September 17, 2021 6 min read 2 Comments
The Land of the Rising Sun is full of urban legends. One of the most popular is that of the rokurokubi.
Ever heard of these humanoid creatures, usually women, with their necks that can grow longer?
In this article we will introduce you to this yôkai, the different types of rokurokubi and their place in Japanese culture. Thrills guaranteed!
The legend of the rokurokubi originates from Japanese mythology during the reign of the last shogun dynasty, better known as the Edo period (1603-1867).
A beautiful and attractive woman by day... but at night the rokurokubi undergoes a metamorphosis. Her neck extends and she starts to hunt. Some rokurokubi are unaware of their condition and blame their nightly stalking of human prey on nightmares, while others are well aware of it.
Some original representations of Rokurokubi women ( found on DeviantArt).
It is difficult to recognize these creatures, as they are ordinary looking people leading normal lives amidst the other citizens. However, some versions of the rokurokubi legend allege that they are identifiable by small white marks that are visible on their necks. Also, they sometimes reveal themselves by sleeping in rokurokubi condition (head distant from the body) when they are tired and satiated.
Different origins have been attributed to this yokai (supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore). The most common one has a religious connotation, which is not surprising in the Land of the Rising Sun!
According to this belief, these metaphysical creatures have broken the precepts of Buddhism and were cursed as a result; their punishment is a life as a monster roaming among humans. To repent, the rokurokubi target people who do not respect Buddha's philosophy. In this particular case, the creature behaves as an evil being; it murders its prey by devouring it, sucking its blood or by absorbing its vital energy 😱. Nice creature, huh?
The rokurokubi inspires many artists on DeviantArt.
Other explanations are of a psychological nature. The transformation manifested by the elongation of the neck would be the supernatural expression of a desire of that person. It should be remembered here that a rokurokubi person is not aware of his or her condition; the few memories that come to mind are attributed to dreams.
In other legends, they are oni who play at frightening people (equivalent to vampires for Europeans) or women seeking revenge (such as the legend of the demon Hannya).
First of all, there is a classification according to the sex. In legendary stories, some male rokurokubi exist, but Japanese mythology most often assimilates this yokai to long-necked women whose head remains attached to the body. Female rokurokubi attack men, while long-necked men hunt women at night!
Another typology considers the ferocity as a classification criterion. Thus, there are gentle rokurokubi who just play amusing tricks (drinking oil from lanterns, scaring, spying) while others push barbarity to the point of transforming themselves into bloodsuckers...
Left, a rokurokubi and right, a nukekubi are illustrated. (©Matthew Meyer)
Generally, the cruelty is blamed on flying head yokai! These are the most dominant types of rokurokubi according to the supernatural universe of Japanese urban legends. These evil beings are called "nukekubi". Instead of an elongated neck, these monsters have a detached, wandering head. Some readings of Japanese folklore claim that they are the original prototype of the rokurokubi.
The nukekubi appears to be a normal human being, but at night, its head detaches from its body and freely flies around. This creature attacks and kills its prey. When the head is on a killing mission, the nukekubi's body remains inanimate and vulnerable, which is its weak point: attacking the body or moving it will annihilate the evil monster.
Japanese literature is full of stories whose main entities are yokai. This literary tradition has endured since the Edo period.
Here are some urban legends concerning the rokurokubi. Beware, after reading you may have difficulties to sleep at night 😨.
One of the myths in the Yomihon, a famous book from the Edo period, tells the story of a monk and a woman who ran away together:
"During their journey, the woman gets ill and collapses. Being short of money, her companion decides to murder her. Later on, the monk renounces his religious beliefs and indulges in the pleasures of life. Moving from inn to inn, he ended up falling for the daughter of one of his hosts and became her lover.
At night, the girl metamorphosed and the monk found himself in the presence of his first lover who, with her elongated neck, rebuked him. Feeling remorseful, the monk explained everything to the owner of the inn. To his surprise, the owner confides to him that his inn was financed by money stolen from a woman he had killed and that as punishment he had a rokurokubi daughter with a face that changes in appearance."
As an epilogue, the monk reintegrates the Buddhism religion and builds a tomb for his first wife. "Salvation is in religion" is what the author of this story appears to be saying. The rokurokubi in this story is not an evil one, but this is not always the case.
"The rape of a Rokurokubi yokai", print by Utagawa Kunitora (1804-1844). When the shunga print (erotic) meets the world of yokai, it results in this kind of disturbing painting. 😅
The following, second legend has a much less happy ending. In a story by Matsura Seizan, a pregnant woman is afflicted with an incurable disease:
"A strange peddler told her husband that the liver of a white dog was a miracle drug. The husband then kills his white dog and serves the liver to his wife. She regained her health! The husband concluded that the peddler was a true healer after all. Unfortunately, this conclusion was hasty. His wife gave birth to a rokurokubi girl whose head separated as soon as she was born. This is when the white dog reappears and attacks the head, thus killing the baby."
Note that this legend is based on the animistic side of the Shinto religion which considers that animals and objects also have a soul.
From medieval folklore to recent video games, Japanese culture is full of yokai (rokurokobi, tengu, kappa, nukekubi, oni, mokumokuren, tsukumogami, etc).
Japanese urban legends have been adapted by artists of various backgrounds. Thus we find monsters and humanoid creatures in illustrated books, pictorial stories, shows, movies and manga.
Moreover, the yokai topic has been explored and treated in many fields. Some examples:
As fascinating as disturbing, we can't get enough of rokurokubi representations. The print in the upper center is from the famous painter Hokusai. We can notice two long-necked women lounging in the company of three other characters. Underneath, is a print by Sawaki Sûshi, known for his series of "scrolls of a hundred yôkai drawings", produced in 1737.
Although beliefs in spirits and demons are deeply rooted in Japan, the presence of rokurokubi in Japanese art reveals many interpretations. The long-necked and evil creatures all have a different history, various origins and meanings. Now that you know everything about this fearsome monster, it is up to you to try to decrypt them!
If you have read this article, you are probably an admirer of the Japanese culture which is very rich. Please feel free to share your experiences with us to enrich this article. Do you know other versions about the origin of rokurokobi or other scary yokai? Have you seen a Japanese anime or a manga where these legendary creatures appear? We will be glad to read your comments!
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November 21, 2022 9 min readRead More
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