Japanese folklore has a rich and terrifying tradition of ghost stories.
Yokai are a wide category of monsters, ghosts and other supernatural beings of Japanese myth. They are as diverse as Japan’s historical imagination and could be fearsome or tame, powerful or weak, villainous or good.
Most well known yokai are stock characters who show up in countless old myths. In many cases, they are described in contradictory terms from one myth to another without much consistency.
Some yokai are based on very old stories that have been recounted in every village in a slightly different way for hundreds of years.
Others were invented in the Edo-era (1603〜1868) by ukiyo-e artists and writers of fiction or kabuki plays.
Japanese stories featuring ghosts are firmly rooted in the belief in the spirit world. Ghosts arise when someone dies and their spirit cannot move on to the afterlife, either because the funeral rites weren’t completed or because the person died violently or with unfinished business.
The following are a few prominent examples of yokai.
Obake is a general term for any creature that can shapeshift into human form. Japanese mythology typically shows much respect for the intelligence of animals and they are often portrayed as having supernatural powers including the ability to shapeshift.
The purpose in shapeshifting is inevitably to play some trick on humans. Animals that were historically thought to shapeshift include foxes, raccoon dogs, badgers and cats.
Kami (God), demons and plants were also thought to shapeshift. In many Obake stories, a demon shapeshifts to a beautiful woman.
Tengu (literally “heaven dog” ), these have an origin story that began in China, where the creature resembled a dog. When or how the Tengu began to have features of birds and humans is unknown.
Anyway, Tengu are Japanese bird monsters that often take on human form. As humans, they have huge noses. In the old days, they were feared as terrible creatures that corrupted people.
In modern times, Tengu are increasingly viewed as complex characters with a good side. They are fierce protectors of sacred Japanese forests and mountains.
As such, they are sometimes venerated at Japanese temples or shrines and may perform rituals at matsuri (festival).
Kappa (literally “river boy”), these creatures resemble turtles with webbed feet and hands. They are river monsters that may have originally been based on Japanese giant salamanders. They’re about the size of small children.
Kappa are depicted in myth as drowning people and causing terrible problems. However, they also have some good qualities. They can speak Japanese and are thought to always keep their word. Kappa also enjoy a good sumo wrestling match.
The key characteristic of their appearance, however, is a small bowl or plate-like area on their head that must be kept wet or filled with water.
The myth of Kappa served a practical purpose as preventing children from drowning in rivers. Parents would tell their kids that if they swim in the river alone, a kappa will get them.
A strange off-shoot of the Kappa stories is that these creatures love cucumbers. Perhaps they’re the real inventors of the Kappa-maki sushi.
Yamanba are a category of character in Japanese myth described as monstrous old women with an unkept appearance who live deep in the mountains. They are occasionally ascribed hideous features such as a mouth on top of their head.
They typically pretend to be kindly old women in order to trick people and do terrible things. Yamanba are portrayed as having a ghost-like existence.
Rokurokubi are much like regular humans during the day but at night their necks become very long or their heads pop off their bodies and float around.
The “Rokuro” part of the name has unknown origin, but “kubi” refers to the neck, which is how this ghost is typically identified.
There’s also another type of Rokurokubi whose head can detach from the neck and fly around freely. Typically illustrated as female, there are some instances of stories of male Rokurokubi.
Yurei is a wide category of Yokai that are essentially ghosts although in most cases they are technically Kami (God). They are spirits who are kept from a peaceful afterlife due to revenge, love, jealousy, hatred or sorrow.
Historically, Yurei were taken very seriously as it was believed that they could cause disasters, famine and tragedy. In some cases, vast amounts of money were spent to build temples and shrines to appease angry ghosts.
Japanese ghosts (yurei) are spirits that have been prevented from a peaceful resting place by dramatic events during their life. Often they are murder or suicide victims .
In other cases, an injustice has sparked intense desires of love,revenge, sorrow or hatred — these desires are so strong that the ghost is able to transcend death to dwell on the earth.
Where yokai stories are often half comical, yurei stories tend to be more intense. They are usually sad, terrifying or both.
Onryo are female ghosts that were abused or neglected by their lovers. They dwell in the physical world after death seeking vengeance.
Powerless in life they become strong in death. Strangely enough they rarely harm the lovers who vexed them.
The most well-known ghost of an inanimate object, the umbrella ghost usually is depicted with one eye and jumping around on one leg in a geta sandal. The general story behind object ghosts is that when human tools become older and older, they can become ghosts.
There isn’t necessarily a particular story about the Karakawa-obake, but it can be commonly seen in depictions of haunted houses and is usually used as a representative character for ghosts in Japan.
The “snow woman” is a spirit that died in the snow, and now only appears in the snow. Like the snow, this woman has pale white skin, is usually dressed in white, and traditionally has long black hair. She is very beautiful, and floats along the snow leaving no trace behind to show that she has passed.
In the stories, she usually appears to travelers and traps them in snowstorms, breathing on them until they’re frosted dead, or simply leading them out farther and farther so they die from hypothermia. In tamer stories, Yuki-onna will sometimes let victims go if they’re beautiful or young. Do you think you’re good-looking enough to survive?
This is a creature that usually assumes normal human form, but is able to wipe its facial features off so a blank stretch of skin is left where the eyes, nose and mouth should be. These creatures do not harm anyone in the stories, but simply scare people.
Studio Ghibli’s “Pom Poko” includes a scene with a Nopperabou, which in the story is actually a shapeshifting raccoon parading as a Nopperabou.
Futakuchi-Onna (Literally “two-mouth woman”) has a normal mouth, which doesn’t eat much or at all. But on the back of her skull, under her hair, she has a second mouth. This second mouth can control the woman’s hair to form tendrils that will reach out and grab food to feed itself, and it’s completely ravenous.
Stories of how this second mouth came to be differ, but they tend to include a miserly husband which made the second mouth appear—so penny-pinchers beware!
Other stories credit the second mouth to the woman’s own miserly ways. In those stories, the woman keeps food from her stepchild, who dies and becomes the attached second mouth in order to torment and exact revenge on the terrible stepmother who wouldn’t feed him.
These ghosts are closer to demons, devils or ogres in appearance and behavior, rather than Western ghosts. However, these guys really do run the gambit of paranormal beings. The physical descriptions vary, but generally they’re ugly, large and have claws and horns.
Their skin is often depicted as being either red or blue.
Slit-mouthed Woman, as the name implies, is a woman whose mouth has been slit. The slit extends up to both ears and is a terrifying gash across her face.
The story goes that her husband mutilated her with scissors. The legend has evolved to include a cautionary tale of what will happen if you meet Kuchisake-onna: She’ll ask you whether you think she’s pretty, and your life depends upon your answer.
If you answer no, she’ll kill you with scissors.
If you answer yes, she’ll reveal her slit mouth (she’ll take off the face mask she’s wearing) and ask whether you still think she’s pretty. Your answer here will be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
If you answer yes, she’ll give you the same slit as her own so “both of you are pretty.”
If you answer no, she’ll kill you.
Another layer to the legend is a way to escape: Answer ambiguously or ask a question back, which will confuse her and give you time to escape.
Hanako-san references a female spirit that haunts school bathrooms. The legend is that she’ll appear if you say her name in the third stall in the bathroom on the third floor.
This legend has been whispered around many a Japanese elementary school, similar to the way in which children in the West whisper about seeing Bloody Mary in a mirror.
Perhaps Hanako-san is a distant relative of Moaning Myrtle from the “Harry Potter” series?
Funa-yūrei (literally “ship ghosts”) are the ghosts of mariners who died at sea. They approach ships at sea and ask for a ladle. If they are given the ladle they will scoop water into the ship so effectively that the ship will sink.
Zashiki-warashi are child ghosts who dwell in large well maintained houses. They are mischievous and may play small tricks on the living.
However, seeing a zashiki-warashi or having one in your house is considered very lucky and can bring great fortunes.