All About Japanese Folklore: Cool Creatures, Spirits, and Yokai from Folktales
If you’re a fan of Japanese pop culture, anime, manga, or movies, then you’ve probably experienced Japanese folklore.
Folklore in Japan is often an inspiration in a lot of media you see. Take, for example, Naruto and the nine-tailed fox (called 狐, kitsune) or Bleach’s Hollows which are a kind of Japanese ghost called youkai. Many legendary Pokemon are based on Japanese folklore creatures, too.
Even Sailor Moon has loose inspirations from Kaguya-hime – a story you’ll learn about below!
Japanese folklore also has huge cultural significance. Some of the stories tell how Japan came into existence and why it’s the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Others tell the stories of how the Emperor was chosen by the heavens to rule, which is where the name 天皇 (tennou, “heavenly emperor”) comes from.
So what is Japanese folklore called? It’s called 民間伝承, minkan denshou, in Japanese.
Inside these stories, you’ll learn more about Japanese culture and mythology. Especially about the role of 神, kami, the spirits and deities from Shinto beliefs.
Table of contents
- Japanese Folklore Creatures
- Creepy Japanese Folklore
- 8 Famous Japanese Folklore Stories
- Dive Into Japanese Folklore
There are some Japanese folklore characters and creatures that come up a lot in Japanese mythology. Like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, these creatures have taken on a life of their own and appear in a lot of Japanese pop culture.
It’s tough to say what the most powerful Japanese mythical creature is. But many will say the phoenix, called houou (鳳凰) in Japanese, is one of them. (Yes, like the legendary Pokemon.)
This folklore creature originated in China. It’s said to have a body covered in scales and a turtle shell on its back, and to be a mix of a snake and goose.
The reason it’s considered one of the most powerful Japanese folklore creatures is because it’s the symbol for all things good, immortal, and wise. As a kami, it represents fidelity and longevity.
Kappa (河童 in kanji, or also written in hiragana as かっぱ) are humanoid reptilians that live in rivers. They’re often small, green, and a bit turtle- and frog-like. They’re water spirits, and are often considered both kami and youkai.
Kappa in Japanese folklore love cucumbers. (Old-school Harvest Moon fans probably know this!) They’re one of the few youkai who can speak human languages, and they’re very smart and skilled in medicine and agriculture.
Kappa are known for helping bring luck to farming efforts and befriending lonely children. They also love to wrestle.
But kappa can also be violent if they aren’t respected, and they can be crude. In folklore, some kappa are known to harass, kidnap, or assault women, or to eat humans alive. When they do this, they usually go for… the butthole.
Yup. Like another Japanese ghost story about the butthole eye, kappa are known to love what’s called 尻子玉, shirikodama, a flesh ball inside the anus. And they’ll do anything to get it.
You’ve no doubt seen kitsune (狐), everywhere in Japan and pop culture! They are Vulpix and Ninetails from Pokemon, the nine-tailed fox from Naruto that I mentioned, or even video games like Okami.
In Japanese folklore, kitsune are staples of Japanese culture and mythology. But they’re a bit different from their anime depictions.
The stories go that kitsune can shapeshift into humans (specifically, beautiful women). They’re also considered messengers for the kami Inari. If you visit Inari Shrine, you’ll see many fox statues.
The more tails a fox has, the more powerful it is. This is where the nine-tailed fox legend comes in.
From China originally, the story tells of a powerful fox spirit that stores the force of nature, the sun, and moon, in its tails. Once it has nine, it becomes immortal.
Besides the two kinds of foxes in Japanese folklore mentioned here – those that serve Inari and those that are powerful fox spirits – there are also different types. Its believed that there are 13 types of mythical kitsune, each representing an element or aspect of the forces of nature.
Otters in Japanese folklore are called kawauso (獺). In folklore, otters love alcohol. They’re often seen pretending to be or shapeshifting into humans in order to snag some sake.
These stories say these otters will disguise themselves with a big straw hat and pretend to be a beggar child. They love to mimic sounds they hear, and they’re often caught in their disguises because when talked to, they can only say whatever they last heard.
For the most part, otters are playful and friendly. They just want booze.
Tanuki (狸) are probably one of the most recognizable folklore creatures. If you’ve played Animal Crossing, you know this one as Tom Nook!
Tanuki are known for their playful spirits. They’re tricksters, funny, and light-hearted. They are said to be able to shapeshift.
According to lore, if you hear a flute or drums in the middle of the night, it’s a tanuki.
In Japanese folklore, youkai are monsters, ghosts, and other strange entities that cause harm or mischief. These Japanese monsters in folklore are often depicted as evil, creepy, or harmful, although not all youkai are bad.
For example, Studio Ghibli’s films are full of youkai of every variety, from cute and helpful to creepy and evil. Think No Face in Spirited Away and Haku, the dragon based on the story of Orochi.
Oni (鬼) are often demons, orges, and other large scary creatures. It’s said that oni are evil humans reborn or transformed, but not always. The Titans in Attack on Titan are one such example. They’re often murderous, and very evil.
Obake (お化け) or bakemono (化け物) are one type of youkai that are shapeshifters. One famous obake is jorogumo, or “woman spider.” Much like a black widow, they prey on men whom they seduce and then eat.
One famous Japanese urban legend about a youkai spirit is called Teke Teke. She’s said to be the ghost of a woman who fell onto the subway tracks, her body cut into pieces by the subway, and died. Now, she haunts the subway as an onryou, a vengeful ghost. She drags herself around, making the sound “teke teke,” and if she catches you, she’ll cut you in half too.
Even though she no longer has legs, she’s very fast. So don’t be fooled!
Yuki onna is another popular youkai spirit. Known as “snow women,” they’re beautiful women with long black hair and snow-white skin. They wander around during snowstorms, luring men to their deaths.
Amikiri (網切) is a youkai that is somewhat like a scorpion with crab claws and a bird beak. How big is the Amikiri in Japanese folklore, you ask? Well, it’s pretty small, like a shrimp. These youkai mainly just like to cut fishing nets and ruin a fisherman’s day.
What are the most famous Japanese folktales? These are some everyone knows in Japan, so you should know them too!
The Japanese have a book called the Kojiki (古事記), which is the oldest recognized book in Japan. It documents oral stories and myths from early Japan, and much of Japanese mythology comes from it.
The Japanese have their own gods and mythology. It goes that the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami created the Japanese islands through their union. They had a bunch of deity children (much like Zeus in Greek mythology).
Izanami died in childbirth though, and Izanagi was distraught. After a harrowing journey to the underworld (called Yomi) to bring her back unsuccessfully, he came back to the surface and created even more deities, including the sun goddess.
Izanagi, back from the Underworld, continued to have power though and is the cause of death.
According to the Kojiki, the name of the goddess of the sun is Amaterasu Ookami (天照大神).
She was born at the same time as Tsukuyomi (月読), the god of the moon, and Susanoo (スサノオ), the god of the sea and storms.
Amaterasu fights with her brother Susanoo all the time. Izanagi got mad and banished Susanoo to the Yomi, so Susanoo went to the heavenly world to say goodbye to Amaterasu.
But Amaterasu didn’t believe he came in peace to just say goodbye. They got into a battle, and Susanoo killed one of Amaterasu’s people.
Scared and upset, she fled to a cave where she hid. This caused all of heaven and earth to fall into darkness.
The other gods eventually came up with a plan to lure her out. Essentially, they had a fun god party full of laughter and nudity right in front of her cave. Amaterasu became curious and eventually came out. She shined her light on the world again.
Susanoo was banished from heaven, ended up in the Izumo Province, and had children. Amaterasu’s children would eventually go on to become the royal family and emperor of Japan.
This is the most beloved Japanese folklore story! One day, a woman found a giant peach floating downstream. She took it home, and out came a boy!
The boy told the woman and her husband that he had been sent from heaven to be their son, because they were lonely and wanted kids but had none. They named him Momotarou (桃太郎). Momo (桃) means “peach” in Japanese.
He was kind, strong, and hard-working. One day, he heard that oni were hurting the people who lived in the countryside with him. He decided to go do something about it, and his parents sent him with dumplings for his journey.
Along the way, he met a monkey, a pheasant, and a dog. He offered each of them one of his delicious dumplings if they joined him, so they did.
Together with his new friends, strong Momotarou went to the island the oni lived on and defeated them. In return for letting them live, Momotarou received treasures to bring home and made them promise to never hurt the humans again.
A good and kind old man and his wife lived in a village. They found a puppy who had been abused by his owner wandering toward them, so they took him in. They loved the puppy so much, and the puppy grew deeply attached to them too.
One day, the dog helped the old man dig a hole, and they found a bunch of gold. Jealous, his former owner took the dog and told him to find him gold too. When the dog couldn’t do it and only found bones, the man became enraged and killed him.
The old couple were devastated. They buried the dog in their yard.
The old man saw the dog again in a dream. The dog told him to build a mortar where he had been buried. When the old man did so and added steamed rice cakes as an offering, the rice turned to gold.
The neighbor, jealous again, took the mortar and tried it himself. But it didn’t work, and he burned it in rage.
The old man took the ashes back home. His dog visited him again and told him to sprinkle the ashes on cherry blossom trees. When the old man did so, the trees bloomed beautifully. The daimyou (feudal lord) was so pleased by the beautiful trees, he sent the old man lots of gifts.
The jealous neighbor tried it himself, and instead he got ashes in the daimyou’s eyes. He was thrown in jail, then thrown out of town, and was never able to find a place to live again for his evil ways.
Like the story of Momotarou, a couple wished for a son, but couldn’t have one. One day, they were blessed by a child, but he was only about 1 inch tall – which, back in ancient Japan, was called a sun.
So they named him Issun Boushi (一寸法師), or “One-sun (-inch) Boy.”
One day, the boy went to work for a rich family, and their daughter was kidnapped by oni. So the boy tried to save her.
The oni ate the boy, but he was smart and he stabbed the oni with a needle he used as a sword. The oni cried out in pain and spat the boy back out.
The oni had a magic hammer – and when the boy touched it, he grew to be six feet tall!
In the end, the boy married the daughter he rescued and wielded the hammer as his weapon.
This one is a popular children’s folklore story. One day, an old man was out working and stopped to eat the lunch his wife made for him up on a hill. His wife had made him onigiri (おにぎり), or rice balls.
The man accidentally dropped the rice ball, and it rolled and rolled down the hill into a hole. The “rolling” sound of something small like this is the Japanese onomatopoeia korokoro (ころころ).
When the man went to get his rice ball, he heard voices from inside the hole singing, “The rice ball came rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling.”
The old man thought this was strange and amusing. So he rolled another rice ball into the hole. Again, he heard the song. But this time, when he leaned in to listen, he fell into the hole.
Inside were a bunch of mice, overjoyed by the food. So they offered to give him a reward of gold coins.
Their neighbor (yep, that darn neighbor again!) got jealous. He went to the hole pretending to be a cat to scare the mice so he could steal their gold. Instead, the mice beat him up and sent him on his way – and he was never so greedy after that again.
Tanabata (七夕) is a summer festival in Japan celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month. This is the one day a year when Orihime and Hikoboshi, two starcrossed lovers, can see each other.
The story goes that Princess Orihime (the Vega star) was arranged by her kami father to meet with Prince Hikoboshi (the Altair star). They fell madly in love, but so consumed by their love, they neglected their duties.
Orihime’s father became enraged. He separated the two with the Milky Way and only allowed them to see each other once a year.
And that day is Tanabata. In reality, it’s when the two stars are closest to each other in the sky!
Kaguya-hime (かぐや姫) is the story of a child mysteriously found by a childless man. Kaguya-hime was found by a woodcutter among bamboo, and he adopted her.
Kaguya-hime brought wealth and luck to her father because he often found gold in the spot where she had been discovered. Kaguya-hime was also very beautiful, and everyone wanted to marry her. She refused to marry, though.
Then one day, she announced she was actually the princess of the moon and would be returning home. She disappeared with barely a trace.
Did you enjoy reading about Japanese mythology and folklore stories? Which one is your favorite?
If Japanese folklore is your thing, I wrote a whole article on Japanese ghost stories to learn even more. There are also some really cool books about it, such as The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.