Tag: ‘Urban legend’

Urban legends from Meiji-period Japan

24 Feb 2010

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan ended centuries of isolation and entered a period of rapid modernization after opening its doors to the world. The ensuing social and technological changes inspired a number of interesting urban legends.

- Phantom trains

Railroads played a key role in the modernization of Japan. After the first trains started running in 1872, railroads quickly expanded across the country. But as the number of trains increased, so did the frequency of phantom train sightings.

Steam train at Shinagawa --

Most often seen by train conductors working late at night, these phantom trains -- which looked and sounded like ordinary trains -- tended to emerge suddenly from the darkness ahead. Shocked by the sight of an oncoming locomotive, conductors typically reacted by grinding their train to halt. Phantom trains usually vanished just before a collision occurred.

These phantom trains, whose sightings have been documented by scholars such as ethnologist Kunio Yanagita and folklorist Kizen Sasaki, were often thought to be the work of shape-shifting animals such as the kitsune (fox), tanuki (raccoon dog) and mujina (badger), because the carcasses of these animals would often be found near where sightings took place.

According to one old Tokyo tale, a phantom train used to appear frequently on the Jōban line. One night, while passing through Tokyo's Katsushika ward, a conductor spotted the notorious phantom train barreling toward him. Convinced it was nothing more than an illusion, he kept charging ahead without applying the brakes. At the moment of impact, there was a loud shriek as the phantom train disappeared into thin air.

The next morning, a number of mangled badger carcasses were found scattered near the tracks where the sighting occurred. The nearby residents surmised that the badgers had banded together and shape-shifted into a menacing-looking train in revenge for being displaced from their homes. A burial mound was constructed for the badgers at Kenshōji temple in Kameari.

Mujinadzuka monument --
Mujina-dzuka (badger mound) monument at Kenshōji temple in Tokyo

A stone monument marking the spot of the badger burial mound can still be seen at the temple today.

* * * * *

- Electric power lines insulated with the blood of virgins

Like the railroads, electricity played a vital role in the modernization of Japan during the Meiji period. The spread of electricity brought overhead power lines to cities and towns across the country. These new additions to the landscape were regarded with suspicion by many, and they became the subject of various rumors.

Coal tar was used as insulation for electric wires in the early days. Somehow, rumors began to circulate that the thick dark insulating substance was derived from the blood of innocent young women. At the height of the rumors, many virgins were afraid to go outside, fearing they would have their blood stolen for use on the wires. Those who were courageous enough to venture outdoors would sometimes disguise themselves as older, married women by wearing simple kimonos, blackening their teeth, painting their eyebrows, and doing their hair in the marumage style (rounded knot on top of the head).

Marumage --
Marumage hairstyle for married women

* * * * *

- Cholera-carrying electric power lines

In addition to instilling fear in young women, power lines were also thought to transmit the dreaded cholera, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Japan during the Meiji period. According to the word on the street, a person could contract cholera simply by walking under overhead power lines. If circumstances forced you to pass beneath a power line, you could protect yourself by holding an open folding fan over your head.

* * * * *

- Chocolate made from cow blood

The Meiji period also saw the birth of the chocolate industry. Although Japan's first taste of chocolate came in the 18th century via Dutch traders at Nagasaki, it was not until 1878 that Fugetsudo, a sweets manufacturer, produced the first Japanese chocolate. The novel taste was a hit, and other manufacturers quickly followed suit. Despite the early success, however, the exotic sweet had its doubters. Sales suffered a setback at the end of the century after rumors circulated that chocolate was made from coagulated cow blood.

* * * * *

- Saigō star

In 1877, in the aftermath of the Satsuma Rebellion -- an armed revolt of ex-samurai against the Meiji government -- a rumor spread that fallen samurai leader Takamori Saigō could be seen in the night sky.

Saigo star --
Saigō star (woodblock print by Kunimasa Umedo)

In September of that year, Earth reached its closest point to Mars (about 56 million kilometers), causing it to shine big and bright at night. Not realizing the strange red light was Mars, many regarded the star as an ill omen for Saigō's enemies. Rumors claimed that Saigō could be seen in full military dress in the star when viewed through a telescope. Woodblock prints depicting the so-called Saigō star were popular at the time.

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

Rent a rowboat, wreck a relationship

16 Feb 2010

At first glance, a romantic ride in a rowboat might seem like a pleasant activity for lovers. Lakes and ponds across Japan commonly offer boats for rent, making them popular spots for couples on a date. But beware: these ponds are often dogged by superstitions claiming that couples who venture out in the boats are doomed to break up after they return to shore.

Paddleboats --
Empty rowboats at Inokashira Park

One of the most notorious relationship-wrecking boat ponds is at Inokashira Park in western Tokyo. The pond is located next to a small shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of all things that flow (including water, speech, music and money). According to local legend, the goddess has a vengeful jealous streak that compels her to split up the happy couples in the rowboats. However, it is said that Benzaiten spares those who pay a visit to the nearby shrine after their boat ride.

Another boat pond known for jinxing relationships is at Higashiyama Park in Nagoya. The superstition at this park appears to be linked to an old legend involving a dragon living in the pond. According to the old story, the dragon was able to fly high into the sky to fetch magical water that could wipe away a person's sad memories. The story has evidently mutated over time, and the water that once enabled people to forget their sadness now causes people to forget their relationships. Interestingly, the park has tried to make hay of the superstition by offering free boat rentals to courageous couples in February during the Valentine's season.

Similar superstitions haunt boat ponds nationwide, including Nakajima Park in Sapporo, Shinobazu Pond in Tokyo, Shakujii Park in Tokyo, Omiya Park in Saitama, Lake Senba in Mito, Maruyama Park in Kyoto, Takaraga-ike Park in Kyoto, Arashiyama near Kyoto, the pond at Okayama Castle (the swan boats), Tokiwa Park in Ube, Takinomiya Park in Niihama, and Ohori Park in Fukuoka (only dangerous if you pass under the bridge). Undoubtedly there are others.

Although these superstitious claims are not supported by evidence, they are enough to make some people think twice before jumping into a rowboat with their sweetheart.

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

Eromanga Island has disappeared

10 Feb 2010

Eromanga Island, a tiny island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, has been swallowed up by rising sea levels, according to a long-standing rumor in Japan.

Erromango --
View of Eromanga Island on the Wii weather channel

Erroneous news about the island's watery demise appears to have begun ten years ago as a tidbit of fake trivia presented on a popular late-night TBS Radio program hosted by comedian Hikaru Ijuin. Some listeners apparently took the information at face value, and word of Eromanga's fate began to spread. The rumors were further fueled when a subsequent TV program mentioned Eromanga as an example of an island that had been submerged by rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Years later, some people still evidently believe Eromanga has disappeared.

To Japanese speakers, the name of the island might sound more incredible than the rumors of its disappearance. Eromanga (エロマンガ) happens to be the Japanese word for erotic manga (i.e. "porno comics"). The unlikely name, which conjures up images of an exotic place overflowing with adult comic magazines, even inspired Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, to take a trip there with fellow manga creator Ichiro Tominaga.

In the local language, Eromanga (also spelled Erromanga or Erromango) means "it's a man."

Erromango --

Interestingly, there is an element of truth to the rumors of Eromanga's disappearance. In recent years, Japanese map makers have adopted a new spelling -- イロマンゴ (pronounced "iromango") -- which appears to more accurately reflect the native pronunciation. So even though Eromanga has not been swallowed up by the sea, it has, in a sense, been wiped off the map.

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

Now hiring part-time cadaver cleaners

03 Feb 2010

Want to earn 50,000 yen ($550) a day? If you have a strong stomach, you might consider a part-time job washing cadavers in Japan.

Part-time job --
Strapped for cash?

Rumors about the existence of lucrative cadaver-washing jobs have circulated on Japanese college campuses for over 50 years. For the most part, these stories are regarded as urban legends, and most evidence suggests that no such job opportunities actually exist. If they do exist, they are difficult to find because they are not publicly advertised and can only be heard about through word-of-mouth.

According to the word on the street, though, these lucrative temporary jobs can be found at medical facilities and universities that maintain supplies of cadavers for educational purposes. The bodies, which belong to individuals who have donated themselves to science, need to be washed before they can be used as specimens in human dissection classes. Temporary workers are hired to perform the unpleasant cleaning task.

Some theories link the origins of the job rumors to a 1957 short story by internationally acclaimed author Kenzaburō Ōe, entitled "Lavish Are The Dead" (Shisha no Ogori - 死者の奢り). The story, which Ōe wrote while attending the University of Tokyo, revolves around a couple of student employees tasked with transferring cadavers from one pool of liquid preservative to another. Although Ōe's work is fiction, there is some speculation that the job featured in the story was actually based on fact (or even hearsay).

Other theories suggest these job rumors existed well before Ōe wrote his short story. During the Korean War, corpse-cleaning jobs were rumored to be plentiful around certain US military bases in Japan, where the remains of fallen US soldiers were taken for identification and embalming before their journey home. Similar rumors appear to have been common during the Vietnam War era as well.

In 1995, however, writer and medical doctor Yoichi Nishimaru published an essay examining the history of US military mortuary affairs in Japan. The essay includes a quote by a mortuary officer who denied the existence of such corpse-washing job opportunities for Japanese civilians.

Still, the rumors appear to be alive and well. Universities reportedly receive occasional telephone calls from people searching for temporary cadaver-cleaning work. Although most of these inquiries appear to be prank calls, there are evidently a few calls from serious job-seekers as well. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.

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

Secrets of the Tokyo underground

27 Jan 2010

Tunnel under Tokyo --

A vast subway system, extensive subterranean shopping arcades and miles of pedestrian tunnels make Tokyo's underground city a hotbed of human activity -- and a fertile source of mystery and intrigue. Here is a look at six of the most persistent rumors to emerge from beneath the city's streets.

* * * * *

Rumor #1: Government officials have access to secret trains.

The Tokyo subway system is the most highly used rapid transit system in the world, with an estimated eight million daily passengers using 13 lines run by two major operators (Tokyo Metro and Toei). Of the roughly 300 stations that make up the 300-kilometer (200-mile) network, few are as shrouded in mystery as Kokkai-gijidōmae station, located next to the National Diet Building in central Tokyo.

Subway map of central Tokyo --

Two subway lines -- the Marunouchi and Chiyoda lines -- stop at Kokkai-gijidōmae station. The Chiyoda line platform is situated about 38 meters (125 ft) underground, making it the deepest station in the Tokyo Metro network (though many stations on the Toei Ōedo Line are deeper underground). Rumors claim the underground facility existed as an air raid shelter before it was renovated into a subway station in the 1950s. The station's depth and its proximity to the Diet Building has led to speculation that it is designed to function as a nuclear fallout shelter.

Kokkai-gijidōmae station is also rumored to have a secret door that connects directly to the basement of the adjacent House of Representatives Annex Building #2.

In addition, old construction blueprints of the Chiyoda line platform reportedly show an extra level even deeper underground. This concealed floor ostensibly houses a platform for special trains that transport government officials out of the city in the event of a major disaster.

* * * * *

Rumor #2: There is a nuclear shelter under the Diet Building.

Like Kokkai-gijidōmae station, the National Diet Building is suspected of hiding a few secrets. Rumors suggest the building has at least five underground levels (instead of just the one that the public knows about).

National Diet Building --
Is there a nuclear shelter beneath the National Diet Building?

These secret underground floors are believed to extend at least 38 meters (125 ft) underground and are rumored to include a bomb shelter and a tunnel leading to the secret subway platform beneath Kokkai-gijidōmae station.

* * * * *

Rumor #3: Secret tunnels link key buildings in central Tokyo.

Other nearby government buildings are also believed to be sitting on top of secrets. The Prime Minister's residence, for example, is suspected of having five levels underground, as well as a tunnel linking it to the Diet Building.

Tunnel under Tokyo --
Azabu-Hibiya Common Utility Duct [Photo by Pirori]

There are also rumors of a network of tunnels linking important government buildings in central Tokyo. The oldest is an underground passageway connecting the old Tokyo Central Post Office building with Tokyo station. This tunnel, which was once used to transport mail back and forth between the buildings, was constructed in the early 20th century, well before the Ginza line (Tokyo's oldest subway) opened in 1927. Similar passageways are believed to exist between government ministry buildings in Nagatachō, Kasumigaseki, Ōtemachi and Marunouchi, as well as the Imperial Palace and Hie shrine.

This network of secret tunnels is also believed to include the National Diet Library, which houses about 12 million books and periodicals on eight underground floors. The floors are off limits to the public, and journalists have reportedly been denied access to the lower levels on multiple occasions, leading to suspicion that the library has something to hide.

Floor plan of National Diet Library --
Floor plan of National Diet Library Annex

According to the National Diet Library website, the stacks were built underground in order to preserve the surrounding landscape. In addition, underground stacks are seen as more thermally stable, energy-efficient and cost-effective, as well as less vulnerable to earthquakes.

* * * * *

Rumor #4: The Ōedo line was built for military and relief purposes.

Another source of mystery is the Ōedo line, which runs in a 40-kilometer (25-mile) loop around Tokyo and intersects with every other subway line in the city.

The fact that the Ōedo line's 38 stations are situated as deep as 48 meters (157 ft) underground has led to speculation that they are designed to serve as nuclear fallout shelters.

Journalist Shun Akiba, who has written several books documenting the mysteries of the Tokyo underground, claims the Ōedo line tunnels existed long before the city decided to turn them into public subways. He believes the tunnels are part of a much larger subterranean complex built after World War II in preparation for a possible nuclear attack.

Whether or not this claim is true, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is known to maintain a number of emergency warehouses at Ōedo line stations. The warehouses are stocked with food and supplies to be used in the event of a major disaster.

Here is some video that takes a look inside a 1,480 square meter (16,000 sq ft) warehouse located 20 meters (65 ft) beneath a Tokyo sidewalk.

+ Video

The warehouse locations are reportedly kept secret in order to prevent people from gathering at the sites after a disaster, though two are known to exist at Azabu-jūban and Kiyosumi-shirakawa stations.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has also conducted disaster drills on the subway line. In the year 2000, the government demonstrated, among other things, how Ground Self-Defense Force troops might use the Ōedo line in the event of a major emergency. As part of the exercise, dubbed "Big Rescue 2000," a special Ōedo line train transported troops from Nerima ward to a staging area in Shin-kiba (near Tokyo Bay). The exercise appears to have fueled suspicions that the line was built for military and disaster relief purposes.

* * * * *

Rumor #5: The Yūrakuchō line was built for military use.

The Yūrakuchō line is also rumored to have been built for military purposes. This speculation arises from the fact that key military facilities are located at several stations on the line, including Ichigaya, which is home to the Ministry of Defense headquarters, as well as Nerima, Heiwadai and Wakō, which are near military bases. Furthermore, Inariyama-kōen station on the Seibu-Ikebukuro line (an extension of the Yūrakuchō line) is near Iruma Air Base.

Rumors claim that Yūrakuchō line trains are designed to transport military supplies and personnel between these sites, if necessary. In addition, the tunnels have high ceilings, leading to speculation that they can serve as emergency underground roads for trucks and armored vehicles.

* * * * *

Rumor #6: There is a secret base under Shōwa Memorial Park.

Media reports have also speculated about the existence of a secret government base located beneath Shōwa Memorial Park in Tachikawa (western Tokyo). Although the government has offered no official comment on these reports, the claims are lent some credibility by the fact that the park is located near the Tachikawa Wide-Area Disaster Management Base, which is intended to function as a government backup site in an emergency. The US military's Yokota Air Base is also located in the vicinity.

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

‘Ririkan’ fast-food mystery meat

20 Jan 2010

Whether it's genetically-modified mutant chickens or burgers made of eyeballs, tales of tainted fast food are favorite fodder for urban legends. In Japan, one juicy rumor claims that a popular gyūdon (beef on rice) restaurant chain secretly substitutes its beef with the meat of the ririkan, a type of giant rat from Australia.

Meat of ririkan, giant Australian rat --
Where's the beef?

Considering that the ririkan is a nonexistent animal and there are no high-profile rodent farming operations in Australia, it is safe to assume this claim is false -- but how did the rumor get started?

One contributing factor might be that fast-food gyūdon is so incredibly inexpensive in Japan. Low prices raise suspicions among consumers, leading some to conclude that cheap, low-grade alternatives are being substituted on the sly.

But why giant rats from Australia?

Perhaps it is simply a case of two separate facts becoming jumbled in the public's mind. First, Australia is seen as a cheap and plentiful source of meat. More than 70% of Japan's beef imports now come from Down Under, and the price is low. Second, the consumption of large rodents is not unprecedented in Japan. The nutria (Myocastor coypus) -- a large, rat-like rodent native to South America -- served as a source of food in Japan during the lean war years.

The short-lived love affair with the nutria began in 1939, when the Japanese military imported 150 of the animals from France. A large-scale breeding effort was launched with the aim of creating a cheap supply of meat and fur, and by 1944 the nation's nutria population had reached an estimated 40,000.

Wild nutria in Hyogo prefecture --
Wild nutria in Hyōgo prefecture. Itadakimasu!

After the war, however, the demand for nutria meat and fur evaporated. Nutria farms shut down, and many animals were released into the wild, where they thrived. Decades later, nutria populations have become established in various parts of Japan, with the largest numbers found in western Honshū (though sightings have been reported as far east as Chiba prefecture). Today, the nutria is regarded as an invasive species that spoils the landscape, interferes with rice and barley farming, and threatens the habitat of an endangered dragonfly (Libellula angelina). In Okayama prefecture, which boasts the largest nutria population, as many as 2,000 of the animals are captured and killed each year in organized culling operations.

Nutria meat is no longer eaten in Japan, but the fact that the animal looks like a giant rat and once appeared on dinner tables might add a touch of plausibility to rumors of rodent flesh being served up at fast-food gyūdon restaurants (though it does nothing to explain the origin of the word "ririkan").

Whatever the source of the ririkan rumors, scholars suggest that talk of tainted fast food is an inevitable by-product of our modern-day appetite for convenient (and less healthy) food over traditional home-cooked meals. In addition to demonstrating the importance of fast food in our consumer-driven culture, these stories also reveal a lingering mistrust of the large corporations that manufacture the stuff we eat.

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

Secret ‘Sony timer’ kills products after warranty?

13 Jan 2010

Call it the rumor that wouldn't die. For decades, people in Japan have alleged that Sony installs a secret timer in its products that causes them to fail after a specific period of time.

Sony timer? --

Speculation about the existence of this so-called "Sony timer" emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as consumers grew increasingly suspicious of Sony devices that stopped working just after the warranty expired. According to the theory, Sony's time-activated kill switches are designed to boost sales by driving consumers to purchase replacement parts, repairs, or new models (often the cheapest option) after a scheduled period.

Today, decades after the rumors began, people still talk about the Sony timer. In 2006, after a string of laptop explosions prompted a global recall of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries manufactured by Sony Energy Devices Corporation, Japanese Internet forums were flooded with sarcastic comments raving about how effective the latest generation of Sony timers had become.

Clearly, much of the speculation about hidden Sony timers is tongue-in-cheek, but some people appear to take the claims seriously, pointing to the suspiciously precise timing of product failures as evidence of foul play. Regardless of whether or not Sony timers actually exist, the company has been dogged by the perception that its products break down just outside warranty.

Sony timer? --

Although "Sony timer" has long been a household phrase in Japan, company officials have only rarely acknowledged the rumors in public. In June 2006, an executive who oversaw the establishment of the VAIO customer service center attracted attention when he mentioned the Sony timer in a speech at G-Force Japan, a large annual conference for the Japanese call center industry. "It's absurd to think that Sony would install timers that cause products to fail just 13 months after purchase," he told the audience. "But for some reason, people continue to have this perception. Our marketing, customer service and product development departments are making a deliberate and concerted effort to improve Sony's image," he said.

At a shareholders' meeting in June 2007, in a speech outlining new measures to ensure product quality and improve the Sony brand image, former company president (current vice-chairman) Ryoji Chubachi admitted he knew the phrase "Sony timer."

Sony timer? --

Despite the decades of rumors and speculation, nobody has ever proven the existence of the Sony timer. Skeptics argue that if such timers actually existed, a rival company would likely have found one and made it public. With this in mind, the Sony timer is widely considered an urban legend.

[Note: This is the second installment in a series of weekly posts about urban legends from Japan. Check back next week for another report.]

‘Ningen’ humanoid sea creatures of the Antarctic

06 Jan 2010

Over the past few years, rumors have circulated in Japan about the existence of gigantic humanoid life-forms inhabiting the icy waters of the Antarctic.

Antarctic ningen humanoid --
Hello, Ningen

Reportedly observed on multiple occasions by crew members of government-operated "whale research" ships, these so-called "Ningen" (lit. "humans") are said to be completely white in color with an estimated length of 20 to 30 meters. Eyewitnesses describe them as having a human-like shape, often with legs, arms, and even five-fingered hands. Sometimes they are described as having fins or a large mermaid-like tail instead of legs. The only visible facial features are the eyes and mouth.

Antarctic ningen humanoid --
Artist's rendition of a Ningen standing upright

According to one account, crew members on deck observed what they initially thought was a foreign submarine in the distance. When they approached, however, it became clear from the irregular shape of the thing that it was not man-made -- it was alive. The creature quickly disappeared under water.

Antarctic ningen humanoid --

For the most part, the existence of the Ningen is considered an urban legend. Much of the information about this rumored creature can be traced back to a series of posts on the 2channel forums, written by a person describing the experience of a friend employed on a government "whale research" vessel. (Read the full Japanese text of the original story that first appeared on a 2channel forum.)

Antarctic ningen humanoid --

The popular thread attracted the attention of many readers from outside the 2channel community, and the November 2007 issue of MU magazine, a Japanese publication devoted to the study of paranormal phenomena, featured an article about the Antarctic humanoids.

The article speculated on the possibility of unidentified creatures inhabiting the southern seas, and it included a Google Maps screenshot showing what looks like a Ningen in the South Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Namibia.

Antarctic ningen humanoid --
Link: Google Maps

To date, no solid evidence has been presented to confirm the existence of the Ningen. The government is believed to have kept detailed records of the sightings, but they have released no information to the public and have reportedly instructed eyewitnesses to remain silent.

Two videos claiming to show Ningen under water have been posted on YouTube.

+ Video

+ Video

Ningen sightings seem to occur most frequently at night, making them all the more difficult to photograph. In still images, the sea cryptids mostly just look like icebergs, though it is said that their smooth, human-like skin can be seen when the photographs are enlarged.

Antarctic ningen humanoid --
Artist's rendition of a mermaid-like Ningen

In any case, no convincing photographs have been made public, either because they do not exist or because, as some argue, the government does not want to invite undue scrutiny and tarnish the scientific reputation of the whale research program.

[Note: This is the first in a new series of weekly posts about urban legends and unexplained phenomena from Japan. Check back next week for another report.]