Tag: ‘Urban legend’

Okiku doll

28 Apr 2010

A mysterious doll possessed by the spirit of a child has captured the curiosity of people across Japan for decades. The legendary Okiku doll, named after the girl who long ago used to play with it, is a 40-centimeter (16-in) tall kimono-clad figure with beady black eyes -- and hair that grows.

Okiku doll --
Okiku doll illustration by Shohei Otomo

The Okiku doll has resided at the Mannenji temple in the town of Iwamizawa (Hokkaido prefecture) since 1938. According to the temple, the traditional doll initially had short cropped hair, but over time it has grown to about 25 centimeters (10 in) long, down to the doll's knees. Although the hair is periodically trimmed, it reportedly keeps growing back.

It is said that the doll was originally purchased in 1918 by a 17-year-old boy named Eikichi Suzuki while visiting Sapporo for a marine exhibition. He bought the doll on Tanuki-koji -- Sapporo's famous shopping street -- as a souvenir for his 2-year-old sister, Okiku. The young girl loved the doll and played with it every day, but the following year, she died suddenly of a cold. The family placed the doll in the household altar and prayed to it every day in memory of Okiku.

Some time later, they noticed the hair had started to grow. This was seen as a sign that the girl's restless spirit had taken refuge in the doll.

Okiku doll -- Okiku doll --
Okiku doll at Mannenji temple [via]

In 1938, the Suzuki family moved to Sakhalin, and they placed the doll in the care of Mannenji temple, where it has remained ever since.

Nobody has ever been able to fully explain why the doll's hair continues to grow. However, one scientific examination of the doll supposedly concluded that the hair is indeed that of a young child.

[Note: This is the last in a series of weekly posts on mysteries and urban legends from Japan.]

Is the legendary Lost Ark buried in Japan?

21 Apr 2010

The fabled lost Ark of the Covenant -- described in the Bible as the sacred container of the Ten Commandments -- lies buried near the top of Mt. Tsurugi on the Japanese island of Shikoku, according to local legend.

Ark of the Covenant in Japan --

The Ark, which was built according to instructions given by God to Moses in a prophetic vision on Mt. Sinai, is sacred to Jews and Christians alike and is said to possess great supernatural powers.

Many people also know it from the 1981 action film "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark," which follows the adventures of archeologist Indiana Jones as he thwarts Nazi efforts to obtain the Ark and harness its powers for evil.

Raiders of the Lost Ark --
Scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

But what really happened to the Ark? According to the biblical book of Kings, King Solomon -- a King of Israel -- built a large temple in Jerusalem to house the sacred object, and it was kept there during his reign (970-930 BC) and beyond. Centuries later, in 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Some historians suggest the Ark was probably carted off by the Babylonians or perhaps destroyed in battle, but nobody knows for sure. Its fate remains one of the world's great unsolved mysteries.

Since its disappearance, various groups around the world claim to have discovered or obtained possession of the Ark. The list of locations includes Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia, southern Africa, France, UK, Ireland -- and Japan.

Mt. Tsurugi --
Did a lost tribe of Israel carry the fabled Ark to Mt. Tsurugi?

In Japan, the rumored site of the legendary lost Ark is at Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima prefecture. At 1,955 meters (6,413 ft), the mountain -- known locally as "Ken-zan" -- is the highest on Shikoku and the second highest in western Japan. Mt. Tsurugi is listed as one of Japan's 100 famous mountains and is considered the most sacred peak on Shikoku. It is also regarded as one of the centers of Shugendo, an ancient ascetic religion that incorporates elements of Shintoism and Buddhism.

Tsurugi Jinja atop Mt. Tsurugi --
Tsurugi Jinja, a tiny shrine atop Mt. Tsurugi

Speculation surrounding the lost Ark at Mt. Tsurugi can be traced back to the work of Masanori Takane (1883-1959), a literary scholar with a deep interest in kotodama (lit. "word spirit") -- a Japanese belief that words and names hold mystical powers. Through his kotodama research, which involved the study of ancient history, philosophy, theology and cosmology, Takane came across a number of uncanny parallels between the Bible and the Kojiki ("Record of Ancient Matters"), an 8th-century collection of myths concerning the origin of the Japanese islands and Shinto kami (spirits).

In addition to suggesting possible links between the Bible and the origins of Shinto, Takane's research points to the Japanese island of Shikoku as the crucial bridge between the two. The Book of Revelation (7:1), for example, describes John's vision of "four angels standing at the four corners of the earth." Takane interpreted this as a reference to Shikoku (whose name literally means "four countries"), which is described in the Kojiki as having "four faces." After an exhaustive study of Shikoku's geography, climate, local names and folklore, Takane concluded that the lost Ark of the Covenant was buried near the peak of Mt. Tsurugi.

Here is a look inside a cave at Mt. Tsurugi, which may or may not be connected to a larger underground structure containing the lost Ark of the Covenant.

+ Video

In 1936, Takane assembled a team of archeologists and began an excavation at Mt. Tsurugi. Over the next three years, they dug up an area measuring about 150 meters (500 ft) long and found stone artifacts, paving stones, a brick arch, and evidence of tunnels. The discoveries helped lend credibility to Takane's theory that ancient people modified the peak of Mt. Tsurugi in order to hide the treasure.

Takane and others conducted excavations on Mt. Tsurugi for the next 20 years. In 1952, a former naval admiral named Eisuke Yamamoto attracted national attention when his excavation team found what appeared to be badly decomposed mummies and evidence of marble corridors. Soon after the discovery, however, both Takane and Yamamoto mysteriously stopped searching for the lost Ark at Mt. Tsurugi.

Another treasure hunter named Yoshun Miyanaka began an excavation in 1956, but the effort was short-lived. In 1964, the Japanese government established the Tsurugi-san Quasi-National Park, a 210-square-kilometer (81 sq mi) nature preserve encompassing Mt. Tsurugi and the surrounding area. Excavations on the mountain were banned for environmental reasons.

The lost Ark of the Covenant was never found at Mt. Tsurugi, but the legend lives on.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on mysteries and urban legends from Japan.]

Hanako-san, terror of the toilet

14 Apr 2010

Hanako-san -- a spooky young girl that haunts school restrooms across Japan -- has in recent decades become one of the nation's most famous ghosts.

Toire no Hanako-san -- Toire no Hanako-san --

It is not uncommon for schools to have a toilet permanently occupied by the mysterious girl, who is known in Japanese as Toire no Hanako-san (lit. "Hanako of the toilet"). She is often found in the third stall in the restroom on the third floor -- usually the girls' room -- but this can vary from school to school. Details about her physical appearance also vary, but she is usually described as having bobbed hair and wearing a red skirt.

Hanako-san's behavior also varies according to location, but in most cases, she remains holed up in the bathroom until an adventurous student dares to provoke her. Hanako-san can be conjured up by knocking on the door to her stall (usually three times), calling her name, and asking a particular question. The most common question is simply "Are you there, Hanako-san?" If Hanako-san is indeed present, she says in a faint voice, "Yes, I'm here." Some stories claim that anyone courageous enough to open the door at this point is greeted by a little girl in a red skirt and then pulled into the toilet.

Hanako --
Toire no Hanako-san, by Digital Dolls

Details about Hanako-san's origins are murky. Although she became a national phenomenon in the 1980s, there is speculation that she has existed since the 1950s. Some stories claim she is the ghost of a WWII-era girl who died in a bombing raid on the school while she was playing hide-and-seek. Other stories claim she is the restless spirit of a young girl who met her end at the hands of an abusive or deranged parent (or a perverted stranger, according to some stories) who found her hiding in the bathroom. In some cases, she is the ghost of a former student who died in an unfortunate accident at the school (one story from Fukushima prefecture, for example, claims she is the ghost of a girl who fell out of the library window).

Hanako-san in the toilet --
Hanako-san photo by Sammi Sparke

Countless versions of the Hanako-san legend have emerged over time. Here are a few of the more colorful variations:

- According to one Yamagata prefecture legend, something terrible will happen to you if Hanako-san speaks to you in a nasty voice. Another legend from Yamagata prefecture claims that Hanako-san is actually a 3-meter-long, 3-headed lizard that uses a little girl's voice to attract prey.

- At a school in the town of Kurosawajiri (Iwate prefecture), it is said that a large, white hand emerges from a hole in the floor of the third bathroom stall if you say "third Hanako-san" (sanbanme no Hanako-san).

- In the boys' room at a school in Yokohama (Kanagawa prefecture), it is said that a bloody hand emerges from the toilet (presumably an old-fashioned squatter) if you walk around it three times while calling Hanako-san's name.

- Stories have also circulated about a so-called "Hanako fungus" that can infect anyone who scrapes their knee on the playground. The infection reportedly causes tiny mushrooms to sprout from the scab.

Hanako --
Toire no Hanako-san, by HAL-2oo6

For the most part, Hanako-san is harmless and can be avoided simply by staying away from her designated hiding spot. But if you ever need to get rid of her, try showing her a graded exam with a perfect score. Some legends claim that the sight of good grades makes her vanish into thin air.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends.]

‘Kaikidan Ekotoba’ monster scroll

07 Apr 2010

Here is a look at the Kaikidan Ekotoba, a mysterious handscroll that profiles 33 legendary monsters and human oddities, mostly from the Kyushu region of Japan (with several from overseas). The cartoonish document, whose author is unknown, is believed to date from the mid-19th century. It is now in the possession of the Fukuoka City Museum.

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
White monster/Bird-dog hybrid [+]

The black creature on the right was born by a dog that mated with a bird in the city of Fukuoka in the early 1740s. Next to the bird-dog hybrid is an amorphous white monster -- also encountered in Fukuoka -- which is said to have measured about 180 centimeters (6 ft) across. People at the time believed this creature was a raccoon dog that had shape-shifted.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Old woman at the temple [+]

This illustration depicts a ghostly old woman known to appear late at night in a certain guest room at a temple in the Kaho area of Fukuoka prefecture. On multiple occasions, terrified lodgers ended up fatally wounding themselves after trying to strike her with a sword.

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Kaikidan Ekotoba mystery monster scroll --
Russian fireball [+]

During heavy winds, this Russian hitodama (a fiery apparition composed of spirits of the recently departed) could be heard to say, "Oroshiya, oroshiya" ("Let me down"). There is some speculation that the author dreamed up the creature based on a play on words, as "oroshiya" sounds like the old Japanese pronunciation of "Russia."

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Kaikidan Ekotoba mystery monster scroll --
Tiger meow-meow [+]

This illustration depicts a Zenshu priest who was transformed by greed into a strange feline creature with three toes on each paw and the forked tail of a nekomata.

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Kaikidan Ekotoba scroll of horrors --
Toad from the sea near Pusan [+]

The illustration shows a fearsome horned toad said to inhabit the sea near Pusan, Korea.

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Kaikidan Ekotoba scroll of horrors --
Chinese sneezer [+]

This creature resembles a half-naked, cold-ridden Chinese man and is thought to be a caricature of China, which had fallen prey to Western colonial powers.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Man with oversized testicles [+]

Long ago, a man with massive testicles reportedly made a living as a sideshow attraction at Mt. Satta, on the old Tokaido Road near the city of Shizuoka. His scrotum is said to have measured about a meter across.

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Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Wild woman [+]

The "wild woman" shown here appears to be an aquatic humanoid with scaly skin, webbed hands and feet (each with three fingers and toes), long black hair, and a large red mouth. People claim to have encountered the creature in the 1750s in mountain streams in the Asakura area of Fukuoka prefecture.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Ox woman [+]

The "ox woman" pictured here was sideshow attraction at Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine (Fukuoka prefecture) in the mid-18th century. The armless lady entertained audiences by using her peculiar feet to run string through the center holes of coins.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Man with snakes in his legs [+]

The illustration shows a middle-aged traveling monk from Nagano prefecture who would bathe in hot springs without removing his leggings. If anyone asked him why he did not fully undress before entering the water, he would show them the holes in his shins, which contained snakes. The man was born with snakes in his legs as punishment for misdeeds in a previous life.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Bizarre creature at Kanezaki Inlet [+]

Many Edo-period scrolls featured illustrations of unfamiliar creatures -- animals that actually existed but were rarely seen in Japan (such as fur seals and sea lions), along with creatures generally regarded as imaginary (mermaids and kappa). This illustration shows a 3-meter-long seal that was captured in the early 19th century at Kanezaki Inlet.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Giant red fish [+]

This illustration depicts a giant red fish encountered by a shark fisherman in northern Japan. The head of the angry fish is said to have measured about 2 meters across.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Tiger meow-meow [+]

Much like the money-hungry priest described above, the people shown here have been transformed by greed into bizarre cat creatures.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Ezo wolf [+]

This illustration shows an Ezo Wolf (a.k.a. Hokkaido Wolf), which is believed to have gone extinct in the late 19th century (after this illustration was made). The animal is seen here with its paw on a human skull.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Korean monk [+]

The "Korean monk" in this illustration, seen singing and playing a gekkin (moon guitar), has the physical characteristics of a kappa (water imp).

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Lantern man [+]

In the early decades of the 18th century, a man with a malleable head made a living as a popular sideshow attraction. It is said that he could collapse his head like a traditional paper lantern.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Ghost of woman with child [+]

This illustration shows the ghost of a woman from the Asakura area of Fukuoka prefecture, who died during a difficult childbirth.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Nekomata [+]

The nekomata is a cat monster with a forked tail and a taste for human flesh. The creature's powers include the ability to talk, walk on hind legs, shape-shift, fly, and even resurrect the dead. The nekomata pictured here was encountered in the Nasuno area of Tochigi prefecture.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Kawataro [+]

The kawataro is a variety of kappa (water imp) which, according to the accompanying text, likes to eat people and practice sumo. An indentation on top of the creature's head is filled with water. The kawataro becomes weak when the water spills out.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Monster hole [+]

This illustration shows a monster cave believed to exist deep in the mountains of Kumamoto prefecture. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary cave. But as you approach the entrance, the eyes and teeth become visible.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Snake woman [+]

The snake woman pictured here was reportedly encountered by six people on Mt. Mikasa in Nara prefecture. Five of the eyewitnesses died instantly. The sixth person survived long enough to make it home and tell the tale, but he grew ill and died three days later. The snake-bodied woman resembles the notorious nure-onna, except that this one has a beautiful face.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Rokurokubi [+]

This rokurokubi -- a woman with the ability to stretch her neck to extraordinary lengths -- is said to have been encountered by a messenger one night near Ninna-ji temple in Kyoto.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Mikoshi-nyudo [+]

The mikoshi-nyudo pictured here was encountered by a peasant on the road late one night in the Naka area of Fukuoka prefecture.

* * * * *

Kaikidan Ekotoba monster scroll --
Unknown [+]

Although no explanation is given for this creature, it seems to resemble the notorious gagoze, a demon who attacked young priests at Gango-ji temple.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends.]

Cow head

31 Mar 2010

For centuries, rumors have circulated in Japan about a ghost story so horrific that people die of fright soon after hearing it.

Two-headed cow --

The dreadful tale -- known as "Cow Head" -- appears to date back at least to the early 17th century. Several known written accounts from this era make reference to the awful story, but they merely mention its title and describe it as a tale too terrible to tell.

The actual details of the story remain a mystery to this day, because those with the misfortune of knowing it usually do not live long enough to repeat it. According to the rumors, most people who read or hear the story are overcome with a fear so great that they tremble violently for days on end, until they die.

Although most people nowadays regard the tale as a complete fabrication, rumors of its existence have strangely survived, passing from generation to generation by word of mouth. Some theories suggest the rumors gained new life in the 1960s, after science fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu wrote a short story (titled "Cow Head") based on the old tale. There is no hard evidence supporting this claim, though.

In any case, references to the rumored story occasionally pop up in conversation and online.

One recent account tells of an elementary school teacher who told the "Cow Head" story to his poor students while the class was on a school trip. According to the account, the teacher was entertaining the students on the bus with ghost stories. The students, who tended to become unruly on long trips, grew remarkably subdued as they listened to the teacher speak. Many of them seemed truly frightened by the stories he told.

After some time, the teacher announced he would tell a tale called "Cow Head." Before he could finish the first sentence of the story, however, the children began to panic. "Stop!" they cried. "Don't tell us!" One child turned pale and covered his ears, and the others began to scream. But the teacher did not stop. His eyes went blank and he proceeded with the story as if some unseen force had taken over his mind.

Later, after the teacher regained his senses, he found that the bus had stopped moving. The students had all fainted and were frothing at the mouth. The driver lay slumped over the wheel, sweating and shivering. It is unclear what happened next, except that the teacher never told the story again.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends.]

Human-faced dog

24 Mar 2010

Animals with human-like faces have long been rumored to exist in Japan. In recent decades, countless people have reportedly encountered human-faced dogs (jinmenken) around town and on the highway.

Jinmen-ken, human-faced dog -- Jin-men-ken, human-faced dog --

The modern-day explosion of alleged human-faced dog encounters began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to numerous stories, human-faced dogs are most frequently seen at night, usually by people taking out the trash. At first glance, the creature may look like an ordinary stray dog rummaging through the garbage, but closer inspection reveals a face that looks human.

Many stories claim the human-faced dog speaks when confronted. In a weary voice, it most often says, "Leave me alone."

Dog with human face --
Mutant dog with a human face in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978)

Other human-faced dog encounters allegedly take place on the highway. The creature can reportedly run at speeds of over 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph). It is said that any vehicle passed by a speeding human-faced dog on the highway will have a terrible accident.

Numerous theories claim to explain the origins of the human-faced dog. Some suggest the creatures may be experimental human-animal hybrids that have escaped from a biotech lab. Others claim they are mutants spawned by environmental pollution. And while some people suspect the creatures may be the spirits of people who have died in traffic accidents, others speculate that they are ordinary dogs possessed by the restless ghosts of office workers who have taken their own lives after being laid off (the dogs usually have the face of a middle-aged man).

This video claims to show a human-faced dog filmed outside a housing complex in Kamata, south of Tokyo (the dog's face is said to belong to a missing office worker):

+ Video

Still others believe that human-faced dogs are spiritual beings, and only people with the ability to sense the supernatural can see them. Whatever the explanation, it is probably best to keep away -- it is said that anyone bitten by a human-faced dog will turn into one.

The oldest known stories of human-faced dogs in Japan can be traced at least as far back as the Edo period (1603 to 1868). According to the Gaidan Bunbun Shuyo -- a book by 19th-century historian Ishizuka Hokaishi that chronicles events from 1804 to 1830 -- a human-faced dog was born in the Tado-machi area of Edo (present-day Tokyo) in June 1810. After learning of the strange creature, a carnival sideshow manager acquired it and featured it in his show, where it proved to be a popular attraction.

Jinmenken, human-faced dog -- Jinmen-ken, dog with human face -- Left: Illustration from "Gaidan Bunbun Shuyo" shows people looking at a human-faced dog (1810)

In those days, a superstition claimed that syphilis patients could cure themselves by fornicating with canines. This human-faced dog was rumored to be the offspring of such a union.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends.]

Human pillars

17 Mar 2010

Tales of "human pillars" (hitobashira) -- people who were deliberately buried alive inside large-scale construction projects -- have circulated in Japan since ancient times. Most often associated with castles, levees and bridges, these old legends are based on ancient beliefs that a more stable and durable structure could be achieved by sealing people inside the walls or foundation as an offering to the gods.

Matsue castle --
Was a young woman buried alive inside the wall of Matsue castle long ago?

One of the most famous tales of construction-related human sacrifice is associated with Matsue castle (Shimane prefecture), which was originally built in the 17th century. According to local legend, the stone wall of the central tower collapsed on multiple occasions during construction. Convinced that a human pillar would stabilize the structure, the builders decided to look for a suitable person at the local Bon festival. From the crowd, they selected a beautiful young maiden who demonstrated superb Bon dancing skills. After whisking her away from the festival and sealing her in the wall, the builders were able to complete the castle without incident.

However, the maiden's restless spirit came to haunt the castle after it was completed. According to folklorist Lafcadio Hearn, who described the castle's curse in his 1894 work "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan," the entire structure would shake anytime a girl danced in the streets of Matsue, so a law had to be passed to prohibit public dancing.

Although there is no conclusive evidence indicating that construction-related human sacrifice was actually practiced in Japan, it has been suggested that some laborers may, on occasion, have been terminated as a security measure after working on castles. Doing so would have prevented knowledge of a castle's secrets and weaknesses from falling into enemy hands.

Other notable structures rumored to make use of human pillars include:

- Gujo-Hachiman castle (Gifu prefecture)
- Nagahama castle (Shiga prefecture)
- Maruoka castle (Fukui prefecture)
- Ozu castle (Ehime prefecture)
- Komine castle (Fukushima prefecture)
- Itsukushima shrine (Hiroshima prefecture)
- Fukushima bridge (Tokushima prefecture)
- Kintaikyou bridge (Yamaguchi prefecture)
- Hattori-Oike reservoir (Hiroshima prefecture)
- Imogawa irrigation channel (Nagano prefecture)
- Karigane embankment (Shizuoka prefecture)
- Manda levee (Osaka prefecture)

Modern-day versions of these old legends can also be found on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. Human bones have been found around several bridges and tunnels, lending an air of credibility to rumors that workers were sacrificed during construction.

Jomon tunnel monument --
Monument erected after skeletons were found sealed in the walls of Jomon tunnel

Jomon tunnel, constructed on the Sekihoku Main Line (JR Hokkaido) in 1914, is notorious for rumors of human sacrifice. In 1968, the tunnel underwent repairs after a major earthquake damaged part of the wall inside. While doing the renovations, workers found a number of human skeletons, standing upright, sealed inside the walls. A large quantity of human bones were also unearthed near the tunnel. The discovery fueled beliefs that the tunnel was constructed with human pillars, and many people -- including train conductors -- came to fear that the tunnel was haunted by the ghosts of the victims.

Some theories suggest that brutal working conditions and poor nutrition led many workers -- mainly criminals and debtors working against their will -- to contract beri beri, a deadly nervous system ailment. With no access to medicine, these victims are believed to have been buried alive near the construction site. A monument honoring the fallen workers was erected in 1980.

Jomon tunnel monument --
Were people sealed inside the concrete supports of Koshikawa bridge?

People are also rumored to have been sealed inside the concrete supports of Koshikawa bridge, on the now-defunct Konboku line (also in Hokkaido). While no actual human skeletons have been found, recent surveys have revealed the possible existence of hollow spaces in the structure that may contain human remains. Records indicate that at least 11 indentured workers may have died building the bridge, which was completed in 1939.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends.]

Tokyo terror: Severed samurai head in Otemachi

10 Mar 2010

A severed samurai head buried in central Tokyo has struck fear and awe in the hearts of locals for over 1,000 years.

Taira no Masakado's head --
The head that refused to die

The head -- supposedly buried in the Otemachi district -- belongs to Taira no Masakado, a rebellious warrior who led an insurgency against the central government in the 10th century. At the height of his power, Masakado proclaimed himself emperor -- an act that aroused the wrath of the government and ended in his decapitation. The samurai failed to become ruler of Japan, but his severed head has remained a persistent source of trouble for over 1,000 years.

Here is a brief history of the head.

903 - 940 AD: Taira no Masakado was born and raised in eastern Japan. After leading a minor rebellion and assuming control of eight provinces in northern Kanto, Masakado declared himself the new emperor of Japan. The established emperor, based in Kyoto, responded by putting a bounty on his head. Two months later, Masakado was killed in battle. His decapitated head was transported to Kyoto and put on public display as a warning to other would-be rebels.

Taira no Masakado's head --
Masakado's head on display in Kyoto

Strangely, Masakado's head did not decompose. Three months later, it still looked fresh and alive, though the eyes had grown more fierce and the mouth had twisted into a horrifying grimace. One night, the head began to glow, and it lifted into the air and flew off in the direction of Taira no Masakado's hometown.

The head grew weary on the long flight home, and it came to rest in the village of Shibasaki (present-day Otemachi, Tokyo). The villagers picked up the head, cleaned it, and buried it in a mound at Kanda Myojin shrine.

950: Ten years after the head was laid to rest, the burial mound began to glow and shake violently, and the ghost of a bedraggled samurai started to make regular appearances in the neighborhood. The frightened locals offered special prayers that seemed to put the spirit to rest.

1200~: At the beginning of the 13th century, a temple belonging to the powerful Tendai Buddhist sect was built adjacent to Kanda Myojin shrine. This apparently upset the spirit of Masakado, and the people in the area were stricken by plague and natural calamities as a consequence.

1307: Nearly a century later, a priest from an Amida Buddhist sect -- which took a more liberal, accessible approach to Buddhism than the Tendai sect -- built an invocation hall here and tended the shrine of Masakado, thus easing the spirit's anger.

Taira no Masakado --
Over time, Taira no Masakado came to be regarded as a deity in east Japan

1616: Kanda Myojin shrine, which had elevated Masakado to deity status, was moved to a new site to make room for the mansions of the feudal lords stationed in Edo. The burial mound and headstone were left behind in the garden of one of the mansions.

1869: After the fall of the feudal system, the Meiji government constructed their Finance Ministry building next to the burial site. The mound and headstone were left untouched.

1874: The government issued a formal declaration condemning Masakado as having been an "enemy of the emperor." His deity status at Kanda Myojin shrine was revoked.

1923: The Great Kanto Earthquake and the ensuing fires all but destroyed the mound and stone monument. The Finance Ministry building burned to the ground. Before rebuilding, the ministry excavated the grave site in search of the skull, but found nothing. They decided to erect a temporary building on the premises.

1926: Building over the burial site turned out to be a terrible decision. Finance minister Seiji Hayami died suddenly of illness, and 13 other ministry officials met similar fates over the next two years. Many workers became ill or were injured in mysterious accidents on the premises. People believed that Taira no Masakado had cursed the new building.

1928: The ministry removed part of the structure covering the burial site and began holding annual purification rituals. At first there was great enthusiasm for the rituals, but interest faded over the years.

Taira no Masakado's head --
Masakado's head takes to the skies

1940: A fire sparked by lightning burned down the Finance Ministry building and several other government offices in the Otemachi district. The day was remembered as being exactly 1,000 years after the death of Taira no Masakado. The old earthquake-damaged stone monument was rebuilt, and the site was rededicated to the samurai rebel. The Finance Ministry moved, and the land around the burial site became the property of the Tokyo municipal government.

1945: After World War II, US occupation forces seized control of the property and began to clear the land to create a parking lot. Progress was hindered by a series of suspicious accidents. In one accident, a worker died next to the grave when the bulldozer he was driving flipped over. After local officials explained the significance of the burial site to the US forces, they decided to leave part of the parking lot unfinished.

1961: Control of the property was handed back to Japan, and the parking lot was removed. Purification rituals were conducted, and the burial site was once more dedicated to Taira no Masakado. But when new buildings were constructed next to the burial mound, workers again fell ill. A figure with disheveled hair reportedly began to appear in photographs taken in the area. In an attempt to calm the spirit, representatives from local businesses started to pray at the burial site on the 1st and 15th of each month.

Taira no Masakado's tomb --
The final resting place of Masakado's head - Google Street View // Google Maps

1984: In response to public pressure following the broadcast of an NHK television drama based on the life of Taira no Masakado, his deity status at Kanda Myojin shrine was reinstated.

1987: A string of freak accidents and injuries occurred during the filming of Teito Monogatari ("Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis"), a historical fantasy whose villain seeks to destroy Tokyo by awakening Masakado's spirit (watch the movie trailer). To prevent accidents on the set, it is now common practice for TV and movie producers to pay their respects at the burial site before bringing Taira no Masakado to the screen.

In the more than 1,000 years since Masakado's head fell from the sky, Tokyo has grown into the world's largest metropolis and the area around the burial site has become the financial center of Japan. But to this day, local business people remain wary of the power of the head in their midst, and the surrounding companies take great pains to keep Masakado's vengeful spirit in check. Supposedly, no office worker in the vicinity wants to sit with their back toward the burial site, and nobody wants to face it directly.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends. Check back next week for more.]

Cursed Kleenex commercial

03 Mar 2010

An eerie Kleenex commercial featuring a baby red demon sparked a host of rumors and fears after airing on Japanese TV in the mid-1980s. (Watch at your own risk.)

+ Video

After the ad ran, rumors began to circulate about the unfortunate fate of everyone involved. Keiko Matsuzaka, the actress in the commercial, was rumored to have become pregnant with a demon child. Others claim she was institutionalized after suffering a mental breakdown. The young actor who played the red demon is said to have died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. And one by one, the entire production staff either fell ill or suffered unfortunate accidents.

The song in the commercial also gained notoriety. Some viewers thought the lyrics sounded like a German curse, and there were claims that the sound of the music varied according to the time of day. Whenever the commercial aired late at night, the singer's angelic voice would transform into the raspy voice of an old woman, bringing misfortune to all who heard it.

Needless to say, there is no truth to these claims. The producers simply wanted a dreamy fairy tale look for the commercial, and they chose the song "It's A Fine Day" (recorded by Jane) for its cheerful message. The commercial failed to get the desired response.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends. Check back next week for more.]