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Japanese Urban Legends

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Japanese Urban Legends

Japanese urban legends (都市伝説 Toshi Densetsu) are enduring modern folktales of paranormal creatures and their attacks on (usually) innocent victims or non-supernatural, widespread rumours in popular culture. The former rarely include the fantastical or animistic yokai of earlier Japanese superstition, and are mostly based on onryo, Japanese ghosts who have become vengeful spirits and take their aggression out on any who cross their path. Modern urban legends tend to include Japanese schools and, similar to the yokai legends, incorporate cautionary tales into their stories, warning people not to bully others, walk home late at night or talk to strangers. Although there are non-supernatural urban legends in Japan's cities, such as the secret Tokyo tunnels[1] or the corpse-washing job rumour,[2] this article deals with both the natural and supernatural legends of modern Japan.

Urban legends (natural)

1932 Fire and Women's Underwear

On 16 December 1932, the Shirokiya Department Store fire in Tokyo resulted in 14 deaths. During the fire, many saleswomen in kimono were forced onto the roof of the eight-story building. Rumors later spread that some of these women refused to jump into the safety nets held by firefighters on the ground. Traditionally, women did not wear undergarments with kimono, and they were afraid they would be exposed and ashamed if they jumped, and as a result died.[3][4] This news attracted attention from as far away as Europe. It has been alleged that in the aftermath of the fire, department store management ordered saleswomen to wear panties or other underwear with their kimono, and the trend spread.[3][4]

Contrary to this belief, Shoichi Inoue, a professor of Japanese customs and architecture at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, has denied the story of the ambivalent women with fatal modesty. According to Inoue, most people were saved by firemen, and the story of women who preferred to die with their modesty intact was fabricated for the benefit of Westerners. The story has been prevalent in many reference books, even some published by the Fire Fighting Agency. Moreover, it is generally believed in Japan that the Shirokiya Department Store fire was a catalyst for the change in fashion customs, specifically the trend toward wearing Western-style panties, though there is no evidence to substantiate the belief.[5]

Made in Usa

In the 1960s, as the economy was still struggling in the aftermath of World War II, it was rumored that the government of Japan renamed a town "Usa", so that exported products could be labelled "MADE IN USA, JAPAN". This was supposedly done to give the appearance that products were made in the U.S.A., which might conceivably foil customs inspectors, but more importantly counter the stigma that Japanese products were inferior.[6]

However, the town of Usa, in Ōita Prefecture, had the name since before the war, as the area has been associated with Usa Shrine since the 8th century.[7] Furthermore, Usa is not a major center of Japanese industry. Finally, exported products are expected to be labelled with the country of origin, not the city or town.[6]

Sony timer

It was once rumored that the Sony Corporation installed a device in all of its electronics products which caused them to fail soon after their warranties expired, an illegal form of planned obsolescence.

This has never been substantiated and while it is unlikely that Sony would explicitly add expiration devices to their hardware, the "Sony Timer" has also been taken to mean that Sony manufactures devices to withstand just enough use to necessitate a new line. At the annual shareholders meeting in 2007, then president Ryoji Chubachi said that he was aware of the term "Sony Timer".[8]

Urban legends (curses)

Cursed Kleenex Commercial

In the 1980s, Kleenex released three Japanese commercials for their tissues, featuring a woman dressed in a white toga-like dress and a young child dressed as a Japanese ogre, sitting on straw. Each advert had the song "It's a Fine Day" by Jane & Barton playing in the background. Many viewers found the advertisement disturbing. Some complaints claimed the music sounded like a German curse,[9] although the lyrics are in English. Because of its unnerving ambiance, several rumours began to circulate about the cast, such as with the crew meeting untimely deaths through accidents and the lead actress Keiko Matsuzaka either dying, being institutionalized or becoming pregnant with a demon child.[10]

Similar Urban Legends: Set problems on The Exorcist

Inokashira Park curse

In Inokashira Park, Tokyo, there is a lake where visitors can rent rowing boats. It is believed that if a couple rides on a boat together their relationship will end.[11] The legend is connected to a local shrine dedicated to Benzaiten. She is believed to be very jealous and causes the break-ups of those who ride on the boats.[12]

Red Room curse

The Red Room story is an internet legend about a pop up which appears on the victim's computer. The image simply shows a red door and a recorded voice asks "Do you like-". Even if the pop up is closed it will repeatedly reappear until the voice finally completes the question: "Do you like the red room?". Those who have seen the pop-up are found dead, their walls painted red in their own blood. The legend began with a flash animation of a young boy being cursed after encountering the pop-up, but gained notoriety when it was found that the schoolgirl who committed the Sasebo slashing in 2004 had the video as a bookmark.[13]

Similar Urban Legends: Kata Lata Kulu Email

Curse of the Colonel

The Curse of the Colonel (Kāneru Sandāsu no Noroi) is supposedly suffered by the Japanese baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, and cited as the cause of their poor performance in the Japan Championship Series. In 1985, fans of the Hanshin Tigers celebrated their team's first and only victory of the series and, in their excitement, threw a statue of Colonel Sanders (founder and mascot of Kentucky Fried Chicken) into the Dōtonbori River. Since the incident the team has yet to win the Championship again, and some fans believed the team would never do so again until the statue was recovered.[14]

The statue was finally discovered in the Dōtonbori River on March 10, 2009. Divers who recovered the statue at first thought it was only a large barrel, and shortly after a human corpse, but Hanshin fans on the scene were quick to identify it as the upper portion of the long-lost Colonel. The right hand and lower body were found the next day, but the statue is still missing its glasses and left hand.

Similar Legends: Curse of the Bambino; Curse of the Billy Goat

Urban legends (supernatural)

Aka Manto (Red Cape)

Aka Manto is a spirit which haunts bathrooms, usually the last toilet stall in the women's/girl's bathroom. Some versions describe him as wearing a mask to cover his extremely handsome face, which had caused him stalking problems in life. When the unlucky victim is on the toilet, a mysterious voice will ask them if they want red paper or blue paper. If you answer red paper, you are killed violently and drenched in blood. If you ask for blue, you are strangled or bled dry, leaving your face/skin blue. Attempting to ask for any other colour of paper will result in hands appearing (sometimes coming out of the toilet you're sitting on), that will drag you into the fires of hell. In other versions the ghost will simply ask you if you want a red vest and will then rip the skin from your back.[15] He could also ask you if you want a red or blue cloak.[16] The only answer that will spare the person is to refuse anything he offers.

Fatal Fare

This story concerns a lone taxi driver making his way along a road during the night. Legend goes that a person will suddenly appear from the night darkness and hail the taxi. The person will only ever sit in the back of the car and will ask to be taken to a place the driver has never heard of. When the driver mentions this, he is assured that he will be given directions. The passenger then feeds the driver increasingly complex directions which leads them down streets and alleys, through many towns and even in some instances all the way from the city to the countryside. After traveling this distance and still seeming no closer to any destination, the driver becomes uneasy. He turns around to the back seat to ask the passenger exactly where they are – but he is suddenly shocked to find that the passenger has vanished. The taxi driver turns back to the steering wheel; only to drive off the edge of a cliff and die.[17]

Similar Urban Legends: Killer in the backseat and the Vanishing Hitchhiker

Gozu (Cow Head)

Gozu (Ox-head), also known as Cow Head, is a Japanese urban legend about a fictional story called 'Cow Head'. Supposedly the Cow Head story is so horrifying that people who read or hear it are overcome with fear so great that they tremble violently for days on end until they die. One variation involves a teacher who tells a bored group of school children the story, resulting in both children and teacher becoming catatonic and losing their memory. Other variations include the detail that no one is able to retell the story since they die after hearing it. The Cow Head story was rumored to be an unpublished piece from sci-fi writer Sakyo Komatsu, but there is no evidence to link the author to the legend.[18] A Ukrainian folktale called Cow's Head does exist, about a woman who receives good fortune by offering food and shelter to a disembodied cow's head that visits her one night,[19] as well as a 2003 film called Gozu, directed by Takashi Miike, neither of which are linked to the urban legend.

Jinmenken (Human Faced Dog)

Jinmenken are dogs, but with human faces that supposedly appear at night in Japanese urban areas and run along highways at extremely fast speeds. The jinmenken can also talk, but reports say that they will either be rude or will ask to be left alone. Unlike most Japanese urban legends, the human-faced dog is not widely known to kill those unlucky enough to meet it, though they are said to be escaped scientific experiments or the spirits of road crash victims.[20] There is also speculation that witnesses who say they have met a jinmenken have actually come across Japanese macaques, which accounts for the quadrupedal movement, dog-like fur, human face and the human-like noises the jinmenken can supposedly make.[20]

Similar Urban Legends: The Black Dog


Kokkuri is a Japanese version of a ouija board, which became popular during the Meiji era.[21] Rather than using a pre-bought board with letters and a Planchette, 'players' write down hiragana characters and place their fingers on a coin, before asking 'Kokkuri-san' a question. This is a popular game in highschools[22] and, similar to the western ouija board, several rumours and legends surround it. Some include Kokkuri-san only telling players the date of their death, while others say you can ask Kokkuri-san anything but you must finish the game correctly, either by saying goodbye to Kokkuri-san before leaving the table, or disposing of the kokkuri game utensils within a certain time limit, such as spending the coin or using the pen which wrote the hiragana. Failure to do so will result in misfortune or death for the players.

Similar Urban Legends: Ouija Board

Kuchisake-onna (Slit-mouthed Woman)

Children walking alone at night may encounter a woman wearing a surgical mask, this is not an unusual sight in Japan as people wear them to protect others from their colds or sickness. The woman will stop the child and ask, 'Am I beautiful?'. If they say no, she kills them with a pair of scissors she always carries with her, but most children will answer yes, in which case the woman asks 'How about now?' and removes her mask to reveal her mouth has been slit from ear to ear. Regardless of whether the child answers yes or no at this point, the woman will kill them, if they say no, they are cut in half, and if they say yes, she cuts their mouths to be exactly like hers.[23] To escape the Kuchisake-onna, you can answer her second question with "You're average" or "So-so", and you can escape while she is confused, or you can throw fruit or sweets at her which she will pick up, thus giving the victim a chance to run. One other way is to ask her if you are pretty, she will get confused and leave.[17]

Similar Urban Legends: The Hook and Bunny Man

Teke Teke

Main article: Teke Teke

The Teke Teke is the ghost of a young woman who fell on a rail way line and was cut in half by the oncoming train. Now a vengeful spirit, she carries a scythe and travels on either her hand or elbows, her dragging upper torso making a scratching or teke teke sound. If she encounters anyone at night and the victim is not fast enough, she will slice them in half at the torso to mimic her own disfigurement and they will sometimes become Teke Teke's themselves.[16] Versions of the legend include a young school boy walking home at night and spotting a beautiful young girl standing by a windowsill resting on her elbows. When she notices him, she jumps out of the window and onto the pavement in front of him, revealing herself to be no more than upper torso; she then cuts the boy in two.[24]

Similar Urban Legends: Carmen Winstead

Toire no Hanako-san (Hanako-san of the Toilet)

Toire no Hanako-san is a famous legend associated with Japanese elementary schools. The story tells of an omnipresent ghost who is thought to be the spirit of a student who committed suicide due to excessive bullying or "ijime". However the entity is also known to just appear for no apparent reason. Hanako-san is a popular legend in elementary schools in Japan, and supposedly haunts the third stall of the girl’s bathroom. Characterized by a pair of stark gleaming eyes, the spirit scares any person who sets eyes on it. Not known to be malevolent or vicious in any way, Hanako-san is simply an eerie entity that only serves to severely scare its victims.[17]

Similar Urban Legends: Bloody Mary

In Media

Urban legends are popular in Japan, and are often used in movies, anime and manga, suggesting their endurance in the common imagination.



  • Kuchisake-onna (1996)
  • Kannô byôtô: nureta akai kuchibiru (2005)
  • Carved (2007)
  • Kaiki toshi-densetsu - Kuchisake-onna (2008)
  • The Slit-Mouthed Woman 0: The Beginning (2008)

Hanako-san of the Toilet

  • Hanako (1995)
  • Gakkou no Kaidan (1995)
  • Shinsei toire no Hanako-san (1998)


  • Teketeke (2009)
  • Teketeke 2 (2009)
  • Otoshimono (2006) is a variation of the legend


TV series

  • An episode of Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi includes the Fatal Fare legend.
  • Toshi Densetsu no Onna is a TV series about a female police detective who is a fan of urban legends. While investigating a case, she considers its associations with an urban legend.

Manga and Anime

Several horror manga works, usually anthologies, contain the urban legends listed in this article, along with some more obscure rumours and original stories.

Kuchi-sake Onna Manga

  • Kuchi-sake Onna
  • Kuchisake Onna Densetsu

Other legends

  • Ghost Stories (Includes Aka Manto, Hanako-san, Kokkuri-san and a variation of the Fatal Fare legend).[25]
  • Hanako to Guuwa no Tera (Includes Kuchisake-onna, Kokkuri-san, Teke Teke and Hanako-san as the titular character)
  • Kibengakuha Yotsuya Senpai no Kaidan by Haruichi Furudate (Includes Kokkuri-san)
  • School Zone by Inuki Kanako (Includes Kokkuri-san and a variation of the Teke Teke legend)
  • Toshi Densetsu (Includes the Kuchisake-onna)
  • The Enemys in the second Mission in the Novel Gantz/Minus are Jinmenken, Kuchisake-onna and the Boss is a Giant Hanako san.

See also



  • Ballaster, R. (2005) Fables Of The East, Oxford University Press.
  • Gould, R. J. (2003). "Japan Culture Research Project 2003 Topic: Youkai and Kaidan".
  • Phillip, N. (2000) Annotated Myths & Legends, Covent Garden Books.
  • Tyler, R. (2002) Japanese Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library), Random House USA Inc.
  • Yoda, H & Alt, M. (2008) "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide" Kodansha International

External links

  • Scary for Kids: Japanese Legends
  • Saya in Underworld
  • Pink Tentacle: Urban Legends
  • Snopes
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