Japanese urban legend

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A Japanese urban legend (日本の都市伝説, Nihon no toshi densetsu) is a story in Japanese folklore which is circulated as true. These urban legends are characterized by originating in or being popularized throughout the country of Japan. These urban legends commonly involve paranormal entities or creatures who encounter and/or attack humans, but the term can also encompass widespread, non-supernatural rumors in popular culture. Urban legends in the former category rarely include the folklore yōkai, instead being primarily based on contemporary examples of yūrei (Japanese ghosts). Modern Japanese urban legends tend to take place in schools or urban settings, and some can be considered cautionary tales.

Natural legends[edit]

1932 Shirokiya Department Store deaths[edit]

The 1932 Shirokiya Department Store fire

On 16 December 1932, the Shirokiya Department Store fire in Tokyo resulted in 14 deaths. During the fire, many saleswomen in kimono were forced onto the roof of the eight-story building. Rumors later spread that some of these women refused to jump into the safety nets held by firefighters on the ground. Traditionally, women did not wear undergarments with kimono, and they were afraid they would be exposed and ashamed if they jumped. As a result, they died.[1][2] This news attracted attention from as far away as Europe. It has been alleged that in the aftermath of the fire, department store management ordered saleswomen to wear panties or other underwear with their kimono, and the trend spread.[1][2]

Contrary to this belief, Shoichi Inoue, a professor of Japanese customs and architecture at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, has denied the story of the ambivalent women with fatal modesty. According to Inoue, most people were saved by firemen, and the story of women who preferred to die with their modesty intact was fabricated for Westerners. The story has been prevalent in many reference books, even some published by the Fire Fighting Agency. Moreover, it is generally believed in Japan that the Shirokiya Department Store fire was a catalyst for the change in fashion customs, specifically the trend toward wearing Western-style panties, though there is no evidence to substantiate the belief.[3]

Sony timer[edit]

It was rumored that the Sony Corporation installed a device in all of its electronic products that caused them to fail soon after their warranties expired, an illegal form of planned obsolescence.

This has never been substantiated and while it is unlikely that Sony would explicitly add expiration devices to their hardware, the "Sony Timer" has also been taken to mean that Sony manufactures devices to withstand just enough use to necessitate a new line. At the annual shareholders meeting in 2007, then president Ryoji Chubachi said that he was aware of the term "Sony Timer".[4]

Supernatural legends[edit]

Aka Manto ("Red Cape")[edit]

Aka Manto (赤マント, Red Cloak) is described as a male spirit who wears a red cloak and a mask which hides his face, and is said to haunt public or school bathrooms, and often specifically the last stall of female bathrooms.[5] According to legend, individuals using a toilet in such bathrooms may be asked by Aka Manto to choose between red paper or blue paper (in some versions, the options will be red or blue cloaks or capes, rather than paper).[6][7] Choosing the "red" option results in fatal lacerations or flaying, while choosing the "blue" option results in strangulation or all of the individual's blood being drained from their body.[8] Picking a color which has not been offered leads to the individual being dragged to an underworld or hell, and in some accounts, choosing "yellow" results in the person's head being pushed into the toilet.[8][9][10][11] Ignoring the spirit, rejecting both options offered by the spirit, escaping the bathroom, or a combination of the aforementioned methods are said to result in the individual's survival.[8]

Cursed Kleenex commercial[edit]

In the 1980s, Kleenex released three Japanese commercials for their tissues, featuring a woman played by actress Keiko Matsuzaka dressed in a white dress and a child dressed as a Japanese ogre, sitting on straw. Each advert had the song "It's a Fine Day" by Edward Barton and Jane playing in the background.[12][13] Allegedly, viewers began to file complaints with television stations and with Kleenex's corporate headquarters because they found the commercial unnerving, and some supposedly claimed that the song sounded like a German curse, despite the lyrics being in English.[13] False rumors about the cast and crew are purported to have circulated, including that all those involved in filming the commercial met untimely deaths in accidents, that Matsuzaka was institutionalized after a mental breakdown, or that Matsuzaka became pregnant with a demon child.[13]

Curse of the Colonel[edit]

The Curse of the Colonel (カーネルサンダースの呪い, Kāneru Sandāsu no Noroi) is supposedly suffered by the Hanshin Tigers baseball team and cited as the cause of their poor performance in the Japan Championship Series. In 1985, fans of the Hanshin Tigers celebrated their team's first and only victory of the series and, in their excitement, threw a statue of Colonel Sanders (the founder and mascot of KFC) into the Dōtonbori River. Since the incident, the team has yet to win the Championship again, and some fans believed the team would never do so again until the statue was recovered.[14]

The statue was finally discovered in the Dōtonbori River on March 10, 2009. Divers who recovered the statue at first thought it was a large barrel and, shortly after, a human corpse, but Hanshin fans on the scene were quick to identify it as the upper portion of the long-lost Colonel. The right hand and lower body were found the next day, but the statue is still missing its glasses and left hand. The legend is similar to the Curse of the Bambino and the Curse of the Billy Goat.[citation needed]

Gozu ("Cow Head")[edit]

Gozu (牛頭, "Cow Head"), also known as "Ox Head", is a Japanese urban legend about a fictional story called "Cow Head". Supposedly the "Cow Head" story is so horrifying that people who read or hear it are overcome with fear so great that they tremble violently for days on end until they die.[15][16] One variation involves a teacher who tells a bored group of school children the story, resulting in the children and teacher becoming catatonic and losing their memory. Other variations include the detail that no one is able to retell the story since they die after hearing it. Rumors say that only fragments are left of the story. One such fragment is about a town that got cursed after they ate the Cow Head.

The "Cow Head" story was rumored to be an unpublished piece from sci-fi writer Sakyo Komatsu, but there is no evidence to link the author to the legend. A Ukrainian folktale called Cow's Head exists, about a woman who receives good fortune by offering food and shelter to a disembodied cow's head that visits her one night,[17] A Gion Matsuri folktale called Somin Shorai exists, about a poor but charitable person who receives good fortune by saving a tourist Gozu Tennō (牛頭天王) who was looking for a place to stay the night on his journey,[18] as well as a 2003 film called Gozu, directed by Takashi Miike, neither of which are linked to the legend.

Hanako-san of the Toilet (Toire no Hanako-san)[edit]

Hanako-san, or Toire no Hanako-san (トイレのはなこさん, Hanako of the Toilet), is a legend about the spirit of a young girl named Hanako who haunts school bathrooms.[19][20] Different versions of the story include that Hanako-san is the ghost of a girl who was killed while playing hide-and-seek during an air raid in World War II,[6][9] that she was murdered by stranger or an abusive parent,[9][19] or that she committed suicide in a school bathroom.[19] Rumors and legends about Hanako-san have achieved notable popularity in Japanese primary schools, where children may challenge classmates to try and summon Hanako-san.[9]

Inokashira Park curse[edit]

In Inokashira Park, Tokyo, there is a shrine to the goddess Benzaiten, as well as Inokashira Pond, a lake where visitors can rent rowing boats.[21][22] There is an urban legend which states that if a couple rides on a boat together, their relationship will end prematurely.[23] In some versions of the legend, happy couples who visit the park will be cursed by the jealous Benzaiten, which will cause them to break up.[21][22]

Jinmenken ("Human-Faced Dog")[edit]

Jinmenken (人面犬, "Human-Faced Dog") are dogs with human faces that are said to appear at night in Japanese urban areas.[24] They are rumored to be able to run along highways at extremely high speeds, which allows them to overtake cars and then look back at drivers with their human faces.[24][25] Jinmenken can talk, but prefer to be left alone.[25] In some stories, which are often presented as comedic, wherein individuals may encounter a dog rummaging through garbage, only for the dog to look up, revealing itself as a jinmenken with its human face, and say something like "leave me alone!" (or "hottoite kure!").[24] Explanations for jinmenken include that they are genetic experiments, or that a jinmenken is the ghost of a human who was struck by a car while walking a dog.[24]

The concept of dogs with human faces dates back to at least as early as 1810, when a "human-faced puppy" was reportedly exhibited at a misemono.[26][24] Rumors about jinmenken may also have circulated among surfers in the 1950s, but the modern concept of the legend is first known to have spread across Japan in 1989.[24] Additionally, jinmenken, or human-faced dogs, have made appearances in various media. A dog with a human face appears in the 1978 American film Invasion of the Body Snatchers,[27] and jinmenken have been featured in the anime and video game franchise Yo-kai Watch.[28]


Kokkuri (こっくり, 狐狗狸) or Kokkuri-san (こっくりさん) is a Japanese game which became popular during the Meiji era.[20] Rather than using a store-bought board with letters and a planchette, players write down hiragana characters and place their fingers on a coin, before asking "Kokkuri-san" a question. This is a popular game in Japanese high schools.[29]

Legends about the game include Kokkuri-san only telling players the date of their death, while others say that one can ask Kokkuri-san anything, but one must finish the game either by saying goodbye to Kokkuri-san before leaving the table or by disposing of the kokkuri game utensils within a certain time limit, such as spending the coin or using up the ink in the pen used to write the hiragana.[30] Failure to do so will result in misfortune or death for the players.

Kuchisake-onna ("Slit-Mouthed Woman")[edit]

Kuchisake-onna (口裂け女, "Slit-Mouthed Woman") is an urban legend about the malevolent spirit, or onryō, of a mutilated woman. She is said to partially cover her face with a mask or object, and reportedly carries a sharp tool of some kind, such as a knife or a large pair of scissors.[31] According to popular legend, she will ask potential victims if they think she is attractive.[32] If an individual responds with "no", she will kill them with her weapon. If they say "yes", she will reveal that the corners of her mouth have been slit from ear to ear.[33][34] If the individual again responds that she is unattractive, or if they scream in fright, she will kill them with her weapon.[32] If they say "yes", she will cut the corners of their mouth in such a way that mimics her own disfigurement.[32] To survive an encounter with Kuchisake-onna, it is said that individuals may answer her question by describing her appearance as "average", or distract her with money or hard candies.[32][31]


Kunekune (くねくね, "Wriggling body") is an urban legend which concerns distant apparitions seen on widely extended rice or barley fields on hot summer days. A kunekune refers to an indiscernible white object, similar in appearance to a tall, slender strip of paper or a textile sheet, that shimmers and wiggles as if moved by wind, even on windless days. According to legend, anyone who tries to get a closer look at it is driven insane or dies when touching it. Early reports of kunekune appeared on several websites at the same time. The kunekune legend may be based on local ghost stories about scarecrows coming to life at night (or when someones stares at them too often). Alleged encounters of kunekune are likely a misinterpretation of either a scarecrow wiggling slightly in the wind[35][36] or wick drains planted to drain water from inner ground to robust the soft ground.[37]

Teke Teke (or Kashima Reiko)[edit]

Teke Teke (テケテケ) is the ghost of a young woman or schoolgirl who fell on a railway line, which resulted in her body being cut in half by a train.[38] She is an onryō, or a vengeful spirit, who lurks around urban areas and train stations at night. Since she no longer has lower extremities, she travels on either her hands or elbows, dragging her upper torso and making a scratching or "teke teke"-like sound. If she encounters a potential victim, she will chase them and slice them in half at the torso with a scythe or other weapon.[39]

In some versions of the Teke Teke story, the spirit is identified as Kashima Reiko, who is said to have died when her legs were severed from her body by a train.[38] According to legend, her legless ghost haunts bathrooms, asking occupants if they know where her legs are. If a questioned individual replies with an answer that Kashima deems unacceptable, she will tear or cut their legs off.[6] Individuals may escape Kashima by replying that her legs are on the Meishin Expressway,[6][40] or by answering her question with the phrase "kamen shinin ma", which translates to "mask death demon".[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Richie, Donald (2006). Japanese Portraits: Pictures of Different People. Tuttle Publishing. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-8048-3772-9.
  2. ^ a b Dalby, Liza Crihfield (1983). Geisha. University of California Press. p. 318. ISBN 978-0-520-04742-6.
  3. ^ Shōichi, Inoue (2002). パンツが見える。: 羞恥心の現代史 パンツが見える。: 羞恥心の現代史 [My panties are visible. The history of being ashamed] (in Japanese). Asahi shimbun. ISBN 978-4-02-259800-4.
  4. ^ ソニー、定時株主総会を開催。「利益を伴う成長へ」 「ソニータイマーという言葉は認識している」中鉢社長 (in Japanese), 2007-06-21, AV watch
  5. ^ a b Bathroom Readers' Institute 2017, p. 390.
  6. ^ a b c d Grundhauser, Eric (2 October 2017). "Get to Know Your Japanese Bathroom Ghosts". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  7. ^ Joly 2012, p. 55.
  8. ^ a b c "Aka manto". Yokai.com. 31 October 2016. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d Yoda & Alt 2013, p. 237.
  10. ^ Bathroom Readers' Institute 2017, p. 391.
  11. ^ Bricken, Rob (19 July 2016). "14 Terrifying Japanese Monsters, Myths And Spirits". Kotaku. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  12. ^ "Cursed Japanese Kleenex Commercial". Museum of Hoaxes. 1 October 2007. Retrieved 17 July 2019.
  13. ^ a b c Jacobson, Molly McBride (5 October 2016). "Watch a Cursed Japanese Kleenex Ad". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 17 July 2019.
  14. ^ "USATODAY.com - The Colonel's curse runs deep". usatoday.com.
  15. ^ Bingham 2015, p. 49.
  16. ^ Griffin, Erika (12 January 2011). "8 Scary Japanese Urban Legends". Cracked. Retrieved 17 July 2019.
  17. ^ "Cow's Head: From Ghost Stories at Americanfolklore.net". americanfolklore.net.
  18. ^ "Gion Goku-Tennō no engi". Kyoto University Rare Materials Digital Archive.
  19. ^ a b c Meyer, Matthew (27 October 2010). "A-Yokai-A-Day: Hanako-san (or "Hanako of the Toilet")". MatthewMeyer.net. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  20. ^ a b Fitch, Laura (7 June 2005). "Have you heard the one about..?: A look at some of Japan's more enduring urban legends". The Japan Times. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  21. ^ a b "Inokashira Park Benzaiten Shrine". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  22. ^ a b "Tokyo facts: 40 trivia tidbits to wow your mind". Time Out. 25 August 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  23. ^ "The curse of Inokashira Pond". The Japan Times. 17 November 2018. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Dylan Foster 2015, p. 226.
  25. ^ a b Cameron, Kim (21 December 2015). "FEATURE: Monster Mondays - Jinmenken (Human-Faced Dog)". Crunchyroll. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  26. ^ Murakami 2000, p. 195.
  27. ^ Dylan Foster 2015, p. 226–227.
  28. ^ Komatsu, Mikikazu (27 October 2016). "3rd "Yo-Kai Watch" Film New Trailer Introduces More Live-Action Cast including Human Face Dog". Crunchyroll. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  29. ^ "Obakemono.com". Archived from the original on 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  30. ^ "Japanese Urban Legend: Kokkuri-san's voice". thejapanesehorror.com.
  31. ^ a b Yoda & Alt 2013, p. 204–206.
  32. ^ a b c d Meyer, Matthew (31 May 2013). "Kuchisake onna". Yokai.com. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  33. ^ Matchar, Emily (31 October 2013). "Global Ghosts: 7 Tales of Specters From Around the World". The Atlantic. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  34. ^ Philbrook, Scott (co-host); Burgess, Forrest (co-host); Meyer, Matthew (guest) (14 October 2018). "Ep 121: Yokai Horrors of Japan" (Podcast). Astonishing Legends. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  35. ^ Freeman 2010, p. 200.
  36. ^ Yamaguchi 2007, p. 19–23.
  37. ^ "発表報文(メディア紹介・発表論文)". Kinjo Rubber Co., Ltd. Kinjo Rubber Co., Ltd. 21 May 2004. Retrieved 22 April 2018.
  38. ^ a b Meza-Martinez, Cecily; Demby, Gene (31 October 2014). "The Creepiest Ghost And Monster Stories From Around The World". NPR. National Public Radio, Inc. Retrieved 6 August 2019.
  39. ^ de Vos 2012, p. 170.
  40. ^ Bricken, Rob (19 July 2016). "14 Terrifying Japanese Monsters, Myths And Spirits". Kotaku. G/O Media. Retrieved 6 August 2019.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]