Japan had become known for its horror stories and dark fictional tales over the years. Here is a place that seems to really up the ante on the creep factor and has carved out a niche as a place of spooky legends and lore. Some of these are so pervasive that they have permeated popular culture here, and have gone on to become truly bizarre tales of the weird. From evil spirits to strange supernatural beasts, here we will take a look at some of the creepiest paranormal entities of Japanese urban legends there are.
One of the more frightening phantom boogiemen to populate the dark corners of Japanese urban legend started back in 1978, when a strange figure was allegedly seen haunting a rural farming town in Gifu prefecture. Spooked locals began to complain of seeing a shadowy woman who would lurk along the murky darkened roads or fields, and who mostly kept her face covered by a mask. No one knew who this weird woman was, and rumor began to circulate that she was a ghostly wraith who could run superhumanly fast, disappear at will, and most frightening of all that beneath that mask was a freakishly large mouth full of sharp teeth. Children claimed to have been accosted by the mysterious lady, and claimed that the only way to escape was to give her a piece of hard candy or tell her that she was beautiful. This local story would mark the beginnings of the phantom known as the kuchisake onna, or “slit-mouthed woman,” and as the rumors continued the town became concerned. Iikura Yoshiyuki, an Associate professor at Kokugakuin University, would say of this:
At first, teachers and parents were also worried, conducting patrols and arranging for children to return home in groups. The rumors died down around the start of the summer holidays in 1979. But the powerful image of the slit-mouthed woman lingered in everyone’s memories, establishing itself as another monstrous figure.
Although there are variations on the story, the most common modern version is that the Kuchisake Onna is a foul malevolent spirit that takes the form of a what appears to be a young and pretty woman wearing a mask over the lower part of her face, or in some cases otherwise covering her mouth with a handkerchief or hand fan. She is often described as carrying something sharp such as a knife, scythe, or even scissors, but for the most part she just seems like a regular young and attractive woman wandering about the dark. According to the tale, she will approach children at night to ask them if they think she is pretty, and this can go a lot of ways, none of them particularly pleasant. If the child says “no,” she purportedly kills them outright with her sharp object. If the kid says “yes,” she pulls away her facial covering to reveal a horrific visage with a gaping maw from ear to ear filled with jagged teeth, and she will ask the child again. There seems to be no right answer, for if the child says “no” she kills them, and if they scream she kills them. If they say “yes,” she will then cut them from ear to ear to give them a disfigured mouth like hers. The only supposed way to get away is to apparently tell her she just looks average, or reflect the question back at her, which will apparently confuse her or frustrate her enough to allow you to escape. In the original version you can also get away by giving her candy, although in other versions money will do.
Another malicious evil spirit is the story of a woman who is said to have died when she fell on a train track and was cut in half by a passing train. Like with the Kuckisake Onna there are several versions of the story, with some saying it was a man other than a woman, but the common feature is that the legless spirit now scrabbles around on its two arms, which creates a tapping, scratching clicking sound, for which the Japanese onomatopoeia is teke teke. Indeed, this has become the spirits name, and it is said that this distinctive noise can be heard from the dark before the vengeful and very angry spirit materializes. Despite using just two arms, the Teke Teke is said to be extremely fast, and able to leap long distances or even climb up sheer walls in some versions. In some versions of the tale, the Teke Teke is out to get a new pair of legs and will chop the legs off of unsuspecting victims, and in others he or she or he is just angry because no one helped when she fell on the tracks to die. Whatever the case may be, the Teke Teke has become very well-known in Japan, with many stories, books, comics, and movies featuring it, and there are even spooky reports of people actually encountering the spirit. Whether one believes any of it or not, if you are ever in Japan and hear an anomalous scratching or clicking sound approaching you from the shadows, just be safe and get out of there.
Perhaps one of the most well-known, and indeed frightening tales of roaming and malignant Japanese spirits is that of entity called simply “The Red Cape,” or “Red Cloak,” Aka Manto in Japanese. This particular apparition is said to appear as a man in a flowing red cape and hood, often also wearing a creepy mask over his face, and according to the lore his favorite haunt is in public or school restrooms, almost always in the last stall and favoring the ladies’ room. It is said that he will appear just as one is about to wipe up, and for all of his frightening visage will make a seemingly innocuous offer of whether you want the “red paper or the blue paper.” What happens when he appears to you? What do you do? What do you say?
Well, this is a tricky one, because there are not a lot of options, and it is sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. If you choose “red” the demon will supposedly stab you or flay your back and let you bleed to death, covered in your own blood and red in color. If you choose “blue” he will either smother and suffocate you with his cape or drain you dry of blood until you literally turn blue. Trying to be clever and choosing a random other color will upset him and he will just either kill you in a way that so your skin ends up whatever color you chose, or failing that he will simply drag you off to the underworld to never be seen again, so there don’t seem to be a lot of ways out of this predicament. However, if you come across the Aka Manto the best way to deal with it is to just ignore the question entirely and try to go about your business as if he is not even there at all. This may be quite difficult to do with a masked, cloaked demon hovering in front of you, but it is better than the alternatives.
There is not really much background as to what the Aka Manto might be. All that is known is that this urban legend has been making the rounds since at least the 1930s, and it is a common tale all over Japan, with slightly different variations depending on the region, as well as differing appearances. For instance, in some traditions he appears wearing a red sleeveless kimono and in others he will ask if you prefer a red cape to a blue cape rather than paper. Either way, he is not something one wants to encounter when sitting down on the commode late at night, and there are rather disturbingly many who claim to have actually encountered this thing. While it is mostly considered just a spooky story there are scattered reports that this entity is very real, so just remember to not choose red or blue, or any other color for that matter if it appears, ignore it and you should be alright.
One of the most bizarre supernatural creatures of the night in Japanese urban legend is the curious Jinmenken, or “human faced dog.” The ugly little beast is typically said to be about the size of a medium sized dog, often with matted or dirty looking hair. From a distance, an observer may mistake one for just an ordinary mangy stray dog, yet on closer inspection see that these dogs possess a human face. The eyes are often deep set and sad, and the tail is most commonly kept between the legs in an apparent gesture of passiveness or cowardice. It is overall described as being a rather sad and pathetic sight. An even more shocking revelation than the human face is their purported ability to speak. Typically, a Jinkenmen will implore those who come across it to leave it alone, but on rare occasions will hold simple conversations. In some versions of the story the creature possesses supernatural powers, such as the ability to hypnotize onlookers or to cause sudden irrational fear or the urge to flee.
Jinmenken are persistent in Japanese folkore, yet there seems to be more to them than that. Throughout the Edo Era, from 1603 to 1868, these human-faced dogs were often encountered and sighted by locals, to the point that they were occasionally featured in the news publications of the time.In addition to the sightings, Jinmenken were at times allegedly exhibited at misemono, which were a type of Japanese carnival sideshow popular during the Edo Era. These sideshows were somewhat of a cabinet of curiosities, typically featuring menageries of exotic animals, mounted displays or mummified remains of bizarre creatures or monsters, gaffes, mystical artifacts, and all manner of the strange and bizarre. Taxidermy specimens of Jinmenken were often seen on display at such shows and on occasion even live specimens were shown. In such shows, the Jinmenken would be paraded about for all to see and became quite popular attractions. It is not clear whether these were actual Jinmenken or regular dogs somehow altered to look like such through illusion and trickery, yet the fact remains that there are numerous accounts of these exhibitions and they were certainly observed by many people. It was not only commoners that marveled at these creatures in such sideshows either. One publication of the time included the testimony of a visiting zoologist, who remarked upon laying his eyes upon one such specimen (translated from the Japanese):
There cowering and whimpering in the corner of the display booth I saw the hunched over form of what I first took to be a typical shiba inu, although of a somewhat more pungent odor. Then the thing looked up with sad eyes and I could see clearly that it was the face of a human being, albeit with the empty, soulless gaze of an animal. I immediately assumed trickery upon seeing such an aberration, yet if one had forged such a horrific sight then they had done so with such ingenuity and craftsmanship that I was unable to ascertain it as such. If this was some sort of macabre taxidermy of a living thing, then it was done without any visible indication of such. I could see no apparent stitches or artificial connection between human face and dog. I was eager to be on my way from such a ghastly abomination and the thing’s gaze left me with a deep unease long after I had left.
Eyewitness accounts of Jinmenken sightings persist right up to the modern day. There are many reports of eyewitnesses describing coming across what they first take to be dog, only to have it turn around to display its human face. Other reports showcase the Jinmenken’s apparent great speed as they are described as running playfully alongside cars on darkened roads, sometimes screaming or whooping as they do so. Other sightings have been reported from other urban areas behind crowded restaurants, in alleyways, or in the darkened parking lots of apartment buildings. What do we make of these reports? As detached from reality as the notion of human-faced dogs may seem, theories abound as to what could be behind the sightings and stories. These theories range from the somewhat plausible to the downright absurd, such as that it is a misidentified macaque monkey, hallucinations, the ghost of a man who was struck by a car while walking his dog, a demon, or an alien or escaped genetic experiment. It is unlikely that we will ever know for sure, but the tales continue.
Just as bizarre are reports of something perhaps even more paranormal and frightening in nature. One strange phantom that seems to have been spun from the Internet but has also been tied to supposed historical accounts came to the public consciousness in 2003, when several Japanese websites featured reports of a very strange entity indeed. The posts were written as first-hand sightings accounts of a specter or demon of some sort referred to as the Kunekune, which is a Japanese onomatopoeia that literally translates to “twist,” “writhe,” or “wiggle.” The creature itself is described as being a long, slender humanoid shape, pale white in color, although it is sometimes reported as being black, and which writhes, wiggles, and shimmers similar to a piece of fabric tossed about by the wind, even if there is no wind, hence its name.
The typical account goes that the Kunekune is spotted in the distance of a rural place, usually over an open expanse such as a field or the sea. The story goes that a person will notice the strange figure and wonder what it is, drawing closer to get a better look. This is said to be a mistake, because the closer one gets, and the more detail that is seen of the being’s features, the stranger things get. If the victim is lucky, it will merely drive them insane, usually after making eye contact, but the Kunekune is also said to be not above flat out killing those who get too close to it or make direct contact with it. Since no one has lived or kept their sanity long enough to describe its face, its appearance remains unknown. It is said that the best thing to do is just simply ignore the Kunekune and it will go away.
There have been numerous reports of actually encountering these entities on Japanese websites and forums, all describing more or less the same thing. Those who tell these tales insist that this is a phenomenon that has been going on in certain rural areas for centuries, but oddly it was not until these Internet reports that most had had ever even heard of the Kunekune. Is this perhaps a localized tale only known in some parts of Japan or is it something new? It is hard to tell if this is a phenomenon with a historical basis or if it was born on the Internet with those original reports, quite likely fictitious. The origins of the tale of the Kunekune remain vague, but it is certainly creepy nonetheless. All of these are creepy, really, and they leave us wondering where they came from and why they have become so persistent. Whether there is any grain of truth to these or not, they certainly show that Japan is a country of some pretty weird folklore, and some of the most outlandish urban legends there are.