Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko, and our topic today is Japanese horror stories, a timely one for Halloween, thanks to a timely request from one of our valued listeners. 

I haven’t seen enough horror films or novels of any country myself to make any cultural comparisons, unfortunately; I have read a Stephen King book and watched the movie for it. I have watched the original Japanese version of Ring and an American take on it too. They’re horror movies about how people get killed by watching a cursed video tape. Nobody uses video tapes anymore in 2020 so we’re all good now. There’s nothing to worry about. Thank God.

Actually I was covering my eyes for a significant amount of time during both movies but I’d like to include them into my resume, if you may. 

I had conquered scary thoughts by not thinking about them, but for the sake of Halloween and our enthusiasm for it, let’s take on some spooky stories. 

The woman with the torn mouth 口裂け女

 

Horror stories became a pretty big fad in the 90s especially among schoolers and this particular one called 口裂け女 or what I would translate into “The woman with the torn mouth” was even featured on TV and everyone was terrified by just the thought of running into her.

It’s an urban myth and the setting is usually in a residential area of modern day metropolitan Tokyo or Osaka, where everyone who told or heard the story actually lived. 

So you get off the train at the nearest station from home after a long day at work. It’s around 11PM and after you walk through the commercial area around the station with all the Japanese neon signs, you get into a quieter neighborhood because that’s where you live.

There are houses on both sides of the street built close to each other. The streets are narrow and there is only just enough space for one car and a pedestrian. It’s a bit like a maze. That’s how it is in urban residential areas in Japan. 

Now every 100 feet or so, there is a street lamp lighting the street right below it, like a spot light. So a brightly lit spot alternate with a dark spot. Bright, dark. Bright dark.

So you’re heading home, you’re walking into the light and then into the dark, into the light, and then into the dark. And in a distance, you see a woman. You see a woman standing under a street lamp, right in the middle of the street. 

You walk closer because again, the neighborhood’s like a maze. There are walls on both sides of the street and you can only go forward or backwards, and your house is obviously ahead of you so you need to walk passed this woman to get home. 

As you walk closer, you notice she’s wearing a white mask. A regular surgical mask. Which is not too odd here in Japan even without Corona. But you really don’t like how she’s standing in the middle of the street as if she’s waiting for you. She’s looking down, but you can tell she is keeping an eye on you in the corner of her eyes.

You come closer and you really don’t like getting into her arm’s reach. But you have to, to get home, and you keep walking at a regular pace so that at least you look like there’s nothing wrong, although there clearly is. 

You come closer, and you see that the woman has her hair tied at the back of her head. It’s not the perky type of ponytail. She has a wrap-around ponytail that’s tied a little too low. She looks like a regular person you’d find in a local supermarket. Early 30s, maybe? You try to guess her age but you’re really unsure because of the mask and the downlight. 

You come closer, and you step into her arm’s reach. There’s no response from the woman, fortunately. 

But just when you walk by her, her head turns your way, and she asks.

“Am I pretty?”

You stop, because you feel it’s not a good idea to piss her off. 

Your hands start trembling, but you look at her, not into her eyes because… you can’t. You’re shaking way too much for that. 

From the corner of your eyes, you see a woman who’s not particularly pretty or ugly – of course you can’t really tell because she’s wearing a mask.

But you don’t want to piss her off so you say:

“I think you’re pretty.”

The woman lifts one hand and holds the string of the mask at her ear. And as she removes her mask, you see that she barely has a cheek. Her mouth starts at her ear. It’s torn and you can see her pink flesh as she asks:

“Am I pretty now?”

There are many versions of this story. What’s consistent is that you get killed no matter how you reply to her question, and that for some reason she doesn’t like the smell of pomade, so when you throw one at her – as if people carry around pomade all the time – when you throw one at her or even repeat the word “pomade” several times, she’ll go away.

Because the setting is so close to life, the story spread all over Japan and scared the hell out of everyone, and then it died down during summer break because children and teenagers didn’t meet up at school to tell the story to each other anymore.

The mechanism behind the abundance of horror stories

Now horror stories have been told from long ago. There are several famous folklore stories that have traumatizing effects on children. 

What’s scary about Japanese horror stories is that first of all, there are lots. Thousands of them. This definitely has to do with the animist Shinto belief that there is a god in pretty much everything. 

Like in many other cultures, children grow up listening to folk tales, and in the course, we are told stories that involve the gods of mountains, rivers, thunder, fireplaces and even toilets. Sometimes they casually turn up in the protagonists’ lives to give them advice, make a deal with them, punish them, but oftentimes, they are just mentioned in the story and don’t make an actual appearance.

They’re mentioned in lines like “What’s that noise? Oh it must be the god of fire.” Or “God of the toilets please help me!” I don’t know if you’ll ever have the chance to say that. “God of the toilets please help me!” Next time you eat one too many burgers maybe. 

But my point is, these gods don’t make an actual appearance. They’re just presumed to exist although we cannot see them. It’s like there’s a common understanding that we coexist with supernatural beings. 

And the same… um… should I say “logic?” applies for ghosts and monsters. Although we cannot see them in our everyday lives, they are thought to share the world with us. Any person or animal, after death, could become ghosts, and any object we own may one day turn into monsters. There are many stories of cats, foxes and raccoons turning into monsters to harm people. 

So the common belief is that ghosts can be anywhere. Anything can become monsters to come get you. There was a comic book author called Mizuki Shigeru who almost exclusively wrote stories about Japanese ghosts and monsters. He invented over 500 of them and contributed greatly to Japanese people’s belief, or at least to Japanese children’s belief that you can run into these supernatural horrifying creatures anytime. 

And another thing that makes Japanese horror stories so scary, just like those of many other cultures, is that each ghost or monster has a very particular fetishism. If they’re the kinds that kill or eat people, they have a very particular way of doing it. 

So let me give you an example of such a story. This one is called 船幽霊, and I would translate it to “Sea Ghouls.” This one is folklore so there is a moral to the story. 

Sea Ghouls 船幽霊

At a shrine you will always see a fountain of water near the entrance, and there is always a wooden cup with a long shaft – a wooden ladle there, and you use it to scoop the cold water with one hand to wash your other hand before you go any further into the shrine. 

Some time ago, fishermen would bring a wooden ladle onto their boats. And they made sure the bottom of the ladle was punched open so that it couldn’t scoop any water. 

Why would they carry a useless ladle, you may wonder. The reason is, you may never return from sea if you didn’t. 

Every year towards the end of summer, there are three days the spirits of dead ancestors return to the world of the living. And fishermen were not supposed to row their boats out to sea. 

Because if they did, all the fishermen who had perished in shipwrecks and turned into Sea Ghouls would find their boats and ask for a ladle. The story goes that they were looking for ladles because they wanted to scoop water out of their sinking ships when they were still living.

But never give them a ladle. If you dp, they will pour sea water into the boat and they won’t stop until it sinks, and you too will become a Sea Ghoul. 

There is, however, one way to survive. When you are asked for a ladle, you give them a bottomless ladle. They would try to scoop sea water only to find that they cannot. And that is why fishermen board their boats with a wooden ladle and make sure they punch the bottom open before they set out to sea. 

But old fishermen do not dare go fishing during the three days of Bon because no one wants to risk becoming a Sea Ghoul. 

In a small village by the sea not so far from here, there was a young fisherman  who lived with his grandfather. His father and mother had died when he was a child, and the old man was the only kin there was for him. 

On the second night of Bon, the old man was lying down in the house. He was sick, and hungry. There was little left to eat. 

The young man suggested that he go out to fish. No one has fished for two days now. If he could throw his net in the water today, he would hoard all the fish there is. 

The old man screams weakly. “No one fishes during Bon. The Sea Ghouls will find you. You’ll be pulled into the water.”

But the young fisherman did not believe in such mythical creatures. Early next morning before sunrise, he snuck out of the house and pushed his boat off the beach and paddled offshore. 

As he expected, the catch was large. He had never seen so many sardines prancing about on his boat. He threw his net into the sea once more, twice more, and every time he pulled out a net full of fish. 

He was so enchanted by the glitter of his bounty that he didn’t notice the sky had become oddly dark until he looked up to take a break. The sea had become still. 

The fisherman looked down at the water, and there was an arm. 

“!!!”

There was a pale, bony arm stretching towards him. As the young fisherman quickly looked behind to search for his paddle, he realized his boat was already surrounded by hundreds of more pale, rotting arms, all facing his way.  

“Lend us your ladle.” One of the arms said. 

The young fisherman looked around his small boat and caught sight of a ladle. 

He started sweating. He had forgotten to punch the bottom open. 

“Lend us your ladle.” 

The arms started grabbing the side of the boat and rocked it with unbelievable strength. The fisherman’s ladle tumbled off the boat and went into the water. 

The arms stopped what they were doing and slowly sank into the sea, but when they came up again, every one of them was holding a ladle.

The arms began pouring water into the boat. The fisherman tried to scoop the water out with his hands, but he could feel his boat sinking a little by little. The fisherman had to accept his fate. 

Just then, a flock of fireballs came floating near the Sea Ghouls. The arms hastily dove back in the water, leaving their ladles behind. 

When the fisherman returned to the village, he told his grandfather what had happened. He said:

“The fireballs must have been the spirits of our ancestors, telling the Sea Ghouls not to take lives of the living.”

And so from the following year, the young fisherman did not go out to sea during Bon and instead built fire by the shore to greet the spirits of his ancestors.

Let us behave.

So in this story, you can see the underlying intent of teaching the Confucianist moral value of respecting elders. Many Japanese folklore are about treating elders nicely, and Japanese kids grow up learning these stories. 

Telling horror stories was an effective way to make kids behave. Now in recent years, every Halloween, young people gather in Shibuya in costumes and oftentimes they get too excited and sometimes the police need to calm them down. 

Today is the first Halloween during the pandemic. Of course people are advised not to gather in great numbers. I hope we all behave or find a pandemic-appropriate way to enjoy Halloween.

Thank you for listening. Through the Metro-classic Japanese blog, podcast and Instagram, I share cultural expressions of Japan in things that are old and new. I guarantee it will help you make your next stay in Japan or your next encounter with anything Japanese even more interesting and meaningful.

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Thank you, and Happy Halloween.