Japan is one of those countries that has a gigantic backlog of tales, legends and myths due to its extensive history spanning from as far back as 35,000 BC. With that, locals share these stories most often than not as simple folklore or to offer advice or morals, much like many Asian cultures in attempts to teach children of right and wrong. Some however, are so terrifying and detailed that it’s hard to imagine it was thought up without some basis of truth or reference. Whether for entertainment or education, perhaps it’s best to listen to these horror stories just to be safe.
You may imagine these creatures, or Yokai, to be as cute as Hello Kitty or Rilakkuma due to the nature of Japan’s “all-kawaii-everything” lifestyle, but you’d be wrong — many of these characters, unlike those found in western civilizations, are not relics of long-deceased recorded species like dinosaurs or extinct birds. In fact, many are either bipeds or mutations of actual beings or animals, making them that much more believable and horrific as they may walk amongst us at any given time. Disregarding Godzilla–a fictionalized creature dreamed up by a movie studio–or Pokémon which many can argue is a by-product of one of the creatures in the list below, take a look at some of the most legendary and nightmare-inducing monsters, demons and ghosts to ever stalk the Land of the Rising Sun.
An urban legend that dips into both beauty and youth, the Kuchisake-Onna (“The Slit-Mouthed Woman”) would roam the streets of Japan to search for her foes. The slender-figured girl with a facial mask would approach strangers and ask “Am I pretty?” Naturally, the subject would remark affirmatively as the culture would suggest, but as she removes the mask her true visage would be revealed; a bloody mouth slit wide open from cheek to cheek. She would then reply “Am I pretty now?” and either slit her prey’s mouth to match, or cut them in half if responded negatively. There are many sources for the Kuchisake-Onna stemming from simple stories of women chasing children in the late ’70s to the more popular tale of a jealous husband who cut her wife’s mouth with a sword when he discovered her affair, but The Slit-Mouthed Woman is one of the most widely known horror legends the country knows.
Pokémon-esque in nature, the Kappa is a small, green goblin-like creature that is believed to be found lurking near shallow rivers and streams. Its body is similarly shaped to that of a turtle, but the Kappa walks on two-webbed feet when it surfaces above ground. Its defining characteristic is a bowl-cratered head which cups a small amount of water; this helps camouflage the Kappa when hiding in its natural habitat. The Kappa is apparently one of the many legendary creatures that serves a purpose–parents tell tall tales of them to avoid their children from getting too close to streams in danger of the Kappa pulling them under or, more realistically, slipping into the water.
Sankai and Kekkai
Perhaps the most bizarre legend in this entire list is that of the Sankai and Kekkai, told to ward off mothers from negligent child care. Women are told stories of birthing a Sankai demon, or an entity that resembles nothing homo sapien. Sankai can be anything from creatures to monsters and complete abominations, both grotesque and violent in nature. Kekkai, furthermore, are the worst variety–according to mythology, a Kekkai is a meatloaf-sized lump of flesh, blood and hair that would be born on the rarest of occasions. The Kekkai would then scamper away from the hospital back to the mother’s abode, where it would bury itself underneath the foundation of the home and await a time and day before it emerges once again to kill its maternal parent.
Kappa’s close-cousin in relation, the Hyosube is a crueler, more vile version of the river goblin. It prefers however to travel across the land outside of rivers but then frequents locals’ homes and bathtubs, leaving behind a foul smell and tons of fur where ever it goes. If you find a bathtub completely covered in an unidentified hair or fur, it’s been said that a Hyosube is vengeful and thus has set you in its sights. Discard the hair and fur and the Hyosube will return to exact revenge, while also the hair has been known to kill anything it touches if thrown away. The creature is also prone to destroy eggplant gardens across the countryside, leaving farmers to fear a Hyosube if they find mangled eggplant crops.
Legends of the Oshiroibaba stem back long before the days of MAC and Maybelline; translated as the “Face Powder Hag” in English, this elderly “Goddess of Cosmetics” would stalk those around her holding a mysterious case, inside of which is an unknown powdered makeup. She would then terrorize women by blowing the powder into the air, which would ultimately burn and melt their faces off. The legend’s details end there, as there’s very little in the history books of the Oshiroibaba, but the tale can perhaps translate to a modern scare tactic for women and their over-dependency of cosmetic enhancement.
For those who fear the dangers of public transportation, the Teke Teke is truly gruesome. Its origins root from the story of a school girl who accidentally fell onto the train tracks one day on her way home. The train then cuts her in half but violently leaves her alive, separating her upper torso and lower legs. Her upper half would then stalk and terrorize commuters late at night, exacting the same disfigurement to her prey. The legend gets its name from the scratching of her exposed spine against the pavement, making a “teke teke” sound that’s both distinctive and horrific. The Teke Teke has since invaded popular culture, with multiple appearances in horror films and anime.
Known as the “sickle weasel,” Kamaitachi are deadly monsters that resemble the small mammal but has sharp, curved blades for claws. The creature is often said to travel in a pack of three, and exact its devious plan as a group; the first pushes the victim to the ground, either by a strong gust of wind or a swift motion. The second would proceed to cut off your legs by the knees, while the third would, interestingly, apply medicine and suture the wound so that you wouldn’t bleed to death. The trio would execute these three actions so quickly, it has been said that many victims–male, exclusively–can miss this violent act simply by blinking, as it happens almost instantaneously.
Half-spider, half woman, the Jorogumo is a legend that goes way back to the Edo period of Japan. The monster is said to have the upper half of a beautiful, seductive woman, while the giant spider legs protrude from her waist. The creature would lure men to a desolate shack before killing and spinning them in its web before eating them whole. The legend also claims that Jorogumo are spawned when a spider reaches 400 years old, as it acquires the transformative ability through magics. Even more terrifying are the side stories from Jorogumo–tales would speak of Jorogumo also presenting strangers with what seems like a baby wrapped in a blanket, only when exposed to actually be a nest full of spider eggs that explode and engulf its subject.
Similar to the superstition of the black cat, the Katakirauwa is a demonic pig, known to wreak havoc to the rural areas of Japan. It’s said that if a Katakirauwa were to walk between your legs, it would extract your soul forcefully and painfully. Characteristics of the Katakirauwa include having a single ear, an odd complexion and the realization that they don’t cast a shadow, which would help locals identify one within its drove. It’s difficult to say if or what the moral of the Katakirauwa story would be, but rural Japanese know the story well and simply avoid any pig, Katakirauwa or not, from running through their legs in fear of their demonic ability.
Kamokawa Taxi Ghost
The ghost that haunts Kyoto’s most famous river is actually both terrifying and annoying, specifically to the taxi drivers of the country’s once-capital. Legend says that taxi drivers would pull over to pick up a young woman dressed in black and white who then requests to be driven to Midoro Pond, a dark bog area far away from the city. When the taxi approaches near, the driver would turn around to see nothing but a damp puddle of water on the backseat and no passenger to be found. The legend has spread across all of Kyoto, with a large majority of drivers having their own encounter of the disturbance–one that is equally frustrating for their unaccounted-for fare. Stories of taxi drivers experiencing similar situations have also been reported near the disaster-struck areas after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami events. One such instance the ghost requested a ride and simply asked the driver “have I died?” before disappearing without a trace.