Japan has a love of official top three lists. You may have heard of the Three Views of Japan (Matsushima, Amanohashidate, and Itsukushima), the Three Great Gardens of Japan (Kenroku-en, Koraku-en, and Kairaku-en), or the Three Sacred Mountains of Japan (Mount Fuji, Mount Haku, and Mount Tate). But did you know that there are official top three lists for folklore? One such list is the Three Most Evil Yokai of Japan (japanese: 日本三大悪妖怪, Nihon san dai aku yōkai). These are the three monsters who, according to legend, posed the greatest threats to Japan’s existence. They are Shuten dōji, Tamamo no Mae, and Sutoku Tennō.
3. Shuten dōji, oni
Before he became a legendary monster, Shuten dōji was a troublesome orphan child. He was very strong and very smart; so much so that people believed his father must have been a demon or a dragon. At an early age he was apprenticed to the Mt. Hiei temple complex and became a monk. However, monastic life did not suit him. He was disrespectful, he got into fights with the other monks, and he was lazy in his studies. He spent most of his time drinking sake, which is how he earned the nickname Shuten dōji, or “little drunkard.”
One night during a festival, Shuten dōji got really drunk and decided to play pranks. He put on an oni mask and snuck around the festival, jumping out of the darkness and scaring festival-goers. After the festival, he was unable to take the oni mask off. It had fused to his face, becoming a part of his body. When he sought help from the abbot, he was scolded for his wickedness. He was mocked and teased by the other monks for his ugliness. His heart became like an oni too – wicked, and full of anger. Shuten dōji left the monastery and fled into the mountains to live as a hermit.
In his solitude, Shuten dōji grew to hate the world. He embraced his wickedness and began to study black magic. He used his power and wit to attack the merchants and travelers moving through his area. He kidnapped young men and women to drink their blood and eat their organs. With each passing year he grew more powerful, and more violent. His infamy grew, and other wicked people began to flock to his cause. Like Shuten dōji, these people transformed into oni. Before long, Shuten dōji had become like a king to a small army of demons.
Shuten dōji and his thugs built a castle on Mount Ōe. He set his sights on wreaking vengeance upon the cruel world, and becoming ruler over all of Japan. Using the mountain as a base of operations, Shuten dōji’s army began to attack the capital in greater frequency. Their kidnappings and murders attracted the attention of Emperor Ichijō, who decided that Shuten dōji needed to be stopped before he became any more powerful.
The emperor commanded his bravest warrior, Raikō, to climb Mount Ōe and bring back the head of Shuten dōji. Raikō and his men ventured into the mountains and found the army of oni inside their castle, drinking sake. They poisoned the sake, and when the oni had all fallen into a poison-induced drunken slumber, Raikō and his men snuck into the castle.
They slew the oni one by one, and finally they reached Shuten dōji. Raikō swung his sword and sliced off the oni king’s head. Shuten dōji was so powerful that even after he had been killed, his head continued to bite at the heroes. Eventually the head was buried outside of the city limits, where it could cause no more trouble.
2. Tamamo no Mae, kitsune
Tamamo no Mae was a wicked, shape-changing, nine-tailed fox whose evil was only matched by her ambition. She disguised herself as a human child and was found by an elderly couple who were unable to have children of their own. They named her Mikuzume and raised her as their daughter.
Mikuzume grew to be an exceptionally talented and beautiful young woman, and attracted the attention of everyone around her. When she was 7 years old, she recited poetry in front of Emperor Toba, who was so taken with her that he offered her a job as a servant of the imperial court.
Mikuzume excelled at court, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. There was no question she could not answer, whether it was about music, history, astronomy, religion, or Chinese classics. Her clothes were always clean and unwrinkled. She always smelled pleasant. Mikuzume had the most beautiful face in all of Japan, and everyone who saw her loved her.
One summer, during a poetry recital, a powerful rainstorm hit. The candles in the recital room were snuffed out by the wind. Suddenly, a bright light emanated from Mikuzume’s body, illuminating the room. Everybody at the recital was shocked, and it was declared that she must have had an exceedingly good and holy past life. Mikuzume was given the name Tamamo no Mae, and Emperor Toba, already exceedingly fond of her, made her into his consort.
Shortly afterwards, Emperor Toba became gravely ill. The country’s best physicians could not figure out what was wrong with him. The highest priests prayed for him to get better, but he only grew worse. Sorcerers were called in to divine the cause of his illness. According to the sorcerers, the emperor was being made sick by someone close to him. They suspected that Tamamo no Mae was actually a fox in disguise, but the emperor refused to believe that his beloved could be something wicked. In fact, she had been using her magic to shorten the emperor’s life, and was responsible for his condition.
Tamamo no Mae was ordered to participate in the divine rituals to save the emperor’s life. The sorcerers reasoned that if she were an evil spirit, she would not be able to recite the holy words or perform the ritual. She was reluctant to participate, for she was afraid of what would happen when the sorcerers identified her as the cause of the emperor’s illness. But due to court decorum, she had little choice. She recited the holy words and played her part extremely well. But just as she was about to wave the ceremonial staff, she vanished. The sorcerers’ suspicions were confirmed.
The emperor summoned his best warriors and ordered them to find Tamamo no Mae. An army of 80,000 men was sent forth to hunt her down. News came that a nine-tailed fox had been spotted in the east. The army chased her all the way to the plains of Nasuno.
The night before she was caught, Tamamo no Mae appeared to an archer named Miuranosuke in a dream. She was crying. She told him that tomorrow he would find her, and she begged him to spare her life. Her beauty was indescribable. She appeared so pitiable. But Miuranosuke’s sense of duty was stronger than his sense of pity, and he rejected her plea.
The next day Miuranosuke spotted a nine-tailed fox on the plains. He fired two arrows at it, piercing its side and neck. The swordsman Kazusanosuke swung his blade at its head. The fox fell, and Tamamo no Mae’s life ended. The army returned to Kyoto with the fox’s body as proof of her defeat.
However, Tamamo no Mae’s evil did not end with her death. One year after she died, Emperor Konoe died, heirless. The following year, her lover — the former emperor Toba — died as well. This paved the way for a succession crisis that spelled the end of imperial power in Japan and allowed the rise of the first shoguns.
1. Emperor Sutoku, tengu
Emperor Sutoku rose to the throne when he was just a child. Though official records stated that Sutoku was the eldest son of Emperor Toba, it was an open secret that he was actually sired by Toba’s father, the retired Emperor Shirakawa. Shirakawa wielded considerable power behind the throne in his retirement, and he forced Toba to abdicate in favor of the young Sutoku, whom Shirakawa could control much more easily than the older and more ambitious Toba.
After Shirakawa died, Toba became the power behind the throne. Toba hated Sutoku, whom he considered a bastard son. He enacted his revenge upon Sutoku by convincing the young emperor to appoint Toba’s son as his successor and join him in retirement. Sutoku did so, and Konoe, at only three years old, became the new emperor. Konoe was entirely the puppet of his father Toba. He had all of Sutoku’s supporters transferred to distant provinces and filled the capital with people loyal to Toba.
Emperor Konoe was sickly his whole life. He passed away, childless, at the age of 17. This sparked a succession crisis between Toba’s next oldest son and Sutoku’s son, both of whom had a claim on the throne. The imperial court, full of Toba’s supporters, decided in favor of Toba’s son, Go-Shirakawa.
When Toba died the following year, Sutoku’s supporters attempted to overthrow the young Emperor Go-Shirakawa. There was a brief and bloody fight, but the rebellion was quickly put down. Go-Shirakawa’s revenge against the rebels was merciless. They and their families were executed, and Sutoku was banished to Sanuki Province.
Sutoku lived out the remainder of his life in exile as a monk. He shaved his head and devoted his efforts to hand-copying the holy sutras. After years of work, Sutoku sent his prayer scrolls and manuscripts to Kyoto as an offering for the imperial temples. Go-Shirakawa suspected that Sutoku may have cursed the work, and refused to accept them. Instead, he had the manuscripts sent back to Sutoku.
This rejection proved to be the final straw for the exiled emperor. Sutoku bit off his own tongue, and as he bled to death he wrote in his own blood a powerful curse against Japan and the emperor. He poured all of his hatred and resentment from his entire life into that curse. As he bled, he transformed into a great tengu. His nails and his hair grew long, and he never cut them again for the rest of his life.
When Sutoku passed away, his body was set aside while his caretakers awaited funeral instructions from the emperor. After 20 days, his body was still as fresh as it had been on the day he died. Go-Shirakawa ordered that nobody should go into mourning, and that no state funeral would be held. While his coffin was taken to be cremated, a terrible storm rolled in. The caretakers placed the casket on the ground to take shelter. After the storm passed, the stones around the casket were soaked with fresh blood. When his body was finally cremated, the ashes rose into the sky, and descended upon Kyoto as a dark cloud.
For many years after his death, disaster upon disaster struck the capital. Go-Shirakawa’s successor, Emperor Nijo, died suddenly at age 23. Storms, plagues, fires, droughts, and earthquakes all pounded the capital. Imperial power weakened. Clan rivalries grew more and more violent. Many of Go-Shirakawa’s allies were killed in battles, and the country stepped closer and closer towards disaster. Finally, in 1180, civil war broke out. After five years of bloody fighting, the power of the imperial court was drained, and the Kamakura shogunate seized control of Japan. All of this was attributed to Emperor Sutoku’s curse.
There are rumors that Sutoku’s vengeance lingers even today. In 2012, when NHK broadcast the historical drama Taira no Kiyomori, an earthquake struck the Kanto region right at the moment when Emperor Sutoku laid his curse.
Shuten dōji, Tamamo no Mae, and Emperor Sutoku are tightly intertwined with one of the most turbulent periods of Japanese history. While there are plenty of demons, ghosts, and monsters who have left their mark on Japanese history, none of them carries the legacy or instills the fear that these three do. Of all the evil spirits out there, no others can claim responsibility for destabilizing Japan and bringing about national disaster on the scale that they did. That is how they earned their place as the Three Most Evil Yokai of Japan.
Win one of 2 eBook* copies of The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits: an Encyclopedia of Mononoke and Magic by Matthew Meyer!
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In Japan, it is said that there are 8 million kami. These spirits encompass every kind of supernatural creature; from malign to monstrous, demonic to divine, and everything in between. Most of them seem strange and scary—even evil—from a human perspective. They are known by myriad names: bakemono, chimimoryo, mamono, mononoke, obake, oni, and yokai.
Yokai live in a world that parallels our own. Their lives resemble ours in many ways. They have societies and rivalries. They eat, sing, dance, play, fight, compete, and even wage war. Normally, we keep to our world and they keep to theirs. However, there are times and places where the boundaries between the worlds thin, and crossing over is possible.
The twilight hour—the border between daylight and darkness—is when the boundary between worlds is at its thinnest. Twilight is the easiest time for yokai to cross into this world, or for humans to accidentally cross into theirs. Our world is still awake and active, but the world of the supernatural is beginning to stir. Superstition tells people to return to their villages and stay inside when the sun sets in order to avoid running into demons. This is why in Japanese the twilight hour is called omagatoki: “the hour of meeting evil spirits.”
This encyclopedia contains over 125 illustrated entries detailing the monsters of Japanese folklore and the myths and magic surrounding them.
This book was first funded on Kickstarter in 2013.
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- Japanese Legends: The Three Most Evil Yokai of Japan - June 1, 2017