Scary, Traditional, Humorous Japanese Urban Legends

Every country has some urban legends rooted in the local area. That’s the same in Japan too, and there have been many urban legends since ancient times. And with the recent spread of the Internet, new urban legends have been created. Japanese people really like urban legends, and there are many related TV shows, Escape games, and other forms of entertainment.

Here are some of the most famous Japanese urban legends, categorized as Scary, Traditional Humorous, and Others. I will also introduce the origins of those urban legends and how they spread across the country.

Japanese Urban Legends

Scary Legends

Inunaki-touge

dark tunnel in a rural area

Among the many haunted places in Japan, the Inunaki-touge in Fukuoka Prefecture might be one of the most dangerous. Inunaki-touge is the site of a murder case in the old Inunaki Tunnel. It is filled with the typical haunted spot stories, such as “I saw a ghost in the tunnel” and “My friend who went there for fun died in a car accident on the way back”.

And the most famous rumor is: there is a village, which doesn’t exist on the map, called “Inunaki Village” around the Inunaki-touge. At the entrance of the village, there is a sign that says, “The Japanese Constitution isn’t applicable from here”. If you ignore it and step into the village, you will get into serious trouble…

Kune Kune

paddy field in the countryside

“Kune Kune” is a ghost story and urban legend spreading simultaneously in various places on the internet in Japan since around 2003. It is kind of similar to “Slender Man” in western countries. It is characterized by an “unidentifiable object that moves as if it were twisting its thing and white body.” The name “Kunekune” actually means “wiggling” in Japanese.

Just seeing it does no harm at all. But the moment people look at it and realize what it is, they will go insane and become a shell of a man, unable to speak. Kune Kune appears to be seen at a distance, in wide-open spaces where you can see the horizon line, and few people have witnessed them in large cities. Kune Kune is considered one of the “modern folk monsters” created in the 21st century.

Kuchisake-onna (Slit-Mouthed Woman)

slit-mouthed woman

Kuchisake Onna (Slit-Mouthed Woman) is the most famous Japanese urban legend and probably the first urban legend created in Japan. A woman with black hair, wearing a coat and a mask, asks a child on their way back from school, “Am I beautiful?”. If you answered “No”, she would get furious and attack you with scissors. If you answered “Yes”, she would say, “Even with this?” and take off her mask and attack with her mouth, which is split open to the ears.

When I heard this as a kid, I became desperate and thought, “What am I supposed to do?”. The origin of the story is generally believed to have been modeled after a poor woman whose mouth was split open after a failed cosmetic surgery. The ways to escape from her are to answer “So-so” or chant “Pomade” three times to make her run away. It came from the doctor who did the surgery had pomade all over his hair.

Of course, I also practiced chanting “Pomade” three times as fast as I can. Fortunately, I never encountered her in my childhood.

Part-time job for washing dead body

dark hospital corridor

This urban legend is also quite famous. It has been passed down from generation to generation that university hospitals hire part-time workers at high hourly wages to clean the dead bodies in formalin pools. Yeah, I would never do this, no matter how high the salary is.

Traditional Legends

Kappa

kappa

Kappa is a folk monster so-called Japanese Yokai written in Japanese as “河童” consisting of two characters: “河(river)” and “童(kid)”. As the name suggests, Kappa takes the form of a child and often appears in rivers. It has a green body, a turtle shell on its back, and a plate on its head. And if the plate gets dry, they die. Legends and stories of kappa have been handed down all over Japan, and there is probably not a single Japanese person who has not heard of kappa. There are many theories about the true identity of the kappa, but one of the most common is

“People who saw the drowned body of a dead child at the water’s edge mistook it”. Or “People who saw Christian missionaries shaving the tops of their heads were frightened by the unfamiliar foreigner and called them kappa”

By the way, here is the Christian missionary of the time, Francis Xavier.

illustration of Francis Xavier

The top of his head looks similar, but it doesn’t match any of Kappa’s other features. So I don’t think the theory that Kappa was a Christian missionary is correct.

Tengu

a large statue of  tengu's head

This is also a yokai. It lives deep in the mountains, has a red face, a high nose, wings on its back, and a fan, sword, and vajra staff in its hands. Tengu has divine powers and can use their wings to fly freely.

The legend of Tengu itself has existed since ancient times. But recently, there is an urban legend related to this. It says, “In the days when there was no exchange with foreign countries, a foreigner who was shipwrecked and lived in hiding in the mountains may have been mistaken for Tengu by the Japanese of the time, because of his red face and high nose. Like Kappa, this is a theory that people who saw an unfamiliar foreigner may have come up with the idea.

Tsuchinoko

illustration of tsuchinoko

Tsuchinoko is a UMA (Unidentified Mysterious Animal) that is said to exist in Japan. At first glance, it looks like a snake, but its distinctive feature is its swollen belly. Actually, no one talks about Tsuchinoko these days. But when I was a kid, there were many TV programs about capturing it. It just looks like a snake that has swallowed a large prey, but the truth is unknown.

Humorous Legends

Sapporo beer job interview

two glasses with beer inside

This is an urban legend about an interview at Sapporo Beer, a popular brewery in Japan. The candidate who came to the interview remained silent for a long time, so the interviewer got fed up and asked him, “Why do you keep quiet?”. And the candidate answered, “A real man drink Sapporo Beer without a word! (a famous line by Sapporo Beer’s TV commercial at the time)” and passed the interview.

Whether this story is true or not, I heard that some people failed the interview by doing the same in real.

Beetle battery

a beetle on a branch of tree

A conversation between a child and his mother when the beetle he was keeping died.

“Mom, the beetle has stopped moving. Can you give me some money?”
“Sure. But where are you going to buy a new beetle?”
“A convenience store nearby.”
“Convenience store?”
“Yeah, I’m going to get some batteries to exchange the old one.”

This is obviously a made-up story. But there is an irony behind the story about children and their educational environment. At that time, Japan was experiencing rapid economic growth and losing interest in appreciating living things as nature was being destroyed.

Other Legends

Tokyo Disney land

Cinderella Castle in Tokyo Disneyland

There is a rumor that Tokyo Disneyland emits special radio waves to prevent crows from coming close to the park because no one sees crows at all. But the truth is, I heard that there are some crows behind the Cinderella Castle. Having said that, it is also true that there are far fewer crows than pigeons and sparrows in Tokyo Disneyland. So maybe, there is a special trick for it.

Ushi no Kubi (The Cow’s Head)

A herd of cows walking with the sunset in the background.

There is a very frightening story called “Ushi no Kubi (The Cow’s Head)”. And those who hear it cannot stop shaking with fear and die within three days. The author of the story regretted that so many people had died. To pray for a departed soul, he entered the Buddhist monastery and never told the story again, even though people begged him to do so. All those who know about the story are dead, and all that has been handed down to these days is the title “The Cow’s Head” and the fact that it was an incomparably horrible story.

This is what it is all about. In fact, the story of “The Cow’s Head” itself does not exist. So the non-existing urban legend becomes an urban legend.

By the way, when someone asks on an Internet chat board, “I’m curious about a story called ‘The Cow’s Head,’ does anyone know anything about it?, now it has become a tradition to reply, “ Phew…ok, I’ll tell you what it is… Oops, someone is knocking on the door, looks like someone is here….”

How They Became Urban Legends?

There are many urban legends in Japan, but how did they spread in the age without the Internet? In the example above, when the story “Slit-Mouthed Woman” first appeared, only children from relatively wealthy families were allowed to attend tutoring schools. And there is a rumor that “Slit-Mouthed Woman” was born as an excuse for poor mothers to scare their primary school children from going out alone to make them give up on begging to go to tutoring school.

Then, children attending tutoring schools who heard the rumor at the primary school would tell their classmates about it. Since Japanese tutoring schools bring students from multiple primary schools in different districts, the story spread from one to another and eventually spread throughout Japan.

Another theory is that in the late 1970s, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces deliberately spread rumors in order to conduct an experiment to find out how word of mouth tends to spread. It is also said that the U.S. military and the CIA also participated in this experiment and used the slit-mouthed woman as information.

So the main purpose of the experiment was to send false information from the northern part of Japan and measure the time it took to reach the southern region.

As mentioned above, even the origins of urban legends are vague and unclear, so the mystery only deepens.

Lastly, my favorite Japanese urban legend is that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building transforms into a giant robot to fight during emergencies or invasions from space. I like the ridiculousness of it. Incidentally, the robot is controlled by the city governor at the time. And when a new governor is elected, the control manual is also taken over.

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