the online database of Japanese folkore

Nukekubi

抜け首
ぬけくび

Translation: removable neck
Alternate names: frequently referred to as rokurokubi
Habitat: occurs in ordinary women
Diet: regular food by day, blood by night

Appearance: Nukekubi are a variant type of rokurokubi. They are similar in most respects, except that a nukekubi’s head detaches itself completely from its body rather than elongating like a rokurokubi’s neck. Because their heads detach, they can travel further distances than the rokurokubi.

Behavior: Nukekubi possess a thirst for blood, and are more violent than rokurokubi. Their flying head sucks the blood of victims like a vampire. Nukekubi also brutally bite humans and animals to death.

Origin: Like the rokurokubi, being a nukekubi is considered a curse. Edo period scientists believed that nukekubi suffered from an infliction similar to somnambulism; only instead of walking about at night the patient’s entire soul and head depart from the body. Uncured, this curse has the potential to tear a family apart, particularly due to its violent nature. Treatments for the curse of the rokurokubi and nukekubi have been long sought after—particularly because these women can often pass their curse on to their daughters who shows signs as they mature. Afflicted girls were sold off to live in brothels or human circuses, or forced to commit suicide in order to preserve their families’ honor.

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

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

Alphabetical list of yōkai