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Folklore Friday: Meet the Ghosts and Demons of Japan

Updated: Apr 24

By: Natalie Jacobsen


Every Friday here and on Threads, I'll introduce a character from Japanese folklore and mythology, along with their image and origin story. This same blog will be updated weekly, in reverse chronological order, with the most recent entry at the top and the earliest entry at the bottom.


vintage ukiyo-e image on a polaroid of a geisha dancing with a skeleton ghost behind her

If you haven't already, you can follow me on Threads to see Folklore Friday posts sooner, and a lot more fun content (like my daily existential crises and up-close looks at my imposter syndrome symptoms)!


I first studied Japanese folklore while attending the University of Oregon; I gained deeper contextual and cultural knowledge while living in Japan for nearly six years. Now, I love sharing stories of these integral, and sometimes little-known, figures in Japanese literature that continue to inspire superstitions, anime and manga, and even Pokémon creations today. There may even be the occasional ghost story shared...


Ghosts and demonsyokaiare infused seamlessly into Japanese culture. Though many have roots that are centuries old, their stories continue to raise hairs and spook modern generations. Every Folklore Friday, you can meet the demons and ghost of Japan.


 

  • April 19, 2024: NURIKABE

women in kimono beneath cherry blossom trees next to a riverbank in Japan on traditional ukiyo-e

“Carry a big stick!”


This Folklore Friday features Nurikabe, a yokai that can turn into an invisible wall to block the paths of travelers and confuse them.


Manga artist Mizuki Shigeru reportedly encountered one in New Guinea during WWII, inspiring him to write about it. Others have run into it in Southern Japan, forcing their paths to change.


While generally harmless, travelers can poke it with a stick near the ground at its feet to chase it away — unless it blinds you, first.


Now, who's a good little boy?

 

  • April 12, 2024: SOLAR ECLIPSE

women in kimono beneath cherry blossom trees next to a riverbank in Japan on traditional ukiyo-e

Remember Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess? She’s back for a solar eclipse edition of Folklore Friday! You can scroll back to Dec. 22nd's post to read our introduction of this goddess.


Turns out Amaterasu and solar eclipses have shared history. When Amaterasu hid in a cave over guilt for a crime her brother committed, Japan descended into darkness.


It just so happens that in AD 247, years before her legend was written, but just as a spread of Buddhism and Shintoism was beginning, there was a 10-minute solar eclipse that covered Japan. The record of the eclipse indicates it may have been a profound cultural moment that both spooked and awed the nation.


Coincidence? Or inspiration for the legend of the sun goddess? 🤔

 

  • April 5, 2024: URASHIMA

women in kimono beneath cherry blossom trees next to a riverbank in Japan on traditional ukiyo-e

Happy Folklore Friday!


This week’s highlight ties together Japan and Portugal by a sinew called Urashima—a Japanese Rip Van Winkle.


Washington Irving wrote both “Rip Van Winkle” & “Adelanto of the 7 Cities” (set in Porutgal!) with protagonists who sail into the future and feel foreign both afar and when they return home from their travels.


Urashima is a fisherman who rescued a turtle and was rewarded by spending time with the Princess. But after a few nights, he emerged to discover he had spent 100 years with her.


Urashima was punished by opening a gift box from the princess, turning him into an old man instantly. Academics have suggested Urashima and Rip Van Winkle are similar in how they explore the feelings of being lost at home after traveling to foreign lands; having aged beyond their years through experience.


Is that something you can relate to after travel?


 

  • March 29, 2024: CHERRY BLOSSOMS PT II

women in kimono beneath cherry blossom trees next to a riverbank in Japan on traditional ukiyo-e

Cherry blossom week continues for Folklore Friday!


Naoko Abe is a Japanese journalist and author who did a deep-dive on Englishman and botanist Collingwood Ingram, who witnessed sakura blooming in Japan in 1902, and immediately fell in love.


For years he dedicated his career to propagating and saving the trees, which had been fading in relevancy and struggling in some areas to thrive during Japan’s Industrial Revolution. Construction, erosion, and lack of care was threatening the livelihood and future of the trees. When he brought some to the UK, it started a firestorm of interest in the blossoms 🌸


By raising awareness and interest in the blossoms, he was able to finance teams and botanical gardens that helped the trees propagate and re-populate across Japan and around the world.


Then, in 1912, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Council imported trees to Washington, DC. Ingram continued fostering relationships between nations to cultivate an appreciation not only of the blossoms, but of Japan.


Ever since, Japanese sister cities and foundations have sent trees around the world to continue a tradition of strengthening friendship by cherry-blossom-branch. 🕊️


I highly recommend reading Abe's book, Sakura Obsession, for learning about the history of these sacred blooms!


 

  • March 22, 2024: CHERRY BLOSSOMS PT I

women in kimono beneath cherry blossom trees next to a riverbank in Japan on traditional ukiyo-e

Cherry Blossoms (sakura) have been long-loved in literature. Today’s Folklore Friday is all about the tantalizing blossoms we look forward to every spring.


Sakura symbolize “impermanence of life” in Japan and are often affiliated with samurai and warriors. Even in WWII, pilots had Sakura painted on their planes.


The sakura trees are so highly regarded, it’s believed Kami inhabit them, making it sacrilegious to cut them down—or be subjected to misfortune (looking you, National Park Services in Washington, DC! This spring, over 140 sakura trees are set to be removed due to flooding issues at the Tidal Basin).


As for a bit of folklore: Centuries ago there was a samurai who outlived his entire family, including all of his children. He was elderly and retired, with no work. Listless, his purpose “lost to the wind,” he paced his empty house he grew up in.


One January, he sat beneath the same sakura tree he grew up playing under, and took his own life. It’s believed his spirit entered the tree, and is the reason the tree now blooms in January, making it the loneliest, but first tree of the year to blossom.


 

  • March 15, 2024: WIND PHONE

garden with a white phone booth and someone inside it making a phone call

This week’s Folklore Friday shares modern lore from Northeastern Japan.


In 2010, Itaru Sasaki constructed a phone booth in his garden to make one-way calls to his cousin after their passing to help him cope. In his garden, when the feeling struck him, he'd step into the booth and make calls to his cousin, catching them up on life, asking questions, and sharing stories. Though he hears nothing in return, it brought him comfort to be able to speak to the wind.


A year later, when the 2011 tsunami and earthquake happened in his same region, Sasaki opened up his booth to the public.


An estimated 40,000 people have made the visit to his garden to make calls of their own to loved ones who are missing, or have passed. It’s said their calls are carried by the wind to the deceased.

 

  • March 8, 2024: TSUKUYOMI

two people in kimono walking on a beach at night under a moon in a ukiyo-e drawing

Earlier this year Folklore Friday covered Amaterasu, the Japanese Sun Goddess, and now it’s time for a feature on her brother, Tsukuyomi!


Part of Japan's Pantheon, Tsukuyomi is Japan’s god of moon and tides. Born from his Creator’s right eye (in a tear drop), he is opposite his sister born of the Creator's left eye: quiet, like the moon. He sister is rambunctious, bright, and all-powerful.


During a dinner of gods, one drew rice from their mouth, showing them a new food they had found. Tsukuyomi had an outburst, refusing to eat "vomit" from another's mouth. His sister exiled him, ashamed of his behavior. He retreated to the dark side of the world, banished from ever seeing the sun again. That's when he became god of the Moon, for he had lost his voice and dulled his light, but offers peace at night.

 

  • March 1, 2024: KONAKI-JIJI

konaki-jiji, a man-child yokai, drinking soup in the arms of an unsuspecting woman, on a ukiyo-e drawing

It’s Folklore Friday featuring the man-baby. Of the man-child. Baby-man. Take your preference, after hearing of his origin...


Konaki-jiji is a yokai with real life roots: a grandfather in pre-Edo era Shizuoka area of Japan became a legend when his cries mimicked a baby demanding attention. When someone entered the room, his screams stopped, appeased by the other's presence and help with doing his bidding.


Inspired yokai folklore reimagined him as a baby in disguise, who lured victims with its cries then transformed into a heavy rock to crush anyone who picked him up. Sometimes he is found abandoned in a forest, thick with yokai using him as bait to lure in unsuspecting women whose maternal instincts tell them to go help.


Some stories depict him as an abandoned baby who grew old, but never matured. Does that sound familiar? Not just as someone in your life, but perhaps as Konaki-jiji in the anime GeGeGe No Kitaro!


 

  • February 23, 2024: HINAMATSURI - GIRLS' DAY

two women holding a baby girl and two dolls for girl's day celebrations

Welcome back to Folklore Friday! Every mid-February, Japan readies for Hinamatsuri, an ancient festival for dolls, associated with Girls’ Day.


Hinamatsuri came from China a thousand years ago in tandem with the flowering plum and peach trees in winter, dubbing it “peach festival” originally. Families would gather to send paper dolls down a river, taking away poor health and driving out evil spirits to ready for spring.


Two hundred years ago, the tradition of placing dolls resembling the emperor and empress on altars was introduced, and is still practiced to this day. Many doll collections are family heirlooms. Some are porcelain and encased in glass with ornate set-ups, while others may be more ordinary, or have distinguished dress for the era they represent.


Then, on March 3rd, Girls’ Day, the dolls are taken down after displaying for two weeks, otherwise it is believed any girls in the family will have difficulty marrying. There is specific placement associated with ranking of each doll on the altar. Grand doll displays are seen at landmarks, temples and malls, the largest display being of 30,000 dolls at shrines in Katsuura, near Chiba, Japan.


Today, the displaying of dolls and weeks-long festival of eating sweets and dressing up celebrates health, resilience and prosperity of girls.


 

  • February 16, 2024: VALENTINE'S DAY

a woman in a kimono sitting in front of a heart-shaped window with a landscape of water and hills on a ukiyo-e drawing

This week’s Folklore Friday goes commercial!


In Japan it was taboo for women to profess their love first, until in 1950 when a chocolate company changed everything. To inspire women to be old and approach the person they loved, they introduced “honmei choco” (“true love chocolate”) to be given as a statement of love. On White Day, a month later on March 14, the recipient is meant to return the gesture with a chocolate gift, thereby accepting the proposal.


Giri-choco is a type of chocolate women can gift family and coworkers without risking it looking like a gesture of love. And Tomo-Choco is often exchanged between friends on Valentine’s, to show their platonic love and appreciation. And yes, if you want the chocolate all to yourself, you can treat yourself to Jibun-Choco (“self love chocolate”), because who doesn’t need a treat?


 

  • February 9, 2024: SETSUBUN

a man in a kimono standing in a doorway throwing beans at a yokai running away

With Lunar New Year this weekend, this Folklore Friday features Japan’s Setsubun that coincides with the celebration!


In 10C, a monk threw roasted beans at an oni 👹 in its eyes, escaping death. Now, every February, people throw beans out their door, at shrines & temples, & even festivals (children often wear 👺 masks!) to cast out monsters. It’s said to chase away winter & usher in spring for the New Year.


Even the kanji/word for bean, “mame,” can be written as “devil’s eye.”


 

  • February 2, 2024: FUTAKUCHI-ONNA

a woman in a kimono sitting on a floor; her long hair flying around her, with a second mouth devouring food on the back of her head.

Futakuchi-onna (literally “2-mouth-woman”) is this week’s Folklore Friday feature! Hidden beneath her hair is a second mouth with gnashing teeth, tongue that lashes insults and a voracious appetite. Its hunger is attributed to how little the woman may eat, especially if her husband is a miser.


In other origins, if a woman let her children die of starvation, their spirits embed in her skull as a hungry mouth. Another attributes an accident with an axe to a wound that never heals—and grows a second face.


If you’re trying to guess which Pokémon she inspires, it’s Mawile!! Though in the Pokémon universe, Mawile’s hair IS the second mouth, mimicking the characteristics of Futakuchi-onna’s hair that can turn into other pairs of hands—making it easier for her to snatch more food, or you.


 

  • January 26, 2024: FUKUBUKURO

a busy street in tokyo during meiji era with shops hanging curtains in front of windows; mt fuji in the background

No demons or ghosts in today’s Folklore Friday— it’s all about the Japanese "fukubukuro," or “lucky bag,” New Year tradition. Since the 1860s, shops have given out “lucky bags” of leftover high-quality goods to customers as a way to satisfy the superstition around cleaning out the old in order to bring in the new (“osoji”).


The first lucky bags were from kimono shops giving away beautiful fabric scraps that had gone unused. Customers snatched them up quickly, and other shops took notice. Since, it has evolved into an annual practice of shops offering fukubukuro to new and loyal customers in a mark of goodwill—and a good deal. Some will announce their fukubukuro deals as early as October to build anticipation.


 

  • January 19, 2024: NUPPEPPO


nekomata, a japanese yokai in a cat-shape, playing a shamisen in a kimono

This week’s Folklore Friday highlights this stinky beast: Nuppeppo. It is depicted as a “blob of meat with wrinkles.” And yes, it is as smelly as it sounds. It first appeared in Edo era stories, and is harmless to humans (except for the senses). Its ugly appearance and stench will offend many, and is why this yokai is often solitary. In some encounters, it has been seen covering itself with makeup to mask its odor. Despite its appearance, it has childlike energy and can run fast, evading capture.


One of my characters makes a joke about Nuppeppo in my upcoming debut, Ghost Train. And now you’ll know the reference when you see it!


 

  • January 12, 2024: NEKOMATA


nekomata, a japanese yokai in a cat-shape, playing a shamisen in a kimono

It’s time for Folklore Friday! And it’s one of my favorites: Nekomata. There is a deep history with this particular yokai, with some modern explanations. Nekomata are widely believed to be previously domesticated pet cats that have grown old and left home, retreating to the mountains to be wild. In some tales, when a cat’s tail has forked, its transformation is complete. Many tails were cut to prevent it, though today it’s witnessed that extreme shedding can cause the illusion of 2 tails.


In some stories, a cat would leave home, stealing a sword. In attempt to get it back, samurai would search the mountains, only to be met with a demonic version brandishing the weapon and lunging at them. In other stories, the cat returns with treasure and a talent for music, as pictured. Today, historians are certain the encounters may be due to a case of rabies, rather than a pet cat being possessed. But we’ve all seen cats do unexplained things, right? Maybe Nekomata’s spirit persists…😼


 

  • January 5, 2024: BAKU

tapir creature featured in folklore friday

This Folklore Friday features Baku, the dream devourer! In appearance, it shares attributes with elephants, tigers, and bears, but has been compared to a Tapir (to me it looks similar to an anteater). Since the 14th C, Baku has been consuming dreams. If you have a talisman or give clear instructions, Baku can come and eat your nightmares instead, sparing your hopes and dreams. The trick is to do it infrequently, lest Baku learns to rely on you for a nighttime snack, leaving you with an “empty life.”


Though the description above refers to the Japanese folklore version, Baku is said to have originated in China centuries prior, and was seen as a type of chimera. But its origination makes some historians believe it may truly be related to the Malaysian Tapir! Baku does not appear in my upcoming debut novel Ghost Train, but is commonly seen in Japanese manga and anime.


 

  • January 1, 2024: NEW YEAR'S DREAM


Did you have a dream during your first sleep in 2024? Remember it! According to Japanese folklore, your first dream in a new year serves as a prophecy for how that year will unfoldwhether a warning, something special waiting, or an answer to the direction to go.


 

  • December 29, 2023: YUKI ONNA

ghostly woman cast out to the snow with long, dark hair, for folklore friday

Today’s is Yuki Onna, a yokai that appears in blizzards, and has several origin stories across each Prefecture. What ties them together are: 1) her renowned beauty 2) snow affiliation 3) disappearance after being doused with hot water 4) desire to take lives. One specific origin story I’ll share today is in relation to a New Year version of Yuki Onna! Read the next comment for more.


It’s said that in Aomori, a family saw a lone woman braving a snowstorm and invited her in. Their kindness was repaid; the next day, she turned to gold, making them wealthy. In another story, her spirit was said to be playing with children on New Year’s Day; this is similar to the legend of a Kami that has ability to reward and watch over others. Not all stories of her end that wellshe has been known to drown men in baths she loves, take children for her own, and cause terror in the snow.


 

  • December 22, 2023: AMATERASU


samurai looking up at a sun goddess who has light radiating out of her wearing heaving jewelry

Today we feature Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. According to the Kojiki, one of Japan’s earliest known texts that describes origins of myths and the land itself, Amaterasu is the eldest sister; Tsukuyomi (Moon) and Susanoo (Storm) are her best-known siblings. Using her powers as the Sun, Amaterasu is responsible also for agriculture and nourishment. She represents divine justice and is the ruler of all “Kami”gods and spirits.


Amaterasu did not have an easy life. The gods fought often and humiliated each other as they sought power and acceptance; the world was plagued with monsters. She once hid herself in a cave, furious with being tricked by others, descending land into darkness. She married Tsukuyomi, but after he killed a goddess who created sea and forest creatures, Amaterasu left him, thus separating day and night. In Shintoism it is believed the Imperial family descends from her, granting them power to rule Japan.


 

  • December 15, 2023: BYAKKO


sketch of a lion-like mythical creature in the sky

This may be one of the most famous Japanese yokai shared for Folklore Friday! It’s not just a Japanese myth, but also prominent in China and in Taoism. The “White Tiger,” Byakko (sometimes Baifu), is one of the original four guardians, known as Shijin, who guards the Western celestial sky. Byakko and the other Shijin were introduced to Japanese beliefs around the 7th Century; and inspired the architecture and feng shui of Nara. Even today, there remains ancient imagery and art in temples and tombs.


It’s said that Byakko is the god of Autumn, and can direct the paths of wind. During the Meiji era, as mentioned in my upcoming novel GHOST TRAIN, Byakko and the other Shijin were replaced by the four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism; but the influence of the Shijin is still felt in mythology and culture. When you look up at the night sky, you can find his head in Orion, and tail in Andromeda.


 

  • December 8, 2023: BASAN


a fire-breathing rooster for folklore friday

This fire-breathing rooster-demon is a Japanese yokai known as Basan. Found in bamboo forests of southern Japan, this rooster is red and blue in appearance, and can emit a cold fire that glows from its mouth. Luckily for farmers, despite its name and diet of charcoal, the fire it produces does not burn crops or materials.


Basan even inspired the Pokémon Blaziken! It may not be pet material, but it sure is fascinatingfrom a distance. 🔥🐓



 

  • December 1, 2023: YANARI

small red devilish creatures in the floorboards making them creak by shaking them

Does your furniture shake for no reason? Do your floorboards creak? It may be the works of Yanari, a Japanese yokai, often depicted as a prankster who rattles table legs and tugs on floorboards to make them groan and sigh. First discovered by a group of ronin during Edo period, Yanari was found lurking in a haunted house. They drove their swords in the floorboards to rid the house of Yanari, and return it to its tenants. Yanari are believed to be spirits clinging to their house from a previous life.


Be on the lookout for mentions of Yanari in Ghost Train!


 

  • November 24, 2023: AMABIE


sketch of a mermaid with long hair appearing out of the waves on a postcard

Mermaids have long-been a popular myth, even in Japan. Amabie, also called Amabiko, were first spotted in 1846 by fishermen at night when they saw something glowing. What they found was enchanting. Amabie had long hair, mouth like a bird, three legs, and was covered in scales. It rose from the sea and shared with the fishermen a prophecy before returning to the water: “Good harvest will continue for 6 years.” This sketch circulated after. Amabie is considered a good omen.

Amabie even has a mention in my upcoming novel, Ghost Train.


 

  • November 17, 2023: ENENRA


smoke-like figure waving it's arms around

It’s Folklore Friday, and time to share a Japanese yokai from 18th century mythology. Enenra is a yokai born in a fire—bonfire, campfire—that appears in the smoke with a human-like form. They thrive in darkness and smoke, and are said to only be seen by the pure of heart. Some folklore says that in war, Enenra can emerge from bodies, transforming to rise and cloud battlefields as this smoke-like demon.


Enenra makes an appearance in my upcoming debut novel Ghost Train!


 

  • November 11, 2023: JINMENJU


a tree of red fruit all bearing faces

Who’s that Pokémon? It’s not Exeggutor, but Jinmenju! Jinmenju is a legend from Edo Era (1604-1868) Japan. This tree bears apple-like fruit called Jinemnshi—literally “human-faced child.” Jinmenju were believed to be real trees grown in the south. You’d know the fruit was ripe when they laughed until they fell. Supposedly they were sweet and lightly sour, and were eaten to extinction. When strolling through forests nearing harvest, you could hear laughter all around.


There is even a mention of Jinmenju and their legend in my upcoming novel, Ghost Train.


 

  • November 3, 2023: OIWA


The true legend of Oiwa is tragic. In the 17th C, its said she married a samurai, Iemon (“i” not “L”), who was a thief and ill-mannered. Oiwa’s father tried to protect her, and warned Iemon he knew of his misdeeds. Iemon killed her father. When he fell for a younger woman, he conspired with a doctor to rid himself of Oiwa.

giant possessed lantern with a spooky face of a hurt woman

Oiwa, sick from giving birth, sought doctor’s help. He ordered an ointment to ease the pain—when in reality, it burned and disfigured her face. Iemon even hired his friend to assault Oiwa so he could blame her “infidelity” for divorce. But when his friend found her, her face scared him away. Upon seeing her reflection, she tore her hair out and drove a sword into her own throat, cursing Iemon with her last breath. Oiwa’s ghost haunted him for the rest of his life, driving him to madness.


Considered one of Japan’s most famous three ghost stories, this of Oiwa, as a vengeful woman who returns as a yokai, has been adapted into dozens of movies after debuting as a kabuki in 1825. There have been reports of actors and production sets haunted by Oiwa when telling her story.There is a shrine in Yotsuya where people can pray, leave gifts, and pay respects to help appease Oiwa’s understandably angry spirit.


 

  • October 27, 2023: GASHDOKURO


a giant skeleton bursting through a bar, terrorizing men in robes

This giant skeleton isn’t just found at Home Depot. This 10th C monster was born from a true story of a scorned samurai, Taira no Masakado, who burned down cousins’ homes after they ambushed him upon learning they wanted to marry the same woman. It escalated into battles and revolts that resulted in hundreds dead, and a bounty on Masakado’s head by the Emperor.


His two cousins killed him during one of the rebellions, and presented his decapitated head to the court in Kyoto to claim the bounty. Masakado’s daughter, Taira no Sadamori, was a known sorceress and conjured the bones of Masakado and those who died alongside him to rise up and seek revenge. The giant skeleton, comprised of a collection of soldiers’ bones, with only flesh eyes protruding, rampaged Kyoto until Masakado’s head was returned to Tokyo, where he was enshrined and honored.

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