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The rokurokubi (ろくろ首, 轆轤首) is a type of Japanese yōkai (apparition). There are two types of Rokurokubi: one whose necks stretch, and one whose heads come off and fly around freely (nukekubi). The Rokurokubi appear in classical kaidan (spirit tales) and in yōkai art works.
The nukekubi are rokurokubi whose heads come off and float about. They are the earlier tradition of rokurokubi. The nukekubi are evil spirits who attack at night and drink their victims' blood. They are only seen when the head is separate from the body. When the nukekubi is sleeping and only its head is moving, if the body moves then the head cannot be re-united to the body. The act of the head separating from the body represents the spirit's soul wandering. Some people in stories involving nukekubi are afflicted with an illness where they have become the nukekubi.
In Sorori Monogatari (曾呂利物語), in the chapter, A Woman's Wild Thoughts Wandering Around (女の妄念迷ひ歩く事, Onna no Mōnen Mayoiaruku Koto) the head separating from the body indicated the woman's soul was wandering while she was asleep. In the same book, a man sees a nukekubi that changes into a chick and a woman's head. He takes his sword and chases the apparition. The nukekubi fled to its home and said, "I had a scary dream. I was chased by a man with a sword. I ran away all the way back home, and then I woke up." (refer to picture).
This story was adopted by Shokoku Hyaku Monogatari (諸国百物語). In About Rokurokubi in the Province of Echizen (ゑちぜんの国府中ろくろ首の事, Echizen no Kofuchuu Rokurokubi no Koto) he tells the story of a man who chases a nukekubi (who represents a woman's soul detached from her body) all the way home. The woman has been shamed by a crime she has committed. She has left her husband, shaved her hair, and committed suicide.
Hokusō Sadan (北窻瑣談) is an Edo period essay by Tachibana Nankei (橘春暉). It tells the story of a nukekubi representing a soul detached from an ill body: in the first year of Kansei, in Echigo Province (now Fukui Prefecture), a maidservant falls asleep and her head rolls off the pillow, detached from the body. 
In Kokon Hyaku Monogatari Hyōban (古今百物語評判), a book of ghost stories that explains yōkai tales by Yamaoka Genrin, there is a chapter called How Priest Zetsugan saw Rokurokubi in Higo (絶岸和尚肥後にて轆轤首を見給ふ事, Zetsugan Oshō Higo nite Rokurokubi wo Mitamou Koto). In Higo Province (now Kumamoto Prefecture), the head of an innkeeper's wife leaves her body and floats in the air. The next day, her head is attached but there is a line around her neck. The author comments, "as these kinds of things were often seen in South-East Asia, not just limited to the creation of the heaven and earth, it is difficult to fathom them with ordinary common sense such as the idea that octopi do not have eyes, and as these things are unheard of in the capital, everything strange is in faraway lands." In the same book, there is a story which tells of a woman in the village of Tawa, Nagao, Ōkawa District, Kagawa Prefecture (now Sanuki) who is a rokurokubi and has a ring-like bruise around her neck.
Churyō Manroku (中陵漫録) is a tale which describes a village in the recesses of Mount Yoshino where all the residents, even children, are rokurokubi. They wear scarves around their necks to cover a line around their necks.
Kasshi Yawa (甲子夜話) by Matsura Seizan is a story which tells of a woman in Hitachi Province who has a terminal illness. A peddler has told her husband that the liver of a white dog will cure her. The husband kills the pet dog and gives his wife the dog's liver as a medicant. The woman is cured but her next born daughter is a a rokurokobi. When the roukorkobi's head detached and flew in the air, the white dog appeared, bit the head and killed the rokurokobi.
Although rokurokubi and nukekubi are usually female, in Shousai Hikki (蕉斎筆記), an Edo period tale, there is a nukekubi that is male. A priest is sleeping in his temple when a head appears. He grabs it and throws it away and it disappears. In the morning, the manservant asks to take leave, and when asked why, he explains it is because he believes he is the nukekubi and this "illness" is interfering with his work. He returns to his home in Shimōsa Province where it is known the "illness" is common.
In the essay Mimibukuro by Negishi Shizumori, a woman who is said to be a rokurokubi is married but manages to lives well. In stories about rokuokubi, this is unusual as when rokurokubi are witnessed, bad fortune follows.
In the Edo period encyclopedia, Wakan Sansai Zue Rokuokubi like creatures from Chinese lore are described. They are written as 飛頭蛮 meaning flying head barbarians. They use their ears like wings and they eat insects. They are believed to be foreigners. The foreigner nukekubi also appears in Rokurokubi by Lafcadio Hearn. In his story, the spirits masquerade as a family of woodcutters from the city who kill and eat travellers.
Rokurokubi whose necks extend
In the Edo period, tales were written about people's necks stretching when they were asleep. Examples of these tales are Buya Zokuda (武野俗談), Kanden Kōhitsu (閑田耕筆) and Yasō Kidan (夜窓鬼談). In these stories, a spiritual string-like object connects the head to the torso. Witnesses then mistake the string for an elongated neck. In parapsychology, the string is believed to be "ectoplasm".
In the Kasshi Yawa (甲子夜話), there is a tale which tells of a female servant with a pale face who is thought to be a rokurokubi. One night, her master checks on her while she is sleeping and sees something like steam gradually rise from her chest. The steam becomes thick and obscures her head and then it appears as though her neck is stretched. The girl stirs, turns over and her appearance returns to normal. She is fired and in fact has had trouble staying in any job.
In the late Edo period yomihon (illustrated novel), Rekkoku Kaidan Kikigaki Zōshi (列国怪談聞書帖) by Jippensha Ikku the author suggests the elongated necks of rokurokubi originate in the spiritual principle, karma. In Ikku's work, Kaishin, a monk from Enshū and a woman called Oyotsu elope together. Kaishin kills Oyotsu when she falls ill and cannot continue the elopement. Kaishin returns to secular life and falls in love with a girl who he meets at an inn. When they sleep together, the girl's neck stretches and her face becomes that of an angry Oyotsu. Kaishin regrets his actions and tells the girl's father everything. The girl's father tells Kaishin that he has also killed a woman. He stole her money and with it, he opened his inn. The girl was born soon after, and due to karma, is a rokurokubi. Kaishin then reenters the priesthood. He builds a grave for Oyotsu, and over time, it becomes known as the "rokurokubi mound".
Some authors explain in their tales that the elongation of the neck represents a pathology of the human body. For example, the Edo period author Ban Kōkei in his work "Kanden Kōhitsu" told a tale of a geisha at the Yoshiwara brothel whose neck would elongate in her sleep when her "heart became loose".
Rokurokobi are also appear in the oral tradition of Japanese myths. For example, there is a myth about an old highway between the villages of Iwa and Akechi in Gifu Prefecture where a snake shapeshifted into a rokurokubi. Another example is a myth from the oral tradition of Koikubo area of Iida, Nagano Prefecture where it is said a rokurokubi appeared in someone's home.
In the Bunka period, a kaidan story became popular, where a prostitute's neck would smoothly stretch and would lick the oil of paper lanterns when she slept with guests. Rokurokubi represented transformations of women or strange diseases.In this period, rokurokubi also appeared in freak shows. In 1810 (Bunka 7), the Shohō Kenbunroku (諸方見聞録) records a freak show in Edo, now Tokyo where a male rokurokubi with an elongated neck appeared.
In the early Meiji period, a tale arises that tells of a merchant and his wife from Shibaya town, Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture who witnesses their daughter's neck stretch every night. Despite their supplications in Shinto and Buddhism, the family could not bear the townspeople's gaze on them and left to parts unknown.
The rokurokubi appears in Japanese magic show tricks using curtains and life sized dolls without heads. A doll without a head wearing a kimono in seiza is put in front of the curtain. A female performer connected to the doll with a rope stand behind the curtain. hrough the curtain she shows only her face. As she stands and squats, the fake neck would stretches and contracts, as if it were a rokurokubi.
Anime and manga
- Kanoi Natsuki, the main character in the manga, Kanojo wa Rokurokubi is a rokurokobi.
- Chuda Chiaki, in Legend of the Five Rings is a rokurokobi.
- Rokurokubi, part of a trio of classic yokai in the manga/anime, Yo-kai Watch.
- Raizen's offsider is able to stretch his neck and body to great lengths in the manga/anime YuYu Hakusho.
- Miki Hosokawa in the manga/anime, Hell Teacher Nūbē.
- In Pom Poko, the animated comedy, rokurukobi appear in the "Operation Specter" scene.
- Inuyasha, in the series InuYasha, fights with a "Spider Head", probably inspired by the rokurokubi.
- In the anime/manga series Naruto, Orochimaru uses a technique called "Soft Physique Modification", where he can extend and bend different parts of his body in a similar fashion to the rokurokubi.
- A student character in the anime/manga series, Rosario + Vampire is a rokurokubi.
- A teacher character in the manga, Tokimeki Mononoke Jogakkou is a rokurokubi.
- Sekibanki in the Touhou series is a rokurokubi. She can detach her head, making her similar to a nukekubi. She attacks with long, constricting strings of bullets that likely represent a rokurokubi neck. In her theme song and dialog from one of the player characters she is referred to as dullahan, a headless horse rider.
- Rokka Ayatsuji in the manga, Youkai Shoujo Monsuga is a rokurokubi.
- Luffy, in the anime/manga series, One Piece is able to stretch his body, even his neck, similar to a rokurokubi.
Similar tales from other nations
The type of rokurokubi whose necks separate from the rest of the body is said to have derived from stories of the Chinese yōkai, the hitōban (飛頭蛮) a yōkai whose head separates from the body and floats about. Like the rokurokobi, the hitoban has a line around its neck. Chinese stories also tell of a yōkai called a rakutō (落頭) whose head comes off and floats about while the torso remains at rest. There is a tale that in the Three Kingdoms period, an Eastern Wu general, Zhu Huan employed a female sevant who was a rakutō which used its ears like wings. Another tale relates that in the Qin era, there was a clan from the south called rakutōmin (落頭民) who could fly around in only their heads.
There are legends of creatures including Palasik, Kuyang, and Leak from Indonesia, Penanggalan in Malaysia, and Krasue in Thailand. The heads of these creatures would separate from the body and float about with the entrails attached.
The Chonchon is a mythical creature of South America which takes the form of a human head flying around in the air, sucking the life out of people.
The yōkai researcher, Tada Katsumi states that these stories arrived in Japan in the Muromachi to Azuchi-Momoyama periods, when there was trade between southern China and Southeast Asia. In the Edo period, when Japan adopted an isolationist policy an original Japanese yōkai, the rokurokubi evolved.
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