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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Researchers from Japan add a new wrinkle to a popular theory and set the stage for the formation of monstrous black holes.

Snapshot of new simulation of supermassive black-hole formation

Image source: Sunmyon Chon/National Institutes Of Natural Sciences, Japan
Surprising Science
  • A new theory takes the direct-collapse theory explaining the creation of supermassive black holes around which galaxies turn ones step further.
  • The advance is made possible by a super-powerful computer, ATERUI II.
  • The new theory is the first that accounts for the likely assortment of heavy elements in early-universe gas clouds.

It seems that pretty much every galaxy we see is spinning around a supermassive black hole. When we say "supermassive," we mean BIG: Each is about 100,000 to tens of billions times the mass of our Sun. Serving as the loci around which our galaxies twirl, they're clearly important to maintaining the universal structures we see. It would be nice to know how they form. We have a pretty good idea how normally-huge-but-not-massive black holes form, but as for the supermassive larger versions, not so much. It's a supermassive missing piece of the universe puzzle.

Now, in research published in Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society, astrophysicists at Tohoku University in Japan reveal that they may have solved the riddle, supported by new computer simulations that show how supermassive black holes come to be.

The direct collapse theories

Glowing gas and dark dust within the Large Magellanic Cloud

Image source: ESA/Hubble and NASA

The favored theory about the birth of supermassive black holes up to now has been the "direct-collapse" theory. The theory proposes a solution to a cosmic riddle: Supermassive black holes seem to have been born a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang, not nearly long enough for the standard normal black hole genesis scenario to have played out, and on such a large scale. There are two versions of the direct-collapse theory.

One version proposes that if enough gas comes together in a supermassive gravitationally bound cloud, it can eventually collapse into a black hole, which, thanks the cosmic background-radiation-free nature of the very early universe, could then quickly pull in enough matter to go supermassive in a relatively short period of time.

According to astrophysicist Shantanu Basu of Western University in London, Ontario, this would only have been possible in the first 800 million years or so of the universe. "The black holes are formed over a duration of only about 150 million years and grow rapidly during this time," Basu told Live Science in the summer of 2019. "The ones that form in the early part of the 150-million-year time window can increase their mass by a factor of 10 thousand." Basu was lead author of research published last summer in Astrophysical Journal Letters that presented computer models showing this version of direct-collapse is possible.

Another version of the theory suggests that the giant gas cloud collapses into a supermassive star first, which then collapses into a black hole, which then — presumably again thanks to the state of the early universe — sucks up enough matter to go supermassive quickly.

There's a problem with either direct-collapse theory, however, beyond its relatively narrow time window. Previous models show it working only with pristine gas clouds comprised of hydrogen and helium. Other, heavier elements — carbon and oxygen, for example — break the models, causing the giant gas cloud to break up into smaller gas clouds that eventually form separate stars, end of story. No supermassive black hole, and not even a supermassive star for the second flavor of the direct-collapse theory.

A new model

ATERUI II

Image source: NAOJ

Japan's National Astronomical Observatory has a supercomputer named "ATERUI II" that was commissioned in 2018. The Tohoku University research team, led by postdoctoral fellow Sunmyon Chon, used ATERUI II to run high-resolution, 3D, long-term simulations to verify a new version of the direct-collapse idea that makes sense even with gas clouds containing heavy elements.

Chon and his team propose that, yes, supermassive gas clouds with heavy elements do break up into smaller gas clouds that wind up forming smaller stars. However, they assert that's not the end of the story.

The scientists say that post-explosion, there remains a tremendous inward pull toward the center of the ex-cloud that drags in all those smaller stars, eventually causing them to grow into a single supermassive star, 10,000 times larger than the Sun. This is a star big enough to produce the supermassive black holes we see when it finally collapses in on itself.

"This is the first time that we have shown the formation of such a large black hole precursor in clouds enriched in heavy-elements," says Chon, adding, "We believe that the giant star thus formed will continue to grow and evolve into a giant black hole."

Modeling the behavior of an expanded number of elements within the cloud while faithfully carrying forward those models through the violent breakup of the cloud and its aftermath requires such high computational overhead that only a computer as advanced as ATERUI II could pull off.

Being able to develop a theory that takes into account, for the first time, the likely complexity of early-universe gas clouds makes the Tohoku University idea the most complete, plausible explanation of the universe's mysterious supermassive black holes. Kazuyuki Omukai, also of Tohoku University says, "Our new model is able to explain the origin of more black holes than the previous studies, and this result leads to a unified understanding of the origin of supermassive black holes."

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