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.
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 (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?
This is probably about the 4th worst thing you can expect to find in a public toilet cubicle.
Warning: some versions of this tale which circulate among the schools of Japan say that the spirit will appear to you within a month of hearing her story, so anyone of the superstitious inclination should give this entry a skip.
This is the second of the legless female onryō of the list, and it’s sometimes said that she’s actually the same spirit as Teke Teke. The story generally goes that she was a Hokkaido woman who was beaten by a gang, and accidentally crawled onto the railway tracks while looking for help.
Now her main goal seems to be tracking down her missing limbs. The way she goes about this is — somewhat confusingly — by interrogating people while they’re on the toilet in public or school bathrooms (how else?). If she doesn’t get the answers she wants, she expresses her discontent by killing them.
How to Beat
No matter how hard you’ve been hitting that Gold’s Gym treadmill, you can’t just run when you’re cornered on the toilet. You’ll have to talk your way out of this one, and the script of the conversation which will save your life goes like this:
Ghost: Where are my legs?
You: On the Meishin Expressway.
Ghost: Who told you that?
You: Kashima Reiko.
Ghost: Do you know my name?
You: Mask death demon [a literal interpretation of the three kanji which make up her surname].
It’s unclear if she disappears after that, or if there’s an awkward moment of silence while you finish your business and shuffle out of the stall. Either way, you’re off scot-free.
From the poster for Hanako-san of the Toilet (1995). As you’re probably already aware, school-kid ghosts are a popular theme in Japanese horror.
As if the previous three entries didn’t have tragic enough backstories, Hanako-San is said to be the ghost of an elementary school student killed in a WW2 US bombing raid on her school. Now she haunts the 3rd stall on the 3rd floor of elementary schools, in a similar fashion to the classic Bloody Mary legend.
It’s unclear if she has it out for Americans on account of the circumstances of her demise, but if you’re gonna give summoning her a try, then maybe you should try putting on your best British accent, just in case. To do so, you have to knock on the stall door three times and ask if she’s there.
There are various different stories about what happens next, from the benign to the bloody. She might just raise a ghostly hand up above the stall and reply softly, or she might throw open the door and drag you to the netherworld. It’s a real mixed bag.
How to Beat
Just don’t go looking for her! I mean, if you’re old enough to be reading about gruesome Japanese ghost stories on the internet, you’re too old to be wandering around in elementary school toilets anyway.
The story of this toilet-paper-wielding ghost is a uniquely Japanese blend of menace and weirdness.
The first male ghost on our list, this masked figure is said by some to be the spirit of a serial killer from early 20th century Fukui Prefecture. In English, he’s known as the Red Cape, as this is the defining feature of his ghostly attire.
Far and away the most sadistic of the onryō, he chooses to target those who are at the very bottom of the depths of despair — women who run out of toilet paper in public restrooms (if you’ve learned anything from this list, it’s to basically avoid all toilets, all the time).
When you look over and see that empty cardboard tube, you’ll hear a ghostly voice ask if you’d like a fresh roll of red or blue paper. Rather than an obtuse Matrix reference, this is actually code for death by stabbing or strangulation, which the ghost then materializes to administer.
How to Beat
If you’re really struggling to choose between the two painful deaths on offer, then there are some ways you might be able to get out of it. It’s said that choosing a third color is a bad idea, because the most likely result is being dragged into the toilet and straight to hell. Instead, some storytellers recommend just politely declining and going on your way (presumably running to the nearest store for some plain ol’ white, non-cursed TP).
The Red Room
If you’re over a certain age, the sight of retro Internet Explorer popups will fill you with instinctive dread (even if they aren’t cursed).
It’s widely accepted that the three most evil things in the nineties were Saddam Hussein, ska punk, and internet popups. No wonder then, that tech-savvy Japan has an urban legend related to the latter part of this unholy trinity.
The story goes that a skeptical young boy was told by his friend about a cursed browser popup, so he went looking for it. It turned out to be an image of a red door, with a message that grew longer each time the window was closed then automatically reopened.
After a few cycles of closing and re-pop-upping, the full message was revealed: “Do you like the red room?” accompanied by a list of kids’ names with his friend at the top (who repeated the message aloud and appeared as a ghost behind the boy). The two kids were said to have both killed themselves, but not before painting their bedroom walls with their own blood.
You’ll be relieved to hear that everything described above was actually just the narrative of a deliberately creepy Flash video (and accompanying popup) popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. It might just sound like a harmless way to spook your friends, but the reason it’s still so famous is because of a very dark real-world connection.
In 2004, a twelve year old girl named Satomi Mitarai was murdered during lunch break at her school by a fellow student, who was eleven years old at the time. The unnamed culprit was reported to have had The Red Room saved as a bookmark on her computer, which fueled speculation about the potential authenticity of the curse…
How to Beat
AdBlock, people! Much like viagra commercials and bogus virus notifications, The Red Room is no match for the blessed magic of modern popup blocker plugins. Amen.
Okiku the Doll
Japan’s equivalent of Childplay‘s Chucky is far prettier, far less threatening, but no less creepy.
Cursed dolls — the uncanny valley is full of them. You won’t be surprised to learn that these freaky little playthings have as many unsettling associations in Japan as in the West. The story of this particular doll dates back over a century, to Hokkaido in the year 1918.
A little girl called Okiku was gifted a doll by her brother, because he thought it resembled her — both had the bob cut hairstyle typical of the day. Okiku loved her doll and went everywhere with it. When she tragically passed away several months later, she did so with the doll in her arms.
As is customary in Japanese households, the family began to pray for their beloved daughter’s spirit at the household altar. The new centerpiece of this shrine was the doll which their daughter loved so much in life and… well, you can probably see where this is going.
As time went by, the family noticed that the hair on the doll had started to grow, and continued to do so each time they cut it. Rather than getting out of there as fast as possible and buying the first ticket to the other side of the planet, they did the second most sensible thing and donated the doll to Mannen-ji temple, where it still resides.
How to Beat
Well, actually Okiku doesn’t need to be tricked or run from. In fact, she’s not vengeful at all. Although the story is unsettling, it actually shines some light on the nicer side of Japanese ghost stories. Many of them are about spirits who hang around just to be with their families, rather than to hurt anyone. You’d take than over scythe-armed murder demons any day, right?
The internet had birthed some incredibly freaky imagery around the story of this cursed poem.
Here’s one you can try at home! In fact, you’ll find the internet filled with videos of people doing so, by reading the original Japanese words to this purportedly cursed poem out loud. It was was written by Japanese poet Saijō Yaso, and released in 1919.
It tells the story of the titular young boy Tomino, as he descends through the eight circles of Buddhist hell. The origins of the urban legend are lost to history, but the story goes that anyone who reads the poem out loud, in the original Japanese, will suffer a terrible fate.
In 1974, the director Terayama Shuji made a film named Pastoral: To Die in the Country which drew inspiration from the poem. His death fueled the legend of the damned verses (despite the fact that it occurred 9 years later, and was caused by a decidedly un-supernatural bout of liver cirrhosis).
The writer of the poem lived to a ripe old age despite reading it aloud multiple times, meaning he was either a witch or the story was just not true. However, when you take a look at the creepy fandom which has sprung up around the poem online, including some really unsettling illustrations, you probably won’t want to risk it.
How to Beat
Don’t read it out loud. Or better yet, just don’t read it at all. Seriously, just don’t bother. I haven’t even linked it here. You’d have to really go out of your way to bring this curse upon yourself…
The Curse of the Colonel
Colonel Harland Sanders: the true face of horror for the baseball fans of Kansai. Look at the evil in the bastard's beady little eyes.
We’ve covered serial killers and haunted dolls, but what we’re all really afraid of are the corporate mascots of fast food brands, am I right? No? Okay, maybe this isn’t the scariest Japanese urban legend, but it is one of the most famous.
In 1985, the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, perennial runners-up to Tokyo’s Yoimuri Giants, pulled off the unimaginable and won the Japan Series (the championship playoffs between the winners of the Central League and the Pacific League). Baseball fans aren’t exactly known for their poise and restraint, so the celebrations were predictably unhinged.
A crowd of fans in Osaka took to chanting the names of players while lookalikes from among them jumped into the Dōtonbori River. There was a problem when they got to the team’s star batter Randy Bass — none of the Japanese fans much resembled the white, bearded Oklahoman.
The closest they could find was a the life-sized statue of Colonel Sanders standing outside of the nearby KFC. On that fateful day, the wrathful colonel found himself condemned to a watery grave, and so began a streak of bad luck for the Tigers which persists to this day — they’ve never won the Japan Series since!
How to Beat
Prayers were made to ask for the Colonel’s forgiveness, but it seemed that the scorned god of fried chicken would not be appeased until his effigy was recovered from its resting place. Fans did their best, but Sanders seemed lost for good until 2009, when he was dredged up from the bottom of the river, minus his left hand and glasses. It’s said that the only way that the Tigers will ever win the top championship ever again is if some adventurous soul manages to recover those fateful spectacles and digits.
The only other way to defeat the curse is to just… not be a Tigers fan, I guess. Go Giants!
This is a just a best-of list for Japanese urban legends of the last century. If you delve even further into the myths, history, and media of the country you’ll find thousands more terrifying entities waiting to terrorize your dreams. However, if you’re looking to navigate the ghost-infested streets and bathrooms of Japan with safety, memorizing these tips is a pretty good place to start.
Just add them to your existing survival skills repertoire. See a black bear — scream and shout. See a brown bear — play dead. Disembodied voice asks you about your favorite color of toilet paper — decline to answer. Easy, right? That’s all from me. I’m off to stock up on holy water and sacred Buddha totems at the konbini. Stay safe out there folks!