the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: slippery gourd
Alternate names: nūrihyon
Habitat: expensive villas, living rooms, brothels; possibly marine in origin
Diet: picky; prefers expensive and luxurious food

Appearance: Nurarihyon is a mysterious and powerful yōkai encountered all across Japan. It is said appearances can be deceiving, and nurarihyon is the perfect illustration of this. Overall, he is rather benign-looking; his head is elongated and gourd-shaped; his face is wizened and wrinkled, resembling a cross between and old man and a catfish; he wears elegant clothing—often a splendid silk kimono or the rich robes of a Buddhist abbot—and carries himself in the quiet manner of a sophisticated gentleman.

Behavior: The short, comical, elderly nurarihyon is actually the most powerful and elite of all the yōkai. He travels in an ornate palanquin carried by human or yōkai servants, often visiting red light districts but occasionally stopping at mountain villas as well. Nurarihyon is known as kaibutsu no oyadama—the supreme commander of all monsters. Every yōkai listens to his words and pays him respect, treating him as the elder and leader in all yōkai meetings. Along with otoroshi and nozuchi, nurarihyon leads the procession known as the night parade of one hundred demons through the streets of Japan on dark, rainy nights. He fits the role of supreme commander every bit as much when he interacts with humans as well.

Interactions: Nurarihyon shows up on evenings when a household is extremely busy. He arrives at homes unexpectedly in his splendid palanquin and slips into the house, unnoticed by anyone. He acts in all respects as if he were the master of the house, helping himself to the family’s luxuries such as fine teas and tobacco. His power is so great that even the real owners of the house can do nothing to stop him. In fact, even after they finally notice his presence, the owners believe the nurarihyon to actually be the rightful master of the house. Eventually he leaves just as he came, quietly and politely slipping out of the house and into his palanquin, as the owners of the house obsequiously bow and wave him farewell. Only after he has left does anyone become suspicious of the mysterious old man who just visited.

Origin: As to nurarihyon’s origins there is only speculation. The oldest records of his existence are mere sketches and paintings. His name comes from nurari (“to slip away”) and hyon (an onomatopoeia describing floating upwards) written with the kanji for gourd (due to the shape of his head). This connotes a slippery evasiveness—which he employs when posing as master of the house.

In Okayama Prefecture, some evidence links nurarihyon to umi bōzu. There, nurarihyon are globe-shaped sea creatures, about the size of a man’s head, which float about in the Seto Inland Sea. When fisherman try to catch one, the sphere sinks down into the water just out of reach, and then bobs back up mockingly. It has been theorized that some of these slippery globes migrate to land, where they gradually gain influence and power, becoming the nurarihyon known throughout the rest of Japan. Whether this theory is the true origin of the Supreme Commander of All Monsters or just one more of his many mysteries has yet to be solved.

Alphabetical list of yōkai