Get to Know Your Japanese Bathroom Ghosts

There are several
to keep track of, some scarier than others.

Illustrations of
the 12 different types of Kappa, a water spirit who is sometimes known to haunt
outhouses, from the 19th century.

As any horror
film fan can attest, the bathroom can be a scary place. From
Janet Leigh’s infamous shower scene in Psycho to the
blood-spewing drain pipes of Stephen King’s It, there’s no shortage
of genuinely startling imagery connected to lavatories. But when it comes to
conjuring up the most terrifying possible interruptions to our most private
moments, no one beats Japan.

In Japanese folklore, there are a number of spirits
rumored to appear in bathrooms. Some reach out from the insides of toilets;
others whisper through the stall walls. Each one has its own grim story and
particular behavior, but they all share a connection to the bathroom.

“The bathroom is a somewhat unusual space in a household
or school or wherever it exists,” says Michael Dylan Foster, author of The
Book of Yôkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
. Foster
describes bathrooms as liminal spaces in that they connect the normal, everyday
world to a whole different realm, namely the sewer.

“In that sense, the bathroom is a place of transition,
and the toilet in particular is a portal to a mysterious otherworld,” says
Foster. “Even though we generally flush things down, it would not seem
surprising for something mysterious to come up through the toilet.” A hand
reaching up through the toilet is just one of the possible creep-outs a
Japanese bathroom ghost might visit on someone.

Toire no Hanako-san

One of the best-known of Japan’s bathroom spirits is
Toire no Hanako-san, or Hanako of the Toilet. Like all ghost stories, the
details of Hanako’s origins vary somewhat from telling to telling, but in
general, Hanako is said to be the ghost of a young girl who died around WWII,
and now haunts school bathrooms. Usually described as wearing an out-of-fashion
red dress and bob haircut, she can be summoned by going to the girl’s bathroom
on the third floor, knocking on the third stall three times, and saying, “Are
you there Hanako-san?” Depending on regional
variations
, Hanako will respond by saying, “Yes I am,” or a ghostly hand
will appear. If someone enters the stall, they could also be eaten by a
three-headed lizard.

The last outcome notwithstanding, Hanako is generally
just a spooky presence meant for a good scare. Hanako has appeared in numerous
anime series and television shows, and is pretty much a star. “[The legend] is
well known because it is essentially an ‘urban legend’ associated with schools
all over Japan. Since the 1990s, it has also been used in movies, so it became
part of popular culture not just orally transmitted or local folklore,” says
Foster.

Kashima Reiko

Hanako is not the only young girl said to haunt the
bathrooms of Japan. There is another legend of a young girl named Kashima
Reiko, said to be the ghost of a girl who died when her legs were severed by a
train. Her legless torso now haunts bathroom stalls, asking unlucky visitors,
“Where are my legs?” The correct response, “On the Meishin Expressway,” could
save your life. Otherwise, it’s said that she might tear a person’s legs off.

Kashima Reiko is a bathroom-centric variation of another
Japanese ghost story known as “Teke Teke,”
 which also features the
ghost of a young girl who was cut in half by a train. There’s also a version of
the Kashima Reiko story that suggests she will appear within one month to
anyone who learns her story. This set-up probably sounds familiar to anyone who
knows the popular Ring franchise, which Foster compares to the
liminal aspect that makes bathrooms so ripe a setting for horror. “[Note] the
classic J-horror film (and book) Ringu, in which Sadako is in a
well; the association of the well as a mysterious place has precedents in
earlier Japanese folklore. Also if we think about the imagery of Sadako coming
out of a television set, we get the same idea that the television is a portal
to another world; she literally crawls from another world into our own.”

Aka Manto

It’s not all scary little girls. One of the most gruesome
of Japan’s bathroom ghosts is Aka Manto, or the Red Cape. Also sometimes called
Aoi Manto (Blue Cape), or in some variations, Akai-Kami-Aoi-Kami (Red Paper,
Blue Paper), this
modern spirit
 is said to resemble a person completely covered by a
flowing cape and hood, wearing a mask that hides an irresistibly handsome face.
He is said to appear to people (usually in the last stall) as they are going to
wipe, asking a strange question. Sometimes the spirit asks, “Red cape or blue
cape?” or offers “Red paper or blue paper?” Choosing red will lead to Aka Manto
flaying a person’s back (a red cape), or another gruesome, bloody death, while
choosing blue will cause the spirit to suffocate you. Getting clever and
choosing any other color will just cause you to be dragged to the underworld.
The only way to escape Aka Manto’s punishment is to decline its offer entirely.

Kappa

One of Japan’s most famous mythological creatures, the kappa is
said to sometimes be
found in bathrooms
. “However, it is not specifically thought of as a
bathroom spirit, but more generally as a creature associated with water—usually
rivers or ponds. But there are a lot of legends in which the kappa appears in
an outhouse, where it harasses people (especially women),” says Foster.

Akaname

This goblinesque yōkai spirit is filthy and disheveled,
with a long, protruding tongue, and according
to Foster
, it is primarily known for licking the filth off of bathtubs.
While not seen as a particularly frightening creature, the image of a gross
little sprite licking the dirt off of a tub is not exactly friendly.

Japan’s bathroom spirits may appear to be uniquely ready
to haunt your every bowel movement, but ultimately there are good reasons
bathrooms everywhere tend to be a source of fear. “You are exposed and
vulnerable—literally naked, at least in part—so there is a certain amount of
danger or uncertainty associated with being there,” says Foster. “The bathroom
is not a place you want to stay longer than necessary to complete the job you
came to do.”

[Eric
Grundhauser, Atlas Obscura
]