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Culture

7 Scariest Japanese Ghosts and Ghouls to Haunt Your Dreams

We hope you don’t find yourself alone with any of these yurei and yokai.

By 6 min read

Summer is really hot in Japan. To cool down, people used to tell really scary stories. So be careful walking alone in the wee hours of the night; Japan is full of ghosts, ghouls and other characters lurking in shadowy corners. 

Yurei (ghosts of the deceased) and yokai (mythical spirits) have been part of Japanese folklore for centuries—even far back as the 8th century in the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”), which is the earliest record of Japanese mythology, chronicling the creation of Japan. Today, they appear in animemangavideogames and movies.

Here are seven of our favorite Japanese ghosts and ghouls to send shivers down your spine this summer season.

7. Yuki-onna

Yuki-onna by Sawaki-Suushi.

Ever seen a beautiful woman with snow-white skin and long black hair wandering through the frigid winter? It may have been a yuki-onna (snow woman). When she walks along a snow-covered terrain, you won’t find any footprints behind her.

The majority of yuki-onna stories originate from Japan’s snowy, northern prefectures like Aomori and Akita in the Tohoku region. In some versions, she is a snow vampire who sucks the souls out of her victims. In other versions, she uses her supernatural beauty to lure weak-willed men into the cold, then leaves them to freeze to death. Savage.

Some say the yuki-onna was a beautiful woman who was murdered in the snow and now does the same to others as an act of revenge.

6. Chochin Obake

Chochin Obake by Hokusai.

This lantern ghost isn’t malicious like other yokai—he’s just a naughty little trickster who enjoys giving humans a scare. The chochin-obake (paper lantern ghost) will flick its large tongue out, roll its eyes and laugh loudly to frighten passers-by. It’s actually kind of cute.

The chochin-obake does not appear in any of Japan’s mythical stories or legends, and only appears in ukiyo-e and kabuki plays. So there is no origin for this particular yokai. One theory is that he was invented simply to scare children. However, tsukumogami (tool spirit), do appear in Japanese mythology. Tsukumogami are tools or objects which become yokai after 100 years.

Thus, a regular lantern may turn into chochin-obake after 100 years of use. This comes from the ancient Shinto religious belief that all objects—even inanimate ones—have a soul. Maybe don’t visit any temples, izakaya or other places likely to have lanterns if you don’t want to run into one. Then again, they might make for a good drinking buddy.

5. Jorogumo

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Kuniyoshi’s print of a monstrous spider.

Translated to English, jorogumo (絡新婦) means “woman-spider.” However, the kanji can also mean “entangling bride” or “whore spider.” They are cunning and appear as seductive young women. They feed on young men who fall for their tricks—trapping them in their webs and devouring them slowly.

The jorogumo legend is based on the real golden-orb weaver spider, which is found all around Japan. When the spider reaches 400 years old, she will transform into a jorogumo and start preying on humans.

There are several stories based on the jorogumo. In Tonoigusa (Night Watchman’s Storybook), a young warrior encounters a beautiful woman. Realizing she is a yokai, he strikes her with his sword, and she flees to the attic. There, they find a dead spider about 30cm long and surrounded by decaying bodies.

Most versions end with him entangled in spider web and wishing he had kept his mouth shut

In Izu, Joren Falls is home to a jorogumo. The legend says a woodcutter encountered the spider when she tried to drag him behind the waterfall. He escaped, warning the village to stay away, but an outsider met the jorogumo. Surprisingly, she let him live as long as he never spoke of it. Unfortunately, the man was the opposite of coy. The story diverges from there, but most versions end with him entangled in spider web and wishing he had kept his mouth shut.

Worse, jorogumo isn’t the only killer spider in Japan. Tsuchigumo (土蜘蛛, “dirt/earth spider”), are huge wandering spiders with human-like faces that hide in corners and dark spaces. They were likely influenced by the real-life Chinese bird spider and bandits and soldiers that hid in the shadows and preferred to ambush people.

4. Gashadokuro

The titan gashadokuro by Kuniyoshi.

The poor, unfortunate bones of those who’ve perished on the battlefield turn into gashadokuro (starving skeleton). These yokai form in places where masses of normal skeletons lie, such as in villages after famine or disease has wiped out the population. 

Because they died without a proper burial or funeral rites, the souls and bones come together and create one giant skeleton, 15 times the size of an average person. The skeleton specters feed on lone travelers, biting their heads off, feasting on their bones and drinking their blood, Dracula-style. It is like some sort of boss from Castlevania.

You may have seen this yokai in the famous ukiyo-e “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre” by the famed Kuniyoshi.  

3. Yamauba

The yamauba by Sawaki Suushi.

Are you planning on hiking in the mountains this fall? You may want to rethink that, as that’s where you’ll find the yamauba (mountain witch). These decrepit hags, depicted as old women with messy hair and filthy kimonos, are known to offer shelter to weary travelers only to kill them once they fall asleep. 

The yamauba were once regular women but fled to the forest after being accused of crimes. Another theory is they were victims of ubasute (姥捨て), literally “abandoning an old woman.” During hard times such as famine, a family would lead their elderly into the forest to die. Here, they would grow angry and resentful, becoming cannibalistic and practicing black magic.

However, in some stories, they are benevolent. For example, a yamauba might give a kind stranger treasure or good fortune. In Aichi, yamauba are seen as protective gods.

2. Kappa

Sawaki Suushi’s print of a kappa.

This small human-like creature has a shell like a turtle, green scaly skin, and a plate on its head that must be filled with water at all times to stay alive. They live in Japan’s rivers, lakes and other waterways.

In Shintoismkappa (river-child) are respected as gods of water and statues of them can sometimes be seen at shrines around Japan. Kappa quirks include having an affinity for cucumbers (hence the kappa-maki) and never breaking a promise.

In the urban legend version, a more menacing kappa loves to pull lost children and animals into the water to drown and eat. They still like to eat cucumbers but also raw human intestines.

1. Kuchisake-onna

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Think twice about answering her question. Or just run.

Kuchisake-onna is a malicious, contemporary yurei, whose name literally translates to “slit-mouthed woman.” Legend says when she was alive, her husband punished her for her acts of adultery by slicing her mouth open from ear to ear.

Thanks to that dick, this ghost appears as a beautiful young woman wearing a surgical mask, holding a sharp weapon like a pair of scissors. She approaches people at night and asks them a question with sinister intentions.

An encounter with a kuchisake onna is a lose-lose situation, always resulting in death.

Watashi, kirei?” or “Am I beautiful?” she coos. If you answer no, she will kill you instantly. If you say yes, she removes the surgical mask revealing her gruesome mouth. With a big smile, exposing sharp teeth, she’ll ask, “how about now?” An answer of “no” will result in you being dismembered by the ghost. Say yes, and she will make you as “beautiful” as she is by slicing your own mouth from ear to ear. An encounter with a Kuchisake-onna is a lose-lose situation, always resulting in death.

The murderous woman briefly appeared in the 1984 Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko and several Japanese horror movies have been made with her story as the premise, including the 2007 low-budget horror flick Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman.

Do you have a favorite Japanese ghost or ghoul? Let us know in the comments!

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