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 GaijinPot Blog Aug 18, 2021 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 anime , manga , videogames and movies.
Here are seven of our favorite Japanese ghosts and ghouls to send shivers down your spine this summer season .
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Shintoism , kappa (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.
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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The Creepiest Japanese Urban Legends To Keep You Up At Night
There are so many scary urban legends from Japan. The country has a rich history of ghost stories. Yūrei, similar to ghosts in Western culture, are the subject of many classic folk tales. But Japan doesn’t just have creepy folklore. There are plenty of modern Japanese urban legends that are so scary, you can’t even speak them aloud without becoming cursed.
This list includes many terrifying tales from Japan. There is, somehow, more than one story of a ghost haunting a toilet. There are also stories about secluded villages, murderous families, women with sharp objects - you name a terrifying thing, this list has it. Including dolls. What, you didn’t think you were going to be spared a scary doll story, did you? Enjoy these creepy urban legends, and try not to get too scared.
According to legend, if you don’t forget this story within a week, it will happen to you. So if you’re worried about being cursed, don’t read on .
One night, a boy had a dream about a school. It was a school he didn’t recognize, and as he wandered the halls, he became increasingly unsettled. The hallway he walked down was a continuous loop, always bringing him back to where he started. He climbed stairs only to find himself back on the first floor. The school was a maze he couldn’t figure out, and as he started to become scared, he heard the sound of footsteps behind him. The sound was faint and far away, but instinctively, he ran. The footsteps got closer and closer. He found an emergency exit with a glass lock box that held the key right next to it, but the glass had already been smashed. The key was missing. In its place, there was a note that said the key was in room 108.
The boy ran off in search of room 108, and when he found it, he shut the door behind him. There were no students, but there were backpacks hanging off every chair. He searched them all frantically, turning out the drawers of the teacher’s desk, but it was no use. The footsteps caught up with him. Now someone was pounding on the door. And as the boy cowered, the pounding just...stopped. The boy opened the door to the hallway, but quickly, he wished he hadn’t. The corridor was littered with children's corpses, their limbs scattered from end to end. He never woke up from his dream. And if you don’t forget this story in one week, you’ll have the same dream - and be resigned to the same fate.
If you ever find yourself alone on a quiet, foggy street after dark in Japan, you should probably beeline for the nearest populated place because you might just encounter Kuchisake-onna .
At first, you probably won’t be too upset about running into the woman who seemed to just appear out of thin air right in front of you. She’s gorgeous and demure, wearing a white surgical mask over her mouth. She asks you, “Am I beautiful?” You say "Yes," because she really is. She takes off her surgical mask for you. Her mouth has been slit from ear to ear. She asks, “How about now?” You:
A.) Say, “No.” She slices your mouth from ear to ear with a pair of scissors, giving you a beautiful smile just like hers.
B.) Say, “Yes.” She allows you to leave, and you think you’ve gotten off the hook. But when you arrive home, she appears again, killing you in your own doorway.
C.) Say, “Maybe.” This confuses her. You run; she’s so flummoxed that she doesn’t chase you and you escape.
Do you think you would be composed enough to trick her? Or would you fall victim to a scissor-wielding maniac?
This story starts with a tragedy : A girl accidentally pushed off the platform at a train station just as the train was pulling in was cut in half and perished on impact. Some time later, a boy was walking home from school alone. He saw a girl through a window. She was leaning on the window sill with her elbows, looking outwards. When she saw the boy, she pushed herself through the open window.
There was nothing the boy could do except stand there, horrified. He had just seen a girl fall from a window, and on any other day, that probably would have been his low point. It might’ve even been the low point of his whole life, if he got to live it. See, after the girl hit the ground, the boy realized something: she had no lower body. As he was trying to process this, the girl pushed herself up with her hands and started crawling toward the boy. She was at his feet before he had time to run. He didn’t even realize what she was carrying until the scythe was midway through his waist. As the two halves of his body fell to the ground, it was the sound that she made as she dragged herself toward him - teke, teke - that he heard last.
The Girl From The Gap
You know that small gap between your dresser and the wall? Or between your bed and the floor? Don’t look in there. Because if you see a pair of eyes staring back at you, you’re in trouble .
The first time you see the girl looking at you from a small gap, she’ll ask you if you want to play hide and seek. You don’t really have a choice. Even if you say no, you’re still locked into her game, which isn’t so much a game as it is an exercise in never letting your eyes lock on a gap ever again.
If you see her a second time, she’ll drag you down to hell.
As if public bathrooms weren’t already scary enough, there’s a Japanese urban legend called Aka Manto , or Red Cape, about some weirdo in a mask who hides out in the last stall of women’s restrooms and asks his victims a question that’s nearly impossible to answer. Get the answer wrong and you die a horrible death. If you get the answer right, you live, but you’ve still been playing twenty questions in a bathroom with a ghost. There’s kind of no way to win with this guy.
The legend goes like this: Red Cape was extremely handsome in real life, attracting the attention of every woman who saw him. He became so fed up with women desiring him only for his looks that he began wearing a white mask, a tradition he continued in death. When you enter the last stall in the women’s restroom that he haunts, you’ll hear a voice.
If you believe this legend, there’s a secluded, abandoned mansion just outside of Tokyo where a series of brutal slayings were carried out. The family who lived there would carry out a sick practice called “ The Strangling Ritual .” They believed that there was a portal on their property that brought them bad karma from within the earth, so in order to seal the portal, they would choose a local village girl at birth, raise her in isolation, and then tie her wrists, and ankles, and neck to five oxen, which would rip her limbs and her head off her body. They would then take the rope, soak it in her blood, and lay it at the entrance of the portal. This protected them for 50 years.
But something went wrong during the last ritual. The woman, who was supposed to have been raised in isolation, had formed a bond with a man who tried to rescue her. Because of this, the ritual didn’t work, and the patriarch slayed his entire family before falling on his own sword. Now, the mansion is said to be haunted by his family. Rumor has it that the walls are splattered with blood - fresh blood. Blood of the unfortunate people who go looking for the mansion, looking for a thrill, not knowing that the ghosts of the family are waiting for the next victim of the strangling ritual.
Have you ever heard a story so scary that it made you catatonic and when you woke up you were foaming at the mouth? What about a story so scary that it ended your life? Well, okay, you probably wouldn’t know if you had experienced the second one. But that first one is a pretty common experience, right? No?
The story of the Gozu is a legend within a legend. According to the tale, a story called the Gozu , or Cow Head , appeared in Japan around the 17th century. It was so horrific that almost all copies of it were destroyed; those unlucky enough to read or hear it trembled and shook for days before dying of fright. Only fragments of the tale remain to this day.
Another version of the story holds that a schoolteacher was taking his students on a field trip. Tired of their chaotic behavior on the bus, he decided to try and get their attention by telling them horror stories. He had read part of the Cow Head story in the past and repeated that small section to the children. He only meant to frighten them a little bit, but they began convulsing and begging him to stop. He couldn’t pause, though. His eyes turned white but he continued, telling parts of the story he had never heard before. Saying unspeakable things. Losing all control as the children screamed.
He awoke a few hours later. The bus was in a ditch. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel, shaking. And the kids? They were all unconscious, foaming at the mouth.
In 1919, Saijō Yaso published a collection of poetry that included a poem called “Tomino’s Hell.” It describes a young boy’s experience in hell after committing unspeakable acts. The poem is already pretty creepy, but the legend that surrounds it is even worse: it is said that if you read the poem, you must read it in your own head and never read it aloud. If you read the poem aloud, it causes disaster, and sometimes even death.
You can read David Bowles’s translation of the poem here ; just keep it to yourself, okay?
You probably don’t need a reminder about why so many people are afraid of dolls, but here’s another terrifying story, just in case . There is an actual doll (not a mythical one) known as the Okiku doll on display in a temple in Japan. Why is a doll on display in a religious temple? Because rumor has it that its hair grows - on its own. For no apparent reason. And, as if that weren’t upsetting enough, a sample has supposedly confirmed that the hair that grows from the doll’s head is human.
The doll was originally given to a 2-year-old girl by her brother in 1918. She passed a year later, and her family kept the doll as a remembrance of her. But soon they noticed that its hair appeared to be growing, so they brought it to a priest, who observed it for a few months and confirmed their story. The doll, which was named after the little girl who owned it, was put on display in the temple and remains there to this day.
If you’re over the age of 20, good news! You won’t be affected by this story at all. But for all you teenagers out there, think carefully about reading on.
A young girl was given a mirror by her mother. The girl loved the mirror and spent much of her time staring at herself in it. The girl was desperate to be beautiful, and she developed an eating disorder trying to maintain her beauty. Every time she looked in the mirror, she looked gorgeous.
After a few years, the girl wanted to redecorate, so she painted the mirror purple. After it was painted, she looked into it and was shocked by her appearance. She was dangerously thin and her hair was limp and stringy. The eating disorder had taken a toll on her appearance, and now the girl could see that she was not maintaining her beauty; she was sabotaging it. Despondent, the girl threw the mirror on the ground, shattering it.
She was making the final arrangements for her coming-of-age party on her 20th birthday when she was in a car accident. She perished at the scene, whispering, “Purple mirror…purple mirror…” Her parents searched for the mirror, but they never found it.
It is said that if you do not forget the phrase “purple mirror” by your 20th birthday, you too will have a similar fate as the girl in the story. So just remember: forget the words “purple mirror.”
Well, this is just great. As if there wasn’t enough to worry about - dolls, toilet ghosts, ghost hitchhikers - now we have to deal with secluded, lawless villages as well?
Apparently, deep in the foothills in Japan, there is a village called Inunaki . There is a gate out front with a sign warning outsiders that the laws of Japan don’t apply to their settlement. And inside? Just imagine what lawlessness could do to a place.
There’s cannibalism, slaying, robbery - oh, and good luck getting out, because once you enter, you never return.
Another terrifying story about a bathroom . What’s the deal with you and toilets, Japan?
In this tale, Hanako-san is the ghost of a young girl who haunts the girls’ bathroom at Japanese public schools. She can be found in the third stall in the restroom on the third floor. Schoolchildren whisper instructions on how to conjure her: you have to knock on the door of her stall three times, call her name, and ask if she’s there.
At this point, local legends vary about what she does. Sometimes she pulls you into the toilet. Sometimes she just yells and frightens you. Her motive seems strictly to terrify young girls, but at least she isn't out to end lives.
This tunnel in northern Japan was purportedly built by slaves, many of who passed during its construction. Combine that with the fact that the tunnel is 444 meters long (four is an unlucky number in Japan), and this place is ripe for rumors of it being haunted.
From tales of screaming ghosts to an apparition jumping onto the hoods of oncoming cars, this is one route you probably want to avoid.
In this traditional legend, a taxi driver picks up a passenger on a dark, quiet road. There’s no one else in sight. The passenger asks to be taken to an address out of town. The taxi driver obliges and lets the passenger settle in for the long ride. They don’t talk much. When they arrive, the driver turns around to find the back seat empty; the passenger has disappeared.
This tale is often told from a personal perspective , with the speaker claiming it happened to a relative, or a friend of a friend.
Hitobashira (which translates to “human pillar”) is an old ritual from Japan. In ancient times through the 16th century, when a large building project began, a human sacrifice would sometimes be offered to the gods in the hopes that they would protect the building or infrastructure from floods and attacks. The person would be buried alive under or near the project. Unsurprisingly, this former practice has spawned a few urban legends.
The most prominent of these legends concerns Maruoka Castle . The castle was commissioned by a samurai, but as it was being built, the walls kept collapsing. A sacrifice was suggested, and it was decided that an old, one-eyed woman named Oshizu should be the hitobashira. She agreed, but only on one condition: her son would become a samurai. The lord of the castle agreed, and after she was sacrificed, the castle was built without any more trouble. But the lord was soon transferred to another area and her son never became a samurai. Every spring after that, the castle’s moat would flood, and the villagers believed the rain was caused by Oshizu’s spirit. They called the rain “the tears of Oshizu’s sorrow.” A memorial was erected to help calm her spirit.
This is another Japanese folk tale , which teaches the very important lesson of not eating mermaids. There was a fisherman who caught a mermaid while out at sea. He took it home, cooked it, and invited many of his friends over to partake in the meal. But he didn’t tell them what he was cooking, and one of the guests slipped into the kitchen and saw the fish he was butchering had a woman’s face. He warned the other guests not to eat it, and they all slyly slipped their servings of fish into their pockets as they ate.
One man forgot to empty his pockets and throw away the fish, and when he returned home, his daughter asked for a treat. He had had too much sake, and, without thinking, gave her the fish. Everything was fine - until, years later, she realized she was no longer aging. The woman married several times, outliving all her husbands as they grew old and she did not. Eventually, the woman realized she could do plenty of good with all the extra time she had on Earth, and she became a Buddhist nun. She dedicated her life to the cause, eventually rising through the ranks of the religion and giving this story its translated title: The Eight-Hundred-Year Buddhist Priestess.
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10 Horrifying Demons and Spirits from Japanese Folklore
By victoria derosa | oct 29, 2014 | updated: mar 23, 2023, 3:28 pm edt.
Oni (demons) and yūrei (ghosts) have played a role in Japanese culture for thousands of years, and stories of new spirits continue to be told today. Much of this list is comprised of hannya , which in Noh theater are women whose rage and jealousy turned them into oni while still alive. Here are just a few more tales from Japanese folklore of demons, ghosts, and other spirits you don’t want to mess with.
Kiyohime was a young woman scorned by her lover , a monk named Anchin, who grew cold and lost interest in her. Realizing he had left her, Kiyohime followed him to a river and transformed into a serpent while swimming after his boat. Terrified by her monstrous form, Anchin sought refuge in a temple, where monks hid him beneath a bell. Not to be evaded, Kiyohime found him by his scent, coiled around the bell, and banged loudly on it with her tail. She then breathed fire onto the bell, melting it and killing Anchin.
There are many variations of this popular tale . Her name is a portmanteau of the Japanese yuki (meaning “snow”) and onna for woman, and she is also known as the “Snow Woman.” She is usually described as having white skin, a white kimono, and long black hair, and appears during snowfall and glides without feet over the snow like a ghost. She feeds on human essence, and her killing method of choice is to blow on her victims to freeze them to death and then suck out their souls through their mouths.
Considered one of the most distinctive oni in Japanese folklore, Shuten-dōji is described as more than 50 feet tall with a red body, five-horned head, and 15 eyes. There’s no need to fear this demon, though. In a legend from the medieval period , warriors Minamoto no Raikō and Fujiwara no Hōshō infiltrated Shuten-dōji’s lair disguised as yamabushi (mountain priests) to free some kidnapped women. The oni greeted them with a banquet of human flesh and blood, and the disguised warriors offered Shuten-dōji drugged saké . After the demon passed out, the warriors cut off his head, killed the other oni , and freed the prisoners.
Also originating in the medieval period are the yamauba, which are similar to the yōkai (which can be used to refer to a whole class of supernatural beings from Japanese folklore). The yamauba are generally considered to be old women who were marginalized by society and forced to live in the mountains, and who also have a penchant for eating human flesh . Among many tales, there is one of a yamauba who offers shelter to a young woman about to give birth while secretly planning to eat her baby, and another of a yamauba who goes to village homes to eat children while their mothers are away. But they’re not picky; they’ll eat anyone who passes by. The yamabua also have mouths under their hair . Delightful!
In another tale of a woman scorned, Hashihime (also known as the Maiden of the Bridge ) prayed to a deity to turn her into an oni so she could kill her husband, the woman he fell in love with, and all of their relatives. To accomplish this, she bathed in the Uji River for 21 days, divided her hair into five horns, painted her body red with vermilion, and went on a legendary killing spree. Besides her intended victims, anyone who saw her instantly died of fear.
In Japanese folklore, the tengu (which translates to “heavenly dogs”) are essentially impish mountain goblins that play tricks on people. Featured in countless folktales , they were considered purely evil until about the 14th century. They were originally depicted as birdlike, with wings and beaks, though now the beak is often replaced with a comically large nose. They are known to lead people away from Buddhism, tie priests to tall trees and towers, start fires in temples, and kidnap children. Many legends say the tengu were hypocritical priests who must now live the rest of their lives as mountain goblins as punishment. Locals made offerings to the tengu to avoid their mischief, and there are still festivals in Japan dedicated to them today.
In a revenge story made popular by the famous kabuki drama Yotsuya Kaidan , Oiwa was married to a rōnin (a masterless, wandering samurai) named Iemon; he wanted to marry a rich local’s granddaughter who had fallen in love with him, and, in order to end their marriage, Oiwa was sent a poisoned cream. Though the poison failed to kill her, she became horribly disfigured, causing her hair to fall out and her left eye to droop. Upon learning of her disfigurement and betrayal, she accidentally killed herself on a sword. Her ghostly, deformed face appeared everywhere to haunt Iemon. It even appeared in place of his new bride’s face, which caused Iemon to accidentally behead her. Oiwa’s spirit followed him relentlessly to the point where he welcomed death.
8. Demon at Agi Bridge
This story, which was originally a setsuwa (a spoken-word narrative), begins as so many horror stories do: With an overly-confident man who boasted to his friends that he didn’t fear to cross Agi Bridge or the demon rumored to reside there. As oni are known for their ability to shape-shift, the demon at Agi Bridge appeared to the man as an abandoned woman. As soon as she caught the young man’s eye, she transformed back into a 9-foot-tall, green-skinned monster and chased after him. Unable to catch the man, the demon later changed into the form of the man’s brother and knocked on his door late at night. The demon was let into the house and, after a struggle, bit off the man’s head, held it up and danced with it before his family, and then vanished.
In an urban legend from 1978 that swept through Japan, Kuchisake-onna wears a surgical mask and asks children if they think she is beautiful. If they say yes, she takes off the mask to reveal her mouth slit from ear to ear, which also gave rise to her nickname, the Slit-Mouthed Woman (the name Kuchisake-onna also comes from the Japanese kuchi , meaning “mouth,” onna for “woman,” and sake , suggesting to rip or tear something). Once the kids see her face, she asks them if she is beautiful again. The only way to escape is to give a noncommittal answer, such as "You look OK." Barring that, you can distract her with certain Japanese candies . But if the children say yes again, she will cut their mouths to make them look like her.
10. Aka Manto
With a demon for just about everything, why shouldn’t the Japanese have a few for their bathrooms ? Aka Manto, one of the more popular demons, hides in women’s bathrooms. In one version of the story, Aka Manto asks women if they would like a red cape or a blue cape (or conversely, if they’d like red paper or blue paper as they’re going to wipe). If the woman answers “red,” this yōkai is believed to tear the flesh from her back to make it appear she is wearing a red cloak. If she answers “blue,” then the creature strangles her to death.
Unfortunately, if you encounter it, there may be no escaping: Some versions of the story say if you don’t answer or if you pick a different color, he will immediately drag you to hell. However, others suggest you can skip all of it if you just turn down Aka Manto’s offer to start with.
A version of this article was originally published in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.
As a country rife with history, tradition and mythology, it is only fitting that Japan boasts some fantastical and frightening tales of spectral spooks. Here are six of our favorite Japanese ghost stories…
The Ties That Bind
In the early 1700s it was all the rage for Tokyo’s lovelorn couples to commit double suicide by tying their wrists together with trendy tea towels before throwing themselves into deathly waters. Over the course of 18 months a total of four couples committed this “tea towel suicide.”
A century later a young heir to a Nihonbashi cotton wholesaler had a steamy affair with a handmaiden that led to her pregnancy. The man was betrothed to another young lady of more respectable roots, and when his torrid affair came to light, the handmaiden was banished to a faraway farm, committing suicide the night she arrived.
When his new young wife became pregnant with a child of her own, all seemed right in the cotton wholesaler’s world. However, one morning, the young couple was discovered dead in their bed, covered in blood, their wrists bound tight by a decorative tea towel, victims of a ghostly handmaiden scorned.
The Temple of Doom
After the construction of the Yokohama railway in 1908, foot traffic slowed to a crawl along the Silk Road connecting Yokohama and Hachioji. Located at the center of Hachioji’s Otsukayama Park is Doryo-do temple, sometimes translated as “the end of the road temple.” As visitors declined, the once robust temple became a dilapidated husk of its former self. In 1963 a thief robbed the temple of its meager funds, and killed the elderly woman maintaining the grounds when she resisted the cowardly burglar.
The temple witnessed a second tragedy 10 years later. In 1973, a married literature professor had an affair with one of his students. As the relationship soured, and as university officials became suspicious of the salacious relationship, the professor broke things off. However, the student became despondent, attempted suicide and threatened to reveal the affair to the professor’s wife.
Her corpse went undiscovered for seven months.
The professor invited his student to his country home in Hachioji with the ruse of patching things up. Instead he strangled the girl and buried her body in a shallow grave near the remains of Doryo-do. Her corpse went undiscovered for seven months, during which time the professor committed a murder-suicide act with his family of four.
Doryo-do temple has become a favorite haunt for ghost hunters, and unwitting passerby supposedly hear the heavy sobs of an elderly woman, or the cry of a young woman’s voice calling out, “Here! I’m here!”
She Wouldn’t Even Harm a Fly…
Following the death of a successful Edo-era wax wholesaler, his dastardly son and daughter-in-law confined his well-respected widow to a small cell of their own making. While their mother whiled away in seclusion, the debauched couple and their three sons ran up debts and abused the help. When one of the maids, who suffered the brunt of the abuse, attempted suicide, the vengeful apparition of the confined mother began appearing before family members, materializing in the mirror to rip at her daughter-in-law’s hair.
One night, with all five family members soused from spirits, rat poison was surreptitiously administered to their food. After the realization was made, all five members battled with each other, fighting to be first to leave for the doctor’s office. Servants watched in horror as the mistress of the house grappled with an unseen assailant, shrieking curses directed at her imprisoned mother-in-law.
By the end of the melee, the entire family perished. When investigators searched the house, and broke down the door to the mother’s cell, they discovered a tiny room resembling a rat’s nest, and the withered, shrunken corpse of the long-deceased mistress of the house.
The Shadow of Yotsuya
One of Tokyo’s most famous ghosts is that of a fated wife known by the name Oiwa. The frightful specter of Oiwa, disfigured, with bald patches marring her flowing black hair, is said to be seen roaming the Yotsuya neighborhood.
Legend has it that Oiwa was the wife of a member of the Tamiya family. In the early 17th century, Oiwa’s husband fed her a poisoned lemon. His intention was to kill his wife and marry a younger woman from a rich family. The poison wasn’t potent enough, and Oiwa’s death lingered. Her face became disfigured, and her hair fell out in clumps. Her last breath was used to curse her husband’s name.
Oiwa’s ghost is said to haunt the remains of the Tamiya family shrine in Yotsuya where Oiwa once worshipped. The ghost story became so prevalent that a kabuki play was written about the sordid affair, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education posted a sign at the shrine’s remains debunking the terrifying myth. You can visit the shrine and learn more about this ghostly tale on a Haunted Tokyo Tour .
The coastal city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. More than 3,000 people perished in the ocean’s waters as waves 10m high enveloped the town. Perhaps most notoriously, Ishinomaki Okawa Elementary School lost 70 students. Teachers squabbled about the correct course of action, delaying evacuation. They finally decided to reach higher ground by crossing a nearby river bridge, from which everyone was washed away.
A young woman entered a cab and promptly asked him, ‘Have I died?’
In the aftermath of the devastation a Japanese sociology major corresponded with Ishinomaki taxi drivers, asking if they experienced anything unusual after the disaster. More than a handful of the taxi drivers reported giving lifts to passengers who request rides to the mountains, or areas of safety, and disappear before reaching their destination. One driver said a young woman entered a cab and promptly asked him, “Have I died?” before vanishing. The ghostly rides were all recorded in the taxis’ meters, and ultimately the drivers had to pay the fares for their phantom customers.
The Voice of the Chinese Soldier
Mount Hakone is located in Toyama Park, a sprawling green space in northern Shinjuku Ward. At 44-meters-tall the hill is the highest natural point within Tokyo’s Yamanote loop, and during cherry blossom season it is a popular hangout for nearby Waseda University students.
It is no coincidence that Toyama Park is also located next to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, the National Center for Global Health and Medicine and other medical research laboratories. It is further no coincidence that Mount Hakone is considered one of Tokyo’s most haunted places.
More mass graves are waiting to be discovered.
Japan’s Imperial army operated a medical school nearby with ties to the infamous Unit 731, a covert World War II unit that conducted lethal experiments on prisoners at its facility near Harbin, China. Under the auspices of “epidemic prevention,” the Chinese prisoners of war were exposed to typhus, cholera and bubonic plague. They were amputated and disemboweled while still alive – without anesthetic. It is rumored that bodies, and body parts, were shipped to the Shinjuku facility for further research.
At the end of World War II, all evidence was ordered to be destroyed – or buried. In 1989 a mass grave was unearthed in the Toyama area. Based on reports by a wartime nurse who was ordered to bury corpses, bones and body parts, more mass graves are waiting to be discovered.
Toyama Park, the former grounds of the Toyama Military Academy, opened in 1954. Mount Hakone existed long before, going back to the days when the park was the garden owned by a samurai of the Tokugawa clan. Today, when visitors climb the wooden stairs to the peak of Mount Hakone at night, they report hearing the disembodied voice of a weeping man. Others see floating balls of fire known in Japanese folklore as hitodama, which are said to be the souls of the dead separating from their bodies.
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The Best Japanese Horror Movies
From folk tales to body horror to monster movies, Japan’s cinema finds new ways to thrill and disturb audiences. Japanese horror movies got a big leg-up in the 1950s and 1960s with Ugetsu and Kwaidan , before spinning heads over time with transgressive cult works ( Tetsuo: The Ironman ), comedic takes ( Hausu , One Cut of the Dead ), and crossover hits ( Ringu , Audition ). And we’d be remiss to not include at least the original kaiju movie, Godzilla . It was created in response to nuclear oblivion, and creating art to process real trauma is one of the core values of horror.
And now we’ve gathered every Japanese horror movie with a Fresh rating and ranked them by Tomatometer, creating your guide to the best Japanese horror movies of all time.
One Cut of the Dead (2017) 100%
The Ring (1998) 98%
Godzilla (1954) 93%
Cure (1997) 93%
Kwaidan (1964) 91%
House (1977) 90%
Shin Godzilla (2016) 86%
Three... Extremes (2005) 86%
Audition (1999) 83%
Pulse (2001) 76%
Ugetsu (1953) 100%
Blind Beast (1969) 100%
Wild zero (2000) 100%, edogawa ranpo taizen: kyofu kikei ningen (horrors of malformed men)(horror of a deformed man) (1969) 100%.
Evil Dead Trap (1988) 100%
Kuroneko (1968) 96%
Tag (2015) 92%
Onibaba (1964) 90%
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) 82%
Dark Water (2002) 82%
Tokyo Ghoul (2017) 82%
Tokyo Gore Police (2008) 82%
Confessions (2010) 81%
Ju-on: The Grudge (2003) 80%
Empire of Passion (1978) 80%
Death Note (2006) 78%
Versus (2000) 75%
Cold Fish (2010) 74%
Gozu (2003) 72%
Ju-on: The Curse (2000) 64%
Noriko's Dinner Table (2005) 64%
Visitor Q (2001) 60%
Infection (2004) 60%
Uzumaki (2000) 59%
Ju-on: The Grudge 2 (2003) 56%
Sadako vs. Kayako (2016) 50%
One Missed Call (2004) 44%
Marebito (2004) 36%
Izo (2004) 33%
Sadako (2019) 23%
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[Rebroadcast] Japan’s got ghosts
This week on Deep Dive Shaun McKenna and Dave Cortez discuss a few horror movies before “Uncanny Japan” podcast host Thersa Matsuura tells a classic Japanese ghost story.
On this episode:
Shaun McKenna: Articles | X | Instagram
Dave Cortez: Articles | X
Thersa Matsuura: Website | X | Instagram | YouTube
- The ghosts that have been haunting cinema-goers in Japan for over a century (Mark Schilling, The Japan Times)
- 10 days of J-horror: From funny frights to shock and gore (Mark Schilling, The Japan Times)
- Scary Japanese stories to read in the dark (Haruka Murayama, The Japan Times)
- Uncanny Japan
Get in touch: Send us feedback at [email protected]. Support the show by rating, reviewing and sharing the episode with a friend if you’ve enjoyed it. For a transcript of the show, visit japantimes.co.jp, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter !
Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.
Shaun McKenna 00:09
Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times. I'm Shaun McKenna. It's spooky season, and while we're still off on a short break, we thought we would tide you over with a rebroadcast of an episode from October of 2020, featuring Thersa Matsuura, who hosts the “Uncanny Japan” podcast. Now, we may be a little early for Halloween but Thersa's library of ghost stories and supernatural folk tales is so plentiful that we thought we'd go ahead and introduce you to her podcast sooner rather than later so you can spook up sufficiently over the next two weeks. And hey, from the time of recording tomorrow is Friday the 13th, so, that kind of works. Before we get into the conversation between Thersa and former Deep Dive host Oscar Boyd, however, producer Dave Cortez is going to join me to discuss a few Halloween-themed stories we found from The Japan Times archives that we think are definite must reads leading up to the big night on Oct. 31.
Dave Cortez, welcome back to the mic. We don't get to hear from you much but it's good to have you.
Dave Cortez 01:16
Hey Shaun, it's nice to be on this side of the mic again.
Shaun McKenna 01:18
So are you a Halloween guy?
Dave Cortez 01:20
You know, I like to get spooked out sometimes, but I was never really in the whole dressing up thing. What about you?
Shaun McKenna 01:25
OK, no, it's my favorite holiday of the year.
Dave Cortez 01:27
Yeah, I don’t even know why I asked.
Shaun McKenna 01:29
I've gone as Sherlock Holmes, I've got as the guy from “Clockwork Orange.” When I was a kid, I went as a three-headed clown, yeah, I really like it.
Dave Cortez 01:37
You know, it's weird, I remember doing a cowboy for like four years in a row, that's how creative I was.
Shaun McKenna 01:43
Yeah, you stick with what works. But I think that, you know, other than the night itself, I actually really like the build up to Halloween. I think you only get that with one other holiday and that's Christmas, really. You know, like, you start to feel Christmas maybe a month before it actually happens. I think Halloween is the same, at least in North America, you know, like the leaves are turning color, it's getting a little bit colder, pumpkins start appearing, there's like Halloween parties. And then on TV, you get special episodes of all the TV shows, like “The Simpsons” does the “Treehouse of Horror” specials every year. I think they're on their 32nd or 34th edition of it now?
Dave Cortez 02:26
Yeah, I totally agree. like the build-up concept definitely is something you feel in October, and television and horror movie marathons are what it's all about, right?
Shaun McKenna 02:34
Totally, totally. Actually, that leads to an obvious question. See if you get this reference too, do you like scary movies?
Dave Cortez 2:42
And I don't get the reference ... where’s it from? Where’s it from?
Shaun McKenna 02:57
It’s from “Scream.”
Dave Cortez 02:58
OK, so yeah, as you can tell, that probably betrays the answer I'm about to give you. So yeah, I did say I like to get spooked out. So for sure, from time to time I seek out horror movies. But I'm not really into the pulpy stuff, you know, “Children of the Corn” or “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” you know, but for some reason, pagan cult movies creep me out. Like there was a Netflix Original called “The Ritual,” and I like, couldn't sleep. So yeah, I mean, it's definitely something that's in my media diet, but I wouldn't say I'm a horror buff. Which, Shaun, you kind of are!
Shaun McKenna 03:27
Yeah, I kind of am, yeah, it's weird. I actually don't like gore. But I do like horror movies. And I do like the fact that horror movies kind of say a lot about the state of the world. So often you can watch a horror movie and you know exactly the era you're in. And it kind of shows you signs of like, what it's like to live in that era. Right? But yeah, it's it's I really like horror movies. For that reason. I like actually studied them in university, too, so. But one question for you. Have you seen many Japanese horror movies?
Dave Cortez 03:59
Yes, so I'll be honest, I haven't seen many. I know I saw “The Ring” one time many years ago, and I cannot tell you the plot other than girl with creepy hair and some kind of videotape, right? Yeah.
Shaun McKenna 04:11
Well, if you're looking to get into Japanese horror, then I want to recommend some articles that our film critic Mark Schilling has written up. The first place to start something that he wrote for us in 2018 was titled, “The ghosts that had been haunting cinema-goers in Japan for over a century.” And this is a real deep dive into the history of horror films in Japan. He starts off by kind of, you know, like, name-checking the popular stuff, this would be the J-horror boom that happened in Japan between like 1998 and maybe like 2002, but it actually happens a little bit later overseas because all those films were being remade. But yeah, he points out that this is just like a blip in the whole, you know, like lineage of horror movies in Japan. So a lot of this stuff is based on kaidan , which is ghost stories in Japanese. They often deal with a vengeful female ghost. Something that tells you about society. But I got a question for you. When do you think the first Japanese horror film came out?
Dave Cortez 05:13
Oh gosh, when I think black and white, I think the ’30s ... 1933?
Shaun McKenna 05:18
So this is incredible, like this is almost unbelievable. Mark did his research, he found a film called “Shinin no Sosei,” which is translated as “Resurrection of a Corpse,” and then there's another film called “Bake Jizo,” which is translated as “Jizo the Spook,” both from 1898.
Dave Cortez 05:37
Whoa, are they silent films then?
Shaun McKenna 05:41
Yeah, the early days of cinema — jump scares were a lot different back then. Then the other film that he mentioned is actually called “Botan Doro,” “The Tale of the Peony Lantern,” and that comes from 1910. It's about a young man who falls in love with the beautiful Otsuyu, who is later revealed to be a ghost and despite dire warnings, this is what Mark's written, “he soon joins her on the other side.” So Otsuyu is one of three female ghosts that are kind of referred to as sandai y ū rei , which translates as “the big three ghosts.” The others are Okiku and then you have Oiwa. Okiku, is like a servant girl who ends up at the bottom of a well after a dish goes missing and then she kind of haunts the place where she lived, the castle where she lived. Oiwa is a loyal wife who is betrayed and poisoned and finally killed by her cheating samurai husband. And these are the kind of inspirations for people like Sadako in “The Ring.” These kinds of like when you think of Japanese horror you think of, you know the woman with the hair in front of her face and kind of like creepy and pale
Dave Cortez 06:53
Kind of like a hell hath no fury, kind of revenge.
Shaun McKenna 06:56
Yeah, yeah. But yeah, this article by Mark just goes deep into the history. I won't read all of it here, but it's definitely worth a read kind of in the run up to Halloween.
Dave Cortez 07:07
Well, that definitely sounds like a good read. I also have brought another Mark Schilling hit about horror films, which is from 2020, titled, “10 days of J-horror: from funny frights to shock and gore.”
Shaun McKenna 07:20
OK, I remember this one.
Dave Cortez 07:23
Yeah, it's kind of an interesting invitation that Mark gives to the reader to take a 10-day challenge to watch one horror flick a night that progressively gets scarier and scarier from Oct. 22 all the way up until Halloween. So I'm just gonna go through this with you so you can kind of see how we kind of build up to it. So day one starts with a movie called “One Cut of the Dead,” which is actually a zombie comedy. So kind of fitting, nice light beginning.
Shaun McKenna 08:01
Yeah, so this is actually a film by Shinichiro Ueda. And I remember when this came out, it was like a big hit at festivals when it came out. I think it was a real surprise that it was so popular. I tried watching it on Netflix, but I couldn't get the subtitles for it, because I'm watching Japanese Netflix. But if you can find it, I think it's definitely worth a watch.
Dave Cortez 08:22
Well, that's a bummer. So hopefully don't use Netflix if you're trying to do this 10-day Challenge. But moving on, day two is a 1964 film called “Kwaidan,” which is based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn, so for all of you Japanese Studies majors out there, you should definitely check that one out. Now day three, it's a film called “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya” from 1954, day four is a film called “Onibaba” in 1964, which actually I think I have seen in a college film class? I remember it being kind of famous for being in sort of a small setting and creepy for that reason. Day five though, is where we get the popular names.
Shaun McKenna 09:02
Dave Cortez 09:03
The hits. Day five is “The Ring,” day six is “The Grudge” — “Ju-on” in Japanese — and day seven is “Dark Water.”
Shaun McKenna 09:27
OK, “Dark Water” is interesting. I actually saw the American remake of that, it starred Jennifer Connelly. It was a good movie. It was kind of, like, creepy, and I remember it being somewhat sad, as a lot of ghost stories are, they often, ghost stories often deal with kind of like regret. So yeah, that's actually a really good recommendation, I think.
Dave Cortez 09:48
OK, well, Shaun has made it up to day seven knowing that he likes dark water but I don't think Shaun can make it past day seven.
Shaun McKenna 09:55
No, I do not like gore. And I'm kind of feeling that we switch into gore from here.
Dave Cortez 10:00
For sure, Mark definitely leans into the door on day eight, nine and 10. This is where it gets squeamish for sure. So day eight is a film called “Pulse,” and so Mark writes “think social media with mine rotting death dealing memes as the ghosts invade the world of the living in the horrific alternative universe.”
Shaun McKenna 10:17
Can I haz murder?
Dave Cortez 10:20
Exactly. Now day nine is definitely where I tap out. It's a well-known film if you're a horror buff called “Audition,” 1999. Tell us why you’re tapping out, Shaun.
Shaun McKenna 10:30
Every time, you know, I see, if you put Japanese horror into Google and you get an image search, “Audition” always comes up with, like, a syringe way too close to someone's face. And it's just like the needles. Yeah, that's nope. I’m out.
Dave Cortez 10:43
That's a nope for me, too. So finally we come up to Halloween, day 10, and Mark suggests a film called “Tetsuo the Iron Man” from 1989, which is kind of a black-and-white, steampunky gore bonanza, which Mark calls “a frontal assault on genre conventions and sanity itself.”
Shaun McKenna 11:02
Wow, that sounds a lot like drinking in Shibuya, actually.
Dave Cortez 11:06
Which you might also do on Halloween?
Shaun McKenna 11:08
Which you shouldn't do. You should not do, not this year.
Dave Cortez 11:12
So yeah, take the 10-day challenge and see how far you guys get.
Shaun McKenna 11:16
Yeah, I think it is a really good idea. It's really cool to kind of be able to discover, you know, what makes another culture afraid. So we will be back after a quick break and we will have Oscar Boyd speaking to Theresa Matsuura of “Uncanny Japan,” stick around.
Oscar Boyd 11:43
Thersa Matsuura, welcome to the podcast.
Thersa Matsuura 11:45
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Oscar Boyd 11:47
So Japan has a long history of ghost tales, and they've fascinated many writers who've lived in visited Japan. Japanese ghost tales were one of the favorite subjects of writers such as Lafcadio Hearn, he introduced many of Japan's ghost tales in translation in his book “Kwadan” in 1904. More recently, Anthony Bourdain put out a Japanese ghost-themed recipe book in 2018. And many of your own stories and podcasts are influenced by Japanese horror stories. So what is it about the Japanese supernatural and ghost tales that first attracted you to them?
Thersa Matsuura 12:23
So, when I first came to Japan was back in 1990. So this is like pre internet. I came, I studied for a couple years, decided to stick around, got married, moved to this smallish town. And I was thrown into life with my mother in law, who was very superstitious, and also actually the town where I live is Lafcadio Hearn’s, he used to spend a lot of time here. And so it's always kind of buzzing around me. I've got this theory that in the West, we kind of have this line that separates the other world that, you know, after we die, and then this world where we're alive. But in Japan, it kind of, there's not really a line, like my mother in law would talk about spirits, or, “oh, I have a clingy spirit on my back today.” And it was just very mind blowing. So again, no internet. So I’d go to the library, and I just study this stuff like, “What is she talking about? What does all this mean?” And from there it was, “I've got to introduce this to other people, because it's so wonderful and strange.”
Oscar Boyd 13:29
What did your mother know mean when she said you're sticky or that she's got a clingy ghosts stuck to her back or whatever? What was she talking about?
Thersa Matsuura 13:37
What is she talking about? Exactly? That's what I thought. So she taught me that some people are more sticky than other people. I'm a very sticky person. Evidently, she's not so much. There's ghosts everywhere. There's spirits, and there's good ones and there's bad ones, and sticky people will go places and they'll get these ghosts on them. They'll bring illness or you’ll have nightmares, or something will happen because of that. So she was convinced that I had all these ghosts on me. And at one point, she actually...
Oscar Boyd 14:11
Was that news to you? At the time?
Thersa Matsuura 14:16
At the time I thought, “Oh, that's cool. I'm like, I'm special. I have ghosts.” But then the more she talked about it, the more it wasn't a good thing. You have to get rid of those things. She's very superstitious. So if anything bad would happen, it would be me, right? It's like, “Oh, it's because Terry's sticky that Grandpa got sick,” or something, and I was like “Oh, wait a minute. That's not fair.” And also I was so alone at the time, I had to deal with this, and that’s why I do the research. And I kind of had to write the stories just to get it out. So, even in my neighborhood at the time, we had all these elderly people living around and they all had their stories and I read a lot of stories about them to kind of, what's it called, exorcize these these bad feelings, not bad feelings, but you make sense of things, I guess.
Oscar Boyd 15:02
So it's a pretty tough induction to the world of Japanese ghost stories by the sounds of it.
Thersa Matsuura 15:06
It's gotten better.
Oscar Boyd 15:08
I'm glad to hear it. So Japan has a long history of ghost stories in literature and in folklore. But is there any real indication of when ghost stories that are being told in Japan?
Thersa Matsuura 15:19
To me ghosts, and any culture, it’s just kind of like from the beginning of time, like when we started telling stories like that just was a natural ... especially in Japan. The more I read about old Japan, and the andon , the oil lamps they had, and they have these paper doors and and shadows, and just how dark everything was. Like the paper doors, the shoji paper door, they get holes in them that just happens naturally, someone throws something, there's a hole in it, and it's torn, and then at night, you have the shadows, and then there's actually a ghost and their eyes, and they look through the holes at night. And I just thought it'd be so easy to imagine, right? You know, it's dark, you know, it's cold, you're alone, you got these little flickering lamps, and you look over, and maybe somebody did look in or whatever, but they have all these... I think it was just a way, I think, to make sense of the world around them, like things were happening and they couldn't explain them. So it would be a ghost. Oh, your leg hurts? There you go. It's a ghost. You know, you have to explain something some way? At least. I think so.
Oscar Boyd 16:22
According to the mythology, then, how do ghosts in Japan actually come into being? Is it the same concept of a trapped soul that never quite leaves Earth for whatever reason?
Thersa Matsuura 16:35
Yeah, it feels the same that way. A person passes on and for some reason or another, they don't make it to the other side. The funeral services here are very ritualistic, there's a lot of things that need to be done before the funeral, during the funeral, after the funeral — days after, months after, a year after — you have to keep doing these things. You have butsudan altars in the house, and again, you do offerings, usually every day, especially on special occasions, like Obon , or New Years. So yeah, there's a presence there, someone passes away, their soul doesn't go, you have to kind of keep them on the other side. If there is some kind of anger or jealousy or wrathfulness or something, then the soul will stay on this side, and like hang out and either get its vengeance or find someone to stick to or some are supposed to just stick to spots and they'll just be there forever and ever until they realize they're dead.
Oscar Boyd 17:29
So is this all rooted in Buddhist tradition and Buddhism then?
Thersa Matsuura 17:32
Buddhism, but also before Buddhism got here, because Buddhism came in from China later. There's a lot of overlap, but there’s Buddhism, there is also the Shintoism, and they also have their thing with spirits. Everything has a spirit, so Shintoism is, you know, animistic — everything, rocks, trees, rivers, of course people, animals, we all have souls. And the same thing you know, they do rituals to appease the soul. So it's kind of a whole mix together. Japan has such a long history, it's lovely how that happens. It's just this big potpourri of traditions and thoughts and beliefs that come out.
Oscar Boyd 18:13
The kind of generic word for ghost in Japanese is yūrei , which translates to dim spirit or faint spirit, but there are actually many different types of ghost Japanese stories right such as shugorei , hyōrei , onryō, so what are the differences between these types of ghosts?
Thersa Matsuura 18:31
Yes, so shugorei would be like a protecting, like a guardian spirit spirit. So there's the good ghost, there's there's animal ghosts. There's ghosts that are connected to certain places, local tail. Near my house, there's a mountain pass, a girl was crossing, I guess a young lady was crossing the road in the middle of the night, got hit by a car. Her spirit kept coming back, evidently, there was always flowers out there. Finally, her parents spent just a crap ton of money, they built this bridge over it, there's nothing there. It's like there's absolutely no reason for the rear bridge. But they built this overpass. And to this day, you know, you go at a certain hour and you can see her walking across the bridge and stuff. So these ghosts, jibakurei , they actually stay to the place so it'll be a waterfall, whatever, a tunnel. And then there's the onryō, which are vengeful, and they died angry, and in a horrible way. They come back to get their revenge. And they're cool because it always seems like ghosts really can't do much, they just kind of spook you and they move by, but these actually have the power to in some way cause a death. There is Oiwa, there is Okiku of the nine plates. There's three big ones in Japan (onryō). They're all kind of onryō, vengeful spirits that come back and exact their revenge.
Oscar Boyd 19:59
And it’s these stories of onryō, these vengeful spirits, that have influenced a lot of Japanese horror films in characters like Sadako from “The Ring” and Kayako in “The Grudge,” and these stories, stories like “The Ring” and “The Grudge” designed to scare the living shit out of you. But of the older ghost stories you've translated and studied, do they tend to be purely designed to scare or is there a more moral element to them? Kind of horror parables?
Thersa Matsuura 20:28
I think both. But there does seem to be a lot of moralistic tales. Probably one of the first ones I heard about, or saw on TV, at least that old movie, was “Yotsuya Kaidan,” Oiwa. She's this woman and the poor thing, you know, she's been betrayed, she's been cheated on, she's poisoned, she's dies and of course she comes back and gets revenge. But absolutely a moral tail. This this man is just horrible to her and the people around him who were horrible to her get there's in the end. So there's quite a few like that. Even “The Ring,” right? A newer tail but it's kind of based on that old, “this poor woman was thrown down a well and look what she did.”
Oscar Boyd 21:18
Yeah, quite the mess. Do you have a favorite ghost story then?
Thersa Matsuura 21:24
Maybe it would be Oiwa? Just because the more I've studied her, there's a noh version, there’s a kabuki version, dozens of movies about “Yotsuya Kaidan.” And they're all a little bit different. But the initial, the bones of the story are so good that you can change things and it still holds up. It's still really scary. And even to this day, she's at two shrines in Tokyo and I went to both of them and a lot of actors go there and give offerings. So you go there and there's all these flowers and sake and all this stuff to her. But even then, it says if you go there with a flippin heart, like just kind of out of fun, that you're going to be cursed. Right? So even today, it's like “OK, I'm gonna bring an offer. And I'm not going. As a casual bystander.” I'm really kind of fascinated with that. But I like that even though that story is so old. And it was probably based on a real person, is what they say, it's changed through time, it's hasn't been any weaker. And even today, it's kind of you still just don’t talk about her, because yeah, she doesn't like it and she'll come back and come after you.
Oscar Boyd 22:38
It sounds like there's a real continued tradition of believing in ghosts and other superstitions in Japan. It's not something that's completely faded away as people have moved to the cities and away from the countryside.
Thersa Matsuura 22:50
I really think so. Even though I haven't had TV in several years now, I just remember all the TV shows at night, people going on saying, “I took this picture and there's something in it,” our video. A lot of people just love that stuff, and there's always new ones coming out — urban myths kind of based on ghostly things. There's still those that are being thought up. Before when I used to teach, there were these teenage girls that go, “There's this new thing that pops up on your computer and this ghost is going to come,” and I’m like, “That's brilliant.” Or hitori kakurenbo it's a kind of a ritual that you do when you're alone at that house with a bear but it's terrifying these kids thought it up and they do it I'm like, “Those nii-chan ,” or whatever. And they do it live so it's over the internet but it's so spooky because you can't see somebody or they have their camera and it's in a dark room you go, “Wait, I see something,” so it's kind of funny how it's just evolved, but it's still, they’re just a scary these stories in these tales and how wonderful how good these kids are at making them up and making them pretty good stories. Still around for sure. So stick around for sure
Oscar Boyd 23:59
There's a semihaunted expression and you eyes.
Thersa Matsuura 24:01
The first time the first time I read the one about the bears, like playing hiding hide and seek by yourself, I was reading it at night and I was just going through the chat and “oh this happened, this happened” and then you know you're supposed to bring something and the ghost is supposed to come find you or something and all these kids are doing it and they're talking and reading and one says, “Oh my god, I forgot the sake.” You’re supposed to have some sake and spit it out of your mouth but this one person has forgotten the sake, and everyone is worried about this one girl in the closet and one says, “I hear something!” And these she’s gone, she’s off the chat and you’re like, “What happened to this girl?” OK, they're playing a game but, that’s brilliant that is such a good story. And it still haunts me to this day. Maybe she got eaten? And yeah, ghosts still work today.
Oscar Boyd 25:00
For the second half of this episode, we're going to feature a story by Thersa Metsuura. Her retelling of one of the most popular of Japan's ghost stories, “Okiku and the Nine Plates.” This story is said to have taken place at Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, one of Japan's most famous tourist landmarks, a UNESCO heritage site, and where you can still see Okiku’s well. This story also inspired the classic Japanese horror film “ Ringu ” remade as “The Ring” in 2002. I'll be back at the end of the story, but for now tuck up tight, turn off the lights and enjoy Thersa’s story.
Shaun McKenna 40:39
That was Thersa Matsuura, reading the story of “Okiku and the Nine Plates,” which was first told to us back in October 2020. Check out more of Thersa's ghost stories, urban legends and other quirky tales about Japanese folklore on her uncanny Japan podcast and that uncannyjapan.com If you'd like your stories a bit more sci-fi, she also hosts the uncanny robot podcast with Rich Pav. The site also has a pre-order link to her “Book of Japanese Folklore,” which is set to come out next year.
Dave Cortez 41:07
Dude. Thersa is an empire.
Shaun McKenna 41:11
We'll be back next week with our own new episodes of Deep Dive from The Japan Times. And until then, thanks very much to producer Dave Cortez for joining me at the top of the episode.
Dave Cortez 41:18
My pleasure, Shaun, thanks for having me.
Shaun McKenna 41:21
And thanks to Oscar Boyd and LLLL for providing the music and until next time, I'm Shaun McKenna. Dave, do you want to do the honors?
Dave Cortez 41:28
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13 Scary Japanese Horror Stories That Will Keep You Up at Night
Japanese folklore is full of things that are just plain creepy .
Thanks to some popular movies , Japan is world-renowned for ghosts and monsters that’ll make you run for the hills—if you can outrun them, of course.
Also, Japanese horror stories are usually told in the summer (unlike in the West, where they’re told around Halloween season) in the belief that the chills from the tales will help to cool you down.
Let’s take a look at some scary ghost stories from Japan that’ll make you wish you never knew them!
1. Kappa – 河童 (かっぱ)
2. snow woman – 雪女 (ゆき おんな), 3. umbrella ghost – 唐傘お化け (からかさ おばけ), 4. faceless ghost – のっぺら坊 (のっぺらぼう), 5. rokurokubi – ろくろっ首 (ろくろっくび), 6. wet woman – 濡女 ( ぬれ おんな ), 7. two-mouth woman – 二口女 (ふたくち おんな), 8. tengu – 天狗 (てんぐ), 9. oni/ogre – 鬼 (おに), 10. gashadokuro – がしゃどくろ, 11. yokai tree – 樹木子 ( じゅぼっこ ), 12. slit-mouthed woman – 口裂け女 (くちさけ おんな), 13. hanako-san – 花子さん (はなこさん), the spiritual beliefs at the heart of japanese scary stories, japanese ghosts: essential vocabulary, and one more thing....
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Literally “river boy,” these creatures resemble turtles with webbed, human-like feet and hands. About the size of small children, they can stand, swim and walk on land. They usually inhabit ponds or rivers.
The 河童 is mainly characterized by a small bowl or plate-like area on the head that must have water at all times. If the plate-like area dries out, superstition has it that it’ll lose its powers or even die. Some stories tell of how the plate can be covered to keep the creature from drying out.
Primarily, the 河童 is used as a cautionary tale to children to be careful while swimming. They’re tricksters that can either be mischievous or outright malevolent. The more sinister stories have them luring people or animals, usually horses, into deep water to drown or be eaten.
Fun fact: the 河童巻き (かっぱ まき) was likely named after them owing to their love of cucumbers (which the 河童巻き has).
The 雪女 is, as her name suggests, the spirit of a woman who died in the cold.
Like the snow she lives in, this woman has pale white skin, wears white clothes and has the long black hair characteristic of Japanese ghosts. She is very beautiful and floats along the snow leaving no trace behind.
Don’t let her beauty fool you, though—she’s a ruthless killer.
In the stories, she usually appears to travelers and traps them in snowstorms, breathing on them until they’re frosted dead or leading them out farther and farther so they die from hypothermia.
In some versions (like the famous Lafcadio Hearn story ), she will sometimes let victims go if they’re beautiful or young. Do you think you’re good-looking enough to be spared?
According to Japanese folklore, any human tool that is old enough (e.g. a hundred years old) can take on a (sort of) life of its own.
For example, the 唐傘お化け is the ghost of a very old umbrella. It’s usually depicted with one eye and jumping around on one leg in a 下駄 (げた) sandal.
There isn’t necessarily a particular story about this creature, but it’s common in depictions of haunted houses and is usually a representative character for ghosts in Japan.
This is a creature that usually assumes normal human form, but is able to wipe its facial features off so a blank stretch of skin is left where the eyes, nose and mouth should be.
These creatures don’t harm anyone in the stories, but they do like to scare people (for their own amusement, probably). There’s no telling if it could frighten you to death, so watch out!
Studio Ghibli’s “Pom Poko” includes a scene with a のっぺら坊, which (spoiler alert) was actually a shapeshifting raccoon.
No one knows where the “ろくろ” part of the name comes from, but “首” refers to the neck, which is how this ghost is typically identified. They can appear as regular humans, but can stretch their necks to abnormal lengths.
There’s also a variant of the ろくろっ首 whose head can detach from the neck and fly around freely. This one is called 抜け首 (ぬけくび) or “Escape Neck.” As its name suggests, the 抜け首 has the ability to detach its head from the rest of its body.
Although they’re usually female, male ろくろっ首 exist too (see the Lafcadio Hearn story named after this monster).
濡女 literally means “wet woman.” This monster has the head of a woman and the body of a snake.
You can see an image of her in “The Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons” ( 百怪図鑑 /ひゃっくかい ずかん), a book from the Edo Period that depicts ghosts, spirits and monsters from folklore. Stories about the 濡女 usually involve her luring people into the water and then killing them.
Other versions depict them as creatures simply trying to wash their hair. In those stories, she only reacts violently when people bother her during her hair-washing ritual. (Never interrupt a woman’s beauty regimen, people!)
As her name implies, this creature has two mouths. One is a normal mouth that doesn’t eat much (if at all). The other is located on the back of her skull. The second mouth can control the woman’s hair to form tendrils that will grab food to feed itself.
The reasons for the appearance of this second mouth vary, but they’re usually because of a miserly husband who couldn’t even be bothered to feed his own wife. (Penny-pinchers beware!)
Other stories credit the second mouth to the woman’s own miserly ways. In these versions, the woman refuses to feed her stepchild, who dies and becomes the attached second mouth to torment and exact revenge on the terrible stepmother.
Literally “heaven dog,” these creatures originated in China where they most closely resembled dogs. When or how the 天狗 came to have the features of birds and humans is unknown. What we do know is that the image of this creature has changed drastically over time.
Originally depicted as disruptive and warlike demons, they’re now often shown as protectors of mountains and forests. They haven’t completely lost their sly and dangerous nature, though.
There are many different stories featuring 天狗—and let’s just say I wouldn’t do anything to tick them off if I were you.
These are arguably the Japanese versions of the Western demons, devils or ogres.
Their physical descriptions vary, but generally they’re ugly, large and have claws and horns. They often have red or blue skin, wear loincloths and carry a 金棒 (かなぼう), similar to a club or stick.
鬼 appear in the Japanese children’s story “Peach Boy” ( 桃太郎 /ももたろう) and “The Red Ogre Who Cried” ( 泣いた赤鬼 /ないた あかおに), a rare story about kindhearted ogres.
Skeletons are creepy enough as they are. Imagine one that’s large enough to stick its head and torso over an entire building!
One version of their origin says that the がしゃどくろ are the bones of people who died of starvation. Another says that you’ll often find them near old battlefields where hordes of warriors died with unfinished business and are out to finish said business with the living.
Even though you’ve probably never heard of them before, a がしゃどくろ makes a quick appearance in a festival scene from “Pom Poko.” There’s also one that serves as a sort of “mini-boss” in the Western animated film “Kubo and the Two Strings,” which was based on Japanese folklore.
Another Japanese monster that shows up in former battlefields, the 樹木子 survives on blood from the people it grabs who wander too close to it.
Unfortunately for those who want to avoid it, it doesn’t appear to be too different from other trees. You’ll only know it’s a 樹木子 when you stick an axe into it and it bleeds blood instead of sap.
By then, you’ve probably already become its next victim!
True to her name, the Slit-Mouthed Woman is a woman whose mouth has been slit from ear to ear. She’s probably the most famous creature from Japanese urban legends and there are many variations on how she came to be.
One story goes that her husband mutilated her with scissors. Due to her anguish over what happened, she now wanders the urban areas of Japan and terrorizes anyone unlucky enough to meet her.
According to most versions, she’ll ask you whether you think she’s pretty, and your life depends upon your answer.
If you say “no,” she’ll kill you with scissors on the spot.
If you say “yes,” she’ll reveal her slit mouth and ask whether you still think she’s pretty. If you say “yes,” she’ll give you the same slit as her own so “both of you are pretty”—and if you say “no,” she’ll kill you anyway.
Luckily, there are many ways to escape this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. One is to answer ambiguously (e.g., “I think you look okay”) or ask a question back, which will confuse her and give you time to escape.
花子さん is a female spirit that haunts school bathrooms. According to the stories, she’ll appear if you say her name in the third stall in the bathroom on the third floor.
This urban legend has been whispered around many Japanese schools—not unlike how children in the West whisper about seeing Bloody Mary in a mirror.
There are so many versions of where she came from, how to escape her and what would happen if you meet her that I’d have to write an entirely new article (or articles) on her alone!
Japanese horror stories are firmly rooted in beliefs in the spirit world.
For example, ghosts come about when someone dies and their spirit cannot move on to the afterlife. This is usually because the funeral rites weren’t done properly, the person died violently or the person had unfinished business before departing the world of the living. As a result, their ghosts become angry or malevolent and they’re usually the ones featured in Japanese scary stories.
On the other hand, when the dead are given the proper burial rites, their spirits are believed to join their ancestors in the afterlife to watch over their living loved ones. They return once a year to the world of the living, which is when they’re honored via a holiday called お盆 (おぼん) that usually takes place in August.
There are several terms in Japanese for ghosts, just as Westerners often describe ghosts as “specters,” “demons” or “wraiths.” For example:
- 妖怪 (ようかい) — A broad term for supernatural beings, 妖怪 includes ghosts and creatures that possess spiritual supernatural powers like shapeshifting. There’s a popular video game series called 妖怪ウォッチ (ようかい うぉっち) based on 妖怪. Another term for 妖怪 is 物の怪 (もののけ) which lends its name to a famous Studio Ghibli movie, “もののけ姫” or “Princess Mononoke. ” And if you’re into manga , “ゲゲゲの鬼太郎” (げげげの きたろう) (which has been adapted into an anime ) popularized 妖怪 and added new ones to the old folklore.
- お化け (おばけ) — The literal meaning of お化け is “thing that changes,” and it’s a type of shapeshifting 妖怪.
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- 亡霊 (ぼうれい) — This is another less common term for 幽霊 and roughly translates to “ruined spirits.” These haunt the physical world in a state of purgatory in an attempt to resolve unfinished business.
- Ghost Stories ( お化けの話 /おばけの はなし) or Kaidan ( 怪談 /かいだん) — Both of these terms are used to categorize classic and traditional ghost stories, usually from the Edo Period. There’s also 実話怪談 (じつわ かいだん) or “real ghost stories,” which are usually personal tales that proliferate around the Japanese internet. You can find an entire collection of them in “ こわい！ ” (Scary!), which—luckily for language learners—is one of the easiest Japanese books to read .
- お札 (おふだ) — お札 are Shinto writings containing the name of a god ( 神 /かみ). These are blessed by a Shinto shrine and placed on the house for protection from evil spirits, much like how a cross is used in exorcisms in the West. You may see them placed on doors or walls in Japan.
Now that you know about some popular and classic Japanese scary stories, you should be prepared if one of these creatures attacks you or wanders along your path.
There are many books, manga and movies featuring them, so be sure to do your research! And if you really don’t feel like sleeping tonight, go ahead and Google them for more images and videos to fill your nightmares.
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FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
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All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
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- , May 15, 2023
The Scariest Japanese Ghost Stories Of All Time
Learning Japanese can be fun, especially if you take a look at the scariest Japanese ghost stories of all time! These legends and other stories from Japan are some of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture. You see, learning about these stories will not only help you expand your Japanese vocabulary but also give you insight into how the Japanese culture details its fears and anxieties through the telling of stories.
From the tragic story of the yuki onna, who needed a young man to take revenge for her, to the accursed tale of the Gashadokuro, we’re about to regale you with tales that don’t end with, “and they lived happily ever after.” Before we take a look at some of the coolest and scariest ghost stories in Japan in this post, let’s first go over a few keywords every beginner needs to know.
The Scariest Japanese Ghost Stories That Will Keep You Up At Night
Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談【よつやかいたん】)
One of the most popular Japanese ghosts in Japanese folklore is Oiwa (お岩), the star of this chilling ghost story – the Japanese version of Bloody Mary if you will. Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談, よつやかいたん) is a bloody story filled with infidelity, murder, and revenge – which makes this, and other versions of it, perfect to be told around a dark night, with the lights down low.
Here’s how the story goes…
In ancient Japan, a woman named Oiwa, the town’s most beautiful woman, married Lemon, a wealthy and influential ronin (浪人, ろんいん). Things should be perfect, however, it soon turns out that Lemon is a cruel and ambitious man. Her only married Oiwa for her status and good fortune so it wasn’t long until his eyes wandered over to another woman, Oume. Together, Lemon and Oume hatched a plot to get rid of Oiwa.
Lemon hired a doctor to give Oiwa a poisoned facial cream, which the latter, unfortunately, used that very same night, excited to receive a gift from her husband. The cream ended up disfiguring Oiwa’s beautiful face, driving her to insanity. But as the cream did not have the intended effect of getting rid of his wife, Lemon then arranged for someone to kill Oiwa outright – and they succeeded.
However, Oiwa’s ghost could not rest. Her vengeful spirit returned to haunt her killer, Lemon, and his new wife. Little by little, Oiwa made her presence felt. She started appearing to Lemon and Oume in their dreams, startling them awake with nightmares. And then, she moved to appear whenever they would look in the mirror, her bloody, disfigured face appearing to shock them to the core.
Over time, Lemon and Oume both die as a result of the hauntings. Oume was driven to suicide, while Lemon was eventually done in by a group of thugs. Oiwa’s ghost, at long last, was finally at peace. Her life story is a reminder to young women that while the mind may forgive, the spirit sure doesn’t.
The Snow Woman (雪女, ゆきおんな)
This story is one of the scariest ghost stories in Japanese mythology. The story of Yuki onna (雪女, ゆきおんな), or The Snow Woman, is one that has been told for generations, with vengeful spirits that want to exact revenge and a reminder that we should be careful walking during the snowy months.
According to legends…
In the heart of the snow-covered mountains of Japan, a young man named Minokichi finds himself lost in the middle of a relentless blizzard. As he wanders, he comes across the most beautiful woman he’s ever met. She offers to help Minokichi find his way, but as they walk, he realizes that something is amiss.
Minokichi notices that the woman was absolutely cold to the touch. Her breath, unlike his, did not fog up in the air as she exhaled. He decides to confront her about this, but as soon as he grasps her hand, she disappears into a cloud of snow.
The hauntings continued as Minokichi struggles to find his way across the mountain. Eventually, he learns that the strange woman is actually the vengeful spirit of a person who was murdered in a fit of rage by her husband and has since been leading travelers astray in a misguided attempt at revenge.
Minokichi swears to put her spirit to rest and heads off to bring justice to her. As Minokichi lops off her murderer’s head, he notices a faint shape in the snow, appearing as if it was waving at him. Finally, the Yuki onna he followed found herself able to rest.
Kuchisake Onna (口裂け女, くちぎれおんな)
Kuchisake onna (口裂け女, くちぎれおんな, slit-mouthed woman) is a Japanese urban legend that’s a chilling tale with one lesson: sometimes, you just can’t win. While it’s considered a more recent urban legend, there are traces of the kuchisake onna from as far back as the 17th century. The premise then, as it is in the modern world, remains the same.
The kuchisake onna is a sinister figure in Japanese folklore. It is said to be the vengeful spirit of a disfigured woman. Concealing her mutilated face behind a surgical mask and armed with sharp objects, her ghostly presence has haunted the streets for centuries, seeking retribution. Her chilling tale gained notoriety in the 1970s, and she has since become a popular subject in Japanese horror films, TV shows, video games, and anime stories .
When kuchisake onna confronts her victims, she inquires if they find her beautiful. A deceitful test, answering “yes,” reveals her mangled visage and a deadly follow-up question. To escape her wrath, one must provide a non-committal response, distract her with a question, or attempt to flee, despite her supernatural speed. The mystery surrounding this ghost with long black hair and a twisted smile makes her a great Halloween costume choice for Japanese women!
Gashadokuro ( ガシャドクロ)
As far as Japanese ghost stories go, the Gashadokuro (ガシャドクロ) is one of the most heartbreaking urban legends we’ve found. It is a lesson about how sometimes, no matter the effort, we end up just delaying the inevitable.
According to the locals…
It is described as a fearsome giant skeleton yokai (妖怪, ようかい) or demon in Japanese folklore, whose body is believed to be the reanimated remains of those who perished from starvation or thirst. Tales of people being taken in the night, children getting eaten while the family can do nothing other than watch – it is one scary dude.
This formidable creature, known for its immense strength and speed, appears at night in areas frequented by the famished and parched. It will demand food or water from its victims; refusal results in death, while compliance merely delays the inevitable, as it returns each night for more sustenance.
To protect oneself from the Gashadokuro , legend states that one can carry a bag of rice, which the creature is said to enjoy or wear red garments, a color it fears. Encounters with this perilous yokai are best avoided, as it is a powerful and dangerous adversary.
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The 28 Best Japanese Horror Movies Of All Time
Japanese horror (or "J-horror") films are their own kind of scary. Whether they're about serial killers or angry ghosts, these films create a different type of fear, one steeped in existential dread about what it means to exist and the loneliness that is inherent to the human condition. It's a special brand of nihilism that's often accompanied by the absurd, creating horror that points at the absurdity of life itself. This tone is what makes these films so hard to adapt to a Western perspective. They are so explicitly Japanese that removing the cultural context in turn removes the horror. It's not just horrific imagery, but in a deeper psychological fear born from increasing loneliness in the age of technology.
This list aims to capture the incredible range of Japanese horror films, from ridiculous horror comedies to harrowing tales of ghostly viruses. It also aims to capture the extensive presence of horror in Japan, which is intrinsically linked to a complex folklore tradition involving spirits, monsters, and demons. You'll see some directors get multiple shout-outs — horror greats like Takashi Miike and Sion Sono are not just masters of their craft, but they're also ridiculously prolific, and their influence on the genre cannot be limited to just one film. If you're new to Japanese horror, this is a perfect place to start your adventure into this wild and wonderful world.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
This is a film for the gore-lovers out there. This is also a film for those who are fans of high-concept horror that is less about a set narrative and more about creating a very specific atmosphere that sets your teeth on edge. Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" chronicles the life of a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) whose thoughts are plagued with images of his body penetrated by scraps of metal. These horrifying thoughts ooze into real life as the man's reality melds with that of a metal fetishist, who loves to insert metal into his skin — like, really loves it, to the point that maggots squirm in his infected flesh.
While "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" is shot in black and white, that does not make its graphic violence any less gruesome. Oozing blood resembles goopy oil as it gushes from open wounds, and human flesh becomes synonymous with machinery. But what's even more fascinating about "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" is that it is ultimately a love story between the salaryman and the metal fetishist, both of whom crave an unholy union between flesh and cold steel.
"Kwaidan," which translates to "ghost story," is a 1964 horror anthology film directed by Masaki Kobayashi, based on Lafcadio Hearn's collection of Japanese folktales. The first story, "The Black Hair," follows a poor samurai who regrets leaving his loyal wife for a wealthier, yet cold, woman in order to gain better social status.
The next is "The Woman of the Snow," in which two woodcutters seek refuge in a hut during a snowstorm. There, one of them is murdered by an angry spirit, who spares the other on the condition that he never tells anyone what he's seen. His resolve is tested when he meets a beautiful woman who resembles the spirit.
The third segment is a story-within-a-story called "Hoichi the Earless," about a blind musician named Hoichi attracts the attention of a rich family that may not be human. The last tale, "In a Cup of Tea," is a short and sweet segment about a man who keeps seeing faces in his tea. "Kwaidan" is a gorgeous dive into Japanese folklore and some of their traditional ghost stories that have been told — and re-told — for centuries.
This won't be the only found footage film on this list. After directing the cult hit (now horror classic) "Ju-On: The Grudge," director Takashi Shimizu released "Marebito," a tale about a nervous man who becomes obsessed with filming the world around him after watching a man commit suicide. Through his camera, the man hopes to better understand death.
In his quest, the protagonist travels to a bizarre world underneath Tokyo, armed with nothing but his video camera. While venturing through this strange place, he encounters a young woman chained to a wall, who he decides to "save" and bring home to his apartment. But, as he spends more time with this woman, he realizes that she won't eat, drink, or even talk — yes, we are wandering into vampire territory.
As he continues to care for the stranger, the man's life becomes more violent, and he realizes that he brought something to the surface that should have been left where it was found. "Marebito" takes a lot of cues from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, playing with the overwhelming madness intrinsic to cosmic horror.
Sion Sono is a mad genius who doesn't let the pesky things like a "cohesive narrative" hold him back. In his 2015 film "Tag," student Mitsuki (Reina Triendl) is the sole survivor of a horrific accident, during which a gust of wind cuts her bus — and her classmates — in half. That introduction sets the scene for a truly ridiculous story that involves multiple dimensions, mistaken identities, machine gun-wielding teachers, and much more.
"Tag" is a film made for gore hounds looking for something absolutely gonzo, but also shockingly feminist. As Mitsuko travels through a bloody hellscape, watching all of her friends die right in front of her, Sono questions the objectification and use of the female body in exploitation horror. So, why exactly is it called "Tag?" Is it really all just one big game? You'll just have to watch to find out.
Kaneto Shindo's 1964 horror classic "Onibaba" is set in 14th-century Japan, where an old woman and her daughter-in-law are trying to survive during a civil war. As they await the return of their son-slash-husband, the women murder soldiers, loot their bodies, and sell the stolen goods so they can afford to survive. But when their neighbor returns from war, things get complicated, and a strange love triangle threatens the women's violent, yet simple, way of life.
Full of tension with a dash of the supernatural, "Onibaba" is an example of Japanese horror excellence, adapting classic Japanese folklore into something that both honors the past while also bringing it into the present. Shindo's early work set a precedent for the genre, and in turn helped shape the current roster of wild and wonderful Japanese horror filmmakers.
Sono makes an appearance on this list again, this time with his 2001 film "Suicide Club," which is about exactly that: a club where people commit suicide. The film opens with a large group of schoolgirls from across Tokyo, all of whom hold hands and jump together in front of a moving train. As bodies continue to pile up — literally — on the streets of Japan, Detective Kuroda (Ryō Ishibashi) tries to get to the bottom of what is causing these suicides. The answer lies in a complex series of clues that includes cryptic websites and special tattoos.
While the film grapples with serious subject matter, Sono isn't afraid to make the taboo darkly funny. This controversial film relies on a smattering of violent and absurd images, creating a cinematic experience that will keep you enthralled from beginning to end. Even with Sono's sinister playfulness, "Suicide Club" is ultimately a troubling and nihilistic film about the effects of the digital world on the younger generation, whose impressionable minds make easy targets for those with evil intentions.
There is no way to truly capture the psychedelic essence of Nobuhiko Obayashi's wacky 1977 classic "Hausu," a film full of disembodied cats, breathtaking animation, and much, much more .
In "Hausu," a young woman named Gorgeous brings a group of her close friends to her aunt's house over the summer to relax in the countryside, but they don't know that this house is deeply haunted. Nothing but doom awaits them. "Hausu" is a film that knows exactly what it is, and Obayashi commits wholeheartedly. The result is a campy masterpiece that never pretends to be sleek; instead, "Hausu" leans into its outlandish nature, featuring poor special effects and wild animation sequences.
Of course, there's good reason for the ridiculousness: "Hausu" was written with the help of Obayashi's young daughter . It is, quite literally, from the mouth of a babe, and her honesty about what scared her as a child helps to create one of the strangest horror films to date.
Shot in a beautiful monochromatic color palette, Kaneto Shindo's 1968 ghost story "Kuroneko" is a devastatingly gorgeous revenge tale about a woman and her daughter-in-law, who return as angry spirits after being raped and murdered by violent samurai during a war in feudal Japan. If that sounds similar, it's because Shindo wrote and directed "Onibaba" just four years earlier.
These two spirits, known as onryo, haunt a popular road, seducing lonely samurai and luring them away to murder them. They take the form of black cats as they pounce and yowl at their prey. Their feline forms also lend to some impressive aerial stunts from the two lead female performers. "Kuroneko" is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge tale; even in death, these two women must try to find justice for the harm inflicted upon them by those in power. While there is a lot of murder in the film, it contains almost no gore, instead relying on an oppressive and ominous atmosphere to create its unsettling tone.
Ju-On: The Grudge
Released in 2002, Takashi Shimizu's "Ju-on: The Grudge" was the third film in a franchise, but the first to be released in theatres, and therefore the first of the films to really make a large mark on the horror genre. When a woman named Kayako and her son are murdered by her husband after he discovers her infidelity, they die with a grudge in their hearts. Their rage and anger spreads like an infection, and the two slowly torture and kill anyone who moves into their home.
The tradition of rage-filled ghosts who refuse to pass on peacefully is a traditional Japanese horror trope, particularly scorned women who seek revenge on the men who wronged them. "Ju-On: The Grudge" introduced many iconic horror images, as well as the unforgettable bone-chilling screech that emanates from a young boy's mouth as he descends on his next victim.
Shimizu later adapted "Ju-On: The Grudge" into an English-language film featuring a primarily white cast, but the original is a quintessential Japanese horror films that will haunt your dreams. It's impossible to forget the boy's death rattle, or the sound of Kayako creepily walking down the stairs as her joints creak and snap.
"Ringu" is a classic Japanese horror film, and the one that made J-horror a mainstream concern internationally. Released in 1998 and directed by Hideo Nakata, "Ringu" is about a cursed videotape that kills whoever watches it after seven days. The contents of the tape are an amalgamation of unsettling images, culminating in a sequence in which a young girl climbs out of a well.
While investigating the tape, reporter Reiko Asakawa travels to the small island of Izu, looking to discover the tape's origin and the identity of the girl in the well; is it real, or is it an elaborate prank? During her investigation, those around Asakawa die violent deaths after watching the tape themselves. "Ringu" is the first film featuring the vengeful spirit Sadako, who has that long, wet, black hair draped over her face. This was also one of the first films to tackle Japan's growing digital landscape, and the horrors that lie in our increasing dependence on technology.
Takashi Miike paints with a bloody, gruesome brush, creating some of Japan's most extreme horror films, including "Visitor Q" and "Ichi the Killer." But perhaps his best work is his 1999 film "Audition," one of James Gunn's favorite horror movies , not to mention a distressing story about finding romance and the harmful misogyny of Japan's older generation.
Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a lonely film producer and widower who lives a quiet life. One day, his adult son suggests that Aoyama marry again. So, to help Aoyama find love, his friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa holds auditions for a fake film role; in reality, the "part" is Aoyama's future wife.
During the process, Aoyama becomes enamored with the quiet and mysterious Asami (Eihi Shiina). As their relationship blossoms, he begins to discover dark secrets about her past — dismembering abusers, copious amounts of piano wire, and bowls of vomit. While "Audition" starts as a slow-paced relationship drama, the film's final act is well worth the build-up — it's one of the most shocking sequences ever committed to film. "Audition" also serves as the perfect introduction to Miike's work, illustrating his unique style of filmmaking as well as his uncanny ability to create disgusting and disquieting images.
Kaiju movies are often thought of as campy spectacles with no actual fear factor. Cheap rubber costumes distract from the citywide destruction. Massive monster battles are the centerpieces, not the trauma inflicted upon millions of people. But the original kaiju movie, "Godzilla ," which was directed by Ishiro Honda in 1954, is a terrifying monster movie that examines the horrors of nuclear war.
In his original iteration, Godzilla is an ancient creature awakened from his underwater slumber by atomic bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean. He now travels across Japan, leaving devastation in his wake. Not only is the city of Tokyo shown burned to the ground, but Honda also focuses on the individuals affected by Godzilla's destruction, depicting hospitals packed full of sobbing families and dying children. In this film, Godzilla is not the internet's thick-thighed boyfriend; he's a terrifying creature sent to wreak havoc on those who try to play God.
At the turn of the century, one of Japan's biggest fears was the increasing isolation that came with the growth of the internet. Kiyoshi Kurosawa encapsulates that cultural anxiety in his 2001 film "Pulse," which is about a ghostly virus that leaks from the internet into reality. In parallel story lines, two young women discover that something strange is happening to their friends, who begin committing suicide after leaving cryptic notes asking for help.
As their stories converge, the women discover that the spirit world has found a way to access and infect the real world through internet connections. It's like a computer virus, but one that also takes over the minds of real people. And, like any virus, the mysterious force begins to proliferate exponentially, claiming more and more lives every day. Kurosawa creates some very harrowing moments, including a scene with a slow-dancing ghost who is more menacing than any other cinematic spirit of recent memory.
Noroi: The Curse
The found footage genre is horrifying, given its ability to place audiences in the shoes of terrorized characters by using a first-person point of view. But director Kōji Shiraishi takes it to another level with his 2005 film, "Noroi: The Curse." The film is presented as an incomplete documentary by paranormal researcher and journalist Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), who is known for his books, documentaries, and TV series about ghostly events around Japan. In this documentary, Kobayashi begins investigating reports of disembodied sounds of babies crying, but the film quickly becomes about something much more sinister.
While "Noroi: The Curse" states from the very beginning that Kobayashi's house has burned down and that he's missing, this does not make any of Kobayashi's revelations any less terrifying, particularly in regard to some deeply unsettling imagery at the film's end. This is not the typical found footage film, full of shaky footage and haunted forests. This is a sleek pseudo-documentary that plays with the truth and how filmmakers build trust with the audience. "Noroi: The Curse" is not only a shining example of Japanese horror, but of the found footage genre as a whole.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a master of psychological horror, creating stories that burrow under your skin and fester, haunting you for days. His 1997 film "Cure" — one of "Parasite" director Bong-Joon Hoo's favorite movies — is a prime example, capturing a deep-seated fear of losing control and the destruction that often comes with obsession. Kenichi Takabe (Kōji Yakusho) is a detective investigating a string of strange murders in which all of the victims are marked with a giant X, and yet were all killed by different people. Even weirder, the murderers have no memory of committing the crimes, and have no real motivation for the killings.
Takabe struggles to understand the mystery, until he captures Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who seems to have short-term memory loss. However, the detective slowly learns that Mamiya is a master of hypnotism, and that he is using those gifts to manipulate innocent people. "Cure" devolves into a tense game of cat and mouse, set against a drab, gray background that creates an oppressive atmosphere and smothers both the audience and the characters alike. "Cure" is a perfect example of Japanese horror, and how it easily and unsettlingly combines of disturbing imagery and existential dread.
One Cut of the Dead
Shinichirou Ueda's "One Cut of the Dead" is one of the most unexpected genre treats ever made. Billed as a zombie comedy, it fully embraces every cliche and trope in the book, but completely flips the format on its head. The movie follows a film crew that's shooting its very own apocalyptic thriller in an abandoned water plant when real zombies attack 一 or so the viewer thinks. The second half of the film explores exactly what is going on, revealing various behind-the-scenes antics and how the film is being shot in only one take.
"One Cut of the Dead" manages to totally reinvent a stale genre. One could argue that it's a full-on comedy that uses horror conventions, but the gore and violence is truly to die for. Moldmaker Kazuhide Shimohata and assistant Kasumi Nakamura craft wonderfully bloody sequences that may haunt you, with a big assist from Yusuke Kambayashi's excellent visual effects. Go in expecting the unexpected, and you'll still be surprised.
It's not easy to open a film, much less a horror film, with a 20-minute monologue. And yet, Tetsuya Nakashima's "Confessions," based on author Kanae Minato's 2008 novel, begins with a brilliant and emotionally-grueling performance by Takako Matsu, who plays a high school teacher named Yuko Moriguchi. Her epic speech details her plans to resign from her position, and lays out exactly why: the death of her daughter at the hands of two classmates. Flashbacks twist like barbed wire around the present, slowly puncturing the story until it draws copious amounts of blood.
You want to go into "Confessions" mostly blind. It's a film brimming with twists and turns, and brings up countless moral questions. They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but Yuko exacts hers piping hot. The early exposition dump front loads the film, and there's a reason for it: The story soon devolves into a lesson about vengeance, harboring resentment, and the lines you draw in the sand. It also explores the birth of a true psychopath, one whose malevolence is born out of a deep desire to be seen and heard.
Tokyo Gore Police
Truth be told, there's no way you could ever be ready for "Tokyo Gore Police," a 2008 horror-action film. Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura, who co-wrote the script with Kengo Kaji and Sayako Nakoshi, the film is a relentless acid trip into bonkers-ville. In the first two minutes, an exploding head sets the pace for what is ultimately a nauseating and mind-altering display of gore and violence. It is without a doubt one of the grossest films released in the last 30 years.
Eihi Shiina stars as Ruka, a vengeful police officer tasked with hunting down "engineers," or monstrous human beings with machine mutations. Limbs and heads are frequently amputated or decapitated, resulting in a flood of blood and meaty chunks, and you rarely get a moment's peace before the next sickening, over-the-top sequence slams into your eyeballs. In her quest to avenge her father's murder, Ruka combats a number of engineers. Her journey only leads to more wildness; in this film, every frame is as shocking as the last. While watching, you may want to have a trash can handy.
There's a reason why "Dark Water" feels as though it resides in the same universe as "Ringu" and its sequels. Author Koji Suzuki is the genius storyteller behind both works. With director Hideo Nakata at the helm, the film (adapted from Suzuki's work by Yoshihiro Nakamura and Kenichi Suzuki) follows a divorced woman and her young daughter, who move into a derelict apartment building. Amidst a bitter custody battle, Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) is doing everything she can to give Ikuko (Rio Kanno) the best life possible.
Within the first few days, a leaky ceiling becomes a big problem. Yoshimi complains to the front desk, but to no avail. She puts a pot on the floor to catch the run-off and goes about her life. She has just started a new job, and it's going fairly well for her. Soon, however, a dark mystery unfolds involving a local missing girl, a bright red satchel, and rising flood waters. "Dark Water" does not necessarily reinvent the wheel by any means, but it's final act is packed with mood and ghoulish frights.
The 2000 action-thriller redefined an entire subgenre of horror. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, "Battle Royale" (based on a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami) addresses violent acts from the new generation and their growing hatred for adults, while commenting upon the treatment of millennials and how they were, allegedly, the cause of society's downfall. The film was so controversial that it didn't see a United States release until 2012.
In the world of the movie, the government passes the "BR ACT," which forces middle school students to battle to the death, in order to curb rising crime rates,. While on a field trip, a fresh crop of middle schoolers are subdued by a sleeper agent, gagged, and carted off to a secluded island. When they awake, they discover they've been bound in metal dog collars and forced to enroll in the deadly tournament. Given a survival bag that contains food, water, and a random weapon, they must survive for three days. But here's the catch: only one student will walk away alive.
"Battle Royale" is unafraid to take big risks and kill off core characters, so getting attached to anyone is a huge mistake. More than two decades later, it's easy to see why it became such a groundbreaking film. From "The Hunger Games" to Netflix's mega-hit series "Squid Game," it's influence is unmistakable.
Horrors of Malformed Men
The 1969 film "Horrors of Malformed Men," directed by Teruo Ishii, pulls elements from two Edogawa Rampo novels: "Strange Tale of Panorama Island" and "The Demon of the Lonely Isle." It's twisty and turny, resulting in a frothy blender of film noir, body horror, and the truly demented.
Upon escaping a mental asylum, would-be doctor Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida) goes in search of the truth about his past and why he was admitted into a psychiatric facility. His journey is a wild one. During his quest, he befriends a circus girl and receives a tip about an abandoned island, a rich family called Komoda, and deeply buried secrets. Once he arrives on the island, he meets a deranged scientist who is hellbent on creating what he calls an "ideal world" by surgically altering human beings. Some are tethered to another person; others are stitched to any manner of furry beasts. The macabre menagerie is among the most unsettling and weird images ever put on screen. When all is revealed in the finale, well, you may not even believe it yourself.
Noriko's Dinner Table
"Noriko's Dinner Table" is an epic, 159-minute poetic tragedy. The film, written and directed by Sion Sono, follows 2002's "Suicide Club" and delves further into the psychology of human desire, desperation, and delusion. Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi) longs to feel needed and included in the world, often wandering aimlessly through her life. Her stern father wants her to go to a local community college, but she has set her sights on Tokyo, where, her father claims, the boys are no good.
During a late-night power outage, Noriko packs up her most precious belongings and heads into the big city. There, she befriends online companion Ueno54 (Tsugumi), who introduces Noriko to I.C. Corp, a company that rents out people who pretend to be members of their customers' families. In living fake lives at the behest of various clients, Noriko discovers what it means to be desired.
"Noriko's Dinner Table" is as much about the dark underbelly of the city as it is about Noriko's self-actualization and her growing understanding of her identity. While the mystery unravels ever-so slowly, you'll stick around for Fukiishi's hypnotic lead performance.
As far as horror-comedy goes, "Wild Zero" is top-tier, head-bangin', post-apocalyptic madness. Directed by Tetsuro Takeuchi, this 1999 feature film follows a Guitar Wolf-obsessed fan named Ace (Masashi Endō) and his new love interest, Tobio (Kwancharu Shitichai), as they navigate the end of the world. A meteorite crashes on the outskirts of a town called Asahi, a swarm of flesh eaters emerge from the wreckage, and all hell literally breaks loose.
From the zombies' glacial pace and exaggerated makeup to a gleeful rock soundtrack, "Wild Zero" is ripe for a midnight crowd. "Rock and roll never dies!" seems to be the central thesis, wrapped tightly around various love stories and fervent machismo. The real-life garage-rock band Guitar Wolf plays an important role in saving humanity, and that's just scraping the surface. The gore is chunky, the characters make outrageous decisions, and elements of slapstick comedy are guaranteed to elicit chuckles every few minutes. If nothing else, "Wild Zero" is a good distraction from a chaos-fueled world.
In the 2010 film "Cold Fish," director Sion Sono, who co-wrote the script with Yoshiki Takahashi, loosely excavates the real-life horrors of two serial killers, Sekine Gen and Hiroko Kazama. What begins as an intimate, low-scale drama swiftly devolves into a horrific, grimy, and hard-to-stomach display of humanity's depravity. Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is terribly unhappy in his marriage to his second wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), so he finds great delight when fish store owner Murata (Denden) expresses an affection for him.
Now romantically ensnared, Murata enlists Shamoto as an accomplice in a frenzy of small-scale murders. Soon, their relationship becomes twisted beyond belief. "Cold Fish" is littered with gore that'll make even the least squeamish among us a bit nauseous. It's a true making-a-murder template that guides the viewer into a merciless and seemingly endless maze of graphic violence so uncomfortable that you won't soon forget it.
Based on a popular manga series, 2006's "Death Note" follows a college student named Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his mission to create an ideal society by eradicating criminals. His journey begins when he discovers a mysterious notebook titled "Death Note." When Light scrawls various individual's names in its pages, they die. So, he begins to fill the journal with those he considers evil, hoping to make the world a better place. The rash of resulting murders tips off Interpol, and detective L (Kenichi Matsuyama) is tasked with finding out the truth and tracking Light down as the young man spirals out of control.
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, "Death Note" fully embraces its zany premise, particularly with the inclusion of a CGI ghoul rocking cool emo fashions (yes, really). It's the actors' commitment and the production team's fantastic work that marks this film as a freaky, weird, and perhaps silly must-watch.
A Page of Madness
"A Page of Madness" more than lives up to its title. This silent film had been lost to time until director Teinosuke Kinugasa discovered a copy in his storage shed in 1971. Nearly 100 years later, its surrealist expressionism remains something of a marvel, a creative choice that goes against most other mainstream fare of the era.
Its story revolves around a janitor (Masao Inoue) who takes up a position at an asylum in the countryside. His wife (Yoshie Nakagawa) has been committed after suffering abuse at the hands of her husband, and then a mental breakdown. The janitor's daughter (Ayako Iijima) also becomes a patient in the mental hospital, adding a strained familial through line to the film. When his wife suffers a blow, the janitor intervenes and scuffles with several other inmates. This moment sends him spiraling out of control and wandering through a sequence of disturbing fantasies.
The janitor loses all sense of self and tumbles through distorted visions of the past, present, and what could be the future, but there's no telling what is actually real and what are figments of the man's imagination. His guilt is overwhelming. "A Page of Madness" makes for a great triple bill with 1920's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and 1955's "Dementia," two similarly expressive character studies about mental health and tragedy.
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The Vampire Doll
Michio Yamamoto's "The Vampire Doll" is a quiet chiller. Only 71 minutes long, the 1970 vampire tale emits a shocking coldness that'll make you shiver down to the bone. When a young gentleman named Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) pays a visit to his fiancé, Yuko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi), in the country, Yuko's mother reveals the woman suffered a tragic fate. Before long, Kazuhiko meets a grisly destiny of his own.
After Kazuhiko disappears without a trace, his sister, Keiko Sagawa (Kayo Matsuo), begins looking into his whereabouts. She takes a trip to the same secluded estate, with her soon-to-be-husband Hiroshi Takagi (Akira Nakao) in tow. Keiko immediately suspects that Yuko's mother has ill intentions, and that she may know what happened to her brother. After poking around the property, Hiroshi pretends that his car has broken down, a decision that allows the couple to stay a little bit longer in order to get to the truth.
"The Vampire Doll" serves up some haunted house tricks as part of a blood-sucking banquet. The vampire peeks out of the shadows with glowing amber eyes; their thirst is unquenchable, and yet the actual blood is kept to a minimum on screen. It's not needed. The film has plenty of other frightful images that'll turn your stomach. Oh, and watch out for that third act, too — the whiplash may break your neck.
Evil Dead Trap
Toshiharu Ikeda's "Evil Dead Trap," written by Takashi Ishii, is as underrated as they come. What begins as a typical slasher film takes a hard left turn into bonkersville in the final 20 minutes. Truly, you won't see it coming.
Miyuki Ono stars as late-night TV emcee Nami Tsuchiya, who receives a mysterious package containing a snuff film and decides to investigate. Nami and a team of reporters come up with a plan to figure out where it was created by following the road signs and landmarks on the tape. It leads them to an abandoned military base where, against her better judgment, Nami trespasses through the overgrown brush and the rusted chain link fence. She'll do anything to get the story of her career.
For slasher fiends, "Evil Dead Trap" has all kinds of killings: impalements, strangulations, and decapitations. However, it's also notable for Ikeda's experimental camera work, which includes a scrambling, overexposed first-person point of view and a hypnotically-cool sequence in which a camera flash is used to light the scene. As the killer closes ranks, the death scenes grow increasingly more violent and nauseating, particularly during an excruciatingly brutal sexual assault. "Evil Dead Trap" is full of sky-high ambition, and it sticks the landing with acrobatic agility.
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The Most Terrifying Japanese Yokai
Any modern day horror movie aficionado probably thinks they've seen everything — monsters, demons, ghosts. Are there really any new ideas anymore? One quick glance at some of the terrifying Japanese yokai out there and the answer is a resounding yes. Yokai go beyond what western ghost stories traditionally hold, and that's because yokai themselves are unique to Japanese spirituality. According to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by yokai expert Matthew Meyer, yokai aren't just the Japanese equivalent of ghosts and monsters . The term also includes gods, ghosts, magical animals, transformed humans, urban legends, and other strange phenomena. Essentially meaning that all paranormal entities fall under this same blanket term.
Which, in turn, gives rise to all kinds of wonderful variants of yokai, some humanoid, some monstrous, and many of them just downright terrifying for an even wider array of reasons — fangs, talons, curses, lack of faces, and much, much more.
Interestingly, many yokai were once humans, too. Like western ghosts, they often come back when they have a grudge to bear or a bone to pick. Take Taira no Masakado, for instance, a samurai who had his head severed by his own family and, naturally, that head came back to reek sweet vengeance on anything and everything. Such is the nature of being a yokai in the sordid underbelly of the paranormal realm of Japan.
Here's a look at the most terrifying yokai you could ever encounter.
The Japanese have a lot of yokai tied to toilets, and using the restroom, particularly in public places like schools, but no toilet-based yokai is as cruel as aka manto. The aka manto generally sticks to one particular stall, and should you be so unlucky as to choose that stall, she will give you a choice. After doing your business, she will offer you either red paper or blue and, unfortunately, one must be chosen. This is where the stories deviate a bit, depending on who you ask, according to yokai.com . If red paper is chosen, aka manto slices up the poor toilet user until they are soaked in their own blood. If blue paper is chosen, the aka manto instead sucks all the blood out of the person.
There are variations though, such as red paper leading to flaying and blue paper leading to strangling. Whatever the case, there is no right answer to the question, and in the end there is generally no way to survive. To circumvent this, some people bring their own toilet paper to public restrooms to try to avoid having to answer at all, which doesn't actually sound like a bad idea when considering the alternative.
This one is no fun whatsoever. According to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer, the kuchinasake onna is the lingering spirit of a mutilated woman who has come back to seek vengeance on any living person unfortunate to come across her. When she appears, she seems relatively benign, but so do practically all the others. Her mouth is covered by a mask or fan, and she asks the traveler if they think she's beautiful. This is the most important part, because your answer determines your fate, if only for a little while.
If you answer no, she slaughters you right then and there. If you answer yes, she reveals her mouth, which, Joker-like, is cut from ear to ear in a gruesome and bloody smile. Then she asks again if the traveler still thinks she's beautiful. If you stick to your guns and say yes again, she follows you home and brutally murders you in your sleep. If you say no to her second question, or react in a natural way, like screaming and/or running, she cuts your smile just like hers.
So however you handle this interaction, you're doomed, basically.
If ever there was a "standard" yokai, at least from Western conceptions, this may be it. Most yokai are pretty creative — spider women, flaming heads, legless apparitions — but the gashadokuro is just a giant skeleton, according to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer. It's composed of the remains of warriors who died in battle and were not given proper funerary rites. When that happens, the souls return to the bodies of the dead with a serious grudge against the living, and justifiably so. The problem is when all those remains band together and form this enormous skeletal fiend known as the gashadokuro.
With chattering teeth and creaky bones, the gashadokuro saunters about in the dead of night. They cannot be felled by mortal means, and will only cease to exist when their anger towards the living fizzles out. Which, given how many dead bodies compose this creature, as well as how much anger and resentment is contained in each individual soul, it can take awhile. While they do not require any sustenance, given their skeletal form, they still enjoy eating humans just for the fun of it.
Generally speaking, weasels are pretty cute. Itachi, the Japanese word for weasel, doesn't change that. Cute little orange coats and white bellies, like they were made to be mass produced as stuffed animals. Then you have the Kamaitachi, which, while still a cute little weasel, has some more nefarious intentions than casual survival.
The kamaitachi, or "sickle weasel," is just as the name suggests — weasels, like you'd see in the woods, but with sickles for claws. Needless to say, those sickles aren't just for decorative purposes. According to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer, they have fur as spiny as a hedgehog with claws as strong as steel. They're so fast that they can ride on the wind and their movement is invisible to the naked eye, which is where things get really slicey and dicey.
The kamaitachi attack in threes. The first one knocks a traveller down and slices their legs. The second one delivers thousands of awful cuts and wounds to the traveller for no apparent reason. The third one then uses magic to heal all the wounds. Meaning that, in the blink of an eye, a traveller will have gone to the brink of death and back and be none the wiser except for a good deal of pain and a few minor scratches. While the lasting impact of the kamaitachi isn't all that bad, the power they boast is pretty horrifying.
Teke teke is one of those yokai that looks terrifying enough as is, but then when it does its business to you, it's even more horrifying than it originally seemed. Teke teke appears as half a girl, literally. She's a young girl cut in half at the waist, crawling faster than you can run and finding you when you're alone and at your most vulnerable. Her name, according to yokai.com , comes from the sound she makes as she does whatever freakish crawl makes her go as fast as a running human being. If she catches up to you — and she will catch up with you — she uses her sickle to slice you in half at the waist, just like her. At least, that's what most of the legends say, but they don't all agree.
As far as how she got that way, the legends again don't agree, according to yokai.com . Some say it was an accident, train or otherwise, that cut her in half, some say that it was a suicide. Whatever the case, cold weather caused her wound to seal up and she died very, very slowly. Hence the anger she carries with her for the living.
This little yokai is just plain wrong. If a pregnant woman takes poor care of her body/baby, she better prepare to meet her kekkai. According to yokai.com , this yokai originated as a tale to explain away birth defects when modern medicine wasn't as understood as it is today. It was easier to say that a mother was killed by an evil spirit than by natural health problems that occur during childbirth.
Back to the kekkai, though. Sometimes, if a mother is experiencing issues during childbirth, rather than bear a human child, they will beat a kekkai, which has several descriptions, none any less horrifying than the other. Some say it looks more like a monkey, with hair growing in backwards. It also resembles just a lump of flesh that still roughly resembles a newborn baby. As far as tongues, it has two — one red, one white.
As if that wasn't enough, once a kekkai is born, it scampers all the way to the mother's house, where it burrows under and waits for her to come back. Once she does, the kekkai kills her. There are, however, ways to prevent this, according to yokai.com , such as putting screens around the house to prevent it from getting out.
Found primarily lurking around rivers and streams in Western Japan, Hyosube aren't fun to look at, but if you see them, it's already too late. They are short, squat humanoids with razor sharp teeth and claws, according to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer, and their appearance only gets worse from there. Since they are always smiling, they showcase those teeth all the time. Their skin is greasy and dirty and sheds regularly. Worse still is their love of finding a good bathtub. If they take a liking to your bathtub, you will wake up every morning to a tub full of scum and clumps of body hair.
Which isn't even the worst part. Meyer writes that anyone who so much as sees a Hyosube is stricken with a horrible and highly contagious fever that spreads so wildly it can cause an epidemic. Their level of contagion goes even further. The Hyosube has an evil laugh that, if heard by a human, will cause that human to uncontrollably laugh themselves before getting a violent fever and dying within hours. Essentially — there is nothing good that comes from a Hyosube.
And if that wasn't enough, their favorite food is eggplant.
During the day, the rokurokubi is nothing out of the ordinary. Just your regular woman, eating regular food, nothing to see here, according to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer. But once the sun sets for night time, get ready for a sight that you absolutely do not want to see. While the body of the rokurokubi sleeps, the head roams freely, lapping up lamp oil for sustenance. Some legends say the head completely detaches from the body, some say the neck is extendable and the head roams about that way.
The rokurokubi were once humans, but due to some sort of transgressions in life, either against a god or against a spouse, they've since been cursed with a roving head. While they aren't going to be any immediate danger to anyone, they are no less terrifying. No one wants to see a woman's head licking up their lamp oil in the dead of night.
Ohaguro bettari are interesting because they don't actually do any physical harm, but it's important not to discount the mental harm they could do to an unsuspecting bystander. According to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer, they look pretty enticing from a distance. Dressed in a kimono and whistling and beckoning to single young men, they wait until they're approached to reveal their true nature — a featureless face, no eyes or nose, save for a gaping mouth with solid black teeth. Once you see her true form, she cackles evilly — which feels like overkill at this point — and the terror is complete.
It must be said that for quite some time in Japan, dying the teeth black was a sign of beauty, according to Ancient Origins , and something done primarily among the aristocracy. Which is all well and good when that person still had other traditional features like eyes and a nose. When there's nothing there but a maw of a mouth with black teeth, the beauty quickly becomes pure terror.
The hyakume is perhaps the only yokai on this list that is actually out here doing good work, but that doesn't make him any less horrifying, if not because of appearance alone. With a name that literally translates to "one hundred eyes," you can guess what it looks like — a whole lot of eyes. According to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer, the hyakume is covered head to foot in yellow eyes, coupled with sagging, drooping skin that roughly resembles the shape of a man's body.
There's one more layer to their scariness, even if it's meant to be a positive interaction. Hyakume generally live in temples, and being shy, they will do their best to avoid human interaction. But, if a human does find their way onto a property managed by the hyakume, one of its eyes will float off and stick to that human as long as they are there, just to ensure that they don't do anything disrespectful. If that human is indeed there to do something bad, the hyakume tries to scare them away. They can't do much else besides that, but still — tons of eyes, pretty terrifying.
If nothing else, at least these yokai are easy to spot. According to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer, wa nyudo appear as giant men's heads in the middle of ox cart wheels, rolling along roads and through towns. They come from the bowels of hell, but enjoy spending time on earth, wheeling about and looking for mortal souls to snack on. They primarily look for evil priests or criminals, take them back down to hell, and then come back up to earth to keep patrolling. While that seems like a noble enough calling, it doesn't explain all interactions with these monstrous beings.
For instance, consider the poor woman Meye r writes about, who looked out a window and saw a wa nyudo wheeling by. The yokai told her that she should be looking at her baby instead. Her baby started wailing, so she did, and found her baby lying in a pool of blood without legs. When she looked back to the wa nyudo, it was eating the legs of her baby. While it's not stated if she was wicked, it's probably safe to say that he baby wasn't. So while the wa nyudo may seem to be a wheel of flaming justice for the wicked, it's clearly more than a little wicked itself.
Most people hide from their doors and windows and decorate their house with charms to ward off the wa nyudo when it's coming to town.
The mikoshi nyudo is a particularly nefarious yokai because at first glance, it is nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, it is a welcome sight — a priest or monk, completely normal. They appear to lone travelers late at night, according to " The Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons A Field Guide To Japanese Yokai " by Matthew Meyer. As soon as the traveler looks at this harmless monk, however, the mikoshi nyuodo grows ridiculously tall, sprouts wild hair and razor sharp claws, and as that lone traveler, you may already be screwed. Everything that happens from that moment forward depends on how you react. Most reactions lead to immediate death, but there is one way to get out of this horrid end.
If you try to ignore this now-giant entity leering at you, the mikoshi nyudo will choose one of two deaths for you — being impaled by a bunch of bamboo spears, or being crushed. You don't get to choose, the mikoshi nyudo chooses. If you try to run away, you get the exact same fate.
The way to survive this encounter may sound simple, but when faced with an enormous demon priest, it may get a bit more complicated. You need simply look it from head to toe, according to Meyer , and say "You lost! I anticipated your trick!" This will cause the monster monk to disappear and you can pass freely.
10 scariest horror movies based on japanese legends.
Some of these scary horror movies draw direct inspiration from classic or urban Japanese legends, while others are merely inspired by them.
It's no secret that the Japanese do horror brilliantly, and many western films are adaptations of their petrifying Japanese counterparts. Ghost stories are an ancient tradition in Japan, and these urban legends take cinematic form quite often, resulting in some Japanese movies too scary to watch alone .
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Some of these movies draw direct inspiration from supernatural legends, while others use them as base material to build a more compelling and terrifying tale around them. With the presence of ghosts known as yūrei , demons called yōkai , and disturbed female spirits called onryō, these films are a rollercoaster ride of chills and myths.
An old tale about Kuchisake-onna, the gruesome spirit of a young woman with her mouth carved from one ear to another inspired Carved, a movie where a school teacher discovers that the vengeful Kuchisake-onna is behind the many child abductions and killings where he lives.
The legend goes that the slit-mouthed figure was originally a very beautiful woman who was married to a vicious and jealous man. When he suspected that she was having an affair, he cut her mouth from side to side. Now, her spirit walks around targeting children and asking them if she looks pretty or not, to which there is no right answer.
The Ring (2002)
An urban legend that dates back to the 18th century, the unfortunate story of Banchō Sarayashiki is said to form the foundation of The Ring and all its adaptations. In the movie, Sadako or Samara, depending on whether viewers are watching the Japanese or Hollywood version, is known to have the power of "nensha," or projecting images onto minds and things, which gets her thrown down a well. The Ring is full of hidden details that build the dread viewers feel in the movie.
The story of Banchō Sarayashiki is about a Japanese maid named Okiku, who was punished for either breaking or misplacing a plate or foiling someone's plans, by being thrown down a well, where her ghost resides and haunts people, just like The Ring 's Samara.
Hanako Of The Toilet (1998)
This movie by Yukihiko Tsutsumi depicts Hanako, the spirit living in a high school toilet, as cruel and vengeance-seeking, just like she was in the legend.
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There are several takes on how Hanako-San ended up being a spirit in a school washroom, some of which include her death by suicide due to bullying, being killed by an abusive parent, or raids during the Second World War. In the movie, Hanako-San lures high school kids into her bathroom, and tortures and kills them. She is known to be a bloody and gory sight.
The Grudge (2004)
A movie so scary that it has serious Halloween re-watch value, The Grudge borrows from the age-old myth of Kayako, a woman who led a difficult and lonely childhood, but married her husband and had a child who were her entire universe.
One day, in a jealous rage, her husband killed her brutally in front of their son and left her to die in their attic, and drowned his son Toshiro in the bathtub. Her death left behind a grudge, and the onryō of Kayako is said to haunt people ever since.
School Mystery (1995)
Again inspired by the story of Hanako-san in her red dress, this paints the spirit in a different light. Mizuno, a transfer student, moves to a new elementary school and uses the last stall of the girl's bathroom, one that the other schoolgirls stay away from because of Hanako-San.
As a child serial killer rampages through their town, the kids increasingly believe that Mizuno is Hanako-San herself. However, Mizuno and another girl are cornered by the actual killer, and Hanako-San's benevolent spirit shields them and helps catch the killer. Known as one of the best Japanese horror movies of the '90s , it's a must-watch.
Legend says that one day, a young Japanese girl fell on some railways tracks, which resulted in her getting cut in half and the birth of an onryō. It is not clear whether she died by suicide or if it was accidental, but the spirit, called "Teketeke" for the noise she made while moving was vengeful and started cutting her victims in half.
In Teketeke by Koji Shiraishi, Kana finds the spirit which killed her best friend and then realizes that she only has three days to save herself before she is attacked by Teketeke, in a premise similar to The Ring .
This anthology of movies drew from the legend of the Yuki-Onna, a snowy pale yūrei who is known to roam the wintry areas of Japan. Yuki-Onna is known to be supernaturally gorgeous, which draws people to her.
In the movie, a woodcutter and his son get trapped in a snowstorm, where they're greeted by a ghost who sucks the life out of the elderly father. Seeing the son's youth, she spares him on the condition that he won't tell anybody about the night. The young man keeps his promise steadfastly, even as he meets his wife the next year. One night he tells his wife about Yuki-Onna, and she surprisingly transforms into the ghost herself. Angry, she doesn't kill, but takes away their children.
The Cow Head man, or Gozu, found its way into a movie in a sort of indirect manner. Legend has it that a Japanese village experiencing an intense famine had a visitor one day, a man with a cow's head. Ravenous, they devoured the Gozu.
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The film retains this part of the legend. The story of Gozu is supposed to be so scary that when one listens to it, they may die. While the story has been lost here, it gets interpreted into surrealist horror movies like Gozu .
Sadako Vs. Kayako (2016)
A creepy mashup of the Banchō Sarayashiki and Kayako legends, this movie pitches the two creepy ghosts against one another to see who is more powerful.
In Sadako vs. Kayako , a woman named Natsumi ends up watching Sadako's cursed video, and to keep herself from being killed by the vicious ghost, she calls upon Kayako, who is also haunting the house, and makes them fight it out to save herself. This horror movie is scary and entertaining too.
Howling Village (2019)
Takashi Shimizu's Howling Village depicted a village from which people can never make it out alive. Called the Inunaki village, Yuma, his girlfriend, and girlfriend's sister, Kanae, decide to go into the village to uncover why people don't return from it.
The urban legend also speaks of the Inunaki village, a lawless place where murder, cannibalism, and incest were prevalent. The villagers all died due to these practices and their own madness, which inspired the movie.
NEXT: Squid Game Characters, Ranked By How Long They'd Last In A Horror Movie
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Japanese ghost tales that will keep you up at night
If you like it when chills run down your spine, let us introduce to you to yurei — the vast category of Japanese folklore which includes internationally famous legends about revengeful and spiteful ghosts. Unlike some stories about yokai , which mostly tend to be playful and hilarious, these Japanese ghost stories are more sorrowful and uncanny, and probably will make you feel uneasy.
1. Goryo, the noble dead
Literally translated as “honorable spirit,” Goryo is a ghost from aristocratic classes who died tormented and agonizing. First mentions of them go back to the Heian period, they are believed to be “the spirits of powerful lords, who have been wronged, that were capable of catastrophic vengeance.” Existing solely for vengeance, Goryo are a type of ghosts that chase after those who wronged them during their life and wreak havoc on them, causing calamities and disasters.
One quite popular legend is the one of a Goryo called Shinto Kami, also known as Tenjin. It is said that the years following the unfair murder of government official Michizane by one of the members of the Fujiwara clan, thunders and heavy rains pummeled the capital city causing fires and floods. Moreover, the Fujiwara chief and Emperor Daigo’s crown prince soon died, which completely convinced the court that all calamities and casualties were caused by the restless spirit of Michizane. In order to quell him, the Emperor himself burned the order of exile and promoted Michizane postmortem. On top of that, Michizane was idolized as Tenjin sama , which means “sky deity” and literally made him a patron god of poetry, calligraphy, and justice.
2. The rage of the Onryo
This kind of Japanese ghost story also relates to vengeful spirits but unlike the Goryo, which is not necessarily a wrathful spirit, the Onryo is almost always a malicious ghost as they died full of anger, and only return to scare the living to death and take their souls. Victims of domestic abuse or women martyred by wicked stalkers or maniacs will most likely turn into Onryo in the afterlife. This category also serves as a staple for J-horror movies and has appeared as the renowned Kayako from "The Grudge" or "Sadako from “The Ring.”
It is believed that once an Onryo decided to manifest itself, the victim starts to experience nausea, heavy headache, and pain in the chest. When just passing by, this ghost could look like a collapsed woman, probably unconscious but as you approach, she starts to make weeping, groaning sounds and whispers incomprehensible words. Eventually, she levitates towards the victim reaching one head in a bid to catch her or him, and finally covers the victim with its unkempt thick hair. Due to the dark and heavy aura around the Onryo, the victim experiences an unbearable headache, which eventually leads to death.
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8 Comments Login to comment
Novenachama Aug. 14, 2020 10:48 am JST
If you believe in ghosts, you're not alone because many cultures around the world believe in spirits that survive to live another realm. In fact, ghosts are among the most widely believed of paranormal phenomenon and millions of people are interested in it. I'm not sure if there are any scientific studies proving that ghost are real even though there are many ghost stories. I remember the first ghost story as a child growing up in Japan was the ghost play Yotsuya Kaidan that I saw on tv.. That sure was scary. So have any of you encountered any Ghosts? I read that in Taiwan 90% of the people have encountered Ghosts. That sounds spooky.
Toasted Heretic Aug. 14, 2020 11:21 am JST
Lafcadio Hearn collected and was inspired by, the classic Japanese ghost stories. Check him out, highly recommend.
Toasted Heretic Aug. 14, 2020 11:35 am JST
I have however been to Lafcadio Hearn's house in Matsue - well worth a visit, and no unpleasant apparitions.
I shall add that to my "must visit when all this is over" list.
Jtsnose Aug. 14, 2020 05:19 pm JST
The images and tales mentioned do not place Japanese in a positive light.
Oxycodin Aug. 14, 2020 07:24 pm JST
I have encountered many of them as a teenager my buddies and I would go hang out in the Japanese Grave yard at night for fun and ever since then I had many occurences of "Kanashibari". Is when a ghost disturbs you when your sleeping and wakes you up in a state or pralysis speaking to you. http://yokai.com/kanashibari/ If you ever had exepreinced of these this will scare the living life and will cause major insomnia. I no longer have them anymore which im glad.
WA4TKG Aug. 15, 2020 04:20 am JST
If you like ghost stories or even to SEE one, go to Okinawa. My ex wife was driving with two friends down in Itoman and ALL THREE swear to have seen the ghost.
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Scariest Japanese Horror Movies Of All Time
Great art is not exclusive to any one region or country—especially not horror stories, which are ubiquitous across many cultures . Whether it's a Hollywood feature or an A24 indie production, the United States has a lock on some of horror's most recognizable icons and franchises, but that doesn't mean it's the only country in the world crafting cinematic nightmares.
Japan in particular has crafted some of the genre's most shocking entries. While this can be attributed to many causes, a culture steeped in folklore and ghost stories certainly helps. Several notable American horror flicks are actually adaptations of Japanese originals, including "The Ring" and "The Grudge."
J-horror is usually characterized by a steady build-up, protracted suspense, and unrelenting dread. Very often the films are visceral gorefests that will leave even the most seasoned horror fanatic shaken. Let's take a look at some of the scariest movies to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
The best art often comes from the least expected places, which is most definitely the case for Shinya Tsukamoto's cyberpunk horror classic. Very few films defy conventional description like "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" does; that's partly why it's attained a cult following. The plot concerns a salaryman who one day begins a horrific bodily transformation into a twisted half-man/half-metal abomination. The film blends disturbing body horror with trippy, almost otherworldly visuals in an intentional car wreck of metallic insanity.
Tsukamoto made the movie for almost no money , using his own accrued part-time income to fund the underground project. The production was long, difficult, and tiresome , which resulted in most of the crew, aside from the actors, departing it. Despite the nightmarish production, Tsukamoto was able to complete this film, only to encounter distribution issues. When it finally debuted, it received an award for Best Film at the 1989 Fantafestival in Rome and went on to enjoy a limited but successful Japanese theatrical release. An eventual home media release followed, cementing the film as a bonafide cult hit.
"Tetsuo: The Iron Man" truly shows how great and subversive art can be made even on a shoestring budget.
For a film to be truly scary, the viewer must be able to imagine themselves in its scenario. In "Battle Royale," the fear comes from wondering if you could survive your friend and classmates trying to kill you.
Based on the controversial novel, "Battle Royale" is the story of the Japanese government's radical plan to quell the nation's juvenile delinquency issues. The plan in question involves gassing an entire class of 42 students and sending them to a remote island. With exploding collars latched around their necks and a ticking clock, the game is on to be the sole survivor. What ensues is almost two hours of adolescent violence, rampant brutality, and escalating insanity as each student is slowly picked off.
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku and released in 2000, the film was an immediate box-office hit and magnet for controversy (the latter due in part to the film's shocking subject matter and its release in proximity to horrific real-life events ). Despite this, the film has gone on to attain cult status, held in high regard by the likes of Quentin Tarantino .
In fact, Tarantino hailed the film as the best he'd seen in the previous 20 years and as his favorite film.
When you ask many horror fans what the scariest film ever made is, there's a good chance it'll be "Audition." The film sits prominently on various critical and fan compiled rankings, and there is a good reason for it. "Audition" is auteur Takashi Miike's masterpiece, not only for its nerve-wracking build-up, but also for its exemplary performances and disturbing imagery.
Shigeharu Aoyama, a recent widower, is convinced by his producer friend to use a faux audition to find the perfect woman. After much trial and error, Shigeharu is eventually smitten with the soulful Asami Yamazaki . But it becomes clear that Asami is harboring some dark and disturbing secrets that Shigeharu begins to uncover. As Asami's dark past starts to affect the present, Shigeharu realizes his life might be in danger. This culminates in one of horror cinema's most sickening, stomach-churning sequences as Asami graphically tortures him.
The standout performance belongs to Eihi Shiina as Asami Yamazaki, the love interest turned psychotic captor of the film. She strikes a perfect balance of earnest charm and rampant sadism, the latter of which is on full display in the film's climax.
The human mind can sometimes be the scariest thing imaginable, and that is on full display in "Perfect Blue."
The film, based on the book of the same name, is directed by the legendary Satoshi Kon. Provided he kept certain elements of the book intact, Kon was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. The film centers on Mima Kirigoe who, after making the transition from pop idol to actor, begins to question everything. Not only is she being followed by an obsessive stalker, but her perception of reality is beginning to deteriorate. Much of Kon's filmography deals with the constantly blurring lines of fantasy and reality, with "Perfect Blue" being no exception. Through its expertly timed animation and haunting score, the film has you second-guessing yourself as much as Mima is. Many have identified various themes such as one's own identity and the perceptions that come with fame.
The film is a noted influence on director Darren Aronofsky , who has gone on record about film frequently. He bought the rights to the film to use the bathtub scene in his own film " Requiem for a Dream ." He has even acknowledged the similarities between "Perfect Blue" and his own film "Black Swan."
If you want to talk about a spark setting off an entire powder keg, look no further than Hideo Hikata's "Ringu."
Reiko Asakawa, a Japanese news reporter, dives into an investigation regarding a mysterious and potentially deadly VHS tape. Viewing the tape results in the viewer getting a phone call that informs them they will die in seven days. This investigation leads to her uncovering the story of Sadako Yamamura, a vengeful psychic whose soul now inhabits the tape. "Ringu" got an increase in attention after the release of its American counterpart (" The Ring "). The film isn't just a great remake; it's also one of the best modern horror films. Its tremendous success opened the flood gates for Asian horror films to receive Western remakes.
The trend resulted in mostly poorly received films, but "The Ring" is still highly regarded close to two decades later. It's a rare feat within cinema when both a foreign film and its remake receive equal praise.
Ichi the Killer
While "Audition" might be Takashi Miike 's most critically beloved film, "Ichi the Killer" might be even more sadistic.
"Ichi the Killer" is adapted from a horror manga by manga writer and artist Hideo Yamamoto. The film follows the titular Ichi, a mentally warped and sexually repressed man who derives pleasure from violent actions. This violent streak gets him caught up in a deadly yakuza rivalry and pursued by a masochistic enforcer. The film has been described as one of the most violent films of all time, and it definitely deserves that distinction. From countless acts of bodily dismemberment to sadistic torture and heinous sexual deviance, "Ichi the Killer" will make anyone squirm.
"Ichi the Killer" made its debut at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival as a part of their Midnight Madness selection. The creators of the film provided those in attendance Ichi-branded puke bags. The film sought widespread distribution in other countries, but this proved to be impossible. Due to the film's unrelentingly shocking content, it was heavily cut down in locations like Hong Kong, and outright banned in Norway and Malaysia. Despite this increased notoriety, some critics did uncover the film's narrative intentions underneath its perverse and viscerally sickening exterior.
"The Eye," directed by the directorial duo known as the Pang Brothers, is actually based on haunting true events . In interviews, the brothers stated that they'd read about a girl who, only one week after having her vision restored, tragically took her own life. The film of course takes massive liberties with this, only focusing on the eye transplant element and dramatizing the rest.
The film goes in a supernatural direction as protagonist Wong Kar Mun begins seeing shadowy figures after her cornea transplant. After teaming up with a psychotherapist, Dr. Wan, the duo looks to see what happened to Wong's donor Ling. They eventually learn of the paranormal events that caused her demise, which is now causing Wong to see ghosts. The film contains several creepy and suspenseful scenes, including a particularly nerve-wracking ghost encounter in an elevator. The film opened to respectable box office and reviews, which garnered the film two sequels and a remake.
Following the success of "The Ring" remake, studios were looking to retool more Asian horror films for the west. Many are probably familiar with the Western remake of "The Eye" starring Jessica Alba, a notoriously subpar interpretation.
After gaining positive attention with the "Ringu" films, Hideo Hikata once again delivered a haunting cinematic release.
"Dark Water," based on a short story, follows a mother, Yoshimi, and her young daughter, Ikuko. While contending with an unpleasant divorce mediation, Yoshimi moves herself and Ikuko into a dingy apartment complex. The issues start off small—a persistent leak in their roof from another apartment, say—but slowly escalate. Not only is the divorce taking a significant toll on Yoshimi, but the problems with the apartment also steadily become supernatural. Items begin appearing randomly in their unit, and they begin to notice a mysterious longhaired girl in a raincoat. The film, much like the apartment complex, is dripping in atmosphere, which only adds to its effect on the viewer.
Upon release in 2002, the film received many positive reviews and brought in impressive box office results. Its success spawned a Western remake starring Jennifer Connelly, which was released three years later to mixed reviews.
It's not uncommon for films to disappoint critics during their original release, only to become a cult hit with fans. When Nobuhiko Obayashi's "House" was released in Japan back in 1977, it got an extremely negative reception, but it has since gotten a critical reappraisal, with many viewers noting its unique visual effects and animated sequences. Some even count "House" as an all-time horror classic. It has received a glorious remastered release via the Criterion Collection and has been listed on several prominent cinematic rankings.
The plot concerns a girl named Gorgeous (yes, that's her actual name) and her classmates traveling to her aunt's country home. But what begins as a charming jaunt in the countryside quickly turns into a barrage of insanely bizarre occurrences. From a girl getting eaten by a piano to another getting trapped in a grandfather clock, the film never lets up in the slightest. The film takes the all-too-common trope of the haunted house and takes it to its most insane yet logical conclusion.
Ju-On: The Grudge
"Ju-On: The Grudge" is an oft-discussed entry in the Japanese horror canon.
The film focuses on a family that, just after moving into a new house, discovers it is rife with vengeful spirits. These include Kayako Saeki, a contorting pale white ghost with jet-black hair, and Toshio, a ghostly child with pitch-black eyes. It's revealed that both died in the house and are forever cursed to wreak bloody vengeance on anyone who enters. The film is packed with not only two of horror's most haunting specters, but also expertly crafted atmosphere. From Toshio appearing on the stairs to the masterfully directed shower scene, the film is loaded with haunting moments.
"Ju-On: The Grudge” gained increased exposure when it was remade in the United States as "The Grudge." Both the original and remake were directed by Takashi Shimizu—a rare occurrence in film production. The remake went on to become a box office smash , bringing in $187 million against a $10 million budget. This resulted in attention for the original, as well as various sequels and even a midquel.
Noroi: The Curse
Found footage has always been a sub-genre within horror fueled by creativity and innovation. The format allows scares to be presented in a grounded, yet visually interesting way that still keeps the budget small.
"Noroi: The Curse" uses all of its $2 million budget to tell a very inventive and engaging story. We are shown the story of Masafumi Kobayashi, a paranormal investigator and documentarian, who is alleged to be missing. We are then shown footage for his next documentary, called "The Curse ," and what exactly led to his disappearance. The film uses the pseudo-documentary format to great effect, expertly telling the story while still maintaining the creepy atmosphere. One additional aspect that aids the film in its faux-reality is how several of the actors play themselves in-universe.
The film didn't make its way to other countries until years after its original Japanese release. Due to its underground status, the film developed a rabid cult following online despite not having a physical release. The film finally found a home on Shudder, introducing it to a swarm of new fans.
One Missed Call
Is it really our fault that Takashi Miike is the man behind several of Japan's most noteworthy horror contributions?
This film focuses on Yumi Nakamura, a student whose friend gets a disturbing voice message on her cell phone. Her friend, Yoko, hears what seems to be a future recording of herself in the midst of her own demise. This message is proven to have been a premonition when Yoko dies a few days later. This leads Yumi down a rabbit hole of horror and conspiracy to uncover the truth behind these paranormal phone calls. The film takes several interesting twists and turns, all guided by Miike's masterful eye for detail and atmosphere. Creepy phone calls are a long-running horror film trope that "One Missed Call" takes and runs with in a truly unique way.
Many might be more familiar with its Western remake of the same name, but for all the wrong reasons. It's a film whose greatest claims to fame are having a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and being the worst-reviewed film of 2008. For a better time, stick to Miike's original.
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Home » Articles » How to Say “Ghost” in Japanese: Plus Spooky Japanese Ghost Stories
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written by Caitlin Sacasas
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How to Say “Ghost” in Japanese: Plus Spooky Japanese Ghost Stories
“Ghost” in Japanese is 幽霊, yuurei . Well, that’s one of the many words for it anyway!
Japan has a love for all things spooky, creepy, haunting, and ghost-like. So, it only makes sense that there’s going to be more than one word for “ghost” in Japanese!
And, really, most languages have different words for things from the afterlife. Spirits, demons, poltergeist, apparition, phantom, wraith… and they all mean somewhat different things.
So if you, too, love ghosts, scary stories, and creepy things – this article is for you!
Table of contents
How to say “ghost” in japanese, spooky japanese vocab to know, culture talk: significance of ghosts, death, and the afterlife in japanese.
- Yotsuya Kaidan: The Famous Story of Haunting Revenge
- Baku: The Nightmare Eater
- Banchou Sarayashiki: The Vengeful Servant
- Zashiki Warashi: Parlor Children
- Shirime: The Ghost with a Butt Eye (I Wish I Was Kidding)
- Kuchisake Onna: The Joker in Female Ghost Form
- Mimi-nashi Houichi: The Famous Haunted Musician
- Yuki Onna: Murderous Snow Spirits
Gakkou no Kaidan: Ghost Stories (Japanese TV Series)
Yamishibai: japanese ghost stories, shiver down your spine from these japanese ghost stories.
So – the main question. What is “ghost” in Japanese? Japanese ghosts have many words to describe them, so it depends on the type of ghost you’re talking about.
A good spirit is called 祖霊 ( sorei ). These are your ancestral spirits who will guide and protect you.
But bad spirits are called 幽霊 ( yuurei ), the spirits that didn’t make it to the afterlife due to unresolved issues or not receiving the proper ceremonies.
There’s also 怨霊 ( onryou ), or “vengeful spirits.” These spirits are often women and people with little power or influence in life who died wrongfully or hold a lot of hate for things that happened to them. They come back as wraiths, determined to get revenge for what was done to them.
What are Japanese ghost stories called? They’re often referred to as 怪談 ( kaidan ), which refers to any story that’s strange, mysterious, or spooky.
Japanese horror is borrowed from English: ホラー ( hora- ).
Here are some other words for “ghost” in Japanese:
- 亡霊, bourei : “Departed spirit” – a Shakespearean, formal word for “ghost”.
- 騒霊, sourei : “Poltergeist” – not to be confused with 祖霊 ( sorei ), which doesn’t have the long vowel sound.
- 妖怪, youkai : “Apparition” or “phantom”, but used more broadly to describe monsters, ghosts, shapeshifters and weird phenomena.
- 化け物, bakemono , or お化け, obake : “Ghost”, but also “goblin”, “monster”, or “phantom”. Anything that can change appearance and is supernatural.
- 死霊, shiryou : “Ghost” or “spirit”.
Besides ghosts, you’ll need to know some other related words to talk about or listen to ghost stories.
Here are some to get you started!
- 怖い, kowai : “Scared” or “scary”
- おっかない, okkanai : “Frightening”
- 恐ろしい, osoroshii : “Dreadful”
- 恐怖, kyoufu : “Fear”
- 恐れって, osorette : “Afraid”
- ゾッとする, zotto suru : “To shudder” (from the creeps or fear, a cold chill down your spine)
- ぐろい, guroi : “Gross,” “grotesque”
- 不気味, bukimi : “Spooky”
- 気持ち悪い, kimochi warui : “Bad feeling” or “creepy”
- 骨, hone : “Bone”
- 骨格, *kokkaku: “Skeleton”
- 血液, ketsueki : “Blood”
- 頭, atama : “Head”
- 首, kubi : “Neck”
- 手, te : “Hand”
- 腕, ude : “Arm”
- 足, ashi : “Leg” and “feet”
- 指, yubi : “Fingers”
- 足の指, ashi no yubi : “Toes”
- 怖い話, kowai hanashi : “Scary story”
- 超自然, choushizen : “Supernatural” or “occult”
- 変化, henge : Literally, “change” but refers to shapeshifting beings such as 狐 ( kitsune , “foxes”) in Japanese lore
- 怪獣, kaiju : “Monster”, like the most famous Japanese 大怪獣 ( daikaiju ), Godzilla
- お墓, ohaka : “Grave”
- 魔女, majo : “Witch”
- 吸血鬼, kyuuketsuki : “Vampire”
- 殺し, koroshi : “Murder”
- ゴア, goa , or 流血, ryuuketsu : “Gore” or “bloodshed”
P.S. – Japan does celebrate Halloween! It’s called ハロウィン ( harowin )! But it’s different than you might expect. There’s no Trick-or-Treating, but they do have a lot of costume parties!
Japan is largely a Shinto or Buddhist nation, so they believe in different afterlife planes of existence.
In the Shinto afterlife called 黄泉の国 ( yominokuni ) or the Buddhist afterlife called あの世 ( anoyo ). There’s also hell, 地獄 ( jigoku ), but it’s not just one place. It can be many, with different types of punishment.
Interestingly, its believed that the 黄泉の国 ( yominokuni ) and 地獄 ( jigoku ) are located in Japan, at locations like Yomotsu Hirasaka in Izumo and Mount Osore in Aomori.
Japan also has a special day to celebrate ancestral spirits. It’s called お盆 ( obon ), which lasts 3 days and is based on Buddhist traditions. It’s usually celebrated in July or August, based on the region.
Food offerings are made to family memory altars at home and people visit their ancestors’ graves. Floating lanterns are placed in water to help guide the spirits back home.
In Japan, death is a bit more complicated. It’s considered a hard journey to the afterlife, and you have to pass peacefully, leaving nothing unresolved. It’s also up to your family to help care for your soul with certain rituals that help guide you to the afterlife.
And everyone has a certain “moral debt” they owe to their parents and ancestors for giving them life. This debt, called 義務 ( gimu ), is honored by providing proper ceremonies and rituals after a loved one’s death, and for honoring ancestors with home altars and on Obon .
The Japanese also believe the spirits can return to visit, so ghosts aren’t always bad – sometimes they’re good spirits here to protect or guide. It’s considered a part of life.
Japanese Ghost Stories: The Scariest Youkai in Japanese Folklore
Yotsuya kaidan : the famous story of haunting revenge.
This is one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories, which originated as a kabuki play. There’s even a shrine: The Oiwa Inari Tamiya Shrine in Yotsuya, Shinjuku.
In a complex plot of love, hate, murder, and revenge, the beautiful Yotsuya Oiwa is married to ronin samurai Tamiya Iemon. But her sister, Oume, who is considered less attractive, also loves Iemon and wants his affection.
Oume then decides to poison her sister via face cream, causing horrific damage to her sister’s beautiful skin. As a result, Iemon wants nothing to do with Oiwa anymore (and does some pretty horrible things in the process).
Oiwa, devastated, accidentally kills herself and comes back as an onryou , a vengeful ghost. In the end, everyone dies and her ex-husband, Iemon, is driven to madness by her haunting.
Baku : The Nightmare Eater
A beast that looks like the Asian tapir, the Baku (獏, baku ) are youkai beings that devour nightmares. Like Beetlejuice, you have to call for him three times: “ Baku-san , come eat my dream.”
The story goes that a child who wakes from a bad dream and calls for Baku three times will have their nightmare eaten by the beast so it goes away. But, the Baku may also suck up all their good dreams too, leaving them apathetic.
Banchou Sarayashiki : The Vengeful Servant
番町皿屋敷 ( banchou sarayashiki , “The Dish Mansion”) tells the story of Okiku, a beautiful servant.
There are a few different versions of the story, but in Japanese folklore, it’s said Okiku worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. He was in love with her, but she didn’t love him and would refuse his advances.
This angered Aoyama. So one day, he plotted to force her to love him. He framed her for losing one of the family’s 10 heirloom plates.
This would’ve normally led to death for the servant, but he promised to forgive her if she would finally agree to be with him. Still, Okiku refused, so Aoyama threw her down a well to her death.
Okiku, knowing she was wronged, came back to haunt him as an onryou . She would count to 9 and then shriek for the 10th plate he claimed she lost.
Zashiki Warashi : Parlor Children
座敷童 ( zashiki warashi ) are youkai spirits that cause mischief and play pranks on people. They’re said to bring good fortune to those who are visited by them.
This ghost story stems mainly from the Iwate Prefecture. Some say they can only appear to their own family, or only seen by other children.
But if you see one that has a red face and red clothes, the child spirit is about to leave. And as a protector spirit, its absence could mean bad fortune and things to come for the family.
Shirime : The Ghost with a Butt Eye (I Wish I Was Kidding)
This one is absolutely hilarious.
尻目 ( shirime , literally: “butt eye”) is a youkai who, at first, looks like a normal human… But then it turns around and has no face.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, this mischievous spirit then drops its clothes, turns around, and flashes you its butthole eyeball.
This youkai is said to just enjoy scaring people, but the fact that this exists is so hilarious. Japanese people really like this type of creepy, gross humor.
Kuchisake Onna : The Joker in Female Ghost Form
口裂け女 ( kuchisake onna , “Slit-Mouthed Woman”) is another onryou who wanders around at night looking for revenge. It’s said she was brutally attacked and had her mouth slit from ear to ear.
Now, a vengeful ghost, she goes around with her mouth covered by a mask, carrying a sharp item like a knife or scissors. If she comes up to you, you’re pretty much doomed.
She’ll ask, “私、きれい？” ( Watashi, kirei? , “Am I pretty?”). If you say no, she kills you on the spot. If you say yes, she’ll remove her mask and ask again or say これでも? ( kore demo , “Even this?”).
If you say no or show fear, you’re dead. If you say yes, she’ll give you her same ear-to-ear smile.
Brutal? Absolutely. But if you ever encounter Kuchisake Onna , then you need to be prepared. You can tell her she’s “average”, throw money or candy at her, or, supposedly, say the word “pomade” three times.
Mimi-nashi Houichi : The Famous Haunted Musician
耳なし芳一 ( mimi-nashi houichi , “Houichi the Earless”) is another famous Japanese ghost story. The tale goes that Houichi was a blind musician who played the Japanese lute called a biwa .
Houichi was very poor, although very beloved for his musical talent. He lived with his friend, who was a priest, at a temple.
One day, Houichi met with a traveling samurai who asked him to play for his daimyou lord. Houichi obliged, and they loved his performance so much, they asked him to come back.
But the priest was suspicious that his friend kept disappearing at night. So he sent servants after Houichi, only to find him playing in a cemetery.
His friend realized he was being tricked by ghosts, so he painted protective kanji all over Houichi and told him to not answer the ghost’s calls. But he forgot to write the protective spell on Houichi’s ears.
So when the ghost came, he could only see Houichi’s ears. He ripped them off in anger and left. But Houichi survived and was freed from the ghost’s grasps, and continued to play music.
Yuki Onna : Murderous Snow Spirits
It’s said that 雪女 ( yuki onna , “Snow Woman”) are other-worldly beautiful women with snow-white skin and long black hair. There are many different stories, but the yuki onna target victims to steal their life energy.
Some say the yuki onna lure men to their deaths by freezing them in the snow. Others say they suck the life out of them. Some say that yuki onna is one woman, who was murdered in the snow and now does the same to others.
But, some legends claim there have been men who fell in love and married a yuki onna , and they lived happily.
Japanese Ghost Stories in Media: Must-See Movies and Anime for Horror Fans
You probably already know that Ju-On (The Grudge) and The Ring are two of the most famous Japanese ghost stories in cinema. But if you’re looking for more ghost stories and horror movies, here are some suggestions in media:
学校の怪談 ( gakkou no kaidan , “Ghosts at School”) is a manga and anime movie series. It’s about Satsuki, a young girl who moves to a haunted town after her mother passed away.
It’s discovered that the old abandoned school is haunted, along with the town, and that Satsuki’s mother was the one who sealed the ghosts away. Now, Satsuki must use her mother’s book of notes to learn to seal the spirits and demons away again.
闇芝居 ( yamishibai , “Dark Play”), also called Yamishibai: Theater of Darkness, is a Japanese anime series. It’s a collection of Japanese ghost stories, myths, legends, and folklore.
In the episode, a man in a yellow mask (creepy) rolls up to a kid’s playground to tell them ghost stories (even creepier). If you want to know more ghost stories, this is a good one to watch!
仄暗い水の底から ( honogurai mizu no soko kara , “From the Depths of Dark Water”) is a horror classic. (But just the Japanese version, not the American one.)
A divorced mom, Yoshimi, has to move into a rundown apartment with her daughter, Ikuko. But the apartment complex is haunted. Strange things begin to happen at her apartment, which has a mysterious leak from upstairs.
回路 ( kairo , “Circuit”), is a cult classic horror film which was also remade by Hollywood.
A ghost invades the world through the internet, resulting in tons of people disappearing. As fewer and fewer people remain, they must find a way to survive.
ゾッとした ( zotto shita ) – Shiver down your spine? No worries, we’re done for today! Call the Baku if you need him tonight. 😉
Ready to learn more about Japanese culture? Keep learning with these articles:
- 63 Must-Know Japanese Slang Words
- Japanese Anime Phrases You’ll Hear in Every Show
- “Cute” in Japanese: Understanding “Kawaii” Culture
- How to Read Japanese Manga [+10 Easy Manga Series for Beginners Learning Japanese]
- Japanese Uncovered Review: Is the Force Strong with This One?
Content Writer, Fluent in 3 Months
Caitlin is a copywriter, content strategist, and language learner. Besides languages, her passions are fitness, books, and Star Wars. Connect with her: Twitter | LinkedIn
Speaks: English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish