Throughout the West, it’s that spooky time again, but Japan’s ghosts and monsters don’t creep out just around October. There are hundreds, if not thousands of yōkai— supernatural creatures—that co-exist with humans throughout the year.
Among the plethora of blood-curdling figures and entities that plague this island nation, it’s the ladies that remain some of the most frightening. So, in honor of these frightening females and Halloween, let’s see if we’re brave enough to handle the top 4.
Nikusui 肉吸い “meat sucker”
Similar to a vampire, Nikusui is a femme-fatal with the appearance of a voluptuous young woman who, after getting close enough to her victim, will literally such the flesh from their bones. They are known for targeting men walking the mountain roads of the Mie and Wakayama Prefectures late at night.
According to famed author and Wakayama local, Minakata Kumagusu, Nikusui’s modus apparatus is to flirtatiously approach a traveling passerby and steal his lantern, asking “Can I borrow your lamp?”, after which she bites into his flesh, draining it dry. In other versions, like in the 1785 monster compilation Hyakkiyakou – Bakemonogatari, Nikusui are also fond of cuddling up in bed with indoors and absorbing his spirit.
Interestingly enough, nikusui is also the name of renowned Osaka-based dish that is essentially “meat udon without the udon”. This sounds much better than the meat-sucking monster it shares a homonym with. Should you be on the road late at night, don’t forget to carry more than one source of light with you, or suffer the horrible fate of this carnivorous creature.
Kuchisake Onna 口裂け女 “slit-mouth woman”
Even if you don’t know by name, you’ve probably seen this disturbing yōkai before. Kuchisake Onna, a beautiful young woman in a face mask, approaches children coming home from school and, after asking them the tell-tale question “Do I look pretty?”, the mask comes off to reveal a gruesome ear-to-ear gash in her mouth. If the answer is anything but “yes”, she slashes the child in the face with a knife or scissors. Eesh!
If this monster sounds especially cruel, that’s because Kuchisake Onna is an onryō, a spirit of the dead who died in a violent manner, or was murdered in their previous life. A few origin stories exist that shed light on her existence, especially in Gifu Prefecture, where the rumors were started. Some say she is the victim who underwent botched plastic surgery, and others say it’s the ghost of a poor soul who died in a bus crash in 1968. In fact, during the 60s and 70s, Kuchisake sightings were so prevalent throughout towns in Saitama, Hokkaido, Fukushima and Kanagawa, that it whipped the citizens into a state of panic.
Despite her wrathful nature, there are a few ways to get out of Kushisake Onna’s clutches. When posed with the “pretty” question, don’t panic (easier said that done!) and use the answers: “You look normal”, which will confuse her; “You look cute”, which will make her blush; or “You look beautiful outside and inside”; which will make her content. If you find you’re too scared to speak, simply toss her some Tortoiseshell candy, which is now considered the best option. Make sure to stock up this Halloween!
Futakuchi-onna 二口女 “two-mouth woman”
What is it with these monster girls and their scary mouths? While not as malicious as Kushisake Onna, the sight of Futakuchi-onna’s long hair feeding rice balls to the second mouth in the back of her head is just as upsetting. This duplicitously unobtrusive creature was first seen in the 1841 yōkai compendium “Ehon Hyaku Monogatari”, but, while the Monogatari version has a somewhat moral lesson to be learned, the tale of a woman with two mouths is much older and sinister.
Throughout Japan, the well-known story of The Woman Who Doesn’t Eat (Kuwazu Nyobou) has different variations, but they all revolve around the same yōkai. A peasant man marries a supposedly austere hardworking woman who, while spying on her one day, discovers that she’s been stealing food and feeding it to the black hole that lives in the back of her head. In classic folktale style (mukashi banashi), the man barely escapes, but not without a terrifying near death experience.
Futakuchi’s harrowing story is so popular that elements from it can annually be seen in Japanese culture. In the tale, the man evades his monster wife on May 5th by hiding in a swamp filled with irises, which also happen to be the Achilles’ Heel of Futakachi. To this day, many people still decorate their eaves with iris leaves to ward off evil spirits during the May holiday.
Nukekubi 抜け首 “missing head”
One of the most iconic images of creepy ladies in yōkai lore is Rokurokubi (ろくろ首), with her characteristic neck stretching far its her body, but in reality, she’s bears you no ill-will. However, her malevolent sister, Nukekubi, is one to be wary of. Not only does her neck extend from its base, but the head comes completely off in search of unsuspecting victims, human and animal.
To some, including references in the Sorori Monogatari, a decapitated head is the result of a soul leaving the body. Elsewhere, in the Shokoku Hyakumonogatari, a man brings home the detached head of a woman and later, the same woman confessed her supposed sins and then later passed away. It can be deduced then that some tales of Nukekubi have a basis in ethics, as they were used as cautionary tales to those who lead double lives.
Regardless of why the head detaches, Nukekubi are still considered extremely dangerous, but can be defeated logically. Once you witness the monster’s head detach completely from the body, one should hide the body safely out of site. Without a home to return to, the head will lash out at the one responsible and eventually wither until death.
And there you have it! Yōkai come in all shapes and forms, so be sure to keep your wits about you when you’re out and about after hours, or else she might get you. Happy Halloween!
Joshua first came to Japan with his family over 10 years ago and it completely ruined his life (in the best of ways). When he’s not trying to pass the JLPT, he’s researching Japanese history, enjoying 80s J-Pop and dreaming of 牛丼. He’s currently writing, writing, writing…mostly about Japan and video games.