From animated parasols to polite but violent turtles, Japan’s folklore contains some extremely creative Japanese monster myths. Compared to Japan’s collection of creatures, Western folklore can feel a bit monotonous.
The collection in Japanese mythology ranges from fantastic yokai, to giant beasts and multiple supernatural spirits. Like any culture, Japan has its fair share of folkloric creatures within Japanese myths. But for Westerners, whose folklore tends to recycle the same variations on witches, goblins, orcs and dragons, Japan’s bestiary of creatures can be surprisingly varied.
Popular Japanese Myths
Mythology plays an important role in the lives of Japanese people today. The myths or legends of Japan and legends are the basis of much Japanese art, drama and literature. People still learn and tell stories about gods and goddesses. Traditional kagura dances are performed to honor the deities at Shinto shrines.
Of the hundreds of yokai or supernatural beings, here are the 10 strangest Japanese myths and their meanings.
1. Yama-uba (mountain oyster)
Also originating from the medieval period within Japanese mythology, Yama-uba are generally considered to be old women who were outcast by society and forced to live in the mountains, who also have a penchant for eating human flesh.
Among many Japanese myths, there is one of a yama-uba who offers shelter to a young woman who is about to give birth while secretly planning to eat her baby. Another of a yama-uba who goes to village houses to eat children while their mothers are away.
But they are not picky; they will eat anyone who passes by. Yamabuas also have their mouths under their hair.
2. Uji no hashihime (Woman on Uji Bridge)
In another tale of Japanese myths that tell of a woman scorned, Uji no hashihime prayed to a deity to turn her into an oni so that she could kill her husband, the woman he fell in love with, and all her relatives.
To accomplish this, she bathed in the Uji River for 21 days, split her hair into five horns, painted her body red with vermilion, and performed a legendary killing spree. In addition to her intended victims, anyone who saw her instantly died of fear.
Tengu are mischievous mountain goblins who play tricks on people, appear in countless folktales within Japanese myths and were considered purely evil until about the 14th century. They were originally depicted as birds, with wings and beaks, although now the beak is often replaced by a comically large nose.
They have been known to drive people away from Buddhism, tie priests to tall trees and towers, set fires in temples and kidnap children.
4. Demon on Agi Bridge
This myth from Japan begins as so many horror stories do: with an overconfident man who boasted to his friends that he was not afraid to cross the Agi Bridge or that the demon was rumored to reside there. As the oni are known for their ability to shape-shift, the Agi Bridge demon appeared to the man as an abandoned woman.
As soon as it caught the young man’s attention, it transformed back into a 9-foot green-skinned monster and chased after him. Unable to catch the man, the demon then changed into the form of the man’s brother and knocked on his door late at night.
The demon was allowed into the house and, after a struggle, tore off the man’s head, held it up and danced with it before his family, then disappeared.
5. Aka Manto (Red Cloak)
Japanese myths have a demon for almost everything in their legends, Aka Manto was one of the most popular demons, hiding in women’s baths. In one version of the story, Aka Manto asks women if they would like a red cape or a blue cape. If the woman answers “red,” Aka Manto rips the flesh off her back to make it look like she is wearing a red cape.
If she answers “blue,” then he strangles her to death. Unfortunately, if you encounter Aka Manto, there may be no escape: some versions of the story say that if you don’t answer or if you choose a different color, he will immediately drag you to hell.
Starting the list with strong Japanese mythology are the tanuki, or tanuki dogs. Tanuki are real animals native to Japan that look like, as the name suggests, a cross between a raccoon and a dog. But the folkloric version of tanukis, bake-danuki, is much more mischievous and powerful.
If you’ve ever been or go to Japan, you’ll undoubtedly come across statues of wall-eyed, chubby, friendly-looking creatures. These are tanuki, but they are a much more modern and friendly reincarnation.
Tanuki in the past were tricksters who possessed the ability to shape-shift and stretch their massive scrotums. Tanuki depictions show how they use their scrotums for anything from makeshift jet skis to giant, comical faces.
A decidedly uncharming yokai of Japanese myth is the Jorogumo. When an orb-weaving spider turns 400 years old, it grows tremendously large and is capable of transforming into a beautiful woman to entice men to eat later.
Since the origin story of the Jorogumo involves real spiders, the word is also used to refer to several species of spiders that, if they could live to be 400 years old, would ostensibly turn into this unpleasant creature.
In the myths of Japan, humanoid reptiles called Kappa are said to inhabit the ponds and rivers of Japan. They are short and scaly, have spikes for mouths and have a bowl on the top of their heads containing water. If a kappa’s bowl is emptied on dry land in any way, they are said to lose their magical powers. Although they are generally malevolent, kappa are supposed to be very polite. If a passerby leans into them, they will have to lean back, losing the water in their bowls. If that passerby fills the bowl again, they will have made friends and allies for life.
The kappa drown children, drink their victim’s blood or sexually assault women, but they also have three obsessions. The first are cucumbers, which they apparently can’t resist. The second is sumo wrestling. And the third is obtaining shirikodama, jewels containing the soul, located in people’s anuses.
Kamaitachi in Japanese myths are weasels with sickle-shaped nails on their paws. When they attack people, they travel in whirlwinds, knocking their victims down before giving them a quick cut on the ankles or calves.
According to Japanese mythology, the creatures’ sickles are said to contain a type of medicine that prevents the wound from bleeding or hurting, which is something of an education after knocking someone down and cutting them. The pain is said to occur later, however, after the anesthetic medicine has worn off. For some unknown reason, only men are attacked by Kamaitachi.
The word Nuribotoke means “painted Buddha” because of the creature’s black skin and its minor resemblance to the Buddha, mainly due to its large stomach. According to Japanese Mythologists say their eyeballs hang from their sockets, and they have a long tail that resembles the tail of a catfish. They also stink.
Japanese houses and temples often contain a Buddhist shrine called a butsudan, a kind of ornate cabinet containing a small inner sanctum. Bhutanese citizens keep it open during the day, but it remains closed at night, as it is believed that spirits may use it to enter the material world.
When a butsudan is poorly maintained or left open at night, Nuribotokes can enter homes, sometimes appearing as Buddhas who give false prophecies or dance at night.