Japan has a long and proud history, and one that is rich in folklore, myths, and legends, some of which are perhaps some of the most disturbing and terrifying to be found anywhere on Earth. And if you like such morose and macabre accounts, then a great many of the legends of Japan will be of morbid interest to you. Here are just ten of them.
Related: Top 10 Bizarre American Urban Legends
10 Datsue-ba: Guarding the Pathways of the Dead
Even the name Datsue-ba is a little disturbing when translated; it’s said to mean “old woman who strips clothes.” According to the legends of this otherworldly entity, whose origins can be found in Buddhist folklore of the region, she is seemingly similar to the “trickster” gods of other ancient legends.
Legends of the area state that the spirits of the dead have to cross the Sanzu River in order to reach the realm of the dead, referred to as paradise. Again, we can draw similarities with the Greek legends of the need to cross the River Styx. More specifically, there are said to be three entry points available to these spirits. However, whether a soul can gain access to these paths depends very much on the type of life they have lived.
When it is a child’s spirit, however, through a lack of life experience, they have no paths available to them. Thus, when they attempt to cross the water, Datsue-ba will eventually block their way. Upon doing so, she will then strip the child of their clothes. These children can only hope that a sympathetic deity will come to assist them in crossing the water and overcoming the torment of Datsue-ba.
Not that adults who have led a bad life have it any easier. Datsue-ba would again strip the adults of their clothes. Some legends even state that the ghoulish spirit will strip the skin from these unfortunate souls if they are not wearing clothing. The torment she then dishes out depends on the gravity of their sins.
9 Betobeto-san: Footsteps of an Invisible Entity on a Lonely Road
Although there are no records in mythology of Betobeto-san causing physical harm, encounters with this mysterious entity certainly leave people unnerved. It is said that you will likely meet Betobeto-san while walking along a dark or lonely road. Or, more likely, if you happen to be walking along one of the many mountain roads in the country.
According to legend, you will hear footsteps behind you. And what’s more, these strange, unnerving footsteps will continue to follow you until you stop, step to one side, and state “you first” or “please go ahead.” With that, the footsteps will pass by and fade into the night.
One legend tells of a man who did exactly this only for a voice to reply that they couldn’t pass by as it was “too dark.” The man offered the strange entity his lantern. To his amazement, invisible hands took the lantern from him, and he watched as it continued on the road, the footsteps fading away as it did so.
8 Takaonna: Vengeful Woman Wreaking Havoc in Red Light Districts
What is perhaps interesting about the legends of the Takaonna is that they are said to haunt the red-light districts of Japan. And while there are few stories of them causing physical harm, they are said to harass and frighten the men and women who frequent the district. In fact, some tales tell of these women, who, for the most part, appear as perfectly normal women, elongating their bodies in order to peer into the windows of brothels, spying on the working women and their clients.
Legend states that these Takaonna were once ordinary women who were considered “too unattractive to marry” or to find work as a prostitute. Because of this social dismissal, their souls turned to vengeance. Their twisted, bitter outlook caused them to become “malicious monsters” who “prey on others’ sexual energy.” Perhaps like most legends, there appears to be a morality tale hidden beneath.
7 Hibagon: The “Japanese Bigfoot”
Perhaps one of the most recent legends of strange beast-like creatures lurking in the woods and wilderness of Japan is that of the Hibagon. This strange gorilla-like creature is regarded by many researchers as the “Japanese Bigfoot.” What’s more, there have been several sightings of this strange creature since the early 1970s.
As well as sightings of this alleged wild man, several molds have been taken of its footprints. Perhaps most famous of these were taken by a bunch of Boy Scouts, with the molds said to be over 9.5 inches (25 centimeters) long and 6 inches (15 centimeters) wide.
Descriptions of the Hibagon claim it is covered with black bristly fur, with white hands and feet and “glaring eyes.” One couple who claim to have come face to face with the strange creature, Mr. Sazawa and Mrs. Harada, said that it did not at all seem hostile. Furthermore, it turned and fled even when several other witnesses moved toward the creature with guns.
6 Amanajaku: Tempting Humans to Act on Their Darkest Desires
Compared to some of the other entries on our list, the Amanajaku is said to be outright demonic rather than merely scary. Legends state that this entity can appear to a person and not only realize their darkest desires but also prompt them to act on them. Essentially, they are, once more, similar to the trickster gods and entities found in many other parts of the ancient world.
This demonic being surfaces in many different legends, always in the same tempting role. One particularly gruesome tale tells of a young girl, cared for by an elderly couple, who is tricked into allowing an Amanajaku into their home. Once inside, it would eat her but would keep the skin. With this, the demon would pretend to be the girl by wearing it in order to trick others.
Again, it is perhaps easy to see the hidden messages and morality tales in such legends. That doesn’t, however, make them any less morose.
5 Bakeneko: A Cat That Can Take Human Form
Not only is the Bakeneko said to be a large cat with supernatural powers, but it also has the ability to shapeshift into human form. What’s more, it sometimes kills and steals the identity of the person it has shapeshifted into. Some legends even state that the Bakeneko can possess people and even take control of those who have long since been dead.
Perhaps even more frightening, if we accept the legends as truth for a moment, it is possible to run into this strange supernatural feline anywhere in Japan. Perhaps one reason for relief is that it is often only those who have led cruel lives that are likely to come across this potentially deadly entity. Some legends even attribute the origins of the Bakeneko to cats that were mistreated or killed by their owners, only to come back in this supernatural form looking for revenge on humans who conduct their lives in a similar way.
4 Satori: Mind-Reading Supernatural Beasts
Perhaps similar to the legends of the Hibagon, at least in some of the descriptions, the Satori are said to be monstrous creatures, often with gorilla- or Bigfoot-like features, that lurk in the mountain regions of the country. Even more startling, they are said to possess supernatural powers. These include the ability to read a person’s mind. In fact, some legends even state that they are so skilled at this that they can tell a person what they are thinking before they have even processed the thought themselves.
What is perhaps interesting here is that, like the Hibagon, if confronted, the Satori will run away and hide. However, that is not to say they are harmless—far from it. Legends also state that should you encounter one alone, they will kill and devour you as soon as the opportunity arises. Furthermore, other legends go as far as to state these entities can imitate individual voices, possibly in an attempt to lure their victims toward them.
3 Jikininki: Sinful Spirits Looking to Devour Human Corpses
The legends of the Jikininki are perhaps some of the most disturbing. Said to be the spirits of individuals who have led sinful or greedy lives, they spend eternity looking for human corpses, upon which they then feed. The name Jikininki is said to mean “human-eating ghosts” when translated.
Although there are several accounts and legends, the most well-known is that of a priest named Muso, who was traveling through Japan. As night was falling, he came upon a house where another priest lived. However, when he asked if he might stay the night and whether he might have some food, he was turned away. The priest did, though, direct him to a small village nearby. When he arrived, he was indeed given a place to sleep, as well as something to eat.
However, he was awakened later in the evening by a young man. He told him that his father had died earlier in the day. Furthermore, tradition stated that the village would leave the corpse alone during the night and spend the evening in a nearby settlement. If they did not, they would be subject to torment by evil. The young man asked if the priest might spend the night with the corpse and perform a ceremony to keep it safe. He agreed, and the young man joined the rest of his village.
However, during the evening, with Muso powerless to stop it, a strange dark figure entered the room and began to eat the flesh of the dead body. Upon arriving back the next day, the young man claimed, as he had feared, that a Jikininki had fed upon the body. Even stranger, when the priest asked why the priest who lived nearby had not remained with the corpse, he was informed that priest had died long ago.
In an even further twist, the traveling priest returned to the house and did indeed find the priest there. It was then that the priest revealed that he was a Jikininki and had been cursed to live as one due to his selfish actions while alive.
2 Jubokko: Trees That Desire Human Blood
Without a doubt, one of the most bizarre legends to come out of Japan is that of the Jubokko. These are trees that appear, for the most part, exactly the same as normal trees, only they desire human blood.
According to legend, these bloodthirsty trees usually grow on battlefields. Due to the spilling of blood at such locations, the trees absorb it, as well as the pain and suffering of the battlefield, and consequently take on a supernatural existence. What’s more, they now need this in order to grow. If a person comes close to one of these terrifying trees, the branches will quickly wrap around the person and trap them. Even more chilling, these branches will morph into tube-like twigs which pierce the skin of its victim and suck out the blood. The tree does not release the body once it is drained, though. It remains wrapped in the twisted branches for birds and insects to feast on the rotting flesh.
1 Shichinin Misaki: Seven Ghosts Looking to Infect the Living
According to the legends of the Shichinin Misaki, they are a group of spirits of people (usually seven in total) who have met their end before their time and in the most tragic of circumstances. Quite often, these spirits are associated with those who have lost their lives at sea or drowned in the water networks of the country. Perhaps that is why they are often witnessed near water.
This deadly group travels and lurks among the living, looking to spread illness and disease. Should a person encounter one of these mystery groups, it is said they will become ill, usually with a high fever, before passing away. In a twist, the entity that infected the person and caused their death is freed from the ghostly group and proceeds to the afterlife. The person who was infected, however, now becomes one of the Shichinin Misaki. This allows the group to constantly maintain its number at seven.
There are several different legends as to the origins of the original seven spirits, one of the most well-known states they were once a group of seven priests who were killed by the people of their village. This caused their spirits to roam the land seeking vengeance.