A type of entity that is very pervasive across cultures is that of the flesh-eater, the wraiths and ghouls that lurk in the night to skitter about among the shadows and feed off of humans. Nearly every culture in the world has some form of this grim legend, the most instantly recognizable being vampires, but that is only just scratching the surface of how deep the macabre lore goes. The country of Japan, too, has its own creepy and bizarre legends of pale, fanged entities that come forward out of the night to feast on the bodies of the dead.
One very frightening type of carnivorous revenant from Japanese folklore is a type of flesh-eating ghoul known as the Jikininki, or also Shokujinki, which ominously translates to simply “human-eating ghost.” According to the lore, these creatures lurk about old temples, cemeteries, and abandoned ruins near human settlements, where they emerge at night to feast upon the remains of the dead, greedily devouring any remains they find, but never feeling satiated and eternally hungry. They are said to have the power to mesmerize people and to instill a primal fear in those who look upon them, yet mostly avoid human beings, prefering to go abut their grim deeds unseen.
In some ways these foul creatures are depicted in similar ways to the old European legends of vampires, in that they shun daylight and appear as somewhat monstrous looking pale humans with no hair and possessing sharp claws and teeth, although unlike vampires they only feed on the flesh and bones of the already deceased, raiding graves, stealing bodies from funerary rituals in temples, and flocking to the fallen at battlefields, and don’t do the actual killing themselves. In some legends they can even have powers such as invisibility or the ability to shape shift to an extent to make themselves appear more human for short periods of time, allowing them to enter towns undetected and even make shady transactions with or bribe corrupt individuals in order to obtain more corpses to feast upon.
Depending on the area and the local traditions there are different versions for how these eaters of the dead came to be. One legend is that they were once priests, who then gave into corruption and greed, finding themselves unable to pass on after death, instead cursed to skitter about eating the dead. Other lore says that these were people who developed a taste for cannibalism in life, and that this somehow tainted their soul to doom them to crave human flesh in death as well, twisting their visages as well in the process. Still other traditions tell of them being simply people who carried out wicked acts, or those who were cursed by a dark magician. However, one thing that remains consistent throughout the tales is that they are eternally hungry, never satisfied and their nightly meals only a very minor respite from their never ending gnawing hunger and damnation.
Most legends make it a point to stress that these zombie-like revenants don’t even enjoy the human flesh they eat, and often even show remorse about it, but rather are compelled to devour it by some dark force. There are tales of Jikininki approaching priests asking to be freed of the curse or confessing their hatred of their condition, but there is little that can be done for these doomed souls. It is said that one of the only ways to lift the curse is for a completely and perfectly pure and righteous individual, rare enough as it is, to then agree to a long and stringent regiment of ritual and prayer, and even then it is not guaranteed to work, with the horrific curse said to be extremely potent and nearly unbreakable.
While there are numerous stories of people seeing and encountering the Jikininki, perhaps the most well-known story is an alleged encounter with one made by a monk called Musō Soseki, in the 18th century. According to the tale, Soseki was on a journey through the mountains on a pilgrimage when he got hopelessly lost. With the sky darkening and no clear path in site, he stumbled along through the wilderness until he came upon the hovel of a hermit priest out there in the middle of nowhere, who he begged to give him shelter for the night. The rather filthy old hermit refused, but gave directions to a nearby village, which Soseki managed to find his way too in the rapidly darkening forest.
The villagers were very gracious, and the son of the village chief even offered Soseki a place to stay for the night, but there was a caveat. The son told him that his father had died that very same day, and that the villagers would be leaving the town for the night as was custom for them when someone died, and they feared that if they did not they would be cursed or targeted by dark entities that wandered the woods. However, since Soseki was not one of them it was not necessary for him to leave as well, and he was given permission to use the house and the condition that he not mind being there totally alone in the mountain night with these unknown forces roving about. Soseki bravely agreed, and he even offered to perform a funerary ritual for the corpse, for which the villagers thanked him before filing out away into the night to leave the monk all by himself.
When everyone was gone, Soseki went about making his preparations to perform his ritual, and then went into meditation in front of the corpse. At some point the door to the temple creaked open and a wraith-like pale figure crawled in from out of the night to situate itself by the corpse and coldly regard Soseki with glowing eyes like embers in a fire. The monk remained calm, but immediately found himself inexplicably paralyzed and unable to move, stuck there helplessly in a silent scream as the demonic intruder went about devouring the chief’s corpse beore his eyes, after which it grabbed the valuables that had been left out with the body and scampered off back out into the forest. Soeseki suddenly was able to move again, but when he ran outside he could only see the dark forest. The thing was gone.
The following morning the villagers came back, and Soseki told the chief’s son about his father’s corpse and the strange entity he had seen. The son merely nodded his head as if it were not really all that unusual. Soseki offered to enlist the help of the hermit priest out in the forest in order to perhaps arrange some sort of cleansing ritual to banish the evil creature away, but the son seemed puzzled and claimed that there was no such priest anywhere in the area, nor had there been for as long as he could remember. Soseki assured him that there was indeed a hermit priest out there, that he had spoken with him, but the villagers all told him the same thing, that he must be mistaken.
Baffled, Soseki thanked them for their hospitality and continued on his way, trudging out to his destination, but not before taking a detour past the area where the hermit priest lived. Sure enough, the filthy looking, ramshackle hut remained, and a knock at the door produced a voice from the shadows within inviting him to enter. When Soseki went in he found murky squalor, but he was taken aback by a pile of shiny valuables and treasure stashed away in the corner, and amongst this he recognized some of the belongings that had been stolen from the chief’s body by the ghoul he had seen. Shocked and alarmed, he began to back away, but a voice from the dark stopped him. It was the voice of the mysterious priest.
The hermit quickly confessed to what he really was, telling the monk that he had once indeed been a priest in that very village, but that his greed for money and worldly possessions had brought a dark curse down upon him, which had transformed him into a Jikininki and doomed him to seek out corpses to feed on for all eternity. The hermit was calm and non-threatening, and even got down on his knees to bow and deeply apologize for what he had done. He told Soseki that he was tired, and had long waited for one to come along who could release him from his damnation, after which he begged the monk to perform a cleansing ritual upon him to free him for his horrific existence. As Soseki stood there listening, still in puzzled shock and trying to figure out what to do, the hermit and his dwelling began to fade away until there was nothing there but the monk standing upon a lonely patch of grass.
The tale of Musō Soseki is by far the mostly widely told account of a Jikininki, but it is certainly not the only such dramatic story. Another is the tale of an unnamed samurai, who after a fierce skirmish with a rival clan found himself the last man standing on a bloody battlefield littered with corpses. As the sun went down he vowed to stay with the bodies of his fallen comrades and keep watch until morning so as to ensure their corpses were not defiled or eaten by animals. Sometime in the dead of night there was movement from the surrounding forest, and what looked like a naked bald old man, with pale skin and glinting eyes, crept from the trees to approach one of the fallen warriors. It then squatted down and began to eat the corpse with wild abandon, as someone might do a meal after not having eaten in days.
The samurai tried to call out to the mysterious stranger, but found that his voice would not issue forth, trapped within his throat. He then drew his sword and started to approach, his movements mysteriously sluggish but still possible perhaps due to his honed willpower. He slowly made his way towards the creature, which finished one body only to move over and crouch beside another to feed again. It either did not hear the samurai approach or didn’t care, but approach he did, until he was looming over the beast with his sword raised. He then muttered a prayer and brought the steel down through the thing's neck, lopping its head clean off to fall to the already blood-stained ground.
Much to the surprise of the samurai, the eyes within the severed head trained on him, and the things body felt around wildly until clawed hands settled on it. The body then lifted the disembodied head and placed it upon the shoulders, after which it went back to eating as if nothing had happened. The samurai now found that he could not move a muscle, that he was frozen there and doomed to merely watch the gruesome display before him. According to the story, the beast crept through the wilderness of corpses and one by one ate every single one of them single-handedly before skittering off into the darkness and releasing the samurai from his mysterious paralysis.
Although this may all be pure folklore, it is interesting to note how similar these entities are to other types of flesh-eating ghouls, vampires, and ghosts persistent in myths throughout cultures, and one wonders whether there is any sort of phenomenon or basis in reality to make this so. Many such legends are based on at least a grain of truth or a real event, so what is it that spawned the tales of these ghostly eaters of the dead? What created the myths and legends, or were they perhaps maybe even real to some extent? We will probably never know, but the Jikininki is nevertheless a very creepy and spooky piece of lore, and truly a horrific monster equal to any of the Western world.