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.