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Don’t fall for Japan’s urban legends

The vengeful spirit in Ringu is just one cinematic variation on Japanese legend
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Japanese Urban Legends

What it’s about: As with most countries, Japan has its share of urban legends. However, while American legends tend to be focused on bizarre crimes and unlikely acts of generosity on the part of Bill Gates, Japanese legends tend toward the supernatural, as they often involve curses or vengeful spirits. Rest easy, however, as they’re merely legends… or are they?!

The recovered statue, back and out for revenge!

Strangest fact: The Norm MacDonald casting fiasco isn’t the worst thing to happen to Colonel Sanders. Many Japanese baseball fans believe in the Curse Of The Colonel, which afflicts the Hanshin Tigers, and supposedly cost them a title. In 1985, the Tigers reached the Japan Championship Series for the first time. Upon winning the first game, fans celebrated by throwing a statue of KFC’s mascot—which is a thing that existed for some reason—into the Dōtonbori river. Following the incident, the team lost all of their remaining series games. When the team returned to the Japan Series in 2003, many KFC outlets moved their Colonel Sanders statues inside to protect them from Tigers fans.

Fans believed the Tigers would never again win the series until the original statue was recovered. Which it was in 2009, by divers who originally thought they had found a dead body. Unfortunately, the statue was in pieces, broken in half, and missing its glasses and left hand, so the curse lives on.

The Shirokiya fire

Biggest controversy: In December 1932, a fire tore through the Shirokiya Department Store, in Tokyo, killing 14 people. Many sales clerks were forced to the roof. According to legend, some women refused to jump from the roof out of modesty, as it was traditional to wear a kimono without underwear, and they died rather than give onlookers on the ground a glimpse. As a result, that store and others ordered women to wear panties, and the Western trend spread.

It’s unlikely any of that is true, apart from the fire itself. Many people jumped to safety from the roof, and many more climbed rope ladders made from clothing or curtains. Most of the people who died probably were trapped inside the building itself. Western-style panties did become popular in Japan some time after the fire, but there’s no evidence the two things are connected. The urban legend most likely spread because it reinforced Western stereotypes about extremely reserved Japanese women, and was impossible to completely disprove.

As with Harry Potter, there’s just something cinematic about a haunted toilet.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Harry Potter fans will be glad to find out there’s a Japanese Moaning Myrtle. Toire No Hanako-san (Hanako Of The Toilet) is a ghost that haunts elementary-school girls’ bathrooms. She is supposedly the spirit of a student who committed suicide after being bullied. Unlike most of the spirits on this list, she doesn’t murder anyone, just scares them. Although one would think she would appear just to scare bullies, she appears to choose her victims at random.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Meeting a vengeful spirit tends to be a no-win situation. If you’re in a bathroom stall, and Aka Manto (Red Cape) is in the next stall, he’ll ask you if you want red paper or blue. If you answer red, you’re killed and drenched in blood. If you say blue, you’re strangled to death and turn blue. If you answer any other color, Aka Manto will drag you into the fires of hell. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


Likewise, there are legends of children walking alone at night encountering Kuchisake-onna (Slit-mouthed Woman). She appears as a woman wearing a surgical mask, asking, “Am I beautiful?” If the child says no, she stabs them to death with a pair of scissors. If the answer is “yes,” she removes her mask to reveal her mouth has been slit open from ear to ear. She repeats the question, but will kill the victim no matter what answer they give. Rumor has it you can buy enough time to escape by throwing candy at her. Alternately, you can turn the question back on her, which will confuse her. Wikipedia also suggests you tell her you have to meet with your spouse, which is odd since she only haunts children.

Also noteworthy: Stories have real power in Japan. Gozu (Cow Head or Ox Head) is an urban legend about a scary story so terrifying, that anyone who hears it will tremble violently for days and then die of fright. It’s not clear how the story gets retold, since even the teller dies of fright afterward.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Before there were Japanese urban legends, there was Japanese folklore. There’s a long tradition of not-terribly-factual accounts of ghosts, demons, and monsters spreading terror. Yōkai are ghosts who can be dangerous or merely mischevous. Onryō are more dangerous, as they’re spirits who visit the world of the living to exact vengeance. Yūrei are similar to Western-style ghosts who haunt the earth because they can’t yet find peace in the next world. Kami, Shinto animal spirits, probably don’t belong on an urban legends page.

Further Down the Wormhole: Many other countries—possibly all other countries—have their own urban legends. Nearly all of them turn out to be hoaxes. But some hoaxes are fascinating, like the case of John Titor, who claimed to have traveled to the year 2000 from 2036, with a dire warning for America’s future. We’ll see which of his predictions have come to pass… in the future! (One week in the future, to be precise.)


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