The Creepy Urban Legends of Japan (and How to Beat Them)

So you’re scared of Japanese ghosts? It’s understandable. You’ve seen The Grudge and The Ring. Maybe you’ve even read the classic Japanese ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn, or the creepy manga of Junji Ito. But is this strong horror pedigree a result of pure fiction, or is the Land of the Rising Sun really swarming with ghostly school kids and gruesome demons?

You’re damn right it is! The ancient Shinto religion of Japan populated every corner of the country with thousands of spirits, not all of them benevolent, and modern days have likewise given rise to a plethora of fresh and terrifying legends: haunted bathrooms, cursed poems, and murderous onryō (vengeful spirits) prowling the streets.

In fact, in my 18 months in Japan, rarely a day has gone by when I’ve not been set upon by some shambling specter. When they become part of your routine, evil ghosts are just another daily nuisance — easy enough deal with, if you know the tricks. Because as terrifying as the urban legends of Japan might be, there’s always a way to beat them. Before you strike out into the night, arm yourself with the tips and tricks below to ensure you get back home with your head and sanity intact!

Warning: urban legends are usually pretty gruesome by nature. If you’re not a fan of gory images and adjectives, you might want to skip this one.

Kuchi-Sake Onna

A still from Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) – a movie based on the legend.

Walking home alone at night is usually a pretty relaxed affair in Japan; it’s one of the safest countries on earth. Don’t let your guard down completely though, because lone evening walkers are the favorite prey of Kuchi-Sake Onna, or ‘the slit-mouthed woman’.

The story is believed to have originated from a newspaper piece run in a 1978 about an elderly woman who saw a slit-mouthed woman in her garden, after which the tale spread among the cram schools of Japan.  Said to be the spirit of a woman who was disfigured by her jealous husband, Kuchi-Sake Onna walks the streets at night, hiding her gruesome Glasgow smile with a surgical mask (not ideal in the age of COVID-19 — she could be anyone!).

Her modus operandi is to ask passers-by if they think she’s pretty. If you say no, she kills you with her scissors. Say yes, and she takes off her mask and repeats the question with her full, horrifying grin on show. If you keep playing the flattery game and confirm your original answer, then she lets you off with a mutilation, cutting your face in the same way as her own. That’s as happy an ending as you can hope for, I guess?

How to Beat

Well, maybe not. Some versions of the story say that there’s a way to beat her: by responding with  “meh, you’re alright,” or something of the like. This apparently bamboozles her enough to give you time to escape. Although some versions say that she’ll just be waiting for you at home anyway, so it’s up to you whether to stick or twist on the mutilation.

Teke Teke

Teke Teke (2009) was one of the top Japanese horror movies of the year. What would you do if you saw this waiting down the street?

Another one which preys on those walking alone at night, Teke Teke is named after the sound she makes as she chases her victims down the street. Some versions say it’s the sound of her claws striking the floor, some say it’s her scythe. Both give a pretty good indicator of her intent — this ghost wastes no time fishing for compliments.

The story goes that Teke Teke is the onryō of a train station suicide who was bisected at the waist. Urban legends tend to grow arms and legs, but this one takes them away instead — now the spirit of the woman roams around, looking to part nighttime wanderers from their own bottom half! It’s said that she’ll sometimes appear at windows, smiling and beckoning her victims, before leaping out to reveal her full form. 

If you ever see someone waving you over to their car window at midnight, stay away. I mean, that’s pretty solid advice even without the threat of ghostly vengeance…

How to Beat

Run like hell! Yep, unfortunately, there’s no secret codeword or tactic which can get you off easy with this one. The only way to ensure survival is to outrun the super-fast spirit. Sure, your Gold’s Gym Japan membership will set you back about $100 a month, but can you really put a price on avoiding dismemberment?

Kashima Reiko

This is probably about the 4th worst thing you can expect to find in a public toilet cubicle.