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Culture

7 Terrifying Japanese Urban Legends Based on True Stories

From human sacrifices to haunted tunnels, these real Japanese legends give us the creeps.

By 8 min read

Scary stories are a Japanese summer tradition. So what better way to cool off from the brutal summer heat than with a spine-chilling story about a haunted tunnel in Kyushu or a possessed doll in Hokkaido?

These may sound like they come from Japanese horror movies about your typical yurei and yokai (ghosts and mythological spirits)—but they’re based on true stories—for the most part. 

Here are seven Japanese urban legends to give you chills during the warm summer nights.

1. Howling Inunaki Tunnel

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The most haunted tunnel in Japan?

The true mystery of Inunaki Village is whether or not it ever existed. Rumors of it have persisted in Japan and online since the 1990s. Supposedly located deep in the Inunaki countryside of Kyushu’s Fukuoka Prefecture, this abandoned village is said to only be accessible through Inunaki Tunnel. 

The stories say that all who enter the village are doomed to a violent death. These myths and tales also seem to mention that there is some sort of “official” sign stating, “The Japanese constitution is not in effect past here,” meaning all who enter are on their own to face the real or supernatural horrors that await. 

The sounds of barking dogs and ghastly screams emanate from deep inside the tunnel. 

The tales, however, were likely inspired by a brutal murder that actually took place in Inunaki Tunnel. The tunnel, being remote and rarely used by traffic, was a popular spot for gangs. One afternoon in December 1988, a group of teens kidnapped, robbed and tortured 20-year old Umeyama Kouichi before burning the young man alive deep within the tunnel.

Today, Inunaki Tunnel, or “howling dog tunnel” in Japanese, is considered one of the most haunted places in Japan. Large concrete bricks block its entrance (though adventurers manage to get in, regardless). Locals say electronic devices and even their cars often break down around the tunnel, and the sounds of barking dogs and ghastly screams emanate from deep inside the tunnel. 

The legend of the tunnel and village were even inspirations for the 2020 film Howling Village (犬鳴村) from Ju-on creator Takashi Shimizu.

2. The doll that grows human hair

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Your typical creepy Japanese doll.

This story goes that in 1918, in Hokkaido, Eikichi Suzuki purchased for his young sister, Kikuko, a traditional Japanese okappa (bob cut hairstyle) doll. Sadly, Kikuko died from a cold, and the family kept the doll in a shrine to their daughter and named it Okiku. However, the family noticed something odd about the doll over time—its hair was getting longer.

The family believed the doll possessed the restless spirit of their deceased daughter and so looked after it until entrusting it in the care of Mannen-ji Temple. There the doll remains, slowly growing human hair.

You can visit Okiku, but photography isn’t allowed. Today, even after a few trims from the temple’s priests, the doll’s hair has grown past its knees. It has also supposedly upped its terror. The priests claim to have nightmares of Okiku and visitors say the doll’s mouth is slowly opening—and sprouting baby teeth.

3. Human sacrifice in Maruoka Castle

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What dark secrets are buried in Maruoka Castle?

Hitobashira, a type of human sacrifice, was practiced in Japan up until the 16th century. Lords would wall up live victims in pillars, dams and other building foundations to appease the gods, who would protect the building from attacks and natural disasters. It was also a term for workers buried alive. 

Maruoka Castle in Sakai, Fukui Prefecture, is home to one of the most famous hitobashira stories. One of the castle walls kept crumbling during its construction, no matter how much it was reinforced. It was then suggested to the castle lord to make a hitobashira. 

The castle lords did not keep their promise

A one-eyed peasant woman with children named Oshizu was chosen for the sacrifice. The poor mother only asked that her sons be made samurai after the ritual. The lords agreed and Oshizu was buried under the central pillar of the castle keep.

Unfortunately, the castle lords did not keep their promise, and her sons were never made samurai. Afterward, the moat would overflow every spring rain when it came time to cut the algae. The locals thought it was the tears of Oshizu’s sorrow and erected a tomb to appease her spirit. A poem was also passed down through the generations:

“The rain which falls when the season of cutting algae comes is the rain reminiscent of the tears of the poor Oshizu’s sorrow.”

4. The Red Room curse

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Do you like the red room?

This modern urban legend started from a “death-themed” flash animation titled “The Red Room.” It became popular in the internet’s dark corners after an 11-year-old girl in Sasebo, Nagasaki, stabbed her classmate to death at school. The killer was a fan of the Red Room animation.

The curse starts with a pop-up on a victim’s computer screen when alone in a room. It has a red background with black letters asking, “あなたは〜好きですか?” (Do you like ~?) As the victim frantically tries to close the pop-up, more words appear until it reads: “あなたは赤い部屋が好きですか?” (Do you like the red room?)

The entire screen becomes red, and a list of past victims appears. Whether something supernatural comes or the victim is compelled to do the deed themselves is unknown. Regardless, they are killed, and their blood covers the walls of the room. Hence, the “red room” curse.

5. Aka Manto

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The toilet is occupied, sir.

Aka Manto (red cloak) meets victims when they are most vulnerable: on the toilet. He wears a white mask and a long red cape. There are many variations to the legend. He holds red and blue toilet paper in some stories, but he’s only in his cape in others. However, he always asks the victim to choose a color: red or blue?

Like Japan’s slit-faced woman asking, “Am I pretty?” it doesn’t matter what you answer because Aka Manto kills you regardless—choosing red rewards you with a stabbing, spilling your blood all over the stall. If you answer blue, Aka Manto either suffocates you or sucks out your blood, leaving you blue-faced and dead on the floor. So your best bet is to either ignore the fiend or run away.

Every English teacher in Japan can attest to being in an eerily large yet empty school.

This legend is popular enough to appear in numerous films, video games and the 2015 American TV series Scream Queens. Some believe Aka Manto is based on a real-life murderer named ao getto (blue blanket) in Fukui Prefecture from 1906, but that is yet another urban legend.

Aka Manto’s origins are a mystery but are likely inspired by the Japanese school toilets where the grisly murders occur. In Japan, every English teacher can attest to being in an eerily large yet empty school with a bathroom furthest away from the others—old and unkempt. Moreover, who wants to answer questions while trying to take a number-two?

6. Japan’s Bloody Mary

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Hanako-san, are you there?

Speaking of toilet horror, Japan also has its own Bloody Mary urban legend. Toire no Hanako-san, or Hanako of the toilet, is a spirit summoned much like her Western counterparts. If the brave (or stupid) enter a restroom on the third floor, knock on the third stall three times and ask, “Hanako, soko ni imasu ka,” (“Hanako, are you there?”), you may get a reply.

The door will slowly creak open to reveal little Hanako in a red skirt. Her hair is done up in a traditional-styled bun. Then she grabs her victim and drags them into the toilet, never to be seen again. 

In other versions, Hanako will ask children if they need a friend. Regardless of their answer, Hanako will drag the children under the stall and to their doom. Never trust a Japanese ghost, kids.

Like Aka Manto, Hanako’s origins are unclear, although folklorist Matthew Myers says her story is as recent as the 1950s. Most accounts say she is the ghost of a child who hid in her school’s bathroom and died in a bombing raid during World War II. 

It’s likely just another case of school bathrooms being a lot creepier than they have any right to be.

7. The cursed poem

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Some trips aren’t worth taking.

Tomino’s Hell is a famed poem by Yaso Saijo. Written in 1919 after Saijo lost his family during World War I, the verse tells the story of a child who descends into hell and includes frightening and disturbing imagery.

The beginning reads:

Elder sister vomited blood, younger sister vomited fire and the cute Tomino vomited glass beads. Tomino Fell into Hell alone.

Although Saijo left interpretation to the reader, it’s believed to be about a child who murdered their parents. In the poem, Tomino descends to the lowest levels of Buddhist hell, reserved for those who murder their parents. Others interpret the poem as about war or child abuse.

If read aloud, you will suffer from a terrible fate which you cannot escape.

Regardless of its true meaning, people have claimed the poem causes headaches, illness and even death if the complete poem is read aloud. In 1974, director Terama Shuji released a movie based on Tomino’s Hell, Den-en ni shisu (Pastoral: To Die in the Country). The director later died due to liver disease, sparking rumors about the poem.

However, the likely catalyst for this urban legend was in 2004, when author Yomota Inuhiko wrote Kokoro wa Korogaru Ishi no you ni (My Heart is Like a Stone Rolling Around) based on Tomino’s Hell. There, Inuhiko wrote, “If you by chance happen to read this poem out loud, you will suffer from a terrible fate which you cannot escape.”

Are there any other scary Japanese urban legends you know of that we missed? Let us know in the comments! This article was written in collaboration with Erika Van t’ Veld. It was updated on August 11, 2021.

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