Any country with a long history and pervasive, ongoing folklore stretching back into the shadows of time is bound to have its share of spooky stories, and Japan fits this mold perfectly. Here we can find an expansive rich history of both written and oral traditions describing all manner of tales of spirits, gods, ghosts, demons, curses, and everything in between. Yet the most unusual tales are those that do not only speak of curses, but which actually seem to be cursed themselves. Here we have eerie stories that go beyond merely chilling narratives, seeming to don dark powers that weave into the very fiber of their being, which can reach out and cause calamity and death.
Well known and achieving notorious status as kind of a melding of truth and urban legend is an enigmatic poem called Tomino’s Hell. The poem first appeared in a collection of poetry titled Sakin, or “Gold Dust,” published in 1919 by the poet and scholar Saijō Yaso, who was a Japanese university professor who studied and lived for a time in France. He was strangely more widely known mostly for his children’s poems, but his poetry was also peppered with unsettling wordplay, creepy imagery, and dark connotations, hinting at something more sinister pulsing underneath the cheerful childish veneer it ostensibly held, and he also wrote more mature works that were even more disturbing. One of these poems was Tomino’s Hell, which chronicles the harrowing path to some form of Buddhist Hell that a young boy is thrust along after engaging in mysterious grim acts that are never revealed in the poem itself.
At first glance it appears to be just a regular poem, albeit filled to the brim with grotesque imagery and dark phrases, but there is nothing particularly exceptional about it, nor is it really a masterpiece in any sense. However, the weird poem would in later years begin to gather a shadowy reputation about itself like a cloak, notably in the wake of renewed public interest in it when writer Inuhiko Yomata dusted it off and included it in his popular 1998 book The Heart Is Like A Rolling Stone. Upon this publication, word began to really spread that the poem was actually cursed, and that it was to only be recited in one’s head, as to read it aloud was supposed to invite tragedy, misfortune, insanity, and even death.
Although it is unclear just how exactly these whispers of curses hanging over this particular forgotten poem originated, or whether this spooky story was a new creation of the new digital age or an older tale married to the poem from the beginning, the rumors fanned out first on Japanese websites and launched out into the world. Posters on mystery forums told of all manner of strange phenomena and bad luck that spawned from reading aloud the poem, and there were even those who claimed that some people had vanished off the face of the earth after reciting it, with some commenters disappearing from forums after claiming they were going to try it. This eerie legend was particularly popular for some time on 2Chan, and there were numerous personal experiences shared of sickness, madness, death, and other calamities brought about by the poem, often accompanied by photographs or videos as evidence that the curse was real.
For a while there were no reliable English translations of the ominous poem, but slowly people did start to make stabs at translating it, mostly with little success in truly capturing the work’s essence. At first it was mostly sloppy, disjointed attempts that did little justice to the material, but they did get better. One of the best and most accurate of the many attempted translations of the cursed poem was done by American poet, translator and author David Bowles, who provided the following English translation in 2014:
Elder sister vomits blood,
younger sister’s breathing fire
while sweet little Tomino
just spits up the jewels.
All alone does Tomino
go falling into that hell,
a hell of utter darkness,
without even flowers.
Is Tomino’s big sister
the one who whips him?
The purpose of the scourging
hangs dark in his mind.
Lashing and thrashing him, ah!
But never quite shattering.
One sure path to Avici,
the eternal hell.
Into that blackest of hells
guide him now, I pray—
to the golden sheep,
to the nightingale.
How much did he put
in that leather pouch
to prepare for his trek to
the eternal hell?
Spring is coming
to the valley, to the wood,
to the spiraling chasms
of the blackest hell.
The nightingale in her cage,
the sheep aboard the wagon,
and tears well up in the eyes
of sweet little Tomino.
Sing, o nightingale,
in the vast, misty forest—
he screams he only misses
his little sister.
His wailing desperation
echoes throughout hell—
a fox peony
opens its golden petals.
Down past the seven mountains
and seven rivers of hell—
the solitary journey
of sweet little Tomino.
If in this hell they be found,
may they then come to me, please,
those sharp spikes of punishment
from Needle Mountain.
Not just on some empty whim
Is flesh pierced with blood-red pins:
they serve as hellish signposts
for sweet little Tomino.
Of course reciting the poem in English is not said to have any malevolent effect, and that the curse will only take hold if it is read aloud in the original Japanese. Otherwise it is quite harmless. As I am sure there are macabrely curious readers out there that would mess around with these things, I will give the Japanese version as well, along with the pronunciation written out in the alphabet. It reads:
Tomino no Jigoku
ane wa chi wo haku, imoto wa hihaku,
kawaii tomino wa tama wo haku
hitori jigoku ni ochiyuku tomino,
jigoku kurayami hana mo naki.
muchi de tataku wa tomino no ane ka,
muchi no shuso ga ki ni kakaru.
tatake yatataki yare tatakazu totemo,
mugen jigoku wa hitotsu michi.
kurai jigoku e anai wo tanomu,
kane no hitsu ni, uguisu ni.
kawa no fukuro ni yaikura hodoireyo,
mugen jigoku no tabishitaku.
haru ga kitesoru hayashi ni tani ni,
kurai jigoku tanina namagari.
kagoni yauguisu, kuruma ni yahitsuji,
kawaii tomino no me niya namida.
nakeyo, uguisu, hayashi no ame ni
imouto koishi to koe ga giri.
nakeba kodama ga jigoku ni hibiki,
kitsunebotan no hana ga saku.
jigoku nanayama nanatani meguru,
kawaii tomino no hitoritabi.
jigoku gozaraba mote kite tamore,
hari no oyama no tomebari wo.
akai tomehari date niwa sasanu,
kawaii tomino no mejirushi ni.
It is unclear whether your pronunciation must be perfect for the curse to take effect, and there are plenty who claim that this version of the poem is incomplete or has been changed over the years to render its dark power impotent, but this seems to be the closest there is. Indeed, people who have tried to read these aloud and experienced no negative effect are often said to have done it wrong or to have been in the possession of an inferior version. You can give this one a whirl if you like, but I’ll play it safe on this and decline. Do it at your own risk. In the end Tomino’s Hell is indeed a real poem, but does it or some version of it truly hold some sort of sinister curse or is this all an urban legend?
Perhaps even more infamous and even scarier still is the tale surrounding another cursed story called Gozu, (ox head), or also widely known as “Cow Head.” Supposedly originating from sometime in the 17th century, the story is wrapped in mystery and has seen many purported versions over the centuries, but in every case it is said that whoever hears the story will begin to tremble uncontrollably with fear and that over the next few days this will lead to insanity, memory loss, hallucinations, unconsciousness, and eventually death. In many of these tales it is not even necessary to actually hear the story, but that merely reading it will have the same effect, such is the horrifying nature of the tale. This has led to the legend that the tale of Gozu is far too frightening and terrible to be told, and that large portions of it were subsequently willfully hidden or destroyed over the ages. Indeed, it is said that no complete version of the story now exists, although there are rumored to be scattered sections of it that still turn up in far-flung places from time to time, and which are every bit as dangerous as the full text.
In one popular anecdote demonstrating the dark power of even a fragment of the tale, a school teacher is said to have one day told a portion of the story to his charges in order to entertain them and calm them down. As he wove the tale of Gozu the children purportedly began to turn pale and tremble uncontrollably, to the point that they begged the teacher to stop telling the story. According to the account, the teacher found himself unable to stop telling the tale, and his eyes supposedly turned white as he began to recite parts of the story he had never even heard before, as if it were being channeled through him by some inscrutable force to cause the children to writhe and scream, some of them even collapsing into a catatonic state. The storyteller lost consciousness, and when he awoke the school bus they had been on was crashed and the children were reportedly all either in a vegetative state and drooling, foaming at the mouth, or even dead.
It is said that disparate parts of the story are still floating around out there, and some unverified reports on the Internet have told of people stumbling across mostly intact copies of the original text. One such tale was relayed by a commenter on a Reddit thread who claims to have been living in Japan when he mysteriously received a text message that guided him to a small secondhand bookshop in Kobe, Japan run by an elderly couple, where it promised that “something terrible awaited that was stashed on one of the bookshelves. The witness claims that he went to the shop and that while he was there he felt compelled to steal the book in question, which was a modest, very old looking book with a thin wooden cover that had a carved illustration and was without any discernible title. The book was obviously very old and probably quite valuable, but things were about to take a very intriguing turn. The witness would say:
The engraving was of a sleepy village nestled between two mountains, with thick bamboo groves surrounding it. For reasons unknown, the engraving produced goosebumps all over my arms. When I flipped the wooden cover, I would be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t scream like a little girl. A yellowed slip of paper fell out of the book and into my lap. Laughing, I gave the note a cursory glance. I have translated the note to the best of my ability, and unfortunately, I have not made a note of the original Japanese in my notes.
“This is the last remaining copy of the story known as Gozu, a tale of terror and desperation. It is a story with no morals, messages, or treasures to the reader. Its contents malicious, the writer unknown, and the owners lost, it offers nothing and takes everything.” -Showa 40 (1965).
Although now I have familiarized myself with Gozu, I could hardly take the note seriously. How could the Japanese equivalent of Bigfoot be found at a small second hand bookstore in Kobe? I would be more prone to believe a far-fetched conspiracy story of the Japanese government holding a vault of cursed relics.
While the story was written in Japanese that is far from its modern form, it was mostly written in Hiragana, which made the going easier than I had initially feared. With my limited knowledge of literature during that period, I still came across something that was not usually found within Kusazoshi. After the flyleaf, there seemed to be a record of what appeared to be the villagers concerning the story.
The witness claimed that he had then read through the story itself, and gave a rough description of the contents. According to him, it told of an isolated rural village where the locals subsisted mainly on their small rice paddies and some livestock. The story went on that one summer there was a severe blight of disease that killed their crops and animals, forcing them to fan out into the surrounding wilderness to forage for food. One day a young village woman named Aguri was out foraging in the bamboo groves when she noticed a strange creature watching her that was described as having the body of a man but the head of a cow, a being she called the “Gozu.” The strange beast then followed her back to the village, where it was set upon by the starving villagers and eaten. Aguri then apparently went insane, wailing and crying uncontrollably before hanging herself with a hemp rope, and the village was from then on cursed. The end, or at least that was as far as he got.
This was enough for the witness to promptly bring the book back, and he never did finish reading it through out of fear of what might happen if he did. This portion is actually the typical version of the story put together through all of the supposed fragmentary pieces, and although this is not considered complete and there are variations, the theme of a starving village slaughtering a cow-headed man is common to all of them. It certainly doesn’t seem like a particular happy story, but neither is it especially terrifying or even truly unsettling to warrant to tales of overwhelming fear it is supposed to invoke. Yet the rumors persist that there are many versions of the story, that there are indeed portions or even complete editions of it hidden away, and that in its full form the tale is every bit as forbidden, potent, and dangerous as the urban legend would lead you to believe. Indeed, it is often said that it is not even the content of the tale that holds such power, but rather a certain dark force woven into the very fabric of its existence, an inscrutable nature of its being. There are even rumors that the story is based on real events and that a skeleton of the humanoid cow creature was even unearthed in later years. Whether any of it is true or not, the spooky lore of the cursed Gozu goes on.
There is certainly a very strong sense that with such stories we are dealing with real folklore that has gone on to be picked up in the modern age to be spread and achieve creepypasta urban legend status, yet these particular stories have held fast to remain pervasive mysteries. We are left with the question of whether a story can hold such an insidious dark power within it. Can merely hearing these tales reach out and squirm into us like some sort of parasite under the right conditions? Are we at risk of being invaded by such forces merely by listening or even just reading such stories? Are they infused with some cursed magic or is this all creepy myth? Whatever the case may be such stories show no signs of going away, and will likely spread for some time to come.