I was talking to a Japanese friend about how my parents had a book of Japanese myths and legends, and I loved to read it as a kid, but some of those stories were so scary. I am sure that Japanese ghosts are the scariest and the weirdest. Anyway, I thought I would put together a sample of 10 Japanese ghosts or legendary creatures.
Akaname means ‘filth licker’. It is a spirit which licks dirty bathrooms clean with its tongue and the aid of poisonous saliva. Seriously. There’s also a ceiling-licking ghost called tenj?name.
I wonder if I can hire them to clean my house?
Kamaitachi are a trio of slashing sickle weasels. Again, seriously. Apparently these three sharp-clawed weasels rode on a gust of wind with the aim of cutting people’s legs. The first weasel knocked the unsuspecting victim down, the second cut the victim’s flesh and the third applied medication to the wounds, so that by the time the victim realised what was happening they were left with painful wounds that were no longer bleeding. Sometimes the three are described as brothers, sometimes as triplets. Why these weasels would want to do this is unclear. It’s probably a pun on a spirit which people called kamaetachi (meaning “attacking”). Toriyama Sekien changed this slightly to mean “sickle weasel”. That’s his illustration below from a bestiary.
An animated lump of flesh. The Nuppeppo is passive and unaggressive. It is said to smell like rotting flesh, or alternatively, perhaps it is actually decaying flesh. It is rumoured someone who eats the flesh of a Nuppeppo shall have eternal youth. The Nuppeppo aimlessly wanders deserted streets of villages, towns and cities, often at night towards the year-end, or graveyards or abandoned temples. I have no idea why it might do this.
Makura-gaeshi are ghosts who delight in moving pillows while people sleep. I’m not sure why they delight in this. Perhaps they also hide socks which are lost in the washing?
Ittan-momen is a strip of cloth which flies about and strangles or smothers people. However, it will consent to be worn by people it trusts. It originates from Kagoshima province, which I visited about 10 years ago. Luckily I didn’t come across this creature. Ittan-momen has been popularised in the manga GeGeGe-no-Kitaro.
Dodomeki is the spirit of a pickpocket or thief who has eyes all over him. It must be useful for picking people’s pockets, but he is rather unpleasant looking. I don’t want to meet him in the street.
Momokuren are a swarm of eyes that appear in holes in sh?ji (Japanese paper sliding doors). This ghost is said to be an invention of Toriyama Sekien, who we last met with the slashing sickle weasels. The illustration below is his again.
Ch?chinobake are a type of tsukumogami. Tsukumogami are spirits which arise when objects reach their 100th year of existence, thus causing the object to become animate. Ch?chinobake in particular are created from the ch?chin lantern, composed of bamboo and paper or silk. They are typically portrayed with one eye, and a long tongue protruding from an open mouth.
Also watch out for kasaobake – animated umbrellas.
Multiplying skulls that menaced Taira no Kiyomori in his courtyard. Taira no Kiyomori is an actual historical figure, a Japanese general of the Heian period. There was a famous rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto warrior clans in which the Taira clan initially emerged victorious, but fell from power as a result of their arrogance and pride. The tale is told in Heiki Monotogari (‘The Tale of Heiki’). Taira no Kiyomori apparently died of a fever and was confronted with the ghosts of his victims before he died.
Abura-akago is an infant ghost who licks oil from andon lamps. It apparently originates from a story where an oil merchant stole oil from a Jiz? statue at the crossroads, and the man was punished posthumously by being transformed into a wandering ghost-fire. The theory was that this ghost-fire then turned into an infant who licked oil from lamps.
If you want to learn more about Japanese legendary creatures check out Wikipedia’s list.
Listverse also has a list of top 10 Japanese legendary creatures, some of which overlap with the ones here.