Japan’s Female Mythological Creatures & Demons

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A painting of rokurokubi, a long necked yokai woman who's head is floating over to another obake.

Female mythological creatures of Japan are a staple of Japanese mythology and folklore. Many are beautiful, yet cunning and even deadly. Their stories have influenced many aspects of traditional Japanese storytelling and inspired many facets of art. Therefore, in the spirit of the Halloween season, let’s take a closer look at Japan’s well-known female mythological creatures!

There are hundreds of demons and ghosts in Japanese mythology, or yokai (mythical spirits), yurei (shades of the deceased), and obake (transformed beings). These creatures have been around for centuries but only became popular during the Edo period. During this time, the art scene flourished and brought forth many depictions of these mythical creatures.

One of the most famous art scrolls is the Hyakkai Zukan (The Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons) by Edo artist Sawaki Suushi. It features 100 different types of demons and ghosts. This art scroll greatly influenced the world of Japanese demons and spirits as we know it today. It also inspired anime such as Yokai Watch and manga like GeGeGe no Kitarō. 

Female mythological creatures of Japan often seek revenge for infidelity, family shame, or murdered children, thereby challenging social norms of submission and politeness.

1. Nure-Onna

Nure-onna, or “Wet woman” in English, is a type of yokai that resembles a snake-like reptile with a woman’s head. Their name is based on the imagery that their hair is always wet. They are said to live in places such as rivers, oceans, and lakes. Mainly, they are found in Kyushu, Niigata, and Fukushima regions.

A painting of nure-onna. She is a reptile-like woman, similar to the Gorgon.
Nure-onna is a terrifying yokai who resembles giant snakes. Image via Shutterstock

Nure-onna often disguises themselves as distressed women carrying bundled-up babies. They cry out for help to people passing by, often fishermen, in hopes of luring them in and asking them if they can hold their baby, so they can rest. Those who Nure-onna tricks, unfortunately, meet their demise. 

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2. Okiku

Okiku is a yurei belonging to one of the Nihon San Dai Kaidan—Japan’s Big Three Ghost Stories. She was a dishwashing servant girl who lived and worked in Himeji Castle. Okiku was very beautiful and caught the eye of a samurai called Aoyama. Aoyama tried hard to seduce Okiku, but she ignored all his advances. 

A painting of okiku, one of many legendary female yurei of Japan. Her head is floating above rotenburo bath.
Okiku was a significant inspiration behind Sadako, the main villain of the movie “The Ring.” Image via Wikicommons

Due to Okiku ignoring all of Aoyama’s advances, he decides to kill her and put her in a well. Soon after, wails could be heard from the well, and her ghost would travel throughout Himeji Castle at night. 

The legacy of Okiku lives on in modern Japanese works. The most famous example is in the internationally acclaimed horror film The Ring. It features the antagonist Sadako, a vengeful ghost with qualities similar to Okiku.

3. Kuchisake-Onna

Kuchisake-onna is a vengeful female mythological creature of Japan whose name refers to her mutilated face – her mouth slit from ear to ear. It is unknown who did this, but most legends attribute it to her husband or a medical procedure.

She will generally approach potential victims with her mouth covered, asking if they think she is beautiful. Depending on the individuals’ answers, she might spare them or kill them. According to legend, one way to survive an encounter with Kuchisake-onna is to say she’s “average” looking simply. Another option is to appease her with money and hard candies.

4. Jorogumo

Jorogumo is a type of Japanese yokai that is also an obake. They are a type of spider that can shapeshift into a beautiful woman when they want to eat humans. When jorogumo are in their female form, their shadow still takes the shape of a spider. 

They typically live in forests, empty caves, or houses. Their favorite prey is young, handsome men who are lonely and looking for love. They usually seek them out in human form. Once the jorogumo spots someone suitable, they invite the man to their house and slowly kill them. The jorogumo appears in many Edo-period writings, such as the Taihei-Hyakumonogatari and Tonoigusa.

5. Yuki-Onna

Yuki-onna, or “Snow Women,” is a pale young woman that inhabits snowy regions, particularly in northern Japan. They are beautiful, with smooth, snow-white skin and long black hair.  

A historical painting of yuki-onna, one of many famous female yokai of Japan. She is very pale, with long black hair.
Yuki-onna accompanies lost travelers during snowstorms. Image via Wikicommons.

According to legend, even a mere touch from the yuki-onna is enough to chill you to your core. When they walk, they leave no snow tracks; some legends even say they float. They appear before lost travelers during snowstorms. Instead of killing their prey, they pursue a relationship with them. The only condition is that the traveler never reveals their true identity to anyone. 

6. Hone-Onna

Hone-onna or “Bone woman” are female yokai seeking their former lover. They depict themselves as young, attractive women who wear a yukata or kimono. One hone-onna is depicted in the Botan Dōrō (The Peony Lantern). In the story, after her death, the hone-onna named Otsuya famously holds a red peony lantern while pursuing her former lover.

They do not seek their former lover out due to revenge or hate but rather to continue their relationship. As the saying goes, “love is blind.” Typically, many people do not see their skeleton figure at first. But once they come to their senses, many are shocked to see their lover is now a skeleton.  

Fortunately, hone-onna generally has no ill intent. Therefore, most people don’t fear them. Instead, they allow them to remain by their side until they finally pass on. 

What other legendary female mythological creatures of Japan have you heard of before? Which ones are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.

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