Kaidan: A Compendium of Japanese Ghostly Tales - Anime Jinsei

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Kaidan: A Compendium of Japanese Ghostly Tales

You may have already been introduced to a variety of netherworld beings after watching Ghost Fighter. Bleach carried on this tradition. They introduced us to the malevolent lost souls devouring human souls. 

There's also Another who follows a story of a boy and the mysterious deaths involving the people in the class he was transferred to. But what exactly are these preternatural beings based on?


When you look up the translation "ghost" or "monster" in a Japanese dictionary, it will give you either obake or bakemono. Both refer to the same thing but the latter is the more formal term, the both literally mean "transforming thing" and generally refer to anything to grotesque or weird. 

These preternatural beings can either be yurei, yokai, or oni. Yurei are tormented spirits of the dead. According to Shinto beliefs, all people have spirits or souls called reikon. When a person dies, his reikon joins those of his ancestors. However, if a person dies either in an unexpected manner or with excess emotion, he comes back to haunt the earth as yurei to take care of unfinished business or seek revenge. 

Yokai, on the other hand, encompass a wide spectrum of ghouls, goblins, and monsters—some frightening, some amusing, some just plain bizarre. Oni are ferocious horned and fanged creatures who either guard the gates of hell or act as its torturers. Oh, by the way, kaidan means "ghost story". Below are some of the more common obake/bakemono.


Bancho Sarayashiki (The Story of Okiku) 

Bancho Sarayashiki (The Story of Okiku)

Okiku was a maidservant in the household of samurai Tessan Aoyama. One day, she broke one of the precious ceramic plates which were family treasures. Enraged, Aoyama killed her and threw her into a well. 

Since her death, her yurei ascends from the bottom of the well every night, counts to nine and starts her heartrending sobbing. Tormented by this nightly haunting, Aoyama goes insane. In another version, Aoyama wanted Okiku to become his mistress. When Okiku refused, Aoyama accused her of breaking one of the plates then murdered her. 

Botan Doro 

kiyo of jigoku shoujo

A man named Shinzaburo fell in love with a girl named Otsuyu. After a time, Otsuyu became seriously ill and before she passed away she told her nursemaid Oyone that her last request was to see Shinzaburo. 

That last request was never granted, Oyone died a while later. On the 13th of August that same year, Otsuyu and Oyone came to visit Shinzaburo. Shinzaburo, not aware that they had died, was informed by his neighbor that they were indeed ghosts! 

Shinzaburo, scared, acquired talismans from the temple and placed them all around his house. For some reason, the neighbor betrayed him and destroyed the talismans. Shinzaburo stared death in the face and its eyes were of the yurei of the woman he once loved.

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost of Tokaido Yotsuya) 

Ayakashi: The Ghost of Oiwa haunting Iyemon (The Ghost of Tokaido Yotsuya)

A woman named Oiwa married a man named Iemon (Iyemon) and they lived in Yotsuya. A rich lady fell in love with Iemon and in order for him to freely pursue the rich lady, he ordered his servant to put poison in Oiwa's meals. Oiwa grew weak, lost her hair and her face became disfigured. She was then treated cruelly. After her death, all those who mistreated her died. 

Another version had Iyemon falling in love with his neighbor's granddaughter as Oiwa became weak after childbirth. He poisons Oiwa on the advice of the grandfather and to justify his deed he accuses his servant, Kobotoke Kohei, of having an affair with her. He kills Kohei and ties both bodies to a door and throws it into a river. 

On his wedding night, however, he lifts his bride's veil only to see Oiwa's face! He beheads her only to find out later that it was his new bride. He rushes to his neighbor but is blocked by Kohei's ghost which he also beheads, this time it was his neighbor. Since then, everywhere he went, he was haunted by all their yurei. 

Finally, Oiwa's brother tracks him to his cottage and avenges his sibling. Oiwa is buried in the Inari shrine in Japan near a red torii (a Shinto shrine archway), under a large tree. 

Legend has it that if you only visited her grave out of curiosity, your right eye will become swollen as hers was before her death.

Yama Uba (Old Woman in The Mountains) 

chihiro standing next to yama uba in spirited away

Yama means "mountain" and uba means "old woman". A frightening ghost of the mountains, she appears with piercing eyes, a mouth that grins from ear to ear and long white hair. 

Your paths may cross in the mountains and she will invite you to dinner at her house. Be wary! For after you sleep, she begins grinding her axe in preparation for chopping you to pieces! 



kappa no kaikata

A carpenter made a straw doll and gave it a soul so that it could work for him. When he no longer had any use for the doll, he threw it into a river. The doll became the kappa. The kappa is a kind of humanoid turtle (nope, he doesn't have a sensei called Splinter). 

Either a water god or a monster, he protects freshwater sources from maltreatment or drowns unsuspecting passersby. The Kappa can have a child-like appearance, bobbed hair, webbed feet, elastic arms, a beak, a shell on its back, and a plate of water on its head. As long as he has water in his plate, he has amazing strength. He is also known as Medochi and Mizushi

Kasa no Obake (Umbrella Monster) 

kasa no obake in pom poko

The Kasa no Obake is a wooden umbrella with one eye and one leg which he uses to hop around. Plain weird but not dangerous. 

Kitsune (Fox) 

kakuriyo kitsune

As foxes come by, kitsune are also clever. Unlike Tomoe from Kamisama Kiss and Kurama of Ghost Fighter, most kitsune stories center on a woman. 

A very beautiful woman cries out for help in the woods. Her cries are heard by a powerful lord who grants her succor. They eventually marry but the woman turns out to be too arrogant to be human. The lord's vassals discover one day that she is indeed a fox spirit and she is killed (some stories say she was just sent away). 

Legend has it that his tale originated in China with the woman as the wife of a Chinese emperor. When she was discovered and sent off, she went to Japan where she used her charms on powerful lords or samurai. 

Nopperabo (The Woman without a Face) 

woman with no face nopperabo of pom poko

A man sees a voluptuous woman standing too near the moat of an Imperial Palace. Feeling a bit chivalrous and also a little salacious, he approaches her to warn her of impending danger. Suddenly, the woman turns around to reveal herself faceless! 

The terrified man runs for her life. He only stops to catch his breath and calm his nerves by eating noodles at a ramen cart by the road. As he eats, he tells the proprietor of the ramen cart about his ordeal. When he finishes his tale, the vendor turns his faceless head towards him and says "Is that so?" 

Rokurokubi (The Long-necked Woman) 

miki becoming rokurokubi of hell teacher nube

Normal-looking during the day, this woman's neck becomes rather long—at midnight. One version of the tale has her having a preference for lamp oil, while another version has her elongating her neck in search of men to victimize. 

Miki, one of the characters in Hell Teacher Nube, has a similar ability. She can elongate her neck, but she doesn't have a craving for lamp oil nor for the life energy of men. 

Tanuki ( Raccoon Dog) 

the tanuki raccoons of pom poko

Raccoon dogs are bigger versions of their western cousins and they don't have ringed tails. Tanuki are said to be pranksters, shape-changing mystical creatures with a smirk on their face and a jug of sake tucked beneath their arms (they really love that stuff). 

Tanuki are said to congregate under the light of the full moon, drink sake and pound their bellies which make an eerie "ponpoko-ponpoko" sound. No one has ever seen such a gathering but a lot of people swear they have heard the sound of tummy thumping. 

One story is about a man who caught a tanuki and gave it to his wife to cook into stew. But the tanuki escapes and instead cooks the wife into a stew which he serves to the hungry husband. After a hearty meal, the tanuki reverts back to its original form and tells the husband about his prank then runs away.  

The distraught husband tells his ordeal to his most trusted pet who takes the tanuki fishing, each with its own boart. The tanuki's boat was made of mud and when it dissolved the tanuki was left stranded in the middle of the lake. Some old folk tales identify the loyal pet as a rabbit. 


great tengu of Nurarihyon no Mago

A powerful mountain goblin, a Tengu has a red face, a long nose (sometimes a beak) and wings on his back. He holds a haneuchiwa (fan made of feathers) and looks like a wandering Buddhist monk wearing a hakama (pleated skirt-like Japanese garment) and high geta (Japanese wooden clogs). 

Tengu can assume many forms, they can be kind protectors or cruel pranksters. They are known to carry off small children, start fires or even incite wars. Tengu are also known as Guhun, Yamabito and Yamanokami

Tsuru (Crane) 

the tale of the grateful crane

A man helps a wounded crane by bandaging its wings. The next day, a beautiful woman knocks on the young man's door. Smitten, they marry, grow wealthy, and have many children. 

However, the beautiful woman made the man promise on their wedding night to never ever violate her private moments. Unfortunately, he did invade her privacy and the man discovers that his wife is the crane that he helped. Sadly, the crane flies off, never to return. 

Yuki Onna (Snow Woman) 

Shirayuki of Rosario + Vampire

Yuki means "snow" and onna means "woman", now you know where the names Yukina of Ghost Fighter and Shirayuki of Rosario + Vampire came from. 

As the story goes... on a snowy night, a yuki-onna will appear by a roadside in a kimono and ask you to hold her baby. Now the lady's breath is as cold as ice, the moment you cradle her baby she will breathe on you, and you will immediately turn to ice. 

Another version, which is similar to the Tsuru story, has a man wandering in the snow and encountering Snow Spirits. The Snow Spirits decide to freeze him to death but their Snow Queen bade them to spare him. She becomes his wife on the condition that he does not violate her privacy. 

Zashiki Warashi (Little Boy in the Room) 

zashiki warashi of kakuriyo no yadomeshi ougon douji

Zashiki means "Japanese room" and warashi means "little boy". Zashiki Warashi are associated with good fortune, they inhabit the homes of the rich who prosper further. Kids often see him for it is said that he is visible only to those who have not lost their innocence. 

Some instances report that when a Zashiki Warashi is seen leaving a house, it will be visited by ill fortune, sometimes an inhabitant of the household may even die. 

Japanese Ghost stories
Screech, Tim. Japanese Ghosts. 
First appeared in print in Mangajin, issue no.40.
Hoffman, Curtis H. Ponpoko
Tanuki Empire Harrier Club. 

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