Mythical Monsters: Japan
Updated: Feb 5
The general term in Japan used to describe mythological monsters is Yokai. Other names may include Oni (most often translated as ogre or demon), Bakemono, (generally used for creatures with unnatural or changing shapes) and Kaiju, a more recent term generally used to describe the behemoth creatures that appear in popular Japanese film franchises like Godzilla, Mothra and King Kong.
Though they are often mischievous, Yokai are not necessarily seen as monstrous. Similar to the ‘Spirit’ and ‘Fey’ of European Folklore, the word encapsulates a vast number of creatures – some malevolent, and some benign.
This week we take a look at some of the more dangerous and malicious Yokai that have appeared throughout Japanese history – and some that are still feared today.
Yamata no Orochi
Yamata no Orochi was an evil dragon, and a true behemoth, whose size spanned mountains, with moss and trees growing from his hide. His eyes were red, like cherries, and, most distinctively, the creature had eight heads and eight tails.
Ultimately, he was defeated by Susanoo, a storm deity and younger brother to the goddess Amaterasu. When the god was driven out of heaven for his mischievous behaviour, he encountered an unfortunate couple who were being tormented by the dragon.
The couple had once had eight daughters, but every year the dragon came and devoured one. Susanoo agreed to help the couple, in exchange for the hand of their one remaining daughter. He instructed them to build a fence around their home with eight doors, and to place a barrel of rice wine behind every door. When the dragon arrived, it found the doors and put his heads through them, finding the barrels, the dragon drank until it was insensate. Then, Susanoo came up to the sleeping dragon and cut it into pieces.
One of the dragon’s tails, however, could not be cut. Inside the tail, Susanoo found a sword, a legendary weapon named Kusanagi, which would become part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. Thankfully, that was the end of Yamata no Orochi, and Susanoo happily married the surviving daughter.
Shuten Doji, appearing in a 14th Century legend of the same name, was the leader of a band of Oni said to be kidnapping women from the area around what is now called Kyoto. The Oni took many women, eventually abducting the daughter of a prominent government official.
The Official employed the great warrior, Minamoto no Yorimitsu, and his companions to travel to the mountain where the Oni lived, and kill them. On their travels, the group learnt that the leader of the Oni, Shuten Doji normally had the appearance of a human man, with red skin. When night fell, however, he would grow to ten feet tall, horns erupting from his head, and strength growing monstrous. Praying to the gods for help, Minamoto no Yorimitsu and his group encountered three old men, who provided them with jars of magical alcohol which would poison the Oni without harming humans.
The warriors managed to locate the lair of the Oni, and even get invited in to share a meal, where they drugged them with their magic alcohol. Unfortunately, Shuten Doji was still able to take his monstrous form to attack. With the aid of the three old men, who turned out to be the very gods that Minamoto no Yorimitsu had prayed to, the warrior managed to defeat the Oni. Disturbingly, even once his head was removed from the body, the Oni continued to try and fight.
Even more disturbingly, unlike many legends when women are kidnapped to become wives, the women had been taken for food. Searching the Oni’s home, the warriors found skeletons and dismembered bodies, though they were able to rescue the most recently kidnapped women and return them to their families.
The Bakeneko is a creature thought to initially be indistinguishable in appearance from a regular cat. This is because this is how they start their life. Some legends say that a Bakeneko is born from a cat, if they are owned for a certain number of years. Other legends say they are born when a cat reaches a certain age.
Some legends paint the Bakeneko as merely a mischievous spirit, but others tell of them killing their owner, and even terrorising the surrounding neighbourhood. As the Bakeneko grows more powerful, they begin to walk on their hind legs, and may grow to the size of a human. In addition to killing their owner, the Bakeneko may also eat them and take their form!
In other legends, the cat is also said to attack travellers and have the ability to possess people, as well as manipulating the bodies of the dead like puppets. The only way to deal with a malicious Bakeneko is to kill it, which, if the creature is mimicking human form, is usually enough to transform the animal back into their usual appearance.
Kappa is a popularised name for what was once several very similar creatures across Japan. Though there are still regional variations on the creature, there are still some traits that tend to appear across them. Overall, the Kappa is not necessarily as deadly as some of the other monsters on this list, but it is said to try and drown horses and ox, or even humans if it gets the chance. It is said to extract the external organs of its victims, which is thought to be an attempt to find the Shirikodama, a mythological organ, though the reason the Kappa want this is unknown.
The Kappa is described as similar to a monkey or toad in appearance, with slimy skin and a hard shell. Sometimes the Kappa is described as scaly, or with a beak. One of the descriptors that remains constant, however, is that the Kappa has a shallow dish on its head filled with water. It is thought that if the water spills the Kappa with either lose all its strength, or its life.
The Kappa is known for loving two things: cucumbers, and sumo wrestling. It was thought to come out of the river to steal cucumber crops, or to challenge travellers to sumo wrestling contests. Fortunately, there was an easy way to defeat the Kappa in a wrestling contest, bowing would entice the creature to bow back – spilling the important water from its head!
A Yokai from the modern day, Kuchiki-Sake-Onna first appeared as an urban legend in the late 20th Century. She is described as a pretty woman with a surgical mask covering the bottom half of her face. She approaches people late at night and asks if they think she looks pretty. If the unfortunate person says yes, she removes the mask and reveals her face, her mouth slit from ear to ear. She then asks, ‘even like this?’
If the person says no, she chases them home. If the person says yes, she is said to cut their mouth to match her own. The specifics of the legend vary by location, in some places she is said to carry a sickle, in others a knife.
Though the woman is scary, there were said to be ways to avoid her wrath. As there is no right answer to her question, one way to evade her was to not answer, or give a vague response, as she only attacked once given a yes or no answer.
Mythological creatures tend to change over time and location, with many regional variants of very similar creatures. And, though many of these Yokai come from historical legends, the existence of Kuchiki-Sake-Onna proves that these myths are still alive today, and fear of the more monstrous Yokai still remain strong.