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Oyoso no oinaru mono mina osorubeshi / Iwanya amanyo no hoshiakari ni / kane wo kuroguro to tsuketaru onna no kubi wo  / osoroshi nantomo orokaya.

Everyone is afraid of huge things / even more so, in the starlight of a rainy night / the woman’s head with blackened teeth / needless to say it’s scary.

It was the end of the seventies, when I brutally went from the gummy, but never forgotten and appreciated today more than then, cartoons of ’30/’40 to those as Hanna & Barbera style to Disney’s classics, and when the world of animation seemed by now consolidated, here stuff like Grendizer/Goldrake, and then Jeeg and Mazinger came. And along with them, a whole series of space monsters that only decades later I understood to be part of that Japanese culture that would have had pervaded the world, from comics to animation to cinematography, helping to create a typical horror genre that would have had an impact on everyone’s audience across all the continents.

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Not that I hadn’t already seen Japanese monsters: how can we forget Godzilla, the result of radiation no less than the more American King Kong, and therefore also belonging to the category of Kaiju, the mysterious monsters so dear to the Japanese. But the humongous gorilla was something closer to my fantasy, something more famous even if in a giant science fiction format, and perhaps for this reason, less frightening.

The cartoon monsters, on the other hand, were always new, every day something hideous was launched against humanity, characterized by shapes, sizes and physical characteristics that relied on some unconscious fears. And from those first experiences with monsters, the “contacts” have continued, through manga and anime, more and more terrifying and dark, more and more sunk in the roots of a culture that I did not know yet, and perhaps also for this reason, that tickled my horror imagination up to the present times, in which Japanese and Asian cinema in general have created monsters and nightmares by leveraging our fears. As much as monsters and demons have characterized any culture, and illustrious writers have anticipated  contemporary film productions, but not only, between fear and horror, folklore and moral education, Japan is certainly second to none in terms of material to be able to communicate such feelings, going back to those time of its long history that has its roots some tens of thousands of years ago, passing through the fine tales of Koizumi Yakumo, perhaps better known by his western name as Lafcadio Hearn, transferred as a journalist to the West Indies, and who lived intensely in Japan, so much in love with that country and its culture so that he married the daughter of a samurai and became a naturalized Japanese.

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Japanese horror and monsters have a depth and vastness that far exceeds the expectations of an enthusiast of the genre, on the other hand from a land like Japan, characterized by an immense pantheon of gods, it cannot surprise that even the plethora of monsters is a real infinity even if, in the end, not all of them then are evil, as the good horror genre would require.

Fear is one of the primary emotions, as identified by professor Paul Ekman in 1972: in the reptilian complex, an archaic brain structure shared by all higher vertebrates, all the essential functions are located not only to react to an attack but also to recognize a danger. The mechanism is ancient but so perfect in its efficiency that even in us humans it takes over from conceptual and rational thought, and replaces it in situations of impending danger. (…) Fear is consequent to the awareness of inferiority and vulnerability, leads to prudence and the search for an escape route, immobilization, a concealment opportunity, it is proportional to the risk to which one is aware of being exposed , and when the extent of the risk is unknown, fear is greatest. Fear, therefore, is the mental state aroused by the awareness of being threatened by a danger well identified in its nature and entity, circumscribed and detailed in space and in time.

We can therefore imagine what it can happen in our unconscious when the danger is also unknown, as well as the being that represents it is also unknown: and here we go then to the legend, to the fear handed down from generation to generation, becoming a typical folklore of a certain area, perhaps also due to reduced mobility of the population in remote times, moreover certainly less cultured, when these stories of monsters, fears, guilt and revenge took shape, integrating more atavistic fears such as that of the dark, in whose space the monsters and from which they come out for their appearances in the human world, to terrorize and often kill the unfortunate person on duty.

The word monster derives from the latin monster, which means prodigy, portent; in turn monstrum has its origin in the verb monere, which means to indicate something, to admonish. For the ancients, therefore, the monstra were those oddities, these phenomena out of the norm that, properly interpreted, could indicate the divine will to humans. Komatsu Kastuhiko, in his Oni ga tsukutta kuni Nihon, argues that from the 7th century until the Edo era the authority of the emperors and shoguns was based not only on the defeat of real enemies but also, and above all, on the control of demonic enemies, and as proof of his theory he shows how the periods of maximum diffusion of irrational beliefs corresponded to moments of social and political crisis, when no authority could guarantee security.

From a psychological point of view the most interesting features presented by monsters are gigantism, the extraordinary size of the jaws and hybridism. Opposite the Kami, a term used in Shinto to indicate any entity with particular strength or characterized by a peculiarity, there are the Yokai, which can be translated as demons, but a term that actually refers to a myriad of beings who seem much more likely to make pranks rather than to seriously harm. As Komatsu Kastuhiko argues, the point is that Kami and Yokai have the same substance, they are entities with any form of power, but, as often illustrated by various Eastern doctrines, no one and nothing is completely good or completely evil, and there is nothing that embodies absolute good or evil.

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The world of Japanese evil creatures is varied, populated by very different entities, and Marta Berzieri divides them into four great families:

– Yokai: literally disturbing mystery and synonymous with mononoke, being of the mystery, real living beings that are already born in this form, divided into very varied species, some anthropomorphic, others animal, others still simply absurd.

– Bakemono: literally thing that has changed or, in its most respectful form, obake, and corresponds to something that has changed one’s state or nature, they are often shape-shifters and deceive men with visions to suck their life energy causing their death.

– Oni: they are the closest thing to western demons, anthropomorphic, large, muscular, with horns, and reside in Buddhist hell, tormenting the damned in the most atrocious ways.

– Yurei:  ghosts, predominantly female beings who wear a light white robe, with long and disheveled hair and have no feet, souls who are unable to continue the journey towards reincarnation due to ties not yet dissolved, situations that remain pending yet to be resolved.

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In a country where phobias manage to take the strangest forms, which often clash with Western ones, this type of monster manages to have an exceptional grip: a characteristic Japanese phobia is taijin kyofusho which differs from Western sociophobia, in fear of being embarrassed in the presence of others, to occur exactly the opposite, or as a fear of embarrassing others because of one’s presence, and that in a specific subtype, defined shubo-kyofu, fear is the one that inspires a deformed body. It is a moment to break through the thin wall of panic when supernatural powers, deformities, feelings of guilt add up in a single fearful apparition with often murderous intentions. And when a paladin or a hero manages to defeat them, he too enters the legend, helping to increase its power.

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Among the practitioners of the sword, the Tengu could be very well known (see also, demons imported from China and introduced in Japan by the first Buddhists in the VI-VII century, and successively fused with the indigenous spirits of Shinto. Winged creatures inhabiting forests, spirits of the mountains, anthropomorphic beings represented as bird-men and often depicted with a red face, long nose or beak, proud, vindictive, easy to anger, particularly intolerant towards the arrogant, the blasphemous and those who abuse their power and their knowledge for personal gain, masters particularly experienced in the art of the sword and, more generally, of war: it is said that they have transmitted the theories of tactics and strategy to the bushi (warriors) of higher stature, teachings and mastery that often decided the fate of the warriors themselves or their clans on those battlefields that made the history of the Muromachi period (or Ashikaga, 1336-1573), thus characterizing not only folklore and mythology, but also martial arts and the social and military history of Japan.

Delving into the theme of Japanese monsters would require an almost infinite production of voices and rather than dwell on the more classic ones such as Kitsune, the animal-witch foxes, Tanuki, raccoon dogs who actually enjoy playing tricks more than doing harm and that can influence or possess people, Kappa, anthropomorphic frogs or turtles that attack people mostly underwater or Yuki Onna, spirits known as the snow woman (one of the spectre of a famous story by the aforementioned Lafcadio Hearn), I would like to dwell, not without due respect, on some of those who, in the western culture of the twenty-first century by now accustomed to any type of monster, almost manage to snatch a smile of tenderness.

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Several volumes have been published on Japanese monsters and ghosts, collections, real small encyclopedias, accompanied by prints and drawings, reproductions and ukiyo-e, and from these I will draw inspiration to delve into some curiosities of the Japanese occult, trying to avoid entities also represented in the Western imagination, albeit linked to obviously different legends. Legends and monstrosities that seem more to have their roots in educational motivations, monsters and ghosts of all origins, shapes and nature that could be explained by real natural phenomena, however uncommon, as a desire to teach what is wrong in life and against others , at the price of what with modern psychological theories could be cataloged as a punishment dictated by remorse.

It is always night when these monsters appear, it is always the darkness that hides and protects them and allows them to attack us when we are most vulnerable, sailing among the waves, along isolated country paths and even within our safe home walls, to make us pay for something for which we are to be blamed, or make ourselves unaware victims who must suffer the same pains as those who just want to take revenge for what they have suffered. After all, they are almost human. 

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I turn on my candle to light the way on the keyboard and face fears, vices and some monsters that characterize them.

– Anmo: in the prefecture of Iwate it is said that in the winter nights purple and bright spots appear on the shins of those lazy boys who are always stuck to the irori (cooking and warming table device). It is Anmo, a Yokai that terrifies the lazy kids but at the same time seems to help the weakest.

– Boroboroton: it is said that due to daily use clothes can become impregnated with the obsessions of the individual who wears them. It is the entity of someone who has taken possession of an old dress, turning into Yokai.

– Gedo: known in the Sannin area, during the autumn and the harvesting time, a man stole a few handfuls of rice after which he lost his reason and began to say weird phrases and to suffer for crazy and irrational behaviors, in attempts to escape the Gedo, a being as big as a cat, with blackish brown fur, which obviously only he could see.

-Hikimoren: in the waters of Ise Shima there is an area in which during the humid nights there is a flickering and phosphorescent mass, light emanating from the ghost of some drowned dead who tries to attract the living to increase the gloomy company of him. The fishermen, aware of the danger, furiously stamp their feet on the boards of the bridge: if it were a fish shoal the glow would disappear instantly but if it were the Hikimoren then it would be necessary to stop making noise immediately.

– Isogashi: whoever is bewitched by it ends up struggling relentlessly, since stopping would feel an unbearable sense of guilt, as if he were doing something evil.

– Kihatsu: this name indicates the spirits who are able to bewitch women hair, which are said to hide something disturbing. During the day hair grows and continues to do so despite continuous cuts, endowed with their own will and even going so far as to perform sinister actions.

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– Domokomo: known in the districts of Ishikawa and Nagano, he is the spectre of two doctors, Domo and Komo, each of whom prided himself on being the best luminary in all of Japan. Challenged to duel leveraging their own medical skills, they continued to injure themselves to demonstrate their healing skills, but were unable to prevail over each other. They then came to the ultimate challenge, which was to tear their heads off at the same time and see who was able to attack it best. Obviously they both died giving life to the creature whose name means neither this nor that.

– Kumobi: the spider fire, known in the Shiki district, in Nara. It looks like a fiery swarm made up of hundreds of spiders and hovering in the air. Anyone who had the misfortune of being overwhelmed would die instantly.

– Manekute: when at night somebody are taken by an urgent need to go to the bathroom, it may happen that a mysterious hand appears on the other side of the wall and beckons to follow it. However, once you reach the other room you would realize that there is no one: the hand belongs to the offender of a deceased individual in that room.

– Menreiki: it is an old mask that has turned into Yokai. What is a simple decorative mask during the day, detaches from the wall at night and starts wandering around the house. This is what happens when somebody abandons an old mask. While it does no harm, there is an eerie feeling throughout the house.

– Nigawarai: it has a face characterized by a deformed mouth that looks like a grin together with an irritated and repulsive look. It appears when people are ill-disposed, disgusted and disinterested, or in the presence of people who scramble to the point that they can no longer smile and who deceive themselves by forcibly doing it or when someone behaves in a way that offends the feelings of others. It has legs and nails both impregnated with highly poisonous substances.

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– Okubi: a spirit with only a large head and a very dark kane, the ink that married women used to dye their teeth with (see opening rhyme).

– Gashodokuro: when the resentments of people who died of hardship and fatigue in the fields, or even of violent death, accumulate, the deceased materialize in this huge monster, which at night walks making noise and attacks the men it meets.

– Hari Onago: a monster from the Uwa Shima area. Literally it means woman of the needles, because of her messy hair with hooks with which she use to capture men and dragged them away with her. Once captured, even a man of great strength would have no hope of freeing himself.

– Hakume: a monster whose body is entirely covered with eyes, so he prefers to wander around at night not to be dazzled by the day light. When it meets a man, one of his hundred eyes pops out and starts following him. Monster born from the popular superstition according to which every time a thief steals something, an eye appears on his body.

– Hosode: it is a thin and gnarled hand that looks like a creeper, which appears in the houses to herald great changes, even if it is mainly considered an omen of bad luck.

– Jinmenjiu: the tree of human faces, a strange plant hanging from whose branches there are flowers similar to human faces that do not speak but grin continuously, and which fall to the ground when they laugh too loudly.

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– Kasha: a monster that appears during a funeral causing sudden storms so strong that the participants fall to the ground, and make the coffins uncovered. The Kasha comes directly from hell to take a dead man due to the numerous sins he committed in life.

– Kowai: a greedy monster that appears in any place and eats anything, even corpses. While alive, he eats everything that belongs to his neighbor, while after death, unable to give up earthly things, he becomes a weightless being and goes against all the rules of Buddhism.

– Shami choro: Yokai who took possession of an obsessed shamisen player, who ended up taking on the guise of his instrument, delivering his soul to the demon and changing his shape.

-Teoihebi: throwing a snake away after cutting it in two meant incurring revenge from him. During the night the animal would turn into a Teoihebi, wounded snake, and visit its killer. House entrances could have been prevented with a mosquito net, but blood would drip all over the house on the next day.

– Shin nurikabe: “modern” spirit (shin means new) derived from the most popular and ancient nurikabe that appeared on the mountain paths, this is manifested inside the houses and appears in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator. Spirit who gets irritated by the rough use that humans make of the fridge in the summer by filling it with food and slamming the door. When the victim approaches the door, the shin appears, and swallows him through the door itself.

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lele bo


  • On training, Diana Nardacchione, Edizione Libreria Militare
  • La paura in Giappone, Marta Berzieri, Caravaggio editore.
  • Enciclopedia dei mostri giapponesi, Shigeru Mizuki, Kappa
  • Enciclopedia degli spiriti giapponesi, Shigeru Mizuki, Kappalab, Bolognalab, Bologna

IMAGES (unless otherwise indicated)

  • The Bakemono Zukushi “Monster” Scroll (18th–19th century)


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