Thinking of spending Halloween in Japan? Then why not delve into some Japanese mythology and learn some Japanese ghost stories in time for fright night!
Japan is a country steeped in history, and with history comes unimaginable Japanese legends. Visit the likes of Kyoto, walk down the winding streets of Gion and you might just feel transported back in time.
Like any country rich in history, there is a great amount of Japanese mythology and many Japanese legends. Japanese legends are full of creeps, ghouls, and monsters. Perhaps the number of ghouls stems from the Shinto belief in everything possessing a spirit (literally, everything! Tools have spirits. Brooms have spirits. Houses. Trees. Chairs. Tables.) If everything has a spirit, it wouldn’t take long to come across a particularly nasty one.
The most common evil spirits in Japanese mythology are the Oni (鬼). They are either red or blue, devil-like hulking beings with horns and terrifying glowing eyes. They may come with an extra finger or two, perhaps even a third all-seeing eye in their forehead!
In Japanese legends, they normally reside in the Shinto idea of ‘hell’, though they often come to earth to terrify and even kill humans with their spiked clubs. If you escape their clubs, they might just tear you apart with their claws and boar-like tusks! Though, don’t fancy your chances against an Oni, no matter how gifted of a fighter you are. There is a famous Japanese proverb that says: 鬼に金棒, oni-ni-kanabō. Or: ‘Oni with an iron club’, which is used to mean someone is undefeatable!
The Oni are one of the most famous villains in Japanese mythology and feature in many famous stories and artworks. Market stalls often sell bright red Oni masks with their signature horns and teeth. Nowadays, the Oni is celebrated as a part of Japanese culture, and many dress up as the Oni in cultural parades. However, if you’re a misbehaving child you might still be called ‘Oya ni ninu ko wa oni no ko’ (親に似ぬ子は鬼の子) In other words, naughty children are Oni children!
Youkai 妖怪 is a broad Japanese term for spirits. They can take many forms, many of them half human half animal (this is a common theme in Japanese ghost stories!) Some of them want to help humans, although this is rare, plus if it’s coming up to Halloween in Japan, we want to hear some scary Japanese ghost stories!
Lucky for you, (or, rather unlucky) most Youkai seem to be out to kill us. Take the Yamababa, for example. These are said to look like old women: sweet, harmless, and helpful. In reality, they are thought to be ghouls set from the mountains to eat humans! These Youkai are a little like the western idea of the witch (powerful, beautiful women out to kill men.)
Other variations include the Jorogumo, who is a kind of spider-woman – not the superhero! She is half woman, half spider, and disguises herself as beautiful Geisha to lure people into her nest to kill them! As she undresses, her spider legs appear from her back and before you know it, she’s poisoned you and spun you into a cocoon, ready and packed for her lunch.
Another of these terrifying ladies is the Yuki-onna, a type of snow witch who hides in the snowy mountains and waits for wandering humans to happen upon her. Again, a beautiful woman, much like the beautiful sirens of the western mythologies, passers-by see her and fall in love – to which she abruptly lures them further into the forest to kill them. Countless Japanese ghost stories are featuring this unruly bunch. If you’re spending Halloween in Japan, why not read your friends a story about the Yamababa to scare them out of their skins!
We said that Youkai are often associated with animals, some more than others. There are fox Youkai, bird Youkai, and snake Youkai, but our favorites are a kind of human-frog-turtle hybrid called Kappa.
Kappa (河童) or River Children are another one of the common Japanese legends. Said to be half-frog and half-human – though somewhat turtle looking too! Some are even depicted as having shells. Perhaps they were the inspiration for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? – the Kappa is said to live in bodies of water and lure children to their deaths, eating them the moment they set foot in their watery lairs. Parents usually tell this Japanese legend as a means to warn their children of the dangers of water. They might think twice about going swimming once they know about the child-eating Kappa lurking within!
There you have it, three ghouls from great Japanese legends. If you’re interested in Japanese mythology or Japanese ghost stories, be sure to keep looking online! There are many great English translations of traditional Japanese texts. Who doesn’t love a scary story? Now, have a great Halloween in Japan!