Japan boasts a robust collection of ghost stories, with one small group focused on an unusual habitat: the toilet. These specters are a variable lot. Some are relatively modern legends while others are quite old. Some are mostly irritating and some are downright deadly. Collectively, they represent centuries of anxiety around a place often treated as a necessary evil in Japanese culture. So let’s take look at the things that go bump in the stall.
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Are They Really Ghosts?
Ok, I must confess, “toilet ghosts” is a bit of a misnomer. The line between yurei (ghosts) and yokai (general supernatural beings and phenomenon) is a bit thin in Japanese lore. I’ve seen some sources treat yurei as a type of yokai while others insist they are completely different. The best quick distinction I’ve seen comes from Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt: “A yurei is a someone. A yokai is a something.”1 Basically, a true ghost will have a specific name, identity, and usually a location attached. There are tales of specific yokai and even yokai ghosts, but generally descriptions of yokai are on the species level. By that definition, the Kurote and Akaname are definite yokai. The others are harder to say. Each has a potential human backstory, but because they don’t haunt a single toilet where they died, they are generally categorized as yokai.
Why would these specters hang out around toilets? Some of the earlier creatures were likely inspired by natural creepy-crawlies that appeared in traditional Japanese toilets. Both baths and toilets were separate from regular housing, and in humid areas they attracted many damp-loving creatures.2 Most were fairly clean, but some still came outfitted with flyswatters.3 Later creepers may have been born from the poor conditions of many mid-20th century school bathrooms. There are also several creatures you can find on other lists of toilet ghosts who appeared in other locations, such as kappa and the ghost of Kawashima Reiko. For this post, I’ve chosen to stick with the beings whose main home is the toilet/bathroom.
A couple notable toilet-related deaths in Japanese history may have contributed to visions of danger as well. The 16th century daimyo (samurai lord) Uesugi Kenshin’s death is famously blamed on an attack from beneath the toilet by a ninja with dwarfism.4 More likely he died of stomach cancer.5 Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Loyalty”/ “Chūgi” also features a samurai who attempts a murder in an outhouse because it’s relatively isolated, killing the wrong person due to bad lighting. The story is based on a real murder from 1747,6 though I’ve been unable to confirm the toilet part.
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
The Kurote is a pretty simple phenomenon. It’s a dark, hairy hand that pops out of the toilet to feel whoever’s using it. Its name simply means “black hand.”7 The story comes primarily from the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa Prefecture on the west side of Japan, so it’s not widespread. In the main story of I’ve seen about the Kurote, a samurai’s wife encountered one while using the toilet. Her husband promptly cut the hand off and for some reason saved it in a box. Later, three Buddhist priests visited him and commented on a strange feeling in the house. The samurai showed them the hand and the third priest exclaimed that it belonged to him, snatching it as he turned into a hairy creature about 9 feet tall. This also the only place I’ve seen the full form of the Kurote described.
The age of the Kurote legend is unknown. I would guess the samurai story is set before the alternate attendance/sankin kotai system began in 1635. While ordinary samurai weren’t required to send their wives to Edo Castle like daimyos, many still traveled to the capital every other year with their lords,8 which would interfere with toilet policing. Another tale involving a noble woman is even harder to date. In modern times, the Kurote remains rare, though it may have inspired an element in the Legend of Zelda games. Three different games feature a greenish or bluish hand, known either as “Hand” or “Phoeni,” popping out of a toilet to ask the player for paper.9 The request for paper sounds more like Aka Manto or Kainade (more on them later), but otherwise it resembles a Kurote with a better job than harassing bathroom-goers.
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
This yokai is basically a supernatural bathroom pest. It is created from the slime and grime in particularly dirty bathrooms, which it then eats.10 This diet is why it is called “akaname”/ “dirt taster” or “akaneburi”/ “dirt licker.” Roughly humanoid in shape, Akaname are about the size of a child. They can have mold-green or red skin, 1-2 eyes, and 1-5 toes and fingers, often clawed. Their most consistent features are greasy black hair and a long tongue they use to slurp up bathroom gunk. Though Akaname don’t usually attack humans directly, they can transmit disease much like more ordinary pests.11 So as tempting as it might be to let them lick “clean” your dirty bathroom, never let an Akaname do your housekeeping.
Like the Kurote, the age of the Akaname is unknown. The oldest concrete reference comes from one of Toriyama Seikan’s collections of yokai images from 1776.12 It does not seem limited to a specific region, just really dirty bathrooms. In modern times, its relatively nonviolent nature has landed it several spots in children’s media. The Pokémon Lickitung and Tubluppa from Yokai Watch are likely inspired by the Akaname. It appears in GeGeGe no Kitaro, an anime series based on an early manga that helped revive yokai in Japanese pop culture.13 It shows up in Australian author Cristy Burne’s Takeshita Demons series. Burne appears to ignore the disease-causing aspect of the Akaname since it is referred to as “[d]isgusting but useful.”14 Again, just clean your bathroom!
Kanbari Nyūdō (加牟波理入道)
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Here we have the pervert of the bunch. The Kanbari Nyūdō resembles a giant Buddhist priest who likes to spy on people using the toilet, especially on New Year’s Eve.15 Sometimes he just watches while coughing up a cuckoo and sometimes he tries to lick or stroke the person as well. Though he isn’t violent, Kanbari Nyūdō is disturbing and the sight of him may bring bad luck or constipation. To ward him off, anyone using the toilet on New Year’s Eve must chant “ganbari nyūdō, hototogisu,” roughly translating to “ganbari priest, cuckoo.”
The cuckoo connection is just one strand in the complicated web behind this specter’s name. Seikan mentions Kanbari Nyūdō in his collections, claiming the giant developed from the Chinese toilet god Kakuto. However, the Chinese toilet goddess was actually named ZiGu (紫姑), originating from the spirit of a woman murdered on the toilet.16 Kakuto is likely a Ming general who Seikan apparently didn’t like.17 There was, however, a Chinese belief that hearing a cuckoo while on the toilet would bring bad luck unless you quickly barked like a dog in response. How the old priest got in there is unknown.
What the Kanbari Nyūdō is depends on who you ask. Seikan makes him a god and a sly insult. I’ve seen a story claiming he’s the ghost of an old man banished for peeping at girls, eventually killed by a thief rescuing a kidnapped girl.18 However, since it only calls him “the Bald Man” and doesn’t site its source, I’m guessing this is a modern addition. He’s a demon in the Megami Tensei video games, where he simply goes by Kanbari. Under the variation “Ganbari Nyūdō,” he also appears as a yokai in the 2007 and 2018 versions of GeGeGe no Kitaro, and in the manga Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan. So god, ghost, or monster, take your pick. And maybe avoid bathrooms with windows on New Year’s Eve.
Aka Manto (赤マント)
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Aka Manto is probably the most dangerous toilet haunter. His name refers to his signature outfit, a red (aka) mantle (manto) or cape. He was supposedly a high schooler so handsome he was constantly mobbed by girls even when he hid his face behind a white mask, leading him take refuge in the girl’s restroom where he died.19 His vengeful spirit appears in the cloak and white mask to ask unlucky people, especially in the fourth stall, if they want red paper or blue paper.20 Either color leads to a horrible death: stabbing or flaying for red and strangulation or blood-draining for blue. Answering “yellow paper” gets you drowned in a used toilet. Sometimes choosing purple paper or no paper will allow the victim to escape, but sometimes every choice leads to a grim end.
As you might guess from the toilet paper, Aka Manto is a relatively recent phantom. His story is often said to be inspired by the Blue Blanket (Ao Getto) murder in 1906 Fukui where a man wearing a blue blanket is believed to have lured out and killed three family members.21 The case remains unsolved and doesn’t involve toilets, but some versions of Aka Manto have him wearing a red blanket and kidnapping people.22 It’s also possible Aka Manto was inspired by a creature called Kainade said to appear on the February 3rd festival of Setsubun. Like the Kurote, Kainade is a hand that feels people using the toilet. It either asks the toilet paper question or leaves when asked it. Answering blue or red changes whether Kainade appears as a blue or red hand, similar to an Aka Manto tale where the victim’s skin simply turns the color they answer.23 A legend called Red Paper Blue Paper (Akakami Aokami) also resembles the more violent Aka Manto legends minus the cloak. Which led to which is unknown, but Aka Manto stories have been told since at least the 1930s.
Despite his iconic look and the many variations of his legend, Aka Manto doesn’t have much media to his name. He has his own video game, where players must survive his attempts to hunt them through a school. The only other place I’ve seen him is the anime Haunted Junction, where he uses powers of seduction unhampered by a tiny mask. An element connected to Aka Manto is the reason I could not stomach watching the entire show. Mutsuki Asahina, a teenage miko and exorcist, is sent to face Aka Manto because she is (cringe) only attracted to young boys.24 The show also has a heavily sexualized version of Hanako-san, who I’ll cover next.
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Hanako is the closest to a true ghost. Unlike the others whose titles describe them, she has an actual name, meaning “flower child/girl.” She is generally addressed with the respectful –san ending or as “Toire no Hanako”/ “Hanako of the Toilet.” How she died varies from killed in a World War II air raid, murdered by an abusive parent, or suicide from intense school bullying.25 She haunts the 3rd stall of the 3rd floor girl’s restroom in school buildings, appearing as a young girl with a bob haircut wearing a red skirt. Those who dare can summon her by knocking on the stall’s door three times and calling out, “Hanako-san, are you there?” She may also appear and ask to be your friend. Many versions of the legend claim this will end with Hanako dragging the child “to hell” or devouring them as a lizard,26 but generally no “actual harm” is expected from a Hanako encounter.27
Though she is the youngest of the toilet spirits, Hanako is the star. Since the first reported sighting in the 1950s to her heyday in the 1980s,28 countless numbers of children have attempted to summon her. Belief in Hanako has dwindled since the introduction of toilets that conjure the Space Age rather than girl ghosts, but she lives on in media. Yokai Watch’s Toiletta is clearly Hanako by another name, and she makes cameo appearances in many manga and anime including 2018’s GeGeGe no Kitaro, Gakkou no Kaidan, and yes, Haunted Junction. She is the terror of the 1998 live-action film Shinsei toire no Hanako-san while more nuanced in Jōji Matsuoka’s Toire no Hanako-san (1995).
Among the most recent and unusual interpretations of Hanako is Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, a manga and anime series where Hanako is a boy. Or possibly two, since twin brothers (neither actually named Hanako) divide the role between the living and the dead. This Hanako grants wishes to those who summon him, taking a price only revealed after the bargain. Like Kitaro’s Hanako-san, he is accompanied by two hitodama orbs and is one of Seven Wonders/Mysteries in his school. His job is to “maintain order between humans and apparitions” by eliminating those that kill humans.29 Yet he uses a kitchen knife identified as his “murder weapon” from life, so he has darker shades. Interestingly, he calls himself a “kai” derived from “yokai” rather than “yurei” even though he was clearly once a living human. His origin story goes the suicide route,30 although it’s uncertain whether his choice was motivated by adult abuse or peer bullying. The series is an interesting contribution to the Hanako legend, though I hope I’ll someday find a similarly complex female Hanako.
He does have a surprisingly catchy intro…
Japanese toilet “ghosts” are a quirky group. Though their tales are generally rather simple, their sheer number is fascinating. Outside of Japanese legends, the only toilet ghost I know of is Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter world. If you know of others in myth or media, please tell me about them in comments! I’d also love to hear your thoughts on these odd specters. Which one would you rather meet?
- Yoda, Hiroko, and Matt Alt, Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (Tokyo/Rutland/Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2012), 9.
- Yoda, Hiroko, and Matt Alt, Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide (Tokyo/Rutland/Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2012), 88.
- Mocket, Molly, “The Japanese Toilet Takes a Bow: A Personal History,” The Rumpus, Oct. 20, 2015, accessed Oct. 22, 2020, https://therumpus.net/2015/10/the-japanese-toilet-takes-a-bow-a-personal-history/.
- Man, John, Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warriors (London: Random House, 2012), 156.
- Man, 157.
- Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke, Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories, trans. Jay Rubin (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 244.
- Meyer, Matthew, “Kurote,” Yokai.com, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, http://yokai.com/kurote/.
- Vaporis, Constantine N., “To Edo and Back: Alternate Attendance and Japanese Culture in the Early Modern Period,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 23 no. 1 (Winter , 1997): 25-67. JSTOR (133123). 29.
- Russoniello, Kellen, “Zelda Study: Of Ghosts and Toilets,” Zelda Universe, posted Oct. 29, 2019, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, https://zeldauniverse.net/2019/10/29/zeldas-study-of-ghosts-and-toilets/.
- Matsui, Marie, “Akaname: The Toilet-Licking Yokai,” Yokai Street, posted Oct. 28, 2019, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, https://www.yokaistreet.com/akaname-the-toilet-licking-yokai/.
- Meyer, Matthew, “Akaname,” Yokai.com, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, http://yokai.com/akaname/.
- Yoda and Alt, Yokai, 9.
- Review of The Filth Licker, by Cristy Bunre, Kirkus, Sep. 26, 2012, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/cristy-burne/filth-licker/.
- Meyer, Matthew, “Kanbari Nyūdō,” Yokai.com, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, http://yokai.com/kanbarinyuudou/.
- “Episode 111: Toilet Goddess,” Chinese Mythology Podcast, posted Dec. 24, 2018, accessed Oct. 24, 2020, https://chinesemythologypodcast.com/2018/12/24/episode-111-toilet-goddess/.
- Meyer, “Kanbari Nyūdō.”
- “The Bald Man (Kanbari Nyudo),” Horror Stories, posted Jan. 21, 2020, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, https://a-horror-stories.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-bald-man-kanbari-nyudo.html?m=1.
- Mohsin, Maria, “The Legend of Aka Manto,” The Business Standard, Jan. 28, 2019, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, https://tbsnews.net/splash/legend-aka-manto-39937.
- Meyer, Matthew, “Aka Manto,” Yokai.com, accessed Oct. 16, 2020, http://yokai.com/akamanto/.
- “青ゲットの殺人事件,” Wikipedia (Japanese), accessed Oct. 16, 2020, https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/青ゲットの殺人事件.
- Meyer, “Aka Manto.”
- Haunted Junction, “Three Members, Seven Spirits,” episode 1, directed by Shunji Yoshida, written by Kazuhisa Sakaguchi, Bandai Visual, Apr. 2, 1997.
- Meyer, Matthew, “A-Yokai-A-Day: Hanako-san (or “Hanako of the Toilet”),” A-Yokai-A-Day, Oct. 27, 2010, accessed Oct. 10, 2020, http://matthewmeyer.net/blog/2010/10/27/a-yokai-a-day-hanako-san-or-hanako-of-the-toilet/.
- Riddle, Delphini, “The Ghost of Little Girls in Japanese Schools,” The Business Standard, Mar. 20, 2020, accessed Oct. 28, 2020, https://tbsnews.net/splash/ghost-little-girls-japanese-schools-58747.
- Yoda and Alt, Yokai, 176.
- Toilet Bound Hanako-Kun, “Yousei-san,” season 1 episode 2, directed by Masaomi Ando and Yoshihide Yûzumi, written by Yasuhiro Nakanishi, Funimation, Jan. 17, 2020.
- Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, “The 4 O’Clock Library,” season 1 episode 6, directed by Masaomi Ando and Sakurako Mitsuhashi, written by Yasuhiro Nakanishi, Funimation, Feb. 14, 2020.