Yōkai have a long and storied history in Japan. These ghosts or supernatural creatures were often used to explain fearsome natural phenomena during the Meiji period and were held in high regard. However, during the Edo period, they started to take on a more entertaining role in culture due to the efforts of the philosopher Inoue Enryō (1858–1919) and the advent of science in bigger cities. City folks were also becoming more disconnected from nature in contrast to their rural counterparts. Today they still hold a prominent place in Japanese art and culture, and can be seen in popular anime and manga such as Demon Slayer and Yōkai Watch.
1. Jorōgumo (The Spider Woman Yōkai)
Japan is known for its diverse wildlife, which can be found in its forests, oceans, lakes, and mountains. This includes the creepier variety of animals, like the golden orb weaver spiders. These arachnids have been crawling around Japan for centuries, and have subsequently made their way into folklore. A famous tale says that if an orb weaver lives to be 400 years old, they gain the ability to shapeshift into a beautiful woman. However, her good looks are just a guise for her evil intentions: she ensnares men in the impressive webs she weaves and devours them.
2. Gashadokuro (Starving/Huge Skeletons)
As the name suggests, these yōkai are giant skeletons 15 times larger than a regular human. They are made up of the bones of the deceased, who either died in battle or during a famine. They are vengeful spirits who prey on humans, eating anyone who happens to cross paths with them, usually at 2 am. They are said to have glowing green or yellow eyes, and they make a rattling sound with their jaw as they approach. They are only destroyed when their pent-up anger is released from hunting enough humans, after which the bones disintegrate.
3. Kuchisake-onna (Slit-Mouthed Woman)
This is a more contemporary addition to the list, first appearing in the 16th and 17th centuries, and having a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s. This yōkai is a malevolent spirit who takes the form of a beautiful woman wearing a mask and carrying scissors. If you happen to encounter her in a dark alleyway, she will ask you whether she is beautiful, and if you reply with a no she will stab you. If you reply yes, she will pull down her mask to reveal that her mouth has been slit open from ear to ear.
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She will repeat her question, and if you reply no she will stab you, but if you reply yes, she will slit your mouth with the scissors so that you can be beautiful like her. Unfortunately, there is no escaping this yōkai, and an encounter with her will lead to either death or disfigurement. She was disfigured during her human life when her husband, a samurai, found out about her adultery and punished her accordingly by slitting her mouth
4. Yamauba (Forest Witch)
These hags or witches live in the mountains and forests of Japan and take the shape of filthy old women. The yamauba will lure travelers from the path by offering them shelter and food for the night and will attack and devour them later in their sleep. Today, disobedient children are often told that the yamauba will kidnap them if they do not behave. Some scholars believe that the yamauba find their origins in an old custom during which elderly women were abandoned in forests during times of famine or economic hardship in order to alleviate strain on resources. These women would be transformed by their rage and grief into evil witches who take their revenge on unsuspecting passers-by.
5. Aka Manto
Another contemporary yōkai; the story goes that this ghost will appear in front of you if you decide to use the last stall in an elementary school restroom. The ghost will hold up two rolls of toilet paper, one red and one blue, and ask you to pick a color. If you choose red, the ghost will stab you to death, covering you in so much blood that it looks like a red cloak. If you choose blue they will strangle you, or all the blood will be sucked from your body. Another lose-lose situation.
In some versions, it is actually a serial killer waiting in the next stall, or a kainade. The kainade is a yōkai who lives in toilets and reaches up to stroke people’s rear ends. In this version, the color that the student chooses determines the color of the arm that reaches up.
6. Jubokko (Vampire Trees)
At first glance, these seem like ordinary trees. However, as one gets closer, heaps of human bones become visible at the base of the tree. By then it is too late to backtrack, and the tree will lift you up into its bough, sucking out all your blood with tube-like twigs. Insects and birds will consume the rest of the corpse until only the dry bones fall to the earth below. Jubokko were ordinary trees once, but if a massacre or battle happened nearby, all the blood soaking the earth would be absorbed by the trees, which transforms them into yōkai.
7. Obariyon (Imp)
This is an imp-like creature who jumps onto the backs of unsuspecting travelers, piggyback style. The name comes from this action, as one would ask for a piggyback ride by saying the phrase “Obariyon,” which is part of a local dialect in Niigata prefecture. Some versions of the myth state that this yōkai will get heavier with every step the traveler takes until the weight crushes them. Another version says that if the traveler is able to bear the weight, the Obariyon will turn into a sack of gold as a reward.
These yōkai are aquatic creatures that populate Japan’s lakes, rivers, wells, and ponds. They are usually the size of a small child but with green reptilian skin and a beak instead of a mouth. They have webbed hands and feet which allows them to efficiently tread water, as well as a shell on their back. On top of a kappa’s skull is a deep crevice or dish filled with water, which is the source of all their power. If the dish is emptied or dries up, the kappa loses its powers.
These yōkai can be good or evil. They are some of the most intelligent yōkai, able to learn human language, as well as possessing invaluable medicinal knowledge which some say they taught early humans. They like playing games and will be fiercely loyal if one manages to befriend them. However, they are also known to tear apart humans who swim in their waters, and will also kidnap and rape women.
They are inescapable in water, but on land, they can be outwitted in the following way: due to their well-mannered nature, they have to return a bow if you bow to them, which will empty the dish on their head. This will either cause them to lose their powers, or they will befriend you. They have two favorite foods: cucumbers and human entrails. Cucumbers can often be found near bodies of water as offerings, as Kappa are revered in Shintō as water gods.
9. Nuribotoke (Lacquered Buddha)
This yōkai is named after its appearance as a Buddha-like imp, with a round belly, a tail, and eyes hanging out of its sockets. It also has ink-black oily skin and leaves a pungent smell wherever it goes. They usually appear at family shrines, called butsudans, which have been left open overnight, allowing them to crawl through from another world.
In Japanese homes, butsudan are closed each night to prevent such creatures from entering. They may also appear in homes that are run down, or if shrines are not properly cared for. They do not do much except flap their tail and terrorize the unfortunate family whose butsudan they crawled out of. Some legends state that they may even give false prophecies or try to trick humans. They can be kept at bay by sprinkling salt on the floor, and they will return to the butsudan at sunrise.
10. Ningyo: The Human Fish Yōkai
Unlike beautiful mermaids from the Western traditions, these yōkai are more fish than human and are often described as hideous, deformed creatures. They range in appearance, from grotesque fish-like faces to human torsos with sharp claws and a tail. Some are depicted as a human head on a fish body. They have been documented in some of the earliest Japanese texts such as the Nihon Shoki, which dates back to 619 CE. They are not particularly harmful to humans, but if caught or wounded they will curse their assailant, some going so far as to curse whole families or villages, which will then be swallowed up by a tsunami or destroyed by an earthquake. Some fishermen set out to catch them despite the danger, as it is said that eating a ningyo’s flesh will grant eternal youth. Some mummies held at temples claim to be ningyo, but more often than not they are manmade, using fish parts. These are known as Fiji mermaids in the West.