9 weird and terrifying monsters from Japanese mythology

From animated umbrellas to polite-but-violent turtle-people, Japan's folklore contains some extremely creative monsters.

Wikimedia Commons
  • Compared to Japan's menagerie of creatures, Western folklore can feel a little drab.
  • The collection of yōkai—supernatural beasts or spirits—has a staggering amount of variety.
  • Although there are many more creative folkloric creatures, here are nine that caught our attention.

Like any culture, Japan has its fair share of folkloric creatures. But to Westerners, whose folklore tends to recycle the same variations on witches, goblins, orcs, and dragons, Japan's bestiary of creatures can be staggeringly varied. Out of the hundreds of yōkai—or supernatural beings—here's just nine of the strangest.

1. Tanuki

Tanuki

A bake-danuki uses it's, um, special skill set to fashion a boat.

Kazusa-ya Iwazô, 1842

Starting the list off strong are the tanuki, or raccoon dogs. Tanuki are real animals native to Japan that look, as their name would suggest, like a cross between a raccoon and a dog. But the folkloric version of tanukis, bake-danuki, are much more mischievous and powerful. If you have ever been or go to Japan, you have or will undoubtedly run across statues of wall-eyed, chubby, friendly-looking creatures.

These are tanuki, but they're a much more modern, friendly reincarnation. Tanuki in the past were tricksters who possessed the ability to shapeshift and stretch their massive scrotums (yes, really). Depictions of tanuki show them using their scrotums for anything from makeshift watercraft to making giant, comical faces.

2. Jorogumo

Jorogumo

Wikimedia Commons

A decidedly less delightful yōkai is the jorogumo. When an orb-weaver spider turns 400 years old, it grows horrifically large and becomes capable of transforming into a beautiful woman to lure men to later eat. Since the jorogumo's origin story involves real spiders, the word is also used to refer to several species of spiders, who, if they could live to be 400 years old, would ostensibly become this unpleasant creature.

3. Kappa

Kappa

Wikimedia Commons

Humanoid reptiles named kappa are said to inhabit Japan's ponds and rivers. They are short and scaly, have beaks for mouths, and have a bowl on top of their heads that contains water. If a kappa's bowl is emptied on dry land somehow, they're said to lose their magical powers. Although they're generally malevolent, kappa are supposed to be very polite. If a passer-by bows to them, they'll have to bow back, losing the water in their bowls. If that passer-by refills the bowl, they'll have made a friend and ally for life.

Kappa drown children, drink their victim's blood, or sexually assault woman, but they also have three obsessions. The first are cucumbers, which they apparently can't resist. The second is sumo wrestling. And the third is obtaining shirikodama, jewels that contain the soul, located—where else?—in people's anuses.

4. Kamaitachi

Kamaitachi

Wikimedia Commons

The kamaitachi are weasels with sickle-like nails on their paws. When they attack people, they ride on whirlwinds, knocking their victims down before giving them a quick slash on their ankles or calves. Allegedly, the creatures' sickles contain a kind of medicine that stops the wound from bleeding or hurting, which is at least the polite thing to do after knocking somebody down and cutting them up. The pain is said to set in later, however, after the numbing medicine has worn off. For some unknown reason, only men get attacked by kamaitachi.

5. Nuribotoke

Nuribotoke

Brigham Young University via Wikimedia Commons

The word nuribotoke means 'lacquered Buddha' or 'painted Buddha' due to the creature's black skin and minor resemblance to the Buddha, mainly because of its large stomach. Their eyeballs dangle out of their sockets, and they have a long tail that resembles a catfish's tail. They also stink.

Japanese homes and temples often contain a Buddhist shrine called a butsudan, a kind of ornate cabinet containing a small shrine within. Butsudans stay open during the day but are closed at night since it's believed that spirits can use it to enter the material world. When a butsudan is poorly maintained or left open at night, nuribotokes can enter homes, sometimes appearing as Buddhas who give false prophecies or dance around at night.

6. Tsukumogami

Tsukumogami

A lantern that's become a tsukumogami.

Wikimedia Commons

Tsukumogami is an umbrella term for tools or household objects that, after their 100th "birthday," gain a soul. Generally, they're depicted as friendly, but tools that were thrown away or misused are thought to become vengeful toward their previous owners. You could have a possessed futon (with the delightful name of a boroboroton), lantern (chōchin-obake), umbrella (kasa-obake), or any number of items.

7. Nuppeppo

Nuppeppo

Wikimedia Commons

The word nupperi is a slang term used to refer to a woman who applies too much makeup, which is the likely origin for this creature's name. Nuppeppo are blob-like creatures with the suggestion of a face beneath their amorphous fat. Folklore describes them as being mostly harmless aside from their disgusting odor, which smells like rotting flesh. Generally, they appear at night near graveyards and temples. Some sources say that if a human can catch the quick-moving creature, kill it, and manage to eat the nuppeppo's disgusting flesh, they might gain eternal youth or cure a serious disease.

8. Ashinaga-tenaga

Ashinagatenaga

Wikimedia Commons

These are actually a pair of yōkai: ashinaga ("long legs") and tenaga ("long arms"). As their names would suggest, these creatures resemble men with either long legs or long arms. The pair work together to catch fish: ashinaga wades into deep waters, and tenaga uses his long arms to catch the fish below.

9. Futakuchi-onna

Futakuchi-onna

Wikimedia Commons

Futakuchi-onna appear as regular woman, although they have a concealed mouth on the back of their heads. The futakuchi-onna uses her hair, which act as tentacles, to grab nearby food and feed her second mouth. In most folkloric tales, the futakuchi-onna was the wife of a miser who rarely supplied her with food. Eventually, the wife sprouted a second mouth that demanded food, spitting obscenities and screaming otherwise, thereby transforming into a futakuchi-onna.

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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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