A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Japanese Yokai (妖怪), or “supernatural aberrations,” are a category of Japanese otherworldly beings that are hard to define.
They could be spirits, demons, animalistic beings, or apparitions. In many cases, they are frightening to behold but ultimately non-malicious. Some, such as the Zashiki Warashi (座敷童子), could even be benevolent to humans under the right circumstances.
On the other hand, the worst of them are utterly dangerous—to be avoided at all costs, for nothing would thrill them more than to kill humans. The following are 15 such malevolent and dangerous Japanese Yokai. No matter where, no matter the year you’re in, pray that you never run into any of these frightening monstrosities.
1. Aka Manto (赤マント)
As a child, were you afraid of public toilets? In school, were you terrified when having to use the bathroom alone?
If so, you’d be aghast by the story of the Aka Manto.
Said to haunt the last cubicle of public or school toilets, the “Red Cape” is an utterly malevolent spirit that forces anyone unfortunate enough to meet it to make a choice. This typically being between a red or blue cape, red or blue toilet paper, or similar.
If you choose red, you’d be slashed till drenched in your own blood. I.E. you turn red.
If you choose blue, you’d be strangled till blue.
Should you try to outsmart it by giving a nonsensical answer, or choosing another color, a variety of other hellish outcomes awaits. Even fleeing is futile, as the Red Cape would typically just block your way.
In other words, death is near certain in an Aka Manto encounter. Incidentally, this nasty creature is one of the newer Japanese Yokai on this list. The product of Japanese urban legends, stories about it supposedly began in the 1930s as schoolyard tales.
2. Amanojaku (天邪鬼)
The Amanojaku is an imp-like Yokai with no notable physical abilities. However, you’d be really foolish to consider it harmless.
In the Japanese language, the word jaku (邪) means “evil.” Though small, the Amanojaku can detect and inflame the darkest desires of humans. Those who fall victim are then goaded into performing gravely evil deeds.
Within the gruesome folktale of Uriko-Hime, a melon-born princess was also killed and flayed by a vile Amanojaku. The evil Yokai then wore the princess’s skin and impersonated her.
Lastly, the dastard creature is said to be based on Ame-no-Sagume, an earthly Shinto goddess that “instigated” heavenly messenger Ame-no-Wakahiko into rebelling. Historians further note that the Yokai has been syncretized into Japanese Buddhism with the Yaksha. In Japanese Buddhism, the Amanojaku represents resistance to righteous teachings.
3. Gashadokuro (餓者髑髏)
Gashadokuro means “starving skeletons” in Japanese. However, they are more accurately, huge skeletons.
Immense, bony monstrosities that are 15 times the size of an average human. Formed from the bones of those who died in battle or famine, they roam the wilderness hunting for victims. At the sight of any, they seize and bite off heads. They then relish in the resulting spray of blood, this being what satiates them most.
Worse, Gashadokuro are said to be indestructible and capable of invisibility. Apart from a strange ringing in the ears as any approaches, a victim has no way of knowing.
In summary, this bloodthirsty Japanese Yokai is easily one of the most powerful and deadliest on this list. One that even the likes of Shuten Dōji (see below) would avoid.
4. Jorōgumo (絡新婦)
Spiders may serve important ecological purposes but in Japanese folktales and mythology, they are typically bad news.
For example, the legendary Heian Era warrior, Minamoto no Yorimitsu, was nearly assassinated by a gigantic tarantula known as the Tsuchigumo (土蜘蛛).
The Jorōgumo is less impressive in size, but equally as murderous. A spider woman of sorts, Izu Province (modern-day Shizuoka Prefecture) folktales tell the frightening story of men being dragged into a waterfall by spider webs and threads. Only one woodcutter ever managed to survive by tangling the webs with a tree stump.
Sendai folktales relate a similar story, although in this province, Jorōgumo are also worshiped for their abilities to prevent water disasters. Lastly, Ukiyo artist Toriyama Sekien famously depicted Jorōgumo as Yokai capable of manipulating fire-breathing spiders. The Sendai folktales also claim that these spider fiends are capable of assuming human appearance, thus making them thrice as dangerous.
5. Jubokko (樹木子)
In the classic horror movie The Evil Dead, a victim was brutally attacked and raped by demonically possessed trees. This sequence itself one of the most notorious scenes of the exploitation horror movie genre.
The Jubokko is similar to such trees, although it doesn’t rape, it simply captures humans and sucks out their blood. Innocuous in appearance, these carnivorous trees grow at battlefields where many had died, nourished by the blood of the deceased. Upon feasting on a human, a Jubokko is rejuvenated. This then paves the way for the next killing.
Interestingly, the branch of a Jubokko is said to be capable of healing humans. They even bleed blood when cut. Whether it’s worth going near a Jubokko, though, depends on how desperate you are to be healed.
6. Kappa (河童)
Because of their rather comical appearances, and how statues of them are sometimes used as tourism mascots, it’s easy to forget that Kappa are dangerous river-dwelling Japanese Yokai you wouldn’t want to cross paths with.
Resembling an anthropomorphic tortoise, and with a distinctive dish-like bald spot on its head that holds water, a Kappa is cantankerous by nature and fond of violently wrestling humans. Worse, some tribes of Kappa, of which there are many, even drag humans into rivers and lakes to drown them. After which they happily feed on the remains.
Fortunately, Kappa aren’t too bright and can be easily dealt with. According to folklore, they are obsessed with cordiality and so if you bow to one, it would certainly bow back; thus spilling the water it holds on its head. This supposedly immobilizes the creature. If you then refill the water, you could even subjugate the creature.
Alternatively, you could just offer cucumbers. Kappa are described as unusually fond of the vegetable. In Edo i.e. historical Tokyo, there was even a custom where people wrote names on cucumbers before tossing them into streams. Doing so supposedly kept the nasty creatures away.
7. Kuchisake Onna (口裂け女)
Similar to the Aka Manto, the “slit-mouthed woman” is a newer Japanese Yokai and the product of urban legends.
Likewise, she also torments her victims with one question. With her lower face concealed by a veil or scarf, she asks, “Am I beautiful?”
Should you say no, she kills you with large scissors to punish you for your insolence.
Should you say yes, she removes her veil and reveals how her mouth had been slit from ear to ear, before repeating her question. Should you still say yes, she slits your mouth till it resembles hers. Should you say no, she kills you by cutting you in half.
According to folklorist Matthew Meyer, stories about the Kuchisake Onna first appeared during the Edo Period. In 1979, newspaper feature of the myth created a panic in Japan too.
With her appearance and tactics horror-movie perfect, the Kuchisake Onna has also been embraced by pop culture. She is mentioned in various Japanese movies and had her own feature film in 2007. Within Japanese video games, she sometimes makes appearances too.
8. Kyōkotsu (狂骨)
The Japanese word for bone is found in this Yokai name. However, Kyōkotsu are utterly unlike the above-mentioned Gashadokuro. Their methods and nature are more chilling.
The vengeful spirits of murder victims whose bodies, or bones, had been thrown into wells, Kyōkotsu curse anyone who disturbs their uneasy rest. In other words, any person who ventures near their resting place is a potential victim
Given their ability to curse, it is reasonable to assume Kyōkotsu are capable of other ghostly horrors too.
The inspiration behind the ghastly story of Okiku, and in extension, The Ring movie franchise, these ghostly Yokai rank among the most fearsome Onryō (怨霊) i.e. Japanese vengeful spirits.
Some traditions and scholars consider such spirits as different from classic Yokai too. For those unlucky enough to encounter a Kyōkotsu, though, any characteristic difference hardly matters. One would be too occupied with fleeing.
9. Nure Onna (濡女)
Described as a monstrous serpent with the head of a woman, the Nure Onna is an aquatic Japanese Yokai that’s sometimes said to be the servant of deadlier sea beings. Its name, which means “drenched woman” is due to its wet, disarrayed hair.
Shimane Prefecture folktales claim that the creature is the servant of Ushi Oni, a spider-like sea Yokai with the head of a bull. It appears to strangers at beaches and hands over a swaddled baby. The baby then transforms into a rock that cannot be discarded, thus immobilizing the victim. An Ushi Oni subsequently appears to eat the victim.
In other versions, the Nure Onna herself takes center stage. In these, she uses the same tactic to immobilize victims, then uses her tongue to drain the victim of blood. Of difference from the Shimane version, though, is that in these versions, the Nure Onna only attacks if the victim abandons the baby. If the victim holds onto the bundle, the serpentine Yokai leaves. What then happens to the baby, or what the baby actually is, is unexplained.
10. Obariyon (おばりよん)
In the Shin Megami Tensei game series, the Obariyon is depicted as an impish, playful-looking creature. If this is the only visualization of the Obariyon you had ever seen, you would be forgiven for assuming this mountain Yokai is harmless.
It is not. A Niigata Yokai, this small creature ambushes travelers by yelling its name and leaping onto their backs. Should a traveler not be able to free himself, the Obariyon becomes increasingly heavy, ultimately crushing the traveler. Worse, it loves to chew the scalps of victims. Presumably, few victims are spared messy deaths.
The above said, many legends also claim you’d be rewarded should you survive an Obariyon encounter. The name itself means “give me a piggyback ride” in Niigata dialect, and should you “dutifully” offer the Yokai such a ride, and survives it, the creature transforms into a sack of gold. Metaphorically, this strange story has been likened to raising a child. In other words, should you survive the ordeal of bringing up a kid, you’d certainly be rewarded, one way or another.
11. Onihitokuchi (鬼一口)
Compared to some of the other Japanese Yokai on this list, the Onihitokuchi is far more straight-forward in purpose and methods.
It’s a one-eyed ogre or demon. It is utterly malicious and loves to eat humans too.
There are few stories associated with it as well. The most notable one, presented in the Ise Monogatari, begins with the story of a poet eloping with a noble lady.
In the middle of their escape, the couple took refuge at a cave, with the poet guarding the entrance while the lady rested within the cave. In the morning, though, the poet found absolutely no trace of his beloved. It is then that he realized his beloved had been eaten by the monster residing in the cave. Supposedly, thunder masked her final screams.
Incidentally, hitokuchi means “one mouth,” or more accurately, “one-bite” or “bite-size” in Japanese. This itself should give you an idea of the size of this dreadful Yokai. As well as how it feasted on the poor noble lady.
12. Shuten Dōji (酒呑童子)
One of the most infamous demons in Japanese folktales, Shuten Dōji was a ferocious, wine-loving ogre who terrorized Heian-kyō (Kyoto) with his nightly rampages. In most versions of the folktale, he also kidnapped young women, for nefarious purposes best left unsaid.
The sorcerer Abe no Seimei managed to divine the location of the demon, following which legendary warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu ventured into the mountains to vanquish the creature. Yorimitsu succeeded in beheading Shuten Dōji, but only after tricking the demon into drinking copious amounts of rice wine. And even in its decapitated form, the head of Shuten Dōji continued to attack Yorimitsu. The warrior wouldn’t have survived the onslaught, had his retainers not piled their helmets on top of his.
Jump forth to modern times, Shuten Dōji frequently appears in Japanese video games, typically as a stronger enemy or end-level boss. Folklorist Kazuhiko Komatsu also considers him as one of the strongest Japanese Yokai in Japanese folktales.
Last but not least, the demon’s name, which roughly translates to “wine-drinking demon,” is nowadays often used to name Japanese drinking establishments such as Izakaya. Manga-styled mascots based on him are also used to decorate signboards and promotional materials for such establishments.
As dangerous as he was, and still would be if alive, Shuten Dōji has found new life as a Japanese F&B icon.
13. Tamamo-no-Mae (玉藻前)
Foxes, known as kitsune (狐) in Japanese, appear in many Japanese mythological stories and folktales.
They are viewed as intelligent and capable of magic. Also, the messengers of Inari, one of the most worshiped Shinto gods. (Inari shrines are full of fox statues)
As shape-shifting tricksters, they are also widely feared. This was especially so during the Edo Period.
In the case of the latter, the most notorious “evil” fox in Japanese folktales is undoubtedly Tamamo-no-Mae. The human form of a nine-tailed vixen, the wicked Yokai masqueraded as a courtesan of Emperor Toba, causing great illness to the ruler.
She was ultimately exposed and vanquished in the plains of Nasu. However, an addendum to the story then claimed that her spirit embedded itself into a stone known as the Sessho-seki. This stone, located in modern-day Tochigi Prefecture, subsequently spewed venomous gas day and night, till exorcised by a Buddhist monk.
The Further Adventures of Daji?
There have long been different stories about an evil vixen spirit Yokai in medieval Japan. The above version is a newer retelling by famed Ukiyo painter, Katsushika Hokusai.
Interestingly, Hokusai’s version also claimed that Tamamo-no-Mae was the same vixen spirit that possessed Daji, the evil concubine responsible for the fall of the Chinese Shang Dynasty in Investiture of the Gods. After defeat in China, the spirit wreaked havoc in India, and China again, before settling in Japan. With there being no historical or folkloric evidence of the existence of Daji, though, it’s likely Hokusai was being creative. The colorful “backstory” was probably for the purpose of emphasizing the utter evilness of Tamamo-no-Mae.
14. Yamauba (山姥)
Yamauba, or “mountain crones,” have starkly different depictions in Japanese folktales.
In some, these mountain Yokai are benevolent. They reward the virtuous and punish the wicked. Some regions of Japan even believe that a house possessed by a Yamauba would be prosperous.
In other stories, these crones are threats to travelers, hunters, and merchants alike. Hideous and unkempt, they attack humans for the purpose of eating them. Some versions even describe the crones as having a monstrous second mouth on top of their heads, hidden beneath their shaggy hair.
Notably, even classic folktales about the mythical Japanese hero, Kintarō, disagree on what or who the Yamauba are. Some versions claim the hero was raised by one. Others state the hero was nearly eaten by one when born.
Regardless of the “truth,” it’s probably not a good idea to want to meet a Yamauba. Wild and savage even when benevolent, these mountain Yokai are best left alone.
15. Yuki Onna (雪女)
The “Snow Woman” is the most normal looking Yokai on this list. That is, if you excuse her snowy-white complexion.
Most famously described in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, stories about this snowy demoness long existed throughout Japan. In practically all versions, she is a great threat to adults and children alike. For example, the folktales of the Iwate region portray her as often freezing humans to death, and eating the livers of children.
In Hearn’s version, a Yuki Onna was likewise murderous, although she spared the protagonist of the story i.e. Minokichi because of his youthful looks. Thereafter, she even masqueraded as a mortal woman and married Minokichi.
However, when Minokichi broke his promise of never revealing his first encounter with her, the Yuki Onna reverted to her true form and proceeded to kill him. Ultimately, though, she spared his life for the sake of their children. This ending then likely contributed to the Yuki Onna being viewed in a more positive light in modern times. Before Hearn’s depiction, the Snow Woman was uniformly depicted as evil. Extremely evil and extremely dangerous.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Scribbling Geek
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on August 20, 2020:
Hey Drew, thanks for commenting. There are actually many more Yokai, some of which some people would consider even deadlier. I mentioned as many as I could.
Althea del Barrio from Manila, Philippines on August 18, 2020:
I know what you mean. The Scary Movie franchise did not help Sadako's reputation. But I still can't watch the Ring movies alone. And if you're somehow cursed, just get rid of your TV. Hahaha!
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on August 17, 2020:
Hey, thanks for commenting.
TBH, I was fascinated by the Snow Woman since young, as I first encountered her in a video game.
As for the Kyokotsu, I admit I wasn't that scared of her, thanks to the jokes back then about pouring all sorts of nonsense down Sadako's Well. Guess I deserve to be cursed, heh? :)
Althea del Barrio from Manila, Philippines on August 17, 2020:
Kyokotsu and Yuki Onna definitely haunted my dreams as a child. I was addicted (ok, still am) to Japanese horror movies. Great article!
Drew Agravante from Philippines, Currently in Qatar on August 13, 2020:
Awesome. I probably read a few of them in some Japanese translated novels. Anyway, in those novels, they only get a brief description. Thanks for the informational piece.
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on August 13, 2020:
Thanks for reading!
There are more nefarious uses for the cucumber, btw. But that's best left unmentioned. :)
Bev G from Wales, UK on August 13, 2020:
Now I need to carry a cucumber at all times!
Highly entertaining and well written article.