5 Minor Japanese Urban Legends
May 11, 2023
Japan is an incredible place, famous for so many things from anime to the natural beauty of cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji. But drawings and tourist attractions aren’t the only things Japan is known for. In history, Japan has been home to some truly horrifying monsters and legends from yōkai to tales of haunted temples and castles. Today, we will be exploring 5 of the creepiest entities from Japanese urban legends and folklore, from dolls with growing hair, to murderous vengeful spirits.
The Hair-Growing Doll
Our first tale begins in 1918, in Hokkaido, Japan, where a young man named Eikichi Suzuki purchased a doll for his 2-year-old sister, Okiku. The doll in question was wearing a traditional Japanese kimono with raven black hair and a distinctive, okappa haircut.
Once Eikichi gave the gift to his younger sister, she quickly grew attached to the doll. It became not only her favorite toy but her best friend. She took it everywhere with her and even slept with it. She named the doll Okiku, after herself, and would treat the doll as if it was a sibling.
One year later, Okiku caught yellow fever and died. Her family kept the doll in a shrine to honor Okiku, but as the months went on, they noticed something strange. The doll’s hair, which had previously been in a short, bob style, seemed to be growing longer. A quick trim and a couple of months later, this was confirmed to be true, and the family came to believe that Okiku’s spirit was now inhabiting her cherished toy. Her family held on to it for as long as they could, until they had to move away. Wanting the doll to be left in safe hands, they left it with the monks of Manenji Temple, where it remains to this day.
The doll’s hair continues to grow and receives regular trims from the temple monks. Allegedly, scientific analysis has proven that the hair is structurally identical to that of a human child. Visitors to the temple are welcome to see it for themselves, although no photography is allowed. Some guests say that the doll’s mouth has slowly started to open and that if you peer inside, you can see tiny human teeth erupting from its pink gums.
Hanako of the Toilet
Our next tale is considered by many to be Japan’s version of the well-known “Bloody Mary”. Hanako-san is the spirit of a young girl that is said to haunt the restrooms of Japanese schools. The exact circumstances of Hanako’s death vary depending on who’s telling the story. Some versions claim that she took her own life, while others say that she died taking shelter during a bombing raid in the second World War. Whatever the cause of her untimely demise, one thing remains consistent: Hanako-san gets lonely in her bathroom stall, and she is always looking for new friends. She is said to lure children to her stall by asking them if they need a friend, only to violently drag them under the stall door and into the toilet. Brave school children may attempt to summon Hanako by knocking on a stall door three times, asking if she is there. If they get a response, they can open the door to meet her, but those who choose to confront the spirit are pulled into the haunted stall, never to be seen again.
The Slit-Mouthed Woman
Perhaps one of Japan’s most terrifying urban legends, the Kuchisake onna, or slit-mouth woman, is a malevolent spirit that appears as a woman whose mouth has been slit from ear to ear. It is said that she was the wife of a samurai during the Japanese Edo Period whose face was disfigured as a punishment for her infidelity. She is said to walk the streets of busy cities, appearing as a normal person. Her face is covered, usually by a face mask. The Kuchisake onna approaches passersby and asks them if they think she is beautiful. Answering ‘no’ will get you immediately killed, but answering yes will prompt her to remove her facial covering, revealing the gaping wound underneath. She will repeat the question. Once again, telling her no will get you brutally murdered, but answering yes won’t give you a happy ending either. If you tell her that she’s beautiful, even after she removes her mask, Kuchisake onna will take out a pair of scissors and cut your face to be just like hers.
An encounter with the slit-mouthed woman is sure to end horribly for anyone involved, but a number of methods exist for avoiding her murderous rage should you come across her. It is generally agreed that simply ignoring the Kuchisake onna is the best way to avoid her wrath. But if that doesn’t work, the next best option is to confuse her by telling her she looks just average or, in some versions, by giving her a piece of candy and running away.
Though not an urban legend, instead stemming from folklore, yōkai are a class of supernatural beings and spirits. There are many different types of yōkai, such as spirits that take the form of animals, or everyday household items.
One popular example of a yōkai looking like an animal is the Kitsune. The creature takes the form of a fox. These spirits have intelligence, a long life, and mystic powers. The fox spirit can have up to nine tails, with each one representing how old or wise the creature is. These creatures can also shapeshift into humans and are sometimes depicted as seductresses. In pop culture, Naruto’s Nine-Tailed Fox Demon is based on this yōkai, as is the Pokemon Ninetails.
Another yōkai that is quite strange is Bakezōri. This spirit is a member of the tsukumogami, which are inanimate objects that have gained a soul after being abandoned for a long period of time, usually 100 years. This yōkai has the form of your everyday sandal.
Today, it’s possible that you have seen modern depictions of yōkai without even knowing. The popular video game series Pokemon has many of its creatures based on yōkai. Examples include Slowking, based on Sazae-Oni; the Lotad line, based on the Kappa; and Hoennian Zigzagoon, inspired by the Tanuki.
Many people know of the horror movie, The Ring, based on the original Japanese film, Ringu. These movies are based on a different tale that happened 300 years ago.
The story goes that in Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle, there lived a samurai by the name of Tessan Aoyama. He was in love with one of his servants named Okiku, and he wanted to take her as his mistress. However, Okiku did not feel the same way, which angered him.
In order to get Okikiu to marry him, he convinced the royal family to task her to protect 10 golden plates. Tessan planned to hide one and trick Okiku into thinking she had lost it. He thought that she would rather love him than have to face the penalty of death.
Unfortunately, Okiku would have rather died than have to love the samurai, so she threw herself down a stone well in the castle. It’s believed that the spirit of Okiku comes back to count the plates over and over, believing she had lost one of the plates. Today, there is a covering over the well at the castle to keep Okiku from escaping and haunting the castle.
Home of Horror
With dozens, possibly even hundreds of different tales coming from the island nation, it’s no wonder that so many of them are horror tales. From spirits of the murdered to ghosts creepily walking on all fours, there is no limit to the stories found and it’s easy to understand why they’ve become so popular, not only in Japan, but in the world as a whole.
So if you find yourself in Japan, try to be aware of your surroundings. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself at the mercy of a bloodthirsty spirit.