Curses, demons, cursed commercials and conspiracy theories - contemporary Japanese myths will delight any fan of horror-filled stories. Learn about the most popular Japanese urban legends to discover where the gloominess of Japanese horrors come from.

Japan is a country of many contrasts – both in the cuisine and in the culture. On the one hand you can find there a plentiful of gentleness and calm, worthy of enlightened Zen masters, on the other hand it surprises with spicy flavours and samurai cruelty. One of the most explicit elements of the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun are urban legends, i.e. popular contemporary myths, full of monsters and gory stories. It is hard to believe that they come from the same Japan which is also a home of subtle ikebana or suibokuga, the latter being the art of impressively precise ink painting.

Ancient Japanese legends

The source of urban legends can be found in tales about yōkai, demons inextricably linked with the traditional Shinto religion. Folk legend has it, the yōkai dwelt in Japanese woods, mountain valleys and rivers. They also strolled through cities in hayakkiyagyou emaki parades – a procession of one hundred demons, that would lay a curse on anyone who caught a glimpse of even one of them. Popular in the Edo period, kaidan, or ancient stories about ghosts and supernatural apparitions, are characterised by a similar gloomy climate. The kaidan, stemming from Buddhist cautionary tales, often featured a warning. Telling about ghosts taking revenge for harm done to them during their lifetime, they reminded the audience about the inevitable karma law.

Japanese urban legends

Even though contemporary legends are much closer to the Shinto tradition, they too, like the Buddhism-centred kaidan, fulfil an educational purpose. Japanese urban legends can be divided into three main categories. The largest of them contains stories about aforementioned yōkai and other monsters, stemming from traditional iconography, and introduced into the contemporary reality. The second category encompasses stories about cursed items, places and phenomena, and the third one concerns non-fantasy myths, which often function in collective consciousness as real explanations of common phenomena.

Japanese legends about ghosts and demons


Kuchisake-onna – the slit mouth woman

One of the most famous stories about Japanese ghosts is the story of Kuchisake-onna – a young, beautiful and extremely vain woman married to a jealous samurai. As a reaction to her latest revealed indiscretion, her husband mutilated her by slashing her lips from ear to ear. According to the legend, the girl’s spirit roams the world seeking revenge. A mysterious figure in a long coat, she hides her face behind a surgical mask, selecting not only men as her victims, but mostly children. Her assault always begins with the same question: “Am I pretty?” A negative answer results in death on the spot, her murder weapon being a pair of scissors, which she uses to rip the victim’s body apart. In case of a yes, she will pull her mask away and showing her slit mouth, she will ask: “How about now?” The only answer that gives a chance of escape is telling her that she is average or that she looks just normal. Denying her beauty fills her with rage and means a sure death. Upon second affirmative answer Kuchisake-onna would pull out her pair of scissors and cut the victim’s face to resemble her own scar. Although the legend has been known since the Heian period, it resurfaces every now and then and captures the public imagination even stronger than before. In 1979, when a few witnesses testified to having seen a monster whose looks corresponded to the description found in the legend, the number of police patrols was increased and children on their way back from school were escorted in groups, organised specially for that purpose.


Teke-teke – the woman with legs cut off

Another creepy heroine of urban legends is Teke-teke, or Reiko Kashima, who was cut in half by the oncoming underground train. Even though she has no legs, her ghost moves at an incredible speed. Dragging herself on hands and elbows, she scratches the surface with her upper body, making a “teke-teke” sound. Poor wretches who stand in her way will be cut in half with a scythe or saw. Just like Kuchisake-onna, Teke-teke will pose a series of questions to her victims. “Where are my legs?”, begins the apparition. The only right answer is: “At the Meishin Railway”. “Who told you that?”, continues Teke-teke, “It was Reiko Kashima.” Only knowing the right sequence of sentences, one can avoid a sharp cut and save one’s legs.

Japanese legends about curses


Curse in the tissues commercial

In the 1980s, a Kleenex tissues commercial was broadcast on Japanese television. The commercial featured a white-clad woman accompanied by a child who bore resemblance to an Oni demon. The image stirred a lot of controversy and its creation was shrouded in legend about consequences of breaking a taboo of looking at Japanese demons. According to a popular myth, the film crew who took part in the commercial production died sudden, tragic deaths in short succession. Allegedly, the woman who appeared in the commercial soon afterwards gave birth to a child that looked exactly like a Shinto demon.


The red room legend

It is one of the most contemporary Japanese legends connected with virtual reality risks. Its popularity reached climax in 2004 after a Japanese teenage girl’s suicide. A tab with the infamous red room was found on her PC. According to dark beliefs, it appears to random users as a pop-up on the screen. Everyone who sees the red message will die and the victim’s room will be painted red – with the victim’s own blood, no less!

Japanese non-fantasy legends


Shirokiya department store

The last category includes fictional, though to a certain extent probable stories, connected with actual events and phenomena. One of the most popular ones concerns a fire in the Shirokiya department store that took place in 1932. The legend based on the tragic event has it, that the fire resulted in a social breakthrough in fashion: it was what caused the Japanese to turn to wearing western… underwear. In the early 20th century inhabitants of the Land of the Rising Sun would still wear both the festive kimono and the casual yukata directly on naked body. It was alleged that during the evacuation from the store fire, women refused to jump into safety nets stretched by firemen as they feared that tucked-up kimonos would expose too much. Modesty turned out to be more important than saving their lives, and they died in fatal flames. That incident, at least according to the legend, led to the introduction of a very Western-style garment, namely underwear, to the Japanese dress. The myth about modesty defence was refuted long ago, however, the legend is still alive in the Japanese collective memory.


Sony timer – a legend about technological conspiracy

Why do electronic devices fail soon after their warranty expires? There must be something to it! At least, according to the so-called Sony-timer legend. The popular myth, that originated in the mid 80’s, has it, that the Japanese manufacturer started to install a special mechanism in its devices (either a chip or an additional line of code in the software), that destroys them after a certain time period has passed since the purchase date. For years, more and more people found the story credible and the urban legend tarnished the brand’s image on such a scale that on the turn of 2006 and 2007 the then Sony president declared himself that the company was not involved in such practices.

The cruelty of Japanese urban legends may terrify, disgust and repel. Their function is more than to stir intense emotions. Behind each of them there is some warning, a cautionary word, and explicit stories might serve as an invitation to a deeper thought. They may warn children against going to places unaccompanied or make aware of grave consequences of sticking to traditional values. Regardless of the educational value of Japanese myths, they do not necessarily make for the best nigh-time stories.

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