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The Cunning Female Demons and Ghosts of Ancient Japan

What seems to trap a woman between this life and the beyond is the anguish of being hurt by those closest to her.
Image via Wiki Commons

Japanese folklore glitters with powerful female spirits and demons who terrorize the living. The common theme of their lives and deaths is transgression: philandering husbands, murdered children, or a family's shame.

These spirits often seek vengeance, typically from anything they encounter. While some have the ability to kill, others will simply watch the objects of their disaffection suffer and die. The curse of the vengeful ghost can become contagious like a disease, and can even infect an area after the ghost has left.


What seems to trap a woman between this life and the beyond is the anguish of being hurt by those closest to her.


One of the most popular ghost stories in Japan, the Oiwa was a woman who became facially deformed after her husband poisoned her so he could marry a rich neighbor's granddaughter. After the poor woman saw her facial disfigurement, including drooping eyes and chunks of hair falling out, she couldn't take it. She died of insanity and a broken heart from her husband's betrayal. Her husband, however, ends up haunted by her ghost, which he often sees in paper lanterns.

Sazae Oni, Turban Snails of The Sea

Although not the most intimidating title, Sazae Oni are turban snails that haunt the seven seas, often taking the form of beautiful women to lure seamen into trouble. The shapeshifters pretend to be drowning, and turn on their rescuers once they are 'saved'. Sometimes the Sazae Oni can appear to innkeepers or children by a river. There is one legend of a Sazae Oni who was "rescued" by pirates, who did not recognize her as a demon. After the pirates raped her that night, she bit off each of their testicles one by one, demanding gold for their "kintama" or "golden balls".

Yama Uba, Mountain Witch

A Yama Uba is an old crone who lives and hunts in the mountains and eats anyone who is unfortunate enough to cross her path. She will often pose as a young woman who will offer shelter to lost travelers. Once the traveler falls asleep, she will eat them, sometimes using her hair to trap her victims and drag them into her enormous mouth. It is said that the Yama Uba was a normal woman when the area where she was living experienced a famine. Her family couldn't feed her, driving her out into the woods to starve. She eventually found shelter in a cave, although she was driven insane and started to feed off people, turning into the Yama Uba from desperation or rage.



Hannya are women transformed into demonesses by jealousy. There are three grades of Hannya.

Namanari: These demons still resemble human women, although they have small horns. Namanari use dark magic to perform evil deeds such as summoning Ikiryo, a spirit that leaves the body of a living person and haunts other people or places. These demons are not completely evil and still have the opportunity to regain their humanity.

Chūnari: These are mid-level demons, with long, sharp horns and tusk-like fangs. Although they have more powerful magic than Namanari, they are still vulnerable to Buddhist prayer.

Honnari: True demons and the most powerful of all three, Honnari have serpentine bodies and can breathe fire. These are demons that have embraced their jealousy so deeply that they can no longer be saved.


An ubume is a woman who dies just before, during, or shortly after childbirth. Her spirit is too worried about her baby to pass on peacefully and she turns into a ghost. If the mother died but the baby survived, the Ubume will wander into stores and homes to try and buy necessities for her child, paying with handfuls of dead leaves. If both the mother and child died, the Ubume will appear on dark, rainy nights as a woman carrying a child and crying for help. She then passes her baby on to someone willing to help, but the "baby" turns out to be a rock that grows heavier and heavier until the victim is crushed under its weight.


Nure-onna, The Snake Woman

One of the reoccurring elements in Japanese mythology is the concept of shapeshifters, of demons that appear to be women but are either only half women, or use a young and beautiful girl as a façade for something far more sinister. Stories of Kijo are ingrained in Japanese culture. These are the most evil of spirits, or Yōkai, because their sole purpose is to cause harm to humans.

The Nure-onna is a wicked creature, a monstrous being with the head of a woman and the body of a serpent who spends her time along shores and rivers. She disguises herself as a distressed female holding a baby, and when someone comes to help her, and takes the bundle so she can rest, it becomes heavy as stone and prevents her victim from running away. The Nure-onna then attacks and sucks the blood from her victims.

Nukekubi and Rokurkubi, No Neck and Pulley Neck

Nukekubi and Rokurkubi are former humans who have been punished with this curse because of an evil deed that they have committed, such as sinning against god or being unfaithful to their husbands. But here's the kicker—in many cases, it isn't the women affected who have committed an atrocity. It is often their husbands or fathers who escaped this cruel fate by passing it along to these women.

Nukekubi are women whose heads and souls detach from their bodies when they sleep. They often have a thirst for blood, draining their victims like vampires, although they occasionally just bite their human and animal victims to death.


By day, ordinary women. By night, Rokurokubi are women whose necks stretch to incredible lengths. These women attack small animals and lick up oil from lamps. Although these demons may not cause extensive harm, they occasionally enjoy scaring people for the sake of it.

Ubagabi, Old Hag of Fire

Showing up on rainy nights near riverbanks, Ubagabi appear as balls of flames with the face of an old woman in them. These demons can fly long distances in the blink of an eye, and if you are unfortunate enough to have one graze you, it is said you will die within three years. The legend behind the Ubagabi is that of an old women who stole oil from the lamps at the Hiroaka Shrine, a horrible crime since oil was rare. When the woman was caught by the priest, and later shamed and shunned by her village for being an oil thief, she was so humiliated that she committed suicide in the pond behind the shrine. These sorts of "unclean deaths" never turn out as planned, and the old woman turned into an Ubagabi.

Hone-onna, Skeleton Spectre

In Japanese folklore, the Hone-onna is a female skeleton who lures men into her cavern. Sometimes her victims don't find out of her state until after she's done, when the light shines through her. Once the victims realize what's going on, the Hone-onna sucks the life force out of them until they become skeletons themselves.