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I like horror and weird tales, and those who follow these columns cannot fail to remember how much of these topics has been proposed so far, drawing heavily from the colourful world of Japanese folklore. Closely connected to such already treated themes, urban legends have an interesting value straddling many other genres of stories.
An urban or metropolitan legend is an unusual and unlikely story, usually transmitted orally, which at some point in its diffusion gets widespread coverage in the media, thereby receiving some kind of credibility license. Normally it is a story relating to presumed events presented as really happened and attributed to acquaintances, friends or family of the person who reports it, or it can be often the victim of the phenomenon itself which, convinced of the authenticity of the story, reduces the distance from the source, to the so-called friend of friend. The conviction is due to the very nature of the urban legend which, often starting from a fact that actually happened, almost always allows a margin of credibility, even if never correctly documented, but which stimulates memory and encourages its dissemination.
Metropolitan or modern legends, because they were born or spread in cities in recent times, perpetuate an ancient human behavior on the intervention of the imagination on aspects of the reality that surrounds it, satisfying the universal need for stories, which are adapted and modernized starting from the mythological legends.
Since their birth and diffusion is typical of specific urban geographic contexts, themes and protagonists can be as diverse as possible, and thinking of the quantity of monsters (see Japanese Monsters: horror and fear with a pinch of education – https://www.kiryoku.it/en/japanese-monsters-horror-and-fear-with-a-pinch-of-education/) present in Japan, their urban legends combine folkloric figures with fears or more modern sentiments but in any case they obviously refer to their culture in the broadest sense. Many of the Japanese urban legends therefore have ghosts or yokai-like beings as protagonists, to which the Japanese often react in a completely different way than any Western reaction, or are characterised by typical elements of their culture, such as the meaning of numbers or gods, colours, or equally typical other fears of those regions.
Not infrequently these stories leverage on generalized fears or arise from news stories that are furtherly integrated with the fantastic parts which, being reported as lived, in first person or by acquaintances or close relatives, add that pinch of possibility that they really happened. Such stories then proceed by word of mouth and are finally amplified and disseminated by the media, and since they have vague origins and cannot be confirmed or denied, they increase their credibility and their load of horror. They are therefore the protagonists of the many faces of Japanese fear such as onryo, the evil spirits, or yurei, the modern ghosts, or yokai, the spirits of local folklore, who continue to terrorise the population generation after generation, often with their thirst for revenge.
In these days we are approaching the festival of Semhain, the Celtic festival that marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, which as a symbol of passage out of time has subsequently evolved towards the mortuary character deriving from the belief that in this period the separation between the world of the living and the one of the dead would be thinned, when the latter could then go back and get in touch with the former, thus laying the foundations of the festivals to honour the dead that also characterize our culture from the time of the pre-Christian Romans and that culminate in the modern evocative, representative and consumerist Halloween party.
It is therefore with this “spirit”, pun intended, that I invite the reader to immerse him/herself in the most appropriate atmosphere for a short new and certainly incomplete journey for a taste of the weird and horror world of modern Japan with some of their Toshi Densetsu, the Japanese urban legends.
KUCHISAKE ONNA, the slit mouthed woman
The first report of this legend dates back to 1979, and tells of a young woman who wanders around the city with her mouth covered with a mask, asking the passer-by if she is beautiful: the unfortunate one will die if the answer is negative, but if it is positive, the woman would lower the mask revealing a hideous mouth slashed from ear to ear and ask again if “now” she is beautiful. In the event of a negative response, Kuchisake Onna will kill the passer-by, while she would spare the life of those who still respond positively, even though they will be mutilated the same as the woman.
It is said that the cause of all this is a badly ended plastic surgery that drove the young woman to madness, constantly hunting for victims to appease her thirst for an evil revenge.
THE KIYOTAKI TUNNEL
Built in 1927, this tunnel connects the northern part of Arashiyama with the neighboring town of Sagakiyotaki, as part of the Atagoyama Railway, and is characterised by a history of ominous violence, suicides and apparitions. In relation to this tunnel, numerous cases are reported as of fatal accidents to those workers who built it, or those who died due to poor working conditions, victims of railway accidents and people who were executed in that area, and it is said that spirits of those unfortunate people were seen wandering around the tunnel at night.
Its length, 444 meters, is also further worsening the fame of this place, a particularly unfortunate number for the Japanese as the number 4 can be read “shi”, which with a different but homophone kanji means death instead of four: the legend says one can see those spirits reflected in rearview mirrors of the cars as well as in the road mirrors placed at the ends of the tunnel, that the road signs suddenly change from red to green during the night, all of this then causing fatal accidents.
Furthermore, since it is said that the tunned is a popular place for suicides, the word of mouth about the spirit of a woman dressed in white who committed suicide on the road above the tunnel and then fell over its entrance began to spread, as a spirit that would jump on the hoods of cars, and whose chilling scream is heard, causing even further accidents.
This is another case of a legend with an ominous epilogue for a driver, usually a taxi driver, who meets a person at night in a poorly lit street who asks to enter into the vehicle. The passenger, usually seated on the rear seats, asks then to be taken to a place never heard of by the unfortunate driver, and then begins to give more and more complex information until he takes the driver to unknown places such as alleys or country roads. Eventually, due to the discomfort, when he turns to talk to the passenger, he discovers there is no one there, and turning back to the steering wheel he has only the time to realise he is falling over a precipice.
An even more recent version concerns the tsunami hitting those areas in 2011: after the tragedy on the eastern shores of the island of Honshu, a very particular version of the ghost passenger began to circulate. A girl gets into a taxi and asks to be taken to one of the displaced areas. The taxi driver responds by asking if she is quite sure of the destination, but the passenger has disappeared. In some versions, the girl asks if she is dead right before disappearing. Although the ghost hitchhiker is known everywhere, this version has some features undoubtedly related to the culture of Japan. For example, even some taxi drivers would have told the story in first person, specifying however that they were not afraid, that there are ghosts in those areas, and that they would gladly take them back on board.
GOZU, the cow’s head
Also this legend exists in different variants, united by the fact that it is so horrible that those who listen to it, read it or even hear about it, begin to tremble overwhelmed by fear until the death that will come after a few days.
The legend concerns the discovery, in a deserted and uninhabited land since forgotten times, of a strange human skeleton with a cow’s head, victim of the locals who devoured it due to a very heavy famine that left nothing to feed on, animal or vegetable, an act that attracted a terrible curse that unleashed a real hell in the area.
Among the many variations, one tells of a teacher who began to tell horror stories, but when he began telling about Gozu to entertain his students. He was asked to stop but, as in a trance, the teacher could not stop and when he regained consciousness, he saw his students unconscious and mouth- foaming. It is reported any of them died in the following days.
Kokkuri is a Japanese version of the ouija board, which instead of already having letters, it is instead completed by the “players” who write the hiragana characters on a piece of paper and move them placing their fingers on a coin, before asking Kokkurisan a question.
Very popular in Japanese high schools, this game is surrounded by rumors and legends: some say that Kokkurisan is able to tell players the date of their death, while others say that one can ask for anything, but the player must finish the game in correct way, either by saying goodbye to Kokkurisan before leaving the table, or by disposing of the objects used for the game within a certain time limit, such as spending the coin or running out of ink from the pen used to write the hiragana.
Otherwise, players will face misfortune or even death.
This is a Japanese urban legend about a girl who jumped, or fell, over the tracks and was cut in half by the oncoming train: also in this case there are many versions and with different developments, but everyone with the usual tragic epilogue. One tells of a boy who, leaving his school, heard a noise behind him. Turning around he saw a beautiful girl leaning out of a window, her arms resting on the sill and staring at him. Realising she was being watched, the girl smiled and wrapped her arms around her body and suddenly she fell out of the window and landed on the ground. The boy realised with horror that the girl had no lower part of her body: the girl began to approach, running on her elbows and making a noise similar to a teke-teke-teke. The boy was paralysed with fear and within seconds the girl was on top of him, pulled out a scythe and cut him it in half, exactly like her. It is said that those unfortunate people who are killed in this way become teke-teke themselves.
In another version, the spirit of Kashima Reiko, the girl who died on the tracks, seems to obsess the occupants of the toilets from which it is possible to see the legs of the occupants from under the door, asking them where her legs are. If she is answered incorrectly, she will cut off the legs of the victim. To save oneself, and one own legs, the victim has to tell her that her legs are at the Meishin train station, and answer that it was Kashima Reiko who told this, in case she asks how one knows about.
HITOBASHIRA, the human pillars
Another bloody legend tells about how Japanese resorted to human sacrifices to ensure stability and longevity to large buildings, inserting human bodies into the walls and foundations of castles and bridges.
One of the most famous versions concerns Matsue Castle, one of the few Japanese medieval castles still existing in its original wooden form. Following several collapses of the central tower stone wall, the builders became convinced that a human pillar would give stability to the structure, so they found a young woman, kidnapped her and sealed her in the wall. The structure was finished without further collapse in 1638, but the ghost of the woman is reported to continue to haunt the castle up to these day.
The most recent version dates back to 1968 when the Jomon tunnel, built in 1914 in Hokkaido, was damaged due to a violent earthquake: during the renovation and repair work numerous skeletons were found standing inside the structure, as well as skulls and bones scattered all around.
THE OKIKU DOLL
It is believed to be one of the most famous cursed dolls in Japan, bought in 1918 by a young man named Eikichi Suzuki in a Sapporo shop as a gift for his younger sister Okiku. The little girl fell immediately in love with the doll but unfortunately she died suddenly of an illness after a short time. Her family then placed the doll on an altar where they prayed for their deceased daughter every morning, but a few months later, they began to notice that the doll’s hair were unnaturally grewin. In 1939 the doll was entrusted to the Mannejin temple where it still stands and her hair continues to grow. Up to today, no one found any explanation, although it is said that an analysis established that the doll’s hair is authentic human hair.
It has been hypothesised that, being human hair placed with natural glue into the holes of the doll’s skull, it may have created some anomalous reaction and continued to grow. However, being reported to be a growth as 25 cm per year, this completely disproportionate for some simple chemical reaction. It is said that they are in fact cut regularly even if the doll is no longer exposed to the public.
Moreover, from what can be seen from circulated pictures, it is claimed that her physiognomy is also slowly changing: her lips now appear parted, as if to say something or to offer a breath to the next unwary visitor.
It is a particularly disturbing poem that contains a terrifying curse: it is said that anyone who reads it aloud will be struck by some calamity. Tomino’s Inferno was written by Yomota Inukino and is included in the book “The Heart is Like a Rolling Stone” (Kokoro wa korogaruishi no yo ni) in 1919.
The legend tells of Tomino, a Japanese girl suffering from physical disability and hated by her family. This lifestyle led poor Tomino to madness, so that she wrote a poem with a demonic text to vent all the hatred felt towards her parents, cursing anyone who read it. Tomino’s parents, finding and reading her poem, were traumatized and they locked their daughter in the cellar to punish her, where she died of pneumonia. It is said that the child’s soul was imprinted in the words of the poem, deepening the curse even more.
It is possible to find this poem by searching on Google and you can also listen to a Japanese version on Youtube: note that the person who created the video used a voice program for reading, as the Japanese do not dare to read it aloud.
THE RED ROOM
A very recent legend that has as its spreading medium the internet and a mysterious pop-up on a web page depicting a door painted in red (flash video is really available on the net). Even when closed, this pop-up keeps reopening, with a childish voice asking “do you like it?” several times, changing tone, becoming weird and distorted, and finally changing the question to “do you like the red room?”. It is said those unfortunate who came across this page were found lifeless in their rooms with walls dyed in red by their own blood.
This urban legend has had a global spread thanks to the Internet and unfortunately jumped to the news headlines when an eleven-year-old Japanese girl killed her classmate in the Okubo elementary school, in Sasebo: it was discovered during the investigations that bullying was the motive, also carried out by leaving mocking messages on the internet, and a bookmark to the web page with the video of the legend was found on the little murderer computer.
THE CURSED TOILETS
Not a single urban legend, but the place where different versions of the same legend are set according to which mysterious spirits ask the unfortunate person if he prefers the cloak, or the dress, or the toilet paper, in blue or red, or if they want a friend or they are called themselves by repeating their name several times.
The origins are not very clear and some are attested around 1950, narrating the ghost of a Japanese child who unfortunately died in the bathroom of his school during the bombings of the Second World War. The place itself then appears to be characteristic in Japanese culture as historically it is the smallest and darkest room in the house, and the one in which one can be somehow more alone and vulnerable.
The end for those who encounter these creatures is different, more or less bloody, depending on the version, while the only way to be saved is to answer that one doesn’t need anything or has not a preference.
These are just some of the Japanese toshi densetsu, then brought to the attention of the whole world, and much faster, by the most modern means of communication compared to the more classic Japanese legends and horror stories known by the generic name of Kaidan based on folklore instead: Japan is said to be the country with the most spirits, and the mythological legends associated with them are also endless. Unlike these, which often have an educational foundation, urban legends leverage fear and possible, but unverifiable, credibility, making them even more disturbing.