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The rokurokubi (ろくろ首, 轆轤首) is a type of Japanese yōkai. There are two types, the ones whose necks stretch, and the ones whose heads come off and fly around freely. They often appear in classical kaidan and essays, and they are often the subject of yōkai depictions, but it has also been pointed out that they may have simply been created as a pastime for inventing supernatural stories.
There are several theories for the origin of the word "rokurokubi" including:
- The rokuro meaning a potter's wheel
- How an elongated neck resembles a well's rokuro (the pulley for pulling up the bucket),
- How an umbrella's handle seems to elongate when opening an umbrella's rokuro (the device used to open and close umbrellas),
Types of rokurokubi
They look not very different from humans, but they are divided into different types, the type whose necks come off and float around, and the type where just the neck extends abnormally.
Rokurokubi whose heads come off (nukekubi)
The ones whose heads come off has been determined to be the original type of rokurokubi. This type of rokurokubi perform bad deeds such as attacking humans etc. at night, and drinking their blood. For the rokurokubi whose heads come off, there is also the theory that when they sleep (when only the head is flying around), they have the weakness that if the body moves, it can't return to how it was before. In typical classical stories of rokurokubi, when its head comes off at night, someone else would witness it.
There is also the theory that for the head to come off is the soul detaching from the body (somnambulism), and in the "Sorori Monogatari" (曾呂利物語), under the title "A Woman's Wild Thoughts Wandering Around" (女の妄念迷ひ歩く事, Onna no Mōnen Mayoiaruku Koto), it was interpreted to be a woman's soul detaching from the body during sleep. In the same book, a certain man encountered a nukekubi that changed its appearance into a chick and a woman's head, and when he took out his sword and chased after it, the nukekubi ran away to a home, and from the home, it is said that there was a voice that said, "I saw a scary dream. I was chased by a man with a sword, ran away all the way back home, and woke up" (refer to picture).
Shokoku Hyaku Monogatari (諸国百物語) copies a lot from the "Sorori Monogatari", and under the title "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), there is the story where a man chased a nukekubi (who was a woman's soul detached from her body) all the way home. It is said that this woman, out of shame from a crime, left her husband, shaved her hair, and carried committed suicide.
In the Edo period essay "Hokusō Sadan" (北窻瑣談) by Tachibana Nankei (橘春暉), even here, it was interpreted to be an illness where the soul detaches from the body. It presented the story where on the first year of Kansei, in Echigo Province (now Fukui Prefecture), a maidservant who worked in a home, when she was sleeping, had only her head roll off from the pillow and move, but it was not actually the head detaching from the torso, but rather explained as the soul detaching from the body and making the shape of a head.
In the kaidan book Kokon Hyaku Monogatari Hyōban (古今百物語評判), which had the characteristic of being a book that explained yōkai tales, under the title "About 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), it picked up a story of how a wife of a certain inn had her head come off and float in the air, and when it returned to normal the next day, there was a line around that woman's neck, and the writer of this book, Yamaoka Genrin, pointing out several examples of things written in Chinese books, made the interpretation, "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." Also, in the village of Tawa, Nagao, Ōkawa District, Kagawa Prefecture (now Sanuki), in the same book in the same way, there was a legend where a woman with a ring-like bruise around her neck as a rokurokubi. In the essay "Churyō Manroku" (中陵漫録) too, there was a statement that in "Rokurokubi Village" in the recesses of Mount Yoshino, all the residents were rokurokubi, wore scarves around their neck since they were children, and had a line around their neck when that scarf was taken off.
According to an essay in "Kasshi Yawa" (甲子夜話) by Matsura Seizan, in Hitachi Province, a certain woman was afflicted by an incurable disease. Her husband heard that "the liver of a white dog will be a miracle cure" from a certain peddler. He killed the pet dog and had his wife take the liver as medicine. She did return to health, but the baby girl born afterwards became a rokurokubi. Once, when the head came off and flew in the air, the white dog appeared from somewhere, bit the head, and killed it.
Rokurokubi and nukekubi are fundamentally very often female, but in the essay "Shousai Hikki" (蕉斎筆記) from the Edo period, there was the story of a male nukekubi. In a certain temple, when the chief priest was sleeping at night, a person's head approached around his chest, and so when he grabbed it and throw it, it went away somewhere. The next morning, the temple's manservant asked to take leave, and when asked for the reason, said "last night, didn't a head come visit?" When answered that it came, he said "I have the nukekubi illness. Any more than this would interfere with my service" and then went back to his old home of Shimōsa Province. The nukekubi illness was determined to have been common in Shimōsa.
In the essay Mimibukuro by Negishi Shizumori, a woman rumored to be a rokurokubi got married, but as the rumor was nothing more than a rumor in the end, it is said that she was able to live a harmonious live as a married couple afterwards. As she was not truly a rokurokubi, this story serves as an exception, because in almost all tales about rokurokubi like those mentioned previously, bad fortune is encountered once its true form is seen.
In the encyclopedia Wakan Sansai Zue from the Edo period, the latter ones from China are written as 飛頭蛮 ("flying head barbarians"), and use their ears like wings to fly in the air, and also eat insects, but it stated that the ones from China and Japan are nothing more than foreigners.
In the work "Rokurokubi" by Lafcadio Hearn, this nukekubi also appears. They were depicted as pretending to be a family of woodcutters that originally lived in the city, and would kill and eat travelers.
Rokurokubi whose necks extend
Tales of "when people sleep, their necks would stretch" started appearing in the Edo period and afterwards, in literature such as "Buya Zokuda" (武野俗談), "Kanden Kōhitsu" (閑田耕筆』), "Yasō Kidan" (夜窓鬼談), etc.
This type of rokurokubi comes from legends that say that the rokurokubi (nukekubi) have a spiritual string-like object connecting the head to the torso, and it can be said that this type originates from people mistaking the string (depicted in works by people like Sekien) for an elongated neck.
In the "Kasshi Yawa" (甲子夜話), there is the following tale. A certain female student was suspected to be a rokurokubi, and when this servant's master went to check on her when she was sleeping, something like steam gradually rose from her chest, and when it became quite thick, her head would disappear, and right before one's eyes, her appearance turned into one with her neck risen up and stretched. Perhaps because she noticed the presence of her surprised master, when the female servant turned over in bed, her neck returned to normal. This female servant was ordinary and other than the fact that she had a pale face, she was no different from an ordinary human, but her master dismissed her. She was always fired wherever she went, and thus had no luck with finding places of employment. This "Kasshi Yawa" and the aforementioned "Hokusō Sadan" where the souls that leave the body would create the shape of a neck, has sometimes been interpreted as a type of "ectoplasm" in psychic research.
In the yomihon "Rekkoku Kaidan Kikigaki Zōshi" (列国怪談聞書帖) by the popular writer Jippensha Ikku in the late Edo period, rokurokubi are stated to be from human's karma. A certain monk from Enshū named Kaishin and a woman named Oyotsu eloped, but since Oyotsu collapsed due to illness, and since they ran out of money for the journey, he killed her. Afterwards, when Kaishin returned to secular life, when he and a girl of an inn he stayed at became attracted to each other and slept together, the girl's neck stretched and her face turned into Oyotsu, and told him about her resentment. Kaishin became regretful of the past, and spoke about everything to the girl's father. When he did so, the father said that he also killed a woman in the past and stole her money, and used the money to start that inn, but the girl that was born afterwards, due to karma, naturally became a rokurokubi. Kaishin once again entered Buddhist priesthood, and built a grave for Oyotsu, and it is said to be the "Rokurokubi Mound" (ろくろ首の塚, Rokurokubi no Tsuka), telling the story to people afterwards.
There is also the story that rokurokubi are not yōkai, but rather humans with a type of abnormal body condition, and the Edo Period essay "Kanden Kōhitsu" by Ban Kōkei gave an example of a story where in Shin Yoshiwara, a certain geisha had her neck stretch during sleep, stating that it was a body condition where her heart would come loose and neck would stretch.
It was not merely in literature, but also in oral traditions that rokurokubi are talked about, and in a former highway between the village of Iwa and Akechi of Gifu Prefecture, it is said that a snake shapeshifted into a rokurokubi. According to an oral tradition in Koikubo of Iida, Nagano Prefecture, it is said that a rokurokubi appeared in someone's home.
In the Bunka period, a kaidan story became popular, where a certain prostitute co-slept with guests, and when the guest fell asleep, her neck would smoothly stretch and would lick the oil of paper lanterns, and thus rokurokubi were talked about as things that women transform into like this, or a type of srange disease. Also in this time period, rokurokubi gained much popularity as something shown in freak shows. According to the "Shohō Kenbunroku" (諸方見聞録), there was a statement that in 1810 (Bunka 7) a freak show house in a section of Edo actually had a male with a long neck who was famed as a rokurokubi.
Even going into the Meiji period, there are tales of rokurokubi. In the beginning of Meiji, it is said that a certain couple of a merchant family in the town of Shibaya, Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture witnessed their daughter's neck stretch every night, and there was no effect even when upon relying on Shinto and Buddhism, and eventually the people in the town also came to know of this, and as the couple became unable to endure staying there, they moved away, leaving no notice of their whereabouts.
Similar tales outside Japan
The type of rokurokubi whose necks separate from the rest of the body is said to come from the Chinese yōkai, the hitōban (飛頭蛮, a yōkai whose heads separate from the body and float around). Also, the aforementioned characteristic of having a line around their necks is also something they have in common with the Chinese hitōban. Also similarly, in China there is a yōkai called the "rakutō" (落頭) that is also told about, whose head would firmly come off its body and fly around, and when its head is floating around, only the torso remains in the futon. There is the tale told that in the Three Kingdoms period, an Eastern Wu general Zhu Huan employed a female sevant who was a rakutō. It is said that it used its ears like wings to fly. Also, in the time of Qin, there were tribest to the south called rakutōmin (落頭民), and it is said that they were able to fly around with only their heads.
There are legends of "Ponti An" in Borneo in Southeast Asia, and legends of Penanggalan in Malaysia, where the head with entrails attached would fly off from the body, and float. Also, the Chonchon in South America also takes on the appearance of a human head flying around in the air, sucking the life out of people.
The yōkai researcher Tada Katsumi stated that from the Muromachi period to the Azuchi–Momoyama period, when there was trade with southern China and Southeast Asia, these legends came to Japan from overseas, and when Sakoku was enacted in the Edo period, it is seen that an original Japanese yōkai, the legend of the "rokurokubi" was born.
Rokurokubi in magic shows
It is a magic trick using curtains and lifesized dolls (without heads), and according to modern classification, it is a type of body magic trick. According to reports, a doll wearing a kimono in seiza is put in front of the curtain and a fake long neck is put behind the curtain, and a real female's face who shows only her face is connected with a rope. As female who hides her body behind the curtain stands and squats, the fake neck would stretch and contract, showing as if it were a real rokurokubi. Explanations and pictures giving away this trick were written in magazines of the Meiji period, thus it is known that this was performed in the 19th century. According to scholars of that time, it was a time period when mystery phenomena were vigorously exposed scientifically, and for the secret of the rokurokubi to be exposed is also in the background of this time period. Even in the Taishō period, there was also a similar show business of showing rokurokubi in show tents in festivals at temples and shrines and at temple fairs, which gained much popularity.
There are also similar human body magic tricks outside Japan, and since they would catch their own heads as it falls in their own hands (here, Dullahan's exhibitions fit), similar magic tricks have been arranged in various countries, and have been used in exhibitions.
Rokurokubi in Anime and Manga
- Chuda Chiaki in Legend of the Five Rings is a rokurokubi.
- In the manga/anime Youkai Watch, the character Rokurokubi is part of a trio of classic yokai.
- In the manga/anime YuYu Hakusho, the right hand of Raizen, who is sent to retrieve Yusuke Urameshi, Hokushin, is shown to be able to stretch his neck and body to great lengths.
- Miki Hosokawa in the manga/anime Hell Teacher Nūbē is a rokurokubi.
- Rokurokubi are in the film Pom Poko, during the "Operation Specter" scene.
- Inuyasha, in the series of 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.
- In the anime/manga series Rosario + Vampire, one of the students is shown to be a rokurokubi.
- In the manga "Tokimeki Mononoke Jogakkou", the only teacher shown is named as a rokurokubi.
- The Touhou series features a character named Sekibanki, who is stated to be a rokurokubi, but who has the ability to completely detach her head, making her more similar to a nukekubi (though her attacks use long, constricting strings of bullets that likely represent a rokurokubi neck). Her theme song's title and dialog from one of the player characters additionally refer to her as a dullahan.
- Rokka Ayatsuji in the manga Youkai Shoujo Monsuga is a rokurokubi.
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