Essential Guide to Japanese Monsters
Japanese legend and folklore is full of a wide variety of ghosts, demons, and monsters—ranging from innocent and mischievous to menacing and potentially deadly. With all of these creatures popping up in myths, manga, anime, and more, it can get a bit confusing. So we’ve decided to compile a guide to Japanese demons.
Japan has special terms for these different kinds of supernatural beings. First are yōkai, creatures like demons, ogres, and other monsters. Next are yūrei, which are ghosts or spirits. Finally, there’s obake, a more general term that can be used for a yūrei or yōkai. None of these categories have real defining features, so it can be very difficult to say, "this is a yōkai, and this is obake". But after lots of research, and consulting with our Japanese team members, I finally have a list of Japanese monsters, by category.
Check out this guide to Japanese monsters just in time for October, aka Halloween month!
Japanese Spirits: Obake
Obake are a class of beings with the ability to shapeshift. They can be animal-like with special powers or supernatural beings, but they usually have strong ties to nature. The term "obake" can also be used as an umbrella category and includes yōkai. Usually though, if something can be under a more specific category like yōkai, that is how it is typically classified, which is why this section is quite short.
Kitsune are mischievous, shapeshifting foxes that have the ability to turn into humans (along with 6 other disguises). Foxes are very popular among Japanese folklore, and their negative, “witch-animal” vibe has certainly changed since the Edo period (1603-1867).
Recognized for their cunning, these animals have taken on a kind of spiritual symbolism and are often seen as guardian spirits. The number of tails they have—which can be up to nine—denotes a Kitsune’s age, intelligence, and power.
Foxes continue to be popular today, appearing in anime and manga as the Nine Tailed Fox from Naruto, Shippo the fox demon from Inuyasha, among others.
Credit: cowardlion / Shutterstock.com
Tanuki is the Japanese word for "raccoon Dogs," which is sometimes mistranslated as badger or simply raccoon in English. While raccoon dogs actually exist in real life, Bake-danuki are a type of Tanuki yōkai.
They’re adorable but have mixed backstories. Dating as far back at the Nara period (710-794), these mystical creatures can turn into humans, are known to sing, can influence nature and even possess people. According to folklore, tanuki can transform into 8 different disguises, making them better at transformation than kitsune. Tanuki, however, tend to use their transformations to fool people and make mischief like practical jokes.
Famous examples of Tanuki include (almost) the entire cast of Pom Poko by Studio Ghibli, and Hachiemon from Inuyasha. Anime fans, try our “Which Studio Ghibli Character Are You” or “Which Sailor Moon Character Are You” to see if you’re as mischievous as a Tanuki or as brave as a Sailor Scout.
You can find statues of tanuki throughout Japan, and they act as good luck talismans because "tanuki" sounds similar to "ta-nuku" (他抜く), meaning "to throw out others" or get rid of unnecessary things.
Yōkai are creatures that resemble more animal- or monster-like beings, coming in the forms of bird, frog, or snake hybrids as well as demons, ogres, and imps. They’re typically living things, occasionally have special powers, and can be either cruel or helpful to humans. Oni, often translated as "ogre" or "demon," can be considered a sub-class of yōkai, and are often identified by the two horns on their forehead.
The earliest versions of a tengu describe it as somewhat of bird-human hybrid, including wings or a beak, the latter of which became elongated noses. When you see a traditional Japanese mask with a red face and long nose, that's a tengu!
Originally depicted as demons and symbols of war, their image changed over time. Tengus are still powerful beings, but they’re now seen more as protective spirits, guardians of the forests and mountains, and are sometimes considered a type of kami or god. They are often shown with red faces and holding feather fans that can summon strong winds.
Also called a “river-child,” a Kappa is a frog or turtle-like yōkai, described as a demon or imp. They’re green but humanoid, with webbed hands and feet and shells on their backs. They live in rivers or ponds and are said to like eating cucumbers. A Kappa’s weakness is a liquid-filled dent in its head, which can’t dry up or spill while the creature is out of the water.
If that all isn’t weird enough, Kappas are said to assault people from underwater, stealing a fabled “shirikodama” organ from a victim's anus. Kappa are also known for being quite lecherous, so best to avoid them whenever possible.
Nure-onna, or the Snake Woman, is a reptilian yōkai with the head of a woman and the body of a snake. She’s said to feast on humans and can live in seas or rivers.
Tales of these creatures have been around since the Edo period (1603-1867). Even more threatening, according to texts the Nure-onna is huge. Their tails were said to be about 327 meters long, that’s 1072.83 feet!
Originating from legends dating back to the 14th century, this yōkai or ogre leader was somewhat of an evil king. He was said to dwell in a lair in a mountain, though the specific location is debated, with Mt. Ōe or Mt. Ibuki being the most likely.
Shuten Dōji kidnapped people, mostly women, and forced them to be slaves before being devoured. He loved sake and was decapitated by Minamoto Raikō, a hero from Japanese folklore. Shuten Doji can be considered a type of oni more specifically.
This yōkai, also written as Yamamba or Yamanba, is a mountain ogress (oni) or witch. A majority of stories have her living in the mountains. In some, she is said to be kind and gentle, dressed in clothes made from tree bark, and nurses lost children.
In darker tales, she is said to be more dangerous, capable of spiriting people away or attacking—sometimes eating—trespassers on her mountain. In one version, she’s even bulletproof. Her only weakness was said to be her soul that was hidden in a flower.
Hone-onna, which translates to “bone woman,” is a skeleton yōkai from Toriyama Sekien’s 1779 “Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hyakki.” In the story, a female skeleton carrying a peony lantern visits the home of a man she loved when she was alive.
In some versions, Hone-onna was told she was ugly when she was alive. But the most uplifting part is how her lasting love for the man, who in turn comes to love her, allows her to live on.
Though the Hone-onna began as a folktale about one woman, now the urban legend is that any woman who dies with an undying love in her heart has the potential to become a hone-onna. The appear young and beautiful as they did in life to the one who loves them, but others who aren't influenced by love for her will see her true form, the skeletal figure of a dead body. As Hone-onna "lives" on with her lover, she slowly sucks out his life force, weakening him until he dies and they are forever united again.
Kuchisake-onna, or the Slit-Mouthed Woman, is definitely one of the deadlier beings on this list. She conceals her face with a fan or mask and wields a sharp weapon, like scissors or a knife.
It’s said that she asks people whether they think she’s attractive. If you say “no,” she’ll kill you immediately. If you say “yes,” she’ll remove the mask to show her mutilated face and then ask the question again. You’ll die if you say no, but if you say yes, she’ll cut the corners of your mouth to resemble hers. Ouch!
Kuchisake-onna is said to be the vengeful spirit of a woman who was maimed in life, either on accident by a doctor or dentist, or purposefully by jealous women or as a punishment for adultery. According to lore, you can try to escape the Slit-Mouthed Woman by telling her she looks “average” or try bribing her with money or candy.
Yes, another female yōkai! Yuki-onna is a spirit, also known as the Snow Woman, among other names. Her origins date back to at least the Muromachi period (1336 -1573), but her story has many versions. Though beings like Yuki-onna, Kushisake-onna and Hone-onna might seem more like spirits and thus yūrei, there is an important difference: yūrei are only spirits and are often limited to stay in one place, but Yuki-onna and Hone-onna both can appear anywhere and both are physical beings that can interact with their surroundings.
When it comes to how she came into being, two versions deal with a woman disappearing, either vanishing in a bath and leaving only icicles or turning into snow and blowing away. In many stories, Yuki-onna will ask you to hold a child, which could either freeze you to death (if you accept) or result in you being pushed down a snowy valley (if you refuse).
Many stories about Yuki-onna have her preying on people lost in a snow storm, making her a personification of hypothermia. While other tales paint her as being more benevolent, simply beautiful, capable of love, and appearing during snowfall.
Japanese Spirits: Yūrei
Yūrei are the ghosts or spirits of people who have died, but their consciousness continues due to unfinished business from when they were alive. They’re often vengeful but can be benevolent. Yūrei can also be immortal entities, with no inclination of whether they were once living or human. Certain defining characteristics include: having no legs or feet (their spirits kind of trail off like a ghost), they are the spirit of a specific person, and often haunt a specific person or place. They also tend to be depicted holding their arms like so:
Also called Red Cloak or Red Cape, Aka Manto is a masked spirit who appears in public or school restrooms. This being defies categorization. Some say it's a spirit (yūrei), others think of this urban legend as that of a serial killer, and still others consider Aka Manto a yōkai. Maybe the difficulty is because it's a fairly modern legend, dating back to the 1930s.
Aka Manto asks bathroom-goers if they want to use red or blue toilet paper. Either option can result in death for the victim, either a bloody demise for the red paper or quite literally turning blue through strangulation. Only by refusing both options, ignoring the spirit, or running away could save you.
We wouldn’t advise trying to be clever by asking for a different color of paper either, for this could result in being dragged straight to the underworld or having to endure a deadly swirly. Gross.
Funayūrei or “boat spirits” are the vengeful ghosts of people who died at sea. Similar to sirens, these creatures yearn to drown people. They’re said to use ladles to fill boats with water to make them sink.
Funayūrei have been around since the Edo period (1603-1867). Ways to fend off these creatures include throwing an onigiri (rice ball) into the ocean or bringing a ladle with a missing bottom.
Okiku's story is the tragic subject of a kaidan "old scary story" called Sara Yashiki, or "The Plate Mansion". She was a servant to a wealthy Samurai family. The master of the house desired her, but when she refuses his advances, he plots to trick her into accepting him. He convinces her that she has lost one of the family's 10 priceless dishes, a crime punishable by death, but he'll cover for her if she accepts him. She frantically searches for the plate but unable to find it (because he has hidden it) she accepts the punishment for the crime. Furious at being rejected again, he throws her down the mansion's well where she dies.
After death, her spirit returned to our world, unable to move on. It's said she could be heard counting the plates, "1. . . 2 . . . 3 . . ." all the way through nine, when she shrieks at the missing 10th plate. It's said her cries drove the samurai to madness and he kills himself in the end.
Kodama are tree spirits. Kodama are described as “ghost lights,” and have been around since at least the Heian period (794-1185). Whether they really fall under the category of yūrei is unclear, they are definitely spirits, but may be more akin to kami (divine spirits).
The name refers to the actual creature as well as the tree in which it lives. Anyone who tries to cut down a Kodama tree will find themselves cursed. Some say that a Kodama tree will bleed if it’s cut.
Kodama are innocent, natural spirits that—according to some stories—are capable of love and turning into humans. Probably the most famous depiction of Kodama comes from the Studio Ghibli Film Princess Mononoke.
Japanese folklore features a plethora of unique yōkai, yūrei, and obake. Stories of these creatures have been passed down for generations, and it’s easy to see why. They can be anywhere from spooky or cute to downright terrifying. Even today they aren't just scary stories told around the campfire, but continue to deeply influence Japan's pop-culture.
If after reading this, you find monsters too scary and love is on your mind instead, check out our guide to the Tanabata Festival, a festival to honor the legend of two star-crossed lovers.