throne should pass on to Sutoku’s son. Instead the imperial court declared that Toba’s fourth son would become Emperor Go-Shirakawa. When Toba died the following year, this dispute escalated into a miniature civil war known as the Hōgen Rebellion. The war was decided in a single battle. The forces of Go-Shirakawa were victorious.

After the Hōgen Rebellion, Go-Shirakawa’s forces were merciless. Those who fought against the emperor were executed, along with their entire families. Former Emperor Sutoku was banished from Kyōto and forced to spend the rest of his days exiled to Sanuki Province. He shaved his head and became a monk, devoting himself copying holy manuscripts to send back to Kyōto. The court feared that the deposed Sutoku would attempt to curse them. It was rumored that he had bitten off his own tongue and wrote the manuscripts in his own blood, imbuing them with his hatred for the merciless imperial court. The court added insult to injury by refusing to accept any of his manuscripts.

In 1164, Sutoku passed away, defeated, deposed, and humiliated—and most importantly full of rage for the imperial court. When news of his death reached Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the emperor ignored it. He ordered that nobody should go into mourning, and that no state funeral would be held for such a criminal.

LEGENDS: After his death, strange things began to happen. Sutoku’s body was set aside while its caretakers awaited funeral instructions from the emperor. After 20 days, his body was still as fresh as it had been on the day he died. While his coffin was taken to be cremated, a terrible storm rolled in. The caretakers placed the casket on the ground to take shelter. After the storm passed, the stones around the casket were soaked with fresh blood. When his body was finally cremated, the ashes descended upon Kyōto in a dark cloud.

Afterwards, for many years, disaster upon disaster struck the capital. Go-Shirakawa’s successor, Emperor Nijo, died suddenly at age 23. Storms, plagues, fires, droughts, and earthquakes all pounded the capital. Imperial power weakened. Clan rivalries set into motion by the Hōgen Rebellion escalated. Many of Go-Shirakawa’s allies were killed in battles, and the country stepped closer and closer to all-out civil war. In 1180, the Genpei War broke out. In 5 bloody years, the power of the imperial court had vanished, and the Kamakura shogunate took over Japan. All of this was attributed to Emperor Sutoku’s vengeance.

Sutoku finally returned to the capital during the Meiji era. In 1868, he was enshrined as a kami in the Shiramine Shrine in Kyōto. The Takaya Shrine in Kagawa also enshrines one of the stones onto which Sutoku’s blood flowed during the rainstorm before his cremation. Despite this, there are still rumors that his curse might still linger. In 2012, when NHK broadcast the drama Taira no Kiyomori, an earthquake struck the Kanto region right at the moment when Emperor Sutoku transformed into an onryō.

Sugawara no Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane菅原道真

APPEARANCE: Sugawara no Michizane was a scholar, poet, and politician who fell out of favor with the emperor and died in exile. He lived from 845 to 903 CE, and is considered one of the greatest scholars and poets in all of Japanese history. After his death, he returned from the grave as a wrathful onryō to wreak his vengeance upon those who had wronged him in life. This earned him a position among the Nihon San Dai Onryō—the Three Great Onryō of Japan.

ORIGIN: Sugawara no Michizane was born the eldest son of a high-ranking family of scholars. From a very early age, he showed his brilliance, composing elegant poems by the age of five. He was well-educated and lived a privileged life, gradually climbing the ranks of the bureaucracy and increasing his public standing.

Sugawara no Michizane was an excellent student and scholar. Passing the highest level of government exams at age 26, he received the equivalent of a PhD at age 33. Michizane was selected to be governor of Sanuki Province in 886. During his time as governor he composed a great deal of poetry. In 888, during the Akō Incident, he supported Emperor Uda in his rivalry with Fujiwara no Mototsune. This action earned him a great deal of political clout. When the Emperor consolidated his power, he demoted officials from the Fujiwara clan and promoted officials from the Minamoto clan. Michizane was not a noble, but he too was rewarded. Hs rank rose even further, and he picked up many important court titles, including Ambassador to the Tang Dynasty. This caused unrest among the nobles—particularly the Fujiwaras. They felt indignant that a non-noble scholar should be elevated to such elite ranks.

When Emperor Uda abdicated to Emperor Daigo, Sugawara no Michizane’s fortunes declined rapidly. Both Michizane and Fujiwara no Tokihira—the son of Fujiwara no Mototsune, whom Michizane had censured years ago—were the emperor’s primary advisors. Tokihira advised the emperor that he should pacify the indignant Fujiwara nobility by sending Michizane away. The emperor listened. Michizane lost his rank and titles, and was demoted from his high position to very minor regional government post at Dazaifu, Chikuzen Province. There, he experienced a thankless life of hard work under much stricter and more severe conditions than in Kyōto.

Despite his humiliation and exile to Kyūshū, Sugawara no Michizane continued to work hard and earnestly for the sake of the country. All the while he prayed for the well-being of the imperial family and the safety of Japan. His hard work was never acknowledged, and he never regained his prestige. He regretted his demotion, and longed for his beloved Kyōto for the rest of his life. Late in the second month of 903, as the plums were blossoming, Michizane died. His heart was filled with loneliness and resentment.

LEGENDS: After Sugawara no Michizane’s death, a series of disasters struck Kyōto. Plague and drought spread over the city. His rival Fujiwara no Tokihira died at the age of 39. The sons of Emperor Daigo became sick and died one after another. A lightning bolt struck the Seiryōden palace, causing a fire which killed a number of the officials who had participated in Michizane’s demotion and exile. A few months later, Emperor Daigo himself became sick and died. Everyone in the capital had become convinced that Michizane’s ghost had become a thunder god and was punishing those who had wronged him.

Sugawara no Michizane’s onryō continued to curse the capital with disaster upon disaster. Eventually, the emperor built a shrine to his spirit and posthumously restored his rank and office. He removed any mention of Michizane’s exile from the official records. However, it did not appease his spirit, and the disasters kept coming. Finally, in 987, during the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Sugawara no Michizane was promoted and deified as the highest rank of state kami. A special shrine was built for him in northern Kyōto, and a festival was established in his honor. Michizane became known as Tenman Tenjin, the god of scholarship. The curse was finally appeased.

Tenjin remains a popular god to this day. Paintings of him are hung in homes across the country, and students from all over Japan visit his shrines to pray for luck on their school examinations. Tenjin shrines commonly hold festivals in late February, when plum trees start to bloom, and when school examination results are posted. The plum tree is commonly associated with Tenjin, as it was his favorite tree. Shrines dedicated to him commonly have plum trees on their grounds. Legend has it that while in exile in Dazaifu, he longed so deeply for his favorite plum tree that one night it flew from Kyōto to Kyūshū to be with him. That tree still stands today at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka.



TRANSLATION: curse god, curse spirit
DIET: vengeance

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

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

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

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

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: hungry ghosts, preta; suffering spirits from Buddhist cosmology
HABITAT: Gakidō, a realm of suffering, starvation, and thirst
DIET: gaki will try to eat anything, but are never able to find nourishment

APPEARANCE: Gaki are spirits which live in horrible torment and are afflicted with constant suffering. They look vaguely human, but they have distended, bulging bellies and tiny, inefficient mouths and throats. They inhabit a parallel realm called Gakidō. It is a barren place, full of deserts, wastelands, and other inhospitable terrain.

BEHAVIOR: Gaki are eternally hungry and thirsty. There are many kinds of gaki, each of which suffers in a different way related to the sins he or she committed in a past life. Some are unable to eat or drink anything at all. Whenever they try to eat, the food instantly bursts into flames and vanishes. These gaki are only able to eat food which has been specially blessed for them in Buddhist services. Some gaki are able to eat only unclean things, such as feces, vomit, corpses, and so on. Others have no trouble eating anything they please. However, no matter how much they wolf down, their hunger and thirst are never sated.

INTERACTION: In some Buddhist traditions, a special ceremony called segaki is performed during the Obon season, to help ease the suffering of the gaki. In this ceremony, offerings of rice and water are laid out on special altars, out of sight of any statues of the gods or Buddha. The gaki are called to come and eat, while prayers are said to ease some of their suffering.

ORIGIN: The realm of the gaki is considered one of the four “unhappy” rebirths. In the cosmology of birth and rebirth, the realm of the gaki is only one step above the realm of Jigoku—the main difference between the inhabitants of Jigoku and the gaki being that those in Jigoku are confined to their prison. Gaki may roam free as they suffer.

Today, the word gaki is also a very nasty term for a child. This comes from the perception of children always wanting more food and never feeling satisfied with what they get.

Sesshō seki



TRANSLATION: killing stone

APPEARANCE: Sesshō seki is a large boulder that stands in the plains of Nasuno, Shimotsuke (modern day Tochigi Prefecture). Around it is a desolate, lifeless field, filled with toxic gasses and the skeletons of animals who strayed too near.

ORIGIN: Sesshō seki was formed when the evil nine-tailed kitsune Tamamo no Mae was slain. Her hunters returned triumphantly, bearing her body to the capital. Her spirit, however, attached itself to a large boulder near where she fell. It continued to kill long after her death. Any living thing that wandered close enough to the stone died instantly. Sesshō seki remained a deadly landmark until 1385 CE, when Tamamo no Mae’s spirit was put to rest once and for all.

LEGENDS: One day, a high priest named Gennō was traveling through Shimotsuke Province when he noticed a peculiar sight—the birds in the air fell to their deaths whenever they passed over a certain boulder in the plain of Nasuno. At the base of the stone was a pile of dead birds. Gennō wondered what could cause such a phenomenon. Not long afterwards, a local woman appeared near the priest, and he asked her about the stone.

The woman explained that Sesshō seki was haunted by the spirit of Tamamo no Mae. She told him the story of the fox courtesan, and then vanished. Gennō realized that the woman had been the ghost of the infamous kitsune. He performed a Buddhist memorial service over the stone, and suddenly Tamamo no Mae’s spirit reappeared and confessed all of her sins, going back thousands of years all the way to India and China. After hearing Gennō’s pure words and Buddhist teachings, Tamamo no Mae repented all of her evils and swore never again to do wrong, and then disappeared. Her spirit, exorcised from the rock, never harmed anyone again.

Gennō—whose name means hammer—hit the rock and it burst into many pieces. The pieces flew all across Japan, where many of them remain today. The base of the rock still stands in Nasu, Tochigi. Other chunks flew to Okayama, Niigata, Hiroshima, and Ōita where they were enshrined. Smaller fragments landed in present-day Fukui, Gifu, Nagano, Gunma, and parts of Shikoku, where they were picked up and used as magical amulets to perform charms or curses.

Taira no Masakado

Taira no Masakado平将門

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



TRANSLATION: honored ghost
Diet: none; exists solely for vengeance

APPEARANCE: Goryō are the ghosts of ancient warriors and nobles who died horrible, agonizing deaths and returned to haunt their enemies as dreadful ghosts of vengeance called onryō.

INTERACTIONS: These terrible ghosts bring calamity and destruction to those who wronged them in life. Their revenge is often in the form of fires, wars, plagues, droughts, floods, storms, the deaths of imperial family members, and other disasters which the ancient nobility viewed as curses. Because ghosts cannot be killed, the only way to end their wrath was to transform them into peaceful, benevolent spirits. This was done with the help of priests and onmyōji, through the religion known as goryō shinkō—the religion of ghosts.



TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; the sound of shivering
HABITAT: human-inhabited areas
DIET: cowardice

APPEARANCE: Buruburu are sometimes referred to as the spirit of cowardice. They follow people and cause them to shudder in fear.

INTERACTIONS: Buruburu are born when humans perform acts of cowardice, such as running away from battle. They possess people by clinging to their shirt collars and touching the backs of their necks. This causes their hair to stand on end and sends shivers down their bodies.

ORIGIN: The words buruburu and zo are Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of shivering and the chill of fear. This spirit’s name comes from the sound of the shivers that it causes to run down people’s spines.



TRANSLATION: dead ghost
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: none; thrives solely on its emotions

APPEARANCE: Shiryō are the ghosts of the dead, and are contrasted with ikiryō, the ghosts of the living. The word is generally synonymous with yūrei (“faint spirit”), as they both refer to the classic Japanese ghost. However while yūrei can be creepy sometimes and beautifully mysterious at other times, shiryō is almost exclusively used to refer to unpleasant, malevolent spirits. The inclusion of the kanji for “death” in the name is the clue that this ghost is not to be romanticised.

INTERACTIONS: Shiryō act in similar ways to ikiryō, appearing to relatives or close friends of the deceased. While ikiryō usually appear in the moments just before death, a shiryō appears in the moments just after death. When one appears, it is most often to give one last goodbye to its loved ones before departing… however, shiryō do not always appear in order to say goodbye; sometimes they come to take their loved ones away with them into the world of the dead.

LEGENDS: Belief in shiryō goes back to before recorded history, and has long been a staple of Japanese folk superstition. One famous account is recorded in the Tōno Monogatari, a 1910 collection of folk beliefs which gave birth to the field of academic folklore research in Japan. In this story, there was a young girl who lived together with her father. After her father died, his shiryō appeared before the young girl and tried to take her with him into the world of the dead. The girl narrowly escaped and fled from the house to ask for help. Every night, various friends and distant family members agreed to stay overnight in the house with her and watch over her, and every night without fail, her father’s shiryō came looking for her, to try to take her away. Only after a whole month of sleepless, terrifying nights did the ghost stop appearing, and finally the girl was left in peace.



TRANSLATION: living ghost
ALTERNATE NAMES: shōryō, seirei, ikisudama
HABITAT: inhabited areas
DIET: none; lives off its owner’s emotions

APPEARANCE: Ikiryō are the souls of still-living people which have temporarily left their bodies and move about on their own. They appear just as the living person from which they spawn; sometimes they take on a ghostly, translucent form, while other times they are indistinguishable from a living person.

INTERACTIONS: There are a number of common ways for ikiryō to appear: during a near-death-experience, fainting, intense passion or desire, intense hatred, or even as part of a curse. Ikiryō most commonly appear due to some intense emotion or trauma, and the owner of the soul is almost always unaware of the ikiryō’s existence. This can lead to some very awkward situations and misunderstandings.

Folk superstitions about ikiryō go back to before recorded history. According to ancient superstition, just before death the soul leaves the body and is able to walk around, making strange noises and doing other things outside of the body. This is especially common during wartime, and the ikiryō of soldiers even in far off lands are said to appear to their friends and loved ones moments before or after their deaths, in their war uniforms, to give one last goodbye. The souls of the soon-to-die and recently-deceased are also sometimes seen visiting nearby temples and praying for a few days after their deaths.

During the Heian period, ikiryō were a popular subject of stories. They were sometimes attributed to intense feelings of love. When a person (usually a woman) felt such intense passion and love, her spirit would detach from her body and haunt the object of her affection, whispering sweet things into his ears. Depending on the strength of her feelings, the ikiryō could even physically move her lover around. This was not romantic, however — people haunted in this way were often tormented to the point of extreme sickness by these ghosts.

The most common form on ikiryō is one born of rage and vengeance. Just as the ghosts of the dead can go after those who wrong them in life, an ikiryō can manifest from one living person to curse another. These are also usually unconscious manifestations, however a few famous examples of conscious manifestations of ikiryō curses exist. The pilgrimage of the hour of the ox (ushi no koku mairi) and ichijama (from Okinawa) are ceremonial curses in which a person consciously sends their soul from their body to hurt or to kill their enemies. Of course, this sort of black magic often has dire consequences for the performer as well as the target.

During the Edo period, ikiryō were considered a symptom of certain illnesses, such as the aptly-named rikonbyō, or “detached soul syndrome,” and kage no yamai, or “shadow illness.” These horrifyingly-named diseases were Edo period terms for sleepwalking and out-of-body experiences. For carriers of these illnesses, it was said that the soul could depart from the body at night, taking the person’s consciousness along with it. This would cause them to experience things from the ikiryō’s perspective as if they were actually doing it. A person might have false memories of things he didn’t do, or be accused of things he didn’t remember. Some people even experienced meeting their own selves, as if they had a doppelganger.

Superstitions about ikiryō have persisted into modern times, particularly those dealing with people appearing to family members and friends on or around the times of their deaths. The idea of the soul leaving the body and experiencing things during out of body experiences persists as well, and remains an unexplained phenomenon.



TRANSLATION: strange fox person; origin of the word for “scary”
HABITAT: food stalls, garbage dumps
DIET: any scrap of food it can get its hands on

APPEARANCE: Kowai is the ghost of a gluttonous person who carried his or her obsession with food into the next life, transforming into this yokai after death. It takes the form of a grotesque human with fox-like features, blood-shot eyes, sharp teeth, and a long, drooling tongue. It appears at night outside of food stands and restaurants.

BEHAVIOR: Kowai is concerned with only one thing: eating. It is always suffering from hunger, and ravenously devours any bit of food it can get its claws on. It rifles through garbage pales, knocks down food stalls, and attacks food vendors late at night, picking up whatever scraps they leave behind. It will even pick at carrion in the streets. No matter how spoiled or how disgusting, if it can be eaten, kowai will go after it.

ORIGIN: Kowai first appears in the Ehon Hyakumonogatari, an encyclopedia of ghosts published in 1841. Its name is written with kanji meaning “fox,” “person,” and “strange,” and so can literally be translated as “weird fox person.” According to that book, this yokai is the origin of the word 怖い (kowai), which is the Japanese word for “scary.”



TRANSLATION: temple-pecker
HABITAT: Buddhist temples
DIET: rage

APPEARANCE: Teratsutsuki is the onryō of a man who lived in the 6th century CE, Mononobe no Moriya. It was sighted at Hōryū-ji and Shitennō-ji temples, where it took the form of ghostly woodpecker and tried to destroy the temples until it was driven away by Prince Shōtoku.

LEGENDS: Long long ago, when Japan was still called Yamato and the capital was located in what is today Nara, the nobility was divided into two different types: shinbetsu, clans that claimed to be descended from the gods, and kōbetsu, clans that claimed to be descended from the imperial family. The highest ranking titles in these groups were Muraji, for the shinbetsu clans, and Omi, for the kōbetsu clans. In the 6th century CE, when Buddhism was brought to Yamato from China, it caused a great deal of rivalry between the shinbetsu and kōbetsu nobility.

Mononobe no Moriya was the leader of the Mononobe clan and a Muraji. The Mononobes, a shinbetsu clan, strongly supported the old Shinto religion. His rival, Soga no Umako, was an Omi, and supported the promotion of Buddhism throughout Yamato. Mononobe no Moriya and Soga no Umako held considerable power in the imperial court. During the reign of Emperor Bidatsu (572-585), Mononobe no Moriya held higher favor with the emperor, but when Emperor Yōmei took power in 585, Moriya’s favor fell and Soga no Umako’s rose, as the new emperor was a Buddhist.

Emperor Yōmei died in 587, after which the Mononobe clan and Soga clan tried their best to influence the succession of the imperial title. Each of them supported a different prince to become emperor, and they fought bitterly for their clans’ interests. Finally, war broke out between the two rival clans. Mononobe no Moriya set fire to Buddhist temples and tossed the first statues of the Buddha brought to Yamato into the canals in his fight to purge the foreign religion from his homeland. Moriya and Umako mustered their armies and met on the battlefield in Kawachi. There, at the Battle of Mount Shigi, Mononobe no Moriya was killed by Soga no Umako and Prince Shōtoku, and the Mononobe clan was almost completely exterminated. Afterwards, the Soga clan rose to even higher prominence, and Prince Shōtoku, a devout Buddhist, began the construction many new Buddhist temples.

The spirit of defeated Mononobe no Moriya did not rest, though. As he lay dying in hatred and resent, Moriya transformed into an onryō. His ghost took the form of a ghostly woodpecker, which would later be seen at the temples built by Prince Shōtoku. The bird pecked furiously at the wooden buildings, determined even in death to destroy the heretical new religion. Prince Shōtoku was finally able to drive away this teratsutsuki by magically transforming into a hawk and attacking it. After that, the ghost of Mononobe no Moriya was never seen again.




LEGENDS: Long ago, during the reign of Emperor Shirakawa (1073-1087 CE), there lived a monk named Raigō. Raigō was the abbot of Mii-dera, a monastery in Shiga prefecture at the foot of Mount Hiei, and well known for his piety.

The Emperor, having no heir, was concerned about his line of succession. One day, he approached Raigō and asked him to pray to the gods and Buddha in his place for an heir. Raigō prayed long and hard, and finally in 1074 a royal son, Prince Taruhito, was born. The grateful Emperor promised to give the abbot anything he wished in return for his prayers. Raigō asked that a splendid new ordination building be constructed at Mii-dera so he could train new priests. The Emperor gladly agreed, however Mii-dera had a powerful rival temple — Enryaku-ji, on top of Mt. Hiei — which wielded great political power as well as having a powerful army of warrior monks at its disposal. Enryaku-ji could not abide such a gift being granted to a rival temple, and so it exerted its great pressure on the Emperor. Bowing to Enryaku-ji, the Emperor reneged on his promise to Raigō.

Raigō began a hunger strike in protest of the Emperor’s broken promise, but the Emperor would not, or could not, go against Enryaku-ji’s will. On the 100th day of his hunger strike, Raigō passed away, his heart full of rage towards the unfaithful Emperor and the rival monastery of Enryaku-ji. So great was the hatred in Raigō’s heart when he died that he transformed into an onryō, a ghost driven by pure vengeance. Shortly after Raigō’s death, a ghostly vision of the abbot was seen hovering near young Prince Taruhito’s bed. A few days later the young prince died, leaving the Emperor heir-less once again. But Raigo’s vengeance did not end there.

Raigō’s twisted spirit transformed into a gigantic rat. Its body was as hard as stone and its teeth and claws as strong as iron. The monstrous spirit, Tesso as it came to be called, summoned a massive army of rats which poured through Kyoto, up Mt. Hiei, and arrived at Enryaku-ji. There, the rat wreaked Raigō’s vengeance upon the monks. The army of rats poured through the monastery complex, chewing through the walls and doors, tearing up the roofs and floors, and attacking the monks. They devoured Enryaku-ji’s precious sutras, scrolls, and books, eating and despoiling everything they found — they even ate the precious statues of the Buddha.

Nothing could stop Tesso and the army of rats until finally a shrine was built at Mii-dera to appease Raigō’s spirit, and Raigō’s shrine still stands at Mii-dera today. An interesting footnote to the story: while Buddhist buildings are typically built facing the east, Raigo’s shrine is built facing the north. It points to the top of Mt. Hiei, directy at Enryaku-ji, the target of his rage.



TRANSLATION: drop-it-and-get-out-of-here canal

APPEARANCE: Oitekebori is a mysterious apparition that was seen in Honjo, Sumida ward, Tokyo. It takes the form of a human ghost, and haunts fishermen and others who stray too close to its home in the canals. Its name derives from a slang version of the phrase, “oite ike!” meaning, “drop it and get out of here!”

ORIGIN: Nobody really knows exactly what oitekebori was. The most likely explanation is that a kappa was responsible. Hungry and too lazy to fish on his own, he terrorized some innocent fishermen and stole their catch. Other explanations blame a tricky tanuki. Still other explanations exist, covering everything from a yūrei, a kawauso, a mujina, or a suppon (a soft-shelled turtle-turned-yokai).

LEGENDS: Long ago, Honjo was full of canals and waterways, and those canals were teaming with fish. It was common for people to make their living catching and selling fish caught in the moat system.

One night, two fishermen were fishing in a particular spot in Honjo at sunset. They noticed that they were catching many more fish than usual, and so they fished and fished, filling their baskets to the brim. After some time, when they could hold no more fish, they happily packed up their tackle and prepared to carry their large catches home. Just as they were about to leave, they heard an eerie, terrible voice come up from the canal: “Oiteke!”

What happens next depends on who is telling the story. Some say that both fishermen dropped their baskets and fled, and when they returned later that night, both baskets were empty. Others say that they fled home with their baskets, but when they got home and looked inside, there wasn’t even a single fish in the baskets. But the most chilling version goes like this:

Both fisherman turned and fled from the canal, one of them dropping his basket and the other taking his basket with him. The fisherman who dropped his basket ran all the way back to his house and bolted the door shut. The other fisherman didn’t get very far — a ghostly hand rose up out of the canal and dragged him down into the water, basket and all. And he was never seen again.

Ao andon


TRANSLATION: blue lantern
HABITAT: parlors and living rooms; appears during ghost story telling parties
DIET: fear

APPEARANCE: During the Edo period, a popular summertime activity among the aristocratic classes was to gather and tell ghost stories, hoping the chill of fear would stave off the intense midsummer heat. These ghost story telling parties were called hyakumonogatari kaidankai – a gathering of one hundred ghost stories. During these gatherings, one hundred candles would be lit and placed inside of blue paper lanterns, called andon, in order to create an eerie atmosphere suitable for storytelling. Throughout the night, guests would take turns telling progressively scarier stories about yokai, demons, ghosts, and other strange things. After each story, one candle would be snuffed out, until finally only the hundredth candle remained, its dim blue light casting long, creepy shadows, struggling to fill the dark room.

According to superstition, as the final candle was snuffed, a real ghost would appear out of the darkness to attack the participants, created out of the heightened emotional state and fears of guests. This ghost was called the ao andon.

The ao andon is the incarnation of mass human terror, formed out of the built-up fears of large groups of people. This fear takes the appearance of a demonic woman with long black hair, blue skin, blackened teeth, sharp claws, and horns. It wears a white or blue kimono, and glows with an eerie blue light.

BEHAVIOR: The ao andon appears at the end of the gathering, when all of the lanterns have been snuffed out. It emerges from the smoke of the final candle and attacks the guests. What exactly it does is a mystery; whether it slaughters all of the participants in a brutal finale inspired by the preceding tales, or simply jumps out to give one last shock before the guests return home has never been recorded. The reason for this is that by the time the ninety-ninth ghost story had been told, the guests were usually too frightened to tell the final story, and the parties usually concluded at that point, before the ao andon could appear.

ORIGIN: As the old proverb says (in both English and Japanese): speak of the devil, and the devil shall appear. It was feared that merely talking about ghosts and spirits for long enough would cause them to materialize for real.

Kosode no te

Ittanmomen, Kosodenote, Jatai小袖の手

TRANSLATION: kosode (a short sleeved kimono) hands

APPEARANCE: Kosode no te is a phenomenon appearing in short-sleeved kimonos formerly owned by prostitutes. It is characterized by a pair of ghostly hands emerging from the sleeves and assaulting nearby people.

ORIGIN: Kosode no te can occur for a number of reasons. One common origin is when a prostitute dies in vain, after working for many years to save up the money to buy her freedom from her owner. Upon death, such women usually had their clothes donated to a temple for prayers to be said over them. However, if the woman was still owed money by her clients when she died, her spirit often reanimated her old clothing, and they leave the temple to find her customers and beg them for the owed money.

Another common origin is when, instead of being donated to a temple, a dead person’s kimono is sold to someone else. If the deceased was unable to properly pass on to nirvana upon death, that person’s spirit occasionally comes back and haunts the kimono.

Usutsuki warashi


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Zashiki warashi


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

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

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

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

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

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



TRANSLATION: coated Buddha
HABITAT: poorly cared for family altars, run-down homes
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Nuribotoke is a kind of grotesque zombie which creeps out of a butsudan that has been accidentally left open at night. It is a soft, flabby corpse-like spirit with oily black skin and a pungent smell. Trailing behind is a catfish-like tail connected to its spine. The most striking and disturbing feature is this spirit’s eyeballs, which dangle wildly from its eye sockets.

INTERACTIONS: Nuribotoke do not do much other than fly about, flapping their tails, and terrorizing the families whose butsudan they crawled out from. They dance about impishly, reveling in their ability to terrorize the living. Occasionally they try to trick foolish humans by giving false prophecies. They can be kept at bay by sprinkling salt on the floor, which they will avoid crossing. Nuribotoke return to their butsudan before sunrise, and they vanish altogether during the day. However, it is best to prevent their appearance altogether by never leaving a butsudan open at night.

ORIGIN: In most Japanese homes there is a large ornate wooden shrine called a butsudan. Inside are religious icons, scrolls, mantras, statues, and other holy items. It serves as the center of household spirituality, and the ancestors of a family are all enshrined in it. During the day, the butsudan stays open, and during holidays and special occasions it is treated like a member of the family, with offers of food and sake given to it. The doors to a butsudan are always closed at sunset; the butsudan is a gateway to the spirit world, and superstition warns that if it is left open at night, certain spirits can wander freely back and forth between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Nuribotoke is one of these spirits.

Kage onna


TRANSLATION: shadow woman
HABITAT: abandoned buildings, run-down homes, haunted houses
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Kage onna are shadows of women which appear projected onto windows and doors when there is no one around to cast them. They appear late at night when the moon is bright, as the paper sliding doors and windows of traditional Japanese homes are particularly good at catching shadows in the moonlight. They usually take the form of a young lady, though occasionally they appear as an old crone with a bell hanging from her neck.

BEHAVIOR: Kage onna make no sound, nor do they interact with the house or its inhabitants, other than projecting an eerie atmosphere. Although they are not known to cause any harm to the residents of the house, the image of a person where there should be none is enough to startle the bravest person. If the door or window is opened to see who or what created the shadow, there is nothing to be seen. However, tradition says that a house where a kage onna is seen is likely haunted, or will soon be haunted, by other yokai as well.

ORIGIN: The moonlight frequently plays tricks on the eyes, causing people to see things in the darkness that aren’t really there, or casting eerie shadows on the ground and walls that don’t seem like they should really be there. Most of the time, this can be attributed to an overactive mind piecing together ghost stories and wandering thoughts and constructing some horrible figment of the imagination. Sometimes, however, a shadow is more than a shadow: sometimes it is a kage onna.

Ao nyōbō


TRANSLATION: blue lady
ALTERNATE NAMES: ao onna (blue woman)
HABITAT: abandoned villas, mansions, and ruins
DIET: spoiled and rotten leftover food; otherwise humans

APPEARANCE: In the empty, abandoned mansions of bygone years, there is sometimes more than spider webs and cockroaches living in the shadows. Often, large and dangerous yokai take up residence in these manses, longing for a return to wealth and grace. One of these is the ao nyōbō, an ogreish spirit of poverty and misfortune. She takes the appearance of an ancient court noblewoman. Her body is draped in the elaborate many-layered kimonos of older eras, though they are now tattered and moth-ridden. She wears the white face of ancient courtiers, with high painted eyebrows and blackened teeth. Her body is aged and wrinkled from years of waiting in musty old ruins, and her beauty has long left her.

BEHAVIOR: Ao nyōbō inhabit the empty, abandoned homes of ruined families and fallen nobles. They wait in the house, constantly applying their makeup, fixing their hair, and adjusting their image in anticipation for the arrival of some guest who never shows up –perhaps a lover who has lost interest, or a husband who has abandoned his wife. Should any trespassers visit a home inhabited by an ao nyōbō, she devours them, and then goes back to waiting vainly.

ORIGIN: Nyōbō were the court ladies of old Japan – the paragons of youth, beauty, education, and refinement. They served in the palaces of high ranking families until they themselves were married off to a worthy suitor. After being married off, they spent their days in their own private residences, patiently waiting for their husbands to come home each night, or for secret lovers to show up during the day. Ao, the color blue, refers not to the aonyōbō’s skin color, but actually implies immaturity or inexperience (just as green implies the same in English). Ao nyōbō’s name refers to low-ranking women of the old imperial court who, no matter how hard they worked, couldn’t seem to catch a husband or elevate themselves to escape from poverty (the “ugly stepsisters” of ancient Japan). Originally used an insulting term for unsuccessful court ladies, it is a fitting term for this particular yokai.



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

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

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

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

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



TRANSLATION: faint spirit, ghost
ALTERNATE NAMES: obake, shiryō, bōrei; other names exist for specific kinds
HABITAT: any; commonly found in graveyards, houses, or near the place of death
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: There are many different types of yūrei, and they differ in many ways depending on the circumstances on their death. In most cases, though, yūrei appear much like they did in their human life, retaining the features and the clothing they wore when they died or were buried. As such, yūrei are often seen wearing white burial kimonos or the uniforms of fallen warriors. Occasionally they have bloody wounds indicative of the way they died. Their hair is usually long and disheveled, often obstructing their face and adding to their disturbing appearance. Their hands hang limply from their wrists. They are translucent and only very faintly visible, and in most cases they are so faint that they appear to have no feet.

INTERACTIONS: Yūrei interact with the living world in a wide range of ways, from creating phantom lights and sounds, to invoke powerful curses. They do not roam about, but they haunt one particular place or person. In the case of a place it is often where they died or are buried. In the case of a person it is often their killer, or sometimes their loved ones. Yūrei exist only to haunt, and they remain “stuck” in this world until they can be put to rest. This might require bringing their killers to justice, finding their lost body, or something as simple as passing on a message to a loved one. Some yūrei are so reluctant to accept their deaths that they haunt their living family, bringing misfortune and unhappiness for the rest of their family members’ lives.

Each haunting is as unique as the person it originated from. Only when its purpose for existing is fulfilled, or it is exorcised by a priest, is a yūrei able to pass on and be reunited with its ancestors – but the possibility that salvation exists is a glimmer of hope for those who are affected by a haunting.

ORIGIN: According to traditional Japanese beliefs, when a person dies his soul lives on as a separate entity, passing on to a heavenly afterlife. This transition is accomplished through a number of funeral and post-funeral rites and prayers performed by their loved ones over many years. Through these rites, the soul is reunited with its ancestors and becomes a family guardian spirit. These ancestors are enshrined in the house and continue to be honored as members of the family, particularly during the summer holiday of Obon, when they are said to return to the material world to be with their families.

Those who do not receive the proper funeral rites cannot pass on, and remain stuck in a purgatory that is part physical world and part ethereal. Others who die suddenly, tragically, violently, or with grudge and malice in their hearts are sometimes unable to pass on even with the proper prayers and rites. These “lost” souls are the ones that transform into ghosts.



TRANSLATION: woman in late pregnancy; often written with different characters
ALTERNATE NAMES: obo, unme, ugume, ubametori, and many others
HABITAT: haunts the area where she gave birth
DIET: none; only exists to deliver her baby into safe hands

APPEARANCE: When a woman dies just before, during, or shortly after childbirth, her spirit is often unable to pass on out of anxiety for her child. This troubled attachment manifests into a ghost known as an ubume. They appear on dark, rainy nights, and are often indistinguishable from a living woman carrying a child, crying for help. Ubume can appear in many forms: a woman carrying a baby, a pregnant woman, or a blood-soaked walking corpse carrying an underdeveloped fetus. Other times they just appear as horrific, bloody, naked pregnant women crying out desperately into the night for help.

These variations in appearance are due to the burial traditions of different regions, as well as the circumstances of death; in some areas, when a pregnant woman died she would be buried with the unborn fetus still inside of her; in other areas, the fetus would be cut out of her and placed in her arms during burial. Women who died after delivering stillborn babies were also buried in this way.

BEHAVIOR: These tragic spirits wander the areas near where they died, seeking aid from the living which they cannot provide themselves. If the mother died after childbirth but her baby survives, an ubume will try to provide for the child in whatever way it can. She enters shops or homes to try to purchase food, clothes, or sweets for her still-living child. In place of money she pays with handfuls of dead leaves. These ghosts also often try to lead humans to the place where the baby is hidden so that it can be taken to its living relatives, or adopted by another person.

In cases where both mother and child died, an ubume can appear carrying the bundled corpse of her infant. When a human approaches, the ghost tries to deliver the bundle into the arms of the living. If the stranger accepts the bundle, the ghost vanishes, and the bundle grows heavier and heavier until the helpful stranger is crushed under its weight.

OTHER FORMS: The name ubume is written with characters that imply a bird’s name. The literal translation of these characters is “child-snatching bird” and some theories connect this spirit with another yokai called the ubumetori. This yokai is an evil bird which flies through the sky searching for clothing that has been left on the clothesline overnight. When it finds some, it smears its poisonous blood on the clothing, and shortly afterward the owner of those clothes begins to develop shakes convulsions, possibly leading to death. They are also blamed for snatching babies and taking them away into the night sky. Whether this bird is another form of the ubume or a separate spirit with the same name is not known.



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

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

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

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

Kerakera onna


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

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

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

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

Hone onna


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

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

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

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

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

Kuchisake onna


TRANSLATION: slit-mouthed woman
HABITAT: dimly-lit streets and alleys
DIET: none; though enjoys hard candy

APPEARANCE: The spirits of the dead who were killed in particularly violent manners – abused wives, tortured captives, defeated enemies – often do not rest well. One such spirit is kuchisake onna, the ghost of a woman who was mutilated, come back to wreak vengeance on the world. Her name comes from the deep, bloody gash which runs across her face, grinning from ear to ear. She appears at night to lone travelers on the road, covering her grizzly mouth with a cloth mask, a fan, or a handkerchief.

INTERACTIONS: Kuchisake onna sneaks up on her victims in the dark and then asks them if they think she is beautiful: “Watashi, kirei?” If the victim answers yes, she pulls off her mask, revealing a red, blood-dripping, grotesque mouth. Then she asks in a grisly voice if they still think she is: “Kore demo?” If her victim answers no or screams in terror, she slashes him from ear to ear so that he resembles her. If he lies and answers yes a second time, she walks away, only to follow her target to his home and slaughter him brutally that night.

ORIGIN: During the Edo period, a large number of kuchisake onna attacks were blamed on shape-changed kitsune playing pranks on young men. During the 20th century, the blame began to be placed on ghosts, serial killers, and simple mass hysteria, resulting in many kuchisake onna sightings over Japan. A number of clever young people claim to have outsmarted them by delivering quick, confusing answers, or by throwing money or hard candy at her, buying themselves enough time to escape from her wrath and lose her in the darkness.

Ohaguro bettari


TRANSLATION: nothing but blackened teeth
ALTERNATE NAMES: often referred to as a kind of nopperabō
HABITAT: dark streets near shrines
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Late at night a disturbing yokai can be seen loitering near temples and shrines, dressed in beautiful wedding clothes. She calls single young men over to her, who are seldom able to resist her charms. Until of course, they see her up close…

From behind, an ohaguro bettari looks like a beautiful woman wearing a kimono – often a newlywed in her bridal gown. She appears usually at twilight outside of a temple, or occasionally inside a man’s own house, disguised as his wife. At first, her head is concealed, or turned away from any viewers. Any man struck by curiosity who comes closer to speak to her or to get a better look at her face will be surprised as she turns to reveal her face: an ugly, white, featureless dome slathered in thick makeup, with nothing but a huge, gaping mouth full of blackened teeth. She follows up this initial shock with a horrible cackle, sending the man running away and screaming in terror.

ORIGIN: Ohaguro bettari is very similar to noppera-bō in appearance and demeanor. Because of this, she is often blamed, like nopperabō, on a shape-shifting prankster kitsune, tanuki, or mujina looking to have a laugh at the expense of an unwitting human. It has also been suggested that she is the ghost of an ugly woman who was unable to marry. Accurate eye-witness reports are hard to come by due to the embarrassment of the victims at having fallen for such a silly gag. However as no deaths or injuries (other than to pride) have been attributed to ohaguro bettari, and because sightings are rare, a mischievous shape-shifting animal yokai seems to be the most plausible explanation.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umi bōzu


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

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

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

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

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



TRANSLATION: ship ghosts
HABITAT: seas, oceans, bays
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: When the ghosts of people who have died at sea transform into vengeful spirits, they become a particular type of ghost called a funayūrei. They are the shadows of drowned sailors, remaining in this world to find their former friends and comrades, to bring them down into the sea with them. Like many ghosts, funayūrei usually appear as dead bodies wearing white funerary robes. They can be seen at night, when the moon is new or full, or on particularly stormy or foggy nights, especially during Obon. They appear as an eerie, luminescent mist at first, which gets closer and closer until it forms into a ship with a ghostly crew.

INTERACTIONS: Funayūrei ghost ships attacks in different ways, sometimes charging headlong towards the other ship, causing it to steer away so sharply that it capsizes, other times carrying a ghostly crew who cling to the side of the other ship and try to drag it down under the water. The ghosts themselves carry large ladles and buckets which they use to fill ships with seawater, sinking them and adding more souls to their crew. Occasionally funayūrei strike not as a large crew of man-sized ghosts, but as one very large ghost who rises out of the water to capsize a ship immediately. This ghost often demands a barrel from the crew, which it uses to flood the deck and sink the ship. These giant funayūrei are often confused with umi-bōzu, which appear and attack in a similar manner.

It is said that a clever crew can outsmart the funayūrei by carrying buckets and ladles with holes in the bottom, so that despite their efforts the ghosts will not be able to flood the ship. Encounters with ghost ships can also be avoided by boldly sailing directly through the phantasm instead of turning to avoid a collision – though this runs the risk that the other ship may actually be a real one and not a phantasm. Some crews have also escaped the funayūrei’s wrath by throwing food and provisions overboard as offerings to the hungry ghosts, who chase after the food instead of the crew.



TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; rattling skull
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōdokuro (giant skeleton)
HABITAT: any; usually found near mass-graves or battlegrounds
DIET: none, but enjoys eating humans anyway

APPEARANCE: Gashadokuro are skeletal giants which wander around the countryside in the darkest hours of the night. Their teeth chatter and bones rattle with a “gachi gachi” sound, which is this yokai’s namesake. If they should happen upon a human out late on the roads, the gashadokuro will silently creep up and catch their victims, crushing them in their hands or biting off their head.

ORIGIN: Soldiers whose bodies rot in the fields and victims of famine who die unknown in the wilderness rarely receive proper funerary rites. Unable to pass on, their souls are reborn as hungry ghosts, longing eternally for that which they once had. These people die with anger and pain in their hearts, and that energy remains long after their flesh has rotted from their bones. As their bodies decay, their anger ferments into a powerful force – a grudge against the living – and this grudge is what twists them into a supernatural force. When the bones of hundreds of victims gather together into one mass, they can form the humongous skeletal monster known as the gashadokuro.

Too large and powerful to be killed, gashadokuro maintain their existence until the energy and malice stored up in their bodies has completely burnt out. However, because of the large amount of dead bodies required to form a single one, these abominations are much rarer today than they were in the earlier days, when wars and famine were a part of everyday life.

LEGENDS: The earliest record of a gashadokuro goes back over 1000 years to a bloody rebellion against the central government by a samurai named Taira no Masakado. His daughter, Takiyasha-hime, was a famous sorceress. When Masako was eventually killed for his revolt, his daughter continued his cause. Using her black magic, she summoned a great skeleton to attack the city of Kyoto. Her monster is depicted in a famous print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.



TRANSLATION: ogre spirit, demon ghost
HABITAT: any; usually haunts the area near its body
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Though some oni can be killed by man-made weapons and others die of natural causes, they do not always peacefully pass on to the next life. Some still have unfinished business or karma left to burn off, while others die such violent or passionate deaths that the soul becomes disjointed at the moment of death and they remain in the human world as a demon ghost. Reiki, written by combining the characters for “spirit” and “demon,” are the ghosts of oni unable to pass on to the afterlife. Reiki appear as they did before death, though they are often accompanied by an aura or an eerie glow. They are semi-transparent like ghosts, and they often gain additional supernatural powers in addition to the magic they knew in life.

BEHAVIOR: Reiki have only one motivation: revenge. They seek to bring suffering to the person or people they feel are responsible for their death, or to those who stood against them in life. They can haunt for centuries, following a target, or else attaching themselves to a particular area – often their own grave site – and assaulting those who come near. These hauntings usually persist until exorcised by a powerful Buddhist priest.

LEGENDS: There are fewer stories about reiki than about oni, but the stories that exist tell of powerful spirits even more fearsome than their living counterparts. One of the most well-known reiki legends takes place at Gangō-ji, a temple in Nara. A mysterious force was haunting the temple’s bell tower and murdering children every night. The force was so powerful that not even the most powerful priests could identify it, let alone exorcise it. In a story reminiscent of the adventures of Hercules, only the son of a god was strong enough to track down and defeat the demon ghost, saving the children of the temple.



TRANSLATION: tree spirit
HABITAT: deep in untouched forests, inside very old tress
DIET: none; its life is connected to the life of its host tree

APPEARANCE: Deep in the mountainous forests of Japan, the souls of the trees themselves are animated as spirits called kodama. These souls can wander outside of their hosts, tending to their groves and maintaining the balance of nature. Kodama are rarely ever seen, but they are often heard – particularly as echoes that take just a little longer to return than they should. When they do appear, they usually look like faint orbs of light in the distance; or occasionally as a tiny, funny-shaped vaguely humanoid figure. A kodama’s life force is directly tied to the tree it inhabits, and if either the tree or the kodama dies, the other cannot live.

INTERACTIONS: Kodama are revered as gods of the trees, and protectors of the forests. They bless the lands around their forest with vitality, and villagers who find a kodama-inhabited tree honor it by marking it with a sacred rope known as a shimenawa. Occasionally, very old trees will bleed when cut, and this is regarded as a sign that a kodama is living inside. Cutting down such an ancient tree is a grave sin, and can bring down a powerful curse on any villagers who do so, causing a prosperous community to fall into ruin.



TRANSLATION: human soul
HABITAT: graveyards and near the recently deceased
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Hitodama are the visible souls of humans which have detached from their host bodies. They appear as red, orange, or blue-white orbs, and the float about slowly not too far from the ground.

BEHAVIOR: On warm summer nights, these strange glowing orbs can be seen floating around graveyards, funeral parlors, or the houses where people have recently died. Most often they are only seen just before or just after the moment of death, when the soul leaves the body to return to the ether. It is most common to see them at night, though they are occasionally seen during the daytime too. Rarely, hitodama can materialize when a person loses consciousness, floating about outside of the body for some time, only to return to the body when the person regains consciousness.

Hitodama are harmless, and so it is important not to confuse them with other fireball yokai, which can be potentially deadly. Hitodama can be distinguished from other hi no tama by the distinctive tails of light which trail behind them.