Top 3 Japanese Myths for Halloween
Podcast Recap! S1E12
Halloween season is upon us, and Halloween is just around the corner! In our Season 1 Episode 12 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, as part of last year’s Halloween special episode, podcast host Azra was excited to become your guide through another part of Japan’s unique culture. Well... maybe excited isn’t the word — today’s topic is the sort of thing that keeps her up at night with my head hidden under the covers.
In the episode, we did a bit of storytelling about Japanese ghost stories. Nippon horror tradition actually goes way further back than The Ring and The Grugdge. Superstitious villagers in Japan have been swapping ghostly folk tales called kaidan for centuries, and plenty of them could give any modern Hollywood horror flick a run for its money.These stories are filled with restless spirits, flesh-eating monsters, and enough blood and guts to make George A Romero weep with joy.
We looked at three different ghost stories from Japan, which were collected and translated by the famous gaijin writer Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Japan around 120 years ago! Of course, this article is a summarised version of our full episode, so if you want to listen to the full spooks, tune in to our podcast episode!
The Wife’s Revenge (Of a Promise Broken)
The first spooky Japanese horror tale we looked at started off with jealousy. Jealousy is natural — every couple has to deal with it at some point or another, it’s just a matter of how you process it: do you communicate openly and honestly; do you become passive aggressive; or do you maybe reach out from the afterlife to dish out some murderous vengeance?
The first Japanese horror story proves that grudges can be ten times as toxic if you hold onto them past death…
In the city of Izumo, in the far west of Japan, a young samurai sat by his wife’s bedside as she struggled through the final few hours of her life. With her strength fading, she told him that she wasn’t afraid to die and she was ready for it. What worried her was imagining someone else coming to take her place as the woman of the house. Her husband said, “I’ll never love anyone else as long as I live.”
She was overjoyed — the love of her life would only ever have eyes for her, and now she could have the ideal funeral of being buried at their home. The samurai vowed that he would place her tomb in the most beautiful part of their garden.
She had just one more request; could he possibly get her a little bell? Those holy trinkets were all the rage among pilgrims, so she wanted one placed beside her. The distraught samurai promised he would, and with that, watched the woman he had planned to spend his life with slip away for good. Well... so he thought.
But hey, life went on. The samurai went about his samurai business, while his wife rested in peace at the end of the garden. That could’ve been the end of the story, but the samurai didn’t have any kids yet. Asian parents can get pretty pushy, and as the sole son in the family, the samurai could only put up with the pressure for so long.
So he got himself a hot new young bride. Not only did he marry her, but he also brought her into his home to live — the same home where his ex was buried at the end of the garden!
At first, the couple were living happily ever after…for like a week. Then the samurai was called out for a night shift at the castle, leaving his wife all alone in their big, old house. As the hour of the ox rolled around, she heard a noise outside: a faint tingling. As it grew louder, the young woman recognized the sound: a Buddhist priest’s bell. Ring a bell?
The noise didn’t pass. It got louder. And louder. And soon it was right next to the back of the house. The woman tried to get up to investigate, to call for some help, but she was completely paralyzed from head to toe. And then — in the dim twilight — she saw a figure drift through the screen door...
Hanging over her bed was a woman — her eyes rotted out, skin tight and dry, and grey hair hanging in thin clumps from her skull. She was wrapped in a dirty and tattered funeral shawl, and in her hand, held a pilgrim’s bell.
This unsightly corpse hung there in the air for a moment before speaking — “I’m the lady of this house. Leave at once, and if you tell anyone the reason why, I’ll tear you into pieces.” And with that, she was gone…
As daylight rolled around and her limbs started working again, the young girl started to rationalize what she had seen — it could be a bout of sleep paralysis or just a bad dream. No such luck, because the next night, with her husband still away at the castle, the exact same thing happened, with the exact same warning. It seemed the ex wife really had returned!
So when the samurai came back from the castle, he found his new wife distraught. She came to him crying, begging to divorce him and go back home, spilling the beans that the ex wife came back as a horrifying corpse ghost.
The samurai chalked it up to stress, and convinced his bride that it really all was just a nightmare. But still, he felt sorry that he’d left her all alone like that.
When he had to return to the castle again that night, he brought in two of his most trusted and cheerful men to distract his wife with jokes and stories. Then, when it was time for bed, the guards ducked down behind a screen in the bedroom, and settled in for the night watch.
When dawn came, the samurai returned home and when he slid open the bedroom door…
Lying on the bed, he saw his young wife at the centre of a pool of blood soaking into the futon. Her head was torn from her body entirely. He scrambled over to behind the screen, where he found his two guards frozen still. When he shouted at them, they came to, and gaped in amazement at the gore all over the mattress.
The three men then followed a trail of blood which led through the bedroom doorway. It took them towards a back entrance to the house, then past the bamboo groves and ponds of the garden.
At the end, they reached the grave beneath the plum trees where the samurai was reunited with his wife — both of them, actually.
Because standing in front of the open tomb, was the grey and decayed body of wife #1, and in her hand, the head of wife #2 — her face twisted in terror. Rather than doing the sensible thing and running away to the other side of the planet, one of the guards swung at the standing corpse with his sword, which crumbled into a heap, with one rotten hand still ripping at the face of the dismembered head on the floor.
The Floating Heads (Roku Rokubi)
The second story in the podcast episode also featured heads parted from bodies, sure, but not in the way you think. You see, in addition to standard ghosts, scary Japanese spirits come in all shapes and sizes — there are faceless demons, flesh-eating cat monsters, flaming wagon wheels with screaming heads in the middle... The list goes on and on, and gets even weirder the deeper you go.
This next story features one of Azra’s favorite strange Japanese spooks, which could make for a pretty impressive halloween costume if you’re stuck for ideas this year. This is a story about the rokorokubi...
Long ago, there lived a samurai named Taketsura-san, from the southern island of Kyūshu. He made a name for himself serving a clan in his homeland, but by the mid 1400s this clan had fallen apart, and Taketsura found himself out of a job. He decided to become a priest and wander throughout Japan to preach in some of the most remote corners of the country.
One night, on one of those mountain roads miles from civilization, darkness began to fall, and Taketsura decided to call it a day. As he settled down on the comfiest patch of moss he could find, he heard footsteps coming down the road.
It was a woodcutter, with a bag of chopped wood slung over his shoulder. He spotted this mad guy just lying out in the open and invited the ex samurai turned priest to stay over at his hut nearby.
So the two set off for the cabin, scrambling through bushes and scratching themselves on branches, until they reached a clearing at the top of a hill. They went inside, where the priest was introduced to the four other occupants — two men and two women. Something about the fancy way they all spoke sounded strange for a group of secluded peasants, so Taketsura had to ask: “You don’t sound like commoners. Did you guys used to be part of the nobility or something?”
The woodcutter seemed pleased that he asked. “Yes, that’s right. Actually I was born a samurai, and I was pretty successful. Buuut, I loved the sake and the ladies just a bit too much and... well, let’s just say it didn’t end well. Now it’s my life goal to make amends for the damage I caused — every chance I get, I try to do good. In fact, that’s why I invited you here tonight.”
Taketsura sensed the guy was genuinely full of remorse, so he told him that he shouldn’t be so hard on himself and that he would pray for him tonight. And with that, they all went off to bed.
For a few hours in his little side room, Taketsura sat by candlelight reading some passages from his holy books. He started to feel tired but also started to feel thirsty. Remembering the bamboo pipe out back, he tiptoed to the bedroom door, careful not to wake up his hosts.
When he slid open the screen door he froze. It didn’t look like his hosts would be waking up any time soon: they were dead — beheaded, more specifically. Five bodies lay heaped around the fire pit.
One second… Why was there no blood? If bandits had broken in and cut five people’s heads off, surely there would have been some blood — or some noise, for that matter. Then he noticed the stumps — the necks of the bodies were totally smooth and flat.
That’s when it clicked: these weren’t people at all, they were yōkai. Taketsura racked his brains, and eventually he remembered the name: these were rokurokubi — monsters who could detach their heads at night, and send them flying off to hunt for prey.
Luckily, he also remembered the way to beat them. If you find the unattended body of a rokurokubi, you should hide it, because if the head returns to find its body missing, it’ll cry out, smash itself into the floor three times, then die.
So that’s what he did. Taketsura dragged the woodcutter’s body and dumped it out of a window. Then he snuck to the back door, unlocked it, and creeped out into the woods. Looking out into the clearing, he saw five heads slowly flitting about through the air — every now and then drifting down to the floor, and rising with a mouthful of dirt-covered worms. Between bouts of munching on bugs, the heads were speaking to one another about eating the priest…one was ordered to check on him too!
One of the women’s heads floated high into the sky, drifting down through the smoke hole in the roof of the house. Moments later, it flew out in a panic, flitting from side to side, letting the rest know that the priest is gone, and so are their bodies!
The head of the heads freaked; he ordered the rest to find the priest. Taketsura was shaken, feeling terror for the first time. He grabbed a thick branch from the floor, just in case. And at just that moment, he was spotted behind the tree. The heads all turned screaming, and rushed through the air at the priest. With the branch in hand, he smacked the first one away, then the next, and on and on as they kept on flying at him.
As he began to tire, he missed the woodcutter’s final rush, and found the head chomping
down on the sleeve of his robes. He smashed at the head over and over again, but its jaws were locked tight. After a few more solid knocks to the temple, and with one last moan, it stopped thrashing around, and hung lifeless from his arm.
By this point dawn had started to break over the treetops. The beaten and bruised heads panicked and fled back into the house, then ran into the forest with their bodies attached once more. After taking a few moments to collect himself, Takestsura continued on his merry way, with the woodcutter’s head still hanging off his clothes.
As he reached the next settlement on the route, people were less than pleased to see him: a priest, marching through the streets carrying a human head, giggling like a straight up
psychopath. Obviously, he was arrested, and brought to trial for murder. When he shared his story with the court, the officials assumed he must have been munching on some forbidden roadside mushrooms, and sentenced him to death.
But just before he was dragged off to be beheaded, one old magistrate stopped them. He asked to see the head, which Taketsura brought up to the front of the hall. Sure enough, it was just as the old man suspected: the neck showed no sign of being cut — it was as smooth and clean a joint as on a Lego figure, and on the stump were some strange red kanji which are a dead giveaway for rokurokubi.
That means our hero could walk free, and go on to preach the good word for years to come.
So I guess the moral of the story is... don’t trust anyone? Always hide beheaded bodies? Ehm, maybe there’s no real takeaway here.
The Corpse Rider
The final story on the podcast episode is a little like the first, in that it has a touch of domestic drama. The ghost at the center of it is another woman wronged — she was divorced.
This is the story of how to beat a literal ex from hell with nothing but a touch of magic and a decent amount of upper body strength. And of all our stories, it has the most fittingly black-metal title: The Corpse Rider.
Around a couple of hundred years ago, a newly-divorced man headed out for a trip. She had been totally devastated, which made for a messy divorce. After a few days out on the road, the man returned home to his village. But when he got back, he wasn’t met with friendly faces; people turned to him with panicked eyes, and whispered to each other as he passed.
As he got to the center of town, he was approached by one of his neighbors, who told him the bad news: his ex-wife was gone — dead of a broken heart. And if her final words had been anything to go by, this broken heart was filled with rage for the one who had left her. When he heard this, he got goosebumps.
Someone who died with that much anger wouldn’t pass on easily, unable to rest until they had their revenge. In fact, everyone in the village knew this was the case, so they hadn’t even bothered to bury the woman!
There was someone kind of like an old-timey Ghostbuster the mancould call: the local shaman. So he visited this elderly wise man and told him about his predicament. The shaman made the unhappy bachelor swear to obey his every word, and the two returned to the village together as sunset loomed near.
As they approached the house, everything was eerily quiet all around because all the neighbours cleared out just in case they became a piece of collateral damage. The two slid open the door and the two of them stepped through. In the center of the main room, they saw the body of the woman lying there peacefully, face down. They looked on for a moment in silence.
The shaman said: “Get on her. Sit on her back, like you’re riding a horse. Do it.”
He did as he was told even though he was terrified; he closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and sat down on the body, ice cold underneath him.
“Okay, now you’ll want to grab the hair, and grab it tight. If you let go before morning, you’re dead for sure. You have to promise to stay in that exact position until I come get you.”
The man agreed, what choice did he have? Hours went by, and total darkness seeped into the room. Then, the body threw itself upwards with a start, and the man was almost sent rolling across the room. Slowly the corpse rose to its feet, its joints creaking and cracking as it moved.
After a moment, it began to walk, then suddenly bounded outside, throwing open the doors as the onryō and its rider took off into the blackness. The man held on with all his strength as they rushed down the pitch-black country roads, thin branches whipping against his arms and legs.
Hours passed like this, with the man paralyzed in terror and hanging on for dear life. After what seemed like an eternity, he found himself once again moving up the front steps of the hut. He slowly processed what had happened: the corpse had made its way back through the village, and now it was settling down onto the tatami of the house, in the exact same position as before.
The man was relieved but kept clinging onto the body, clenching his teeth and clamping his eyes shut, until he felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned in shock.
It was the shaman. Morning had come, and the first sunlight was filtering in through the windows. The man finally let go of the hair which was wrapped around his fists, both of them crumpled and trembling from the effort.
As the shaman helped the man up to his feet, he explained that now they had tricked the corpse into thinking he was gone for good, she wouldn’t be bothering him ever again.
We used a lot of spooky-related vocabulary in the episode, so here we have a list of all of them accumulated:
Osōshiki (お葬式) — funeral
Bochi (墓地) — cemetery or graveyard
Boseki (墓跡) — tombstone
Ohaka (お墓) — tomb or grave.
Onryō (音量) — a vengeful spirit, like Sadako from The Ring, for example. But the more general word for any kind of ghostly spirit is yūrei (幽霊).
Akuma (悪魔) — nightmare
Warui yume (悪い夢) — bad dreams
Chi (血) — blood
Ume (梅) — plum tree, but it's also the word for the fruit itself
umeshu (梅酒) — a sweet plum wine
Sōryo (僧侶) — Buddhist priest
Koya (小屋) — a hut, cottage, or shed
Taki (滝) — waterfall
Shinda (死んだ) — dead
Satsujin (殺人) — murder
Korosu (殺す) — to kill
Yōkai (妖怪) — a wide word for all kinds of Japanese goblins, spirits, and monsters.
Mimizu (ミミズ) — worm
Kyoufu (恐怖) — fear, terror, dread
kyōfushō (恐怖症) — phobias.
kumo kyōfushō (クモ恐怖症) — arachnophobia (the fear of spiders)
Kōsho kyōfushō (高所恐怖症) — Fear of heights
Rikon (離婚) — divorce
rikon shita (離婚した) — to divorce
Torihada (鳥肌) — goosebumps
Ryū (龍) — dragon: the Chinese style of dragon specifically
Nichibotsu (日没) — sunset
hinode (日の出) — sunrise
Jumon (呪文) — a magic spell
Kimo wo hiyasu (肝を冷やす) — an idiom meaning terrified: kind of like “scared stiff”. The literal meaning is that your liver is frozen, because the liver (the kimo) is used in a lot of Japanese idioms to express severity.
If you like what you read, you’d love the storytelling version as told by podcaster Azra on Nihongo Master Podcast, Season 1 Episode 12. We also have a new Halloween Special on our podcast, Season 8 Episode 7: Celebrate Halloween the Japanese Way!
And with that, have a wonderful spooky evening everyone! Stay safe and have a terrifying night!
To record your voice, choose your microphone below.