Category Archives: Yokai
Etymology: Faceless Monk, From the Japanese word “nopperi” meaning “featureless”
Japanese Kanji & Kana: 野箆坊, のっぺらぼう
Other Spellings: Nopperabo, Noppera-Bo
Also Called: Faceless Ghost, No-Face, Mujina, Nupperiho, and Zunberabo
In Japanese folklore and mythology, the Noppera-bō is a faceless ghost or yokai of which there are several different tales and stories surrounding them.
The Noppera-bō is a ghost or yurei in Japanese who at first glance appears to be human. They will sometimes appear to be someone the person knows. It’s not until a person gets closer or during interactions with them, that the Noppera-bō reveals, having no face and is just blank, featureless smooth skin where a face should be.
This is usually the goal and tactic of a Noppera-bō, scare the ever-living daylights out of a person for a good jump scare and send them running in fear. For added effect, some Noppera-Bō work in teams of at least two where the first scares their victim, and that person runs off to tell someone else what happened, only for that person to reveal a featureless face too. Otherwise, this spirit is rather harmless and really more prone to mischief.
A couple sources have said that the noppera-bō isn’t a ghost at all, but a Yokai; a broad category of supernatural entities and spirits in Japanese folklore. Narrowing it down from there, noppera-bō belongs to a category known as obake or “changed creature” referring to those yokai that are shapeshifters. Since other shape-shifting yokai could be mistaken for a noppera-bō, it’s sometimes not always clear which entity is being seen.
There are several stories of noppera-bō, a story of a young woman rescued from bandits by a samurai who finds that her face disappears, stories of nobles going to a tryst only to find that the courtesan in question they’re to meet turns out to be a noppera-bō.
There are two main stories involving noppera-bō.
The Noppera-bō & The Koi Pond
This story involves a lazy fisherman who decided to go fishing at the imperial koi ponds near Heian-Kyo Palace. The man’s wife warned him not to go as the pond is sacred and near a graveyard. Despite this, the fisherman ignores his wife and heads off anyways.
While on his way to the pond, the man is warned by another fisherman not to go to there. Again, the man ignores his fellow. Then, at the koi pond, a beautiful young woman pleads with the man not to fish. Once again, the man ignores them.
This time, the young woman wipes her face off, frightening the fisherman. Fleeing home in terror, he sees who at first looks like his wife. As the wife is scolding the man, she too wipes her face off.
When Is A Ghost Not A Ghost?
When it’s a mujina.
The word mujina is an old Japanese term for a badger or raccoon dog also known as a tanuki. As shapeshifters, the mujina were known to transform into noppera-bō in order to scare humans. Sometimes kitsune and tanuki are known to impersonate noppera-bō as well.
The Mujina of the Akasaka Road
This is the second of two well-known stories concerning the noppera-bō. This story is found in Lafcadio Hearn’s book “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.”
A man was once traveling along the Akasaka road towards Edo when he came upon a young woman in a remote area near Kunizaka hill crying. The man attempted to comfort and console the young woman when she turned to face him, revealing a blank, featureless face. Frightened, the man took off down the road until he came to a soba vendor. Thinking he was safe; the man began to relate what had happened to him. The vendor then stroked his face as it changed to the featureless of a noppera-bō.
A similar retelling of this story is seen in the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko.
Modern Ghost Stories
Most stories of noppera-bō lean more historical and there aren’t very many reported sightings in the 20th or 21st centuries.
There is a story from 1959 in Honolulu there is a report of a sighting of mujina at the Waialae Drive-In Theatre in Kahala where a witness says they saw a woman combing her hair in the restroom. When the woman turned, she revealed a featureless face. The witness was also reported as having been admitted to the hospital for a nervous breakdown.
The Hawaiian historian, folklorist, and author Glen Grant tried to dismiss the story in 1981 during a radio interview only to have the witness call herself, giving more details about the story such as the mujina having red hair. The drive-in in question has long since been torn down. Noppera-bō or mujina sightings do continue in Hawaii where a number of Japanese have immigrated to.
Alternate Spellings: Wani Yuu Dou
Etymology – Umbrella Ghost
The Kasa-Obake of Japan are an unusual type of ghost or yokai. Sometimes, the Kasa-Obake are considered a tsukumogami, those human tools that have managed to survive long enough and have absorbed enough energy to become animated, sentient beings. In this case, the Kasa-Obake is an old umbrella that has managed to reach 100 years old.
This yokai is described as an umbrella with one eye that jumps around one leg with it’s sole foot wearing a wooden sandal or geta. Other descriptions will give the Kasa-Obake two arms and possibly two eyes. In addition, the yokai is sometimes shown as having a long tongue. In the Hyakki Yagyo Zumaki text or yokai emaki, the Kasa-Obake are shown to have two feet instead of one.
Behavior wise, the Kasa-Obake is seen as a playful, child-like trickster that loves to frighten people.
In Japanese folklore, the tsukumogami are human tools, that over a period of time, often months and years are capable of becoming yokai. By having survived that long, that tsukumogami has gained and absorbed enough energy to become sentient as well as animated.
In the case with the Kasa-Obake, they are umbrellas that have survived one hundred years of use before becoming yokai.
Where there have been many types of tsukumogami yokai, the Kasa-Obake is the one that seems to have become the most well-known of this variety.
A Made Up Yokai
Edo Period – The Kasa-Obake with the classical appearance of being an umbrella with one eye and foot comes from this era. What I find cool, is that there is an old card game known as Obake Karuta (“Ghost” or “Monster Cards”) that people would play, wherein the players try to collect the most cards in order to win. The game is clearly a predecessor to the more modern Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Card games that people collect and showcase different, various monsters.
Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai – Or “The Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales”, is another game popular during the Edo period. In this game of telling ghost stories, the Kasa-Obake likely originates from the need for story-tellers to come up with another, new story about yokai to fulfill the needs of this game with having one hundred ghosts. In other words, the Kasa-Obake is very likely made up.
Ansei Period – A board game from this era, called Mukashi-banashi Yōkai Sugoroku, the Kasa-Obake is shown and given the name of Sagazaka no Ippon Ashi or “One-footed from Sagizaka.”
Variations On A Theme
There are a couple of other very similar yokai that are also described as umbrellas, though they’re not the Kasa-Obake.
Higashiuwa Region – In the Ehime Prefecture, there is a story of a rain umbrella yokai that appears in the valleys on rainy nights. Those who are unfortunate to see this yokai are unable to move their feet as they cower before it. I’m not sure how that could be, unless there is some supernatural effect going on.
Hyakki Yagyo Emaki – Dating from the Muromachi period, the yokai found in this text or scroll have a more humanoid appearance and have umbrellas on their heads.
Mizokuchi Region – In the Tottori Prefecture, what is now the Hōki, Saihaku District, the Yureigasa or “Ghost Umbrella” also has one eye and foot much like the Kasa-Obake. They are said to go out on extremely windy days and blow people up into the skies.
Kasa-Obake continue their presence into the modern era with appearances in a good many, various video games, anime and manga; especially any making use of yokai.
Etymology – “bull demon king”
The character of Niu Mo Wang is a figure who features in the story of Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel written and published anonymously by Wu Cheng’en during the 16th century.
Niu Mo Wang is a yaoguai, similar to the Japanese Yokai and from where the term originates. In the story of Journey to the West, Niu Mo Wang is the Master of the “Mountain of Fire” (Huoyanshan) that burns constantly, causing a lot of dryness and an unbearable heat in a volcanic region that blocks the passage of Tang Sanzang and his troop.
The Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong tries to steal the magical bajiaoshan from Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ, better known in English translations as Princess Iron Fan, the wife of Niu Mo Wang. The bajiaoshan is a large palm-leaf fan capable of creating whirl-winds and would be capable of causing the volcanoes in the area to become inactive, allowing Tang Sanzang and company to pass through.
Here it gets a bit confusing, as when reading the accounts given under Niu Mo Wang, Sun Wu Kong is able to defeat the Bull King with the help of a Buddhist deity, Nezha. When looking at entries under Princess Iron Fan, Sun Wu Kong is able to trick her into giving him the fan or to outright steal it.
Sun Wu Kong is able to help Tang Sanzang and his friends get past the volcanoes of Niu Mo Wang’s territory and the fan is returned. Again, in the account under Princess Iron Fan, Niu Mo Wang tricks Sun Wu Kong into giving the fan back by being the pig Zhu Bajie.
It’s mentioned that Niu Mo Wang and Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ have a son named Hong Haier, “Red Child.”
Alternate Spellings: Wani Yuu Dou
Etymology – Wheel Monk
Wanyudo is a well-known monster or yokai in Japanese mythology. He takes the form of a burning oxcart wheel with the face of a bald, tormented man in the center or hub. The image for Wanyudo comes from the Shokoku Hyaku Monogatari, a collection of ghost stories first published in 1677.
This yokai also appears in Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hyakki (“The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past”) by 18th century Japanese scholar Toriyama Sekien. This book is the second in Sekien’s Gazu Hyakki Yagyō, a supernatural bestiary of ghosts, demons, monsters and other creatures of Japanese folklore.
There are a few folklore references that say Wanyudo is the condemned soul of a tyrannical daimyo, who in life was known for having his victims drawn on the back of an oxcart.
Wanyudo is believed to guard the gates of Hell and wanders back and forth along the road between the living world and the underworld, either scaring people as he passes by or stealing the souls of anyone who gets to close so that he can drag them back down to Hell with him.
Protection from Wanyudo
There is a charm of protection that involves writing on a piece of paper: “Here is the home of a winning mother” and then fixing it on the entry way to your house. This is said or believed to keep Wanyudo away.
According to one source, this charm supposedly refers to a story in the Records of the Grand Historian concerning Confucius’ pupil Zengzi. Apparently, Zengzi was disgusted with his reputation of “winning for his mother” to such a degree, that he couldn’t set foot inside the home of a “winning mother.” Though it’s unclear exactly how this relates to Wanyudo.
One website I went to commented about the importance of the wheel symbol in Buddhism.
In Buddhism, the wheel represents the teachings of Buddha. The Buddha is the one who turns the wheel or Dharmachakra, “the wheel of law.” In Tibetan, this symbol is called chos kyi’khor lo, meaning “the wheel of transformation.” The turning of the wheel is a metaphor for rapid spiritual change as taught in Buddhism. The spokes of the wheel represent the Noble Eightfold Path laid out by Buddha in his teachings.
The wheel represents the endless cycle of samsara or rebirth that can only be overcome by the teachings of Buddha. There are some Buddhists who see the parts of the wheel as symbolic of the “three trainings” in Buddhist practice. First is the hub, symbolizing moral discipline and thus the mind. Second are the spokes (often shown as eight) symbolizing wisdom used to defeat of ignorance. And finally third, the rim which symbolizes the training of concentration which holds everything together. Dharma as should be noted, in Buddhism, is the teachings or laws of Buddha that expound on Natural Law.
Tibetan Buddhism – Yama
Since we’re on this subject of connecting the Wanyudo to Buddhism, I think it’s interesting to note and point out that one of the Tibetan Buddhist Wrathful Deities, Yama a god of death is sometimes shown as holding the Tibetan wheel of life.
The imagery of Wanyudo is also very similar to that of a character from Greek mythology, Ixion, a King of the Lapiths in ancient Thessaly who was punished for his attempted rape of Hera by the god Zeus and tied to a spinning flaming wheel in the underworld of Hades where he calls out: “You should show gratitude to your benefactor.”