Whether you’re taking a vacation in Japan or simply curious about the country’s history and culture, you’ll surely have a great time reading Japanese folklore stories.
These folktales are well-cherished in Japan and admired in other countries, particularly in the Western region.
From ghosts and goblins to celestial goddesses, animal spirits, dragon kings, and spirits of the moon, folklore stories in Japan are some of the most imaginative, interesting, and sometimes terrifying stories you’ll hear.
But why read them?
Japanese Folklore: A Reflection of Japanese Culture
There certainly exists a relationship between folklore and culture.
In the modern world, folklore may seem like a “thing of the past," they serve a vital role in understanding one’s history and culture.
While we have so many great reads to choose from today, including blogs and eBooks, nothing portrays one’s culture more creatively than a folklore story.
In Japan, folklore classics are not only taught in schools.
Parents or grandparents primarily pass on these stories to children, share them in communities, and read them as a tradition among locals.
Why Is Japanese Folklore Important?
Japanese folklore is a creative way of transmitting Japan's rich culture to the next generation.
These stories often include or pertain to gods and present aspects of human nature.
The inclusion of history and religion makes these fictional classics more interesting and meaningful.
Very evident to Japanese folklores are their messages about religion and beliefs.
While Shinto is the foundation of these stories, Buddhism and Confucianism have also made significant contributions. In particular, they relay moralistic messages.
As mentioned, folktales of Japan also draw on history. For example, most stories take inspiration from the "Kojiki" or "Record of Ancient Things," the oldest recognized book of history and legend in Japan.
The Kojiki and the Nihongi (Japanese Chronicles) are two of the most important books in Japan because they were the first to capture the country’s history.
They are also the main sources of Japanese mythology.
Insights From Japanese Folklore
It’s interesting to see how those seemingly children’s stories about spirits and dragons can help you understand the Japanese way of life.
A lot of information these days about Japan pertains to modern society.
Unless you read history books according to the timeline, it can be difficult to grasp how Japanese people behave in certain ways or why they observe specific customs and practices.
- Harmonizing Past and Present
Japanese folklore gives people an understanding of where they come from.
By reading these stories, people can easily trace their connection to the gods.
Folklore stories go beyond entertainment. They were created so the new generation would know and appreciate their past.
Folklores depict how people should behave. Practices like respect for nature, filial piety, offerings to gods, praying for healing, and many others give people a system of beliefs.
- Appreciating Japan’s Historical Origin
Folklore stories focus on Japanese ethnic identity to relate to the locals and establish a meaningful relationship.
They're helpful to understand their distinct traditions and culture.
Japanese Folktales in the Modern World
Traditionally, Japanese folklore stories are transmitted from one generation to another through storytelling.
Storytellers often traveled across the country, hopping from one village to another, to tell their tales.
This oral tradition incorporates illustrations on "kamishibai" paper.
Thanks to digital media, even though storytelling is minimally practiced these days, folklore stories remain highly accessible.
Today, Japanese folktales are available in different languages, complete with illustrations for the world to read and enjoy.
Japanese Folklore Stories You Shouldn’t Miss
Japan has numerous folklore stories for the world to explore and enjoy.
Be sure to check out these ten highly recommended folklore stories that will broaden your knowledge and admiration of Japan.
1. Momotarō (Son of a Peach)
This is arguably the most popular Japanese folklore story.
Momotarō is about a superhero who was discovered by a childless couple when they split open a peach fruit.
The couple took good care of Momotarō like their own. He grew up to be a good boy with extraordinary strength.
He had many adventures as a teenager, including quests with a talking dog, a legion of demons, and a band of ogres.
Momotarō is the ideal son who takes good care of his parents in their old age.
It’s another reflection of the tight family bond of Japanese people.
More than promoting family values, this folktale is appreciated for its social and political relevance.
Momotarō is a well-known national figure in Japan.
His tale was applied to different situations to appeal to and unify the masses.
For example, in 1943, Japan released the “Momotarō no Umiwashi,” an animated propaganda film about Japan's attack at Pearl Harbor.
It featured Momotarō as the ideal leader who encouraged people to take part in their cause.
The film definitely sparked nationality among the Japanese people, and it does so until today.
2. Yuki Onna (Snow Woman)
The tale of Yuki Onna is a very interesting one. While most folklore stories in Japan portray the legendary character's ability to turn humans into ice, some also show her softer, gentler side.
This story is one of those.
Yuki Onna is a female spirit with skin as white and cold as ice and beautiful long black hair.
She feeds on the human life, freezing them to death. It was believed that she spares no one.
One day, two woodcutters, an old man and a young man traveling to a distant province, lost their way.
They wandered all day and came across Yuki Onna.
Like all her other victims, Yuki Onna took the old man’s life but surprisingly spared the boy because she thinks he was too young.
Many legends associate Yuki Onna with winter and snowstorms, but in a deeper sense, her story says a lot more about the Japanese family, religion, and social structure.
Ghost stories such as the Yuki Onna portray how Japanese people are concerned about the welfare of their deceased ancestors.
3. Kintarō (Golden Boy)
This folklore remains extremely popular in Japan until today as it depicts the country's modern culture.
According to the legend, Kintarō was a child blessed with unbelievable power. A caring mother raised him in the lonely forests with many animal friends.
Kintarō was so strong at the age of seven that he could cut down trees as quickly as the woodcutters.
Being with animals throughout his childhood, Kintarō learned to understand their language.
He went on many adventures where he demonstrated his unbelievable strength and good character.
The story of Kintarō was believed to be based on a real person named Sakata Kintoki, a Japanese warrior.
He lived during the Heian period and served as a retainer for the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu.
4. Urashima Taro
The story of Urashima Taro was about a young fisher rewarded for rescuing a turtle.
It turns out the turtle was the princess of the sea named Otohime.
She gave Taro gills as a reward and took him to the deep sea, down to the underwater Dragon Palace.
Before he left, the Princess gave him a mysterious box called "tamatebako."
According to the princess, it will protect Taro and give him happiness. However, she warned Taro not to open it no matter what.
But he broke his promise and opened the box. Then, he suddenly turned into an older man and realized 700 years have passed.
Although Urashima Taro may seem like an unfortunate character, his story gives readers so many meaningful lessons.
Primarily, it teaches the importance of obedience over happiness.
While this folktale originated from a Chinese legend, Tanabata became a very famous classic story in Japan.
Tanabata is a love story of two deities: Princess Orihime and Hikoboshi.
Princess Orihime was the daughter of the God of Heavens. She was a seamstress who weaved beautiful clothes.
Hikoboshi was a cow herder who lived on the other side of the Milky Way.
Princess Hikoboshi and Hikoboshi fell so deeply in love with each other that the princess stopped weaving, while Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander the heavens.
This caused Orihime's father to become angry and forbade the lovers to be together.
With so much love for his daughter, though, he decreed the two lovers to meet only once a year: the 7th day of the month.
In modern Japan, people celebrate the meeting of the two deities every year, on the 7th of July.
They call it the “Star Festival,” which is one of the most celebrated occasions in the country.
6. Hanasaka Jiisan (Flower-Blossoming Old Man)
This folklore story was about an old childless couple who had a dog that they loved dearly.
One day, it dug in the garden and uncovered a box of gold pieces.
A neighbor found out about it and allowed the dog to dig in his garden too. Unfortunately, it only found bones.
The neighbor got furious and killed the dog. He told the couple that the dog had just dropped dead.
The couple buried the dog under a fig tree. Since then, the dog appeared in their dreams and gave the couple so many treasures.
Meanwhile, the neighbor who killed the dog suffered.
The moral of the story is very clear. Greed and cruelty will not benefit a person in any way.
Okiku was an unfortunate servant maid at a Japanese samurai mansion.
The samurai wants to seduce Okiku, but the servant objected.
To threaten her, the samurai hid one of the ten valuable plates and told the maid that he would make it known to the public unless she agrees to become his mistress.
In her desperation, Okiku threw herself out of the window.
Okiku's ghost comes out each night, counting the plates. The samurai was haunted and finally gone insane.
There are different versions of this popular Japanese folktale.
In one version, Okiku was killed by her master and thrown into the well.
If you’ve watched the movie “The Ring,” you will be surprised to know that it was actually based on the legend of Okiku.
8. Minamoto No Yorimitsu
Yorimitsu is a very famous legendary Japanese warrior and hero. He was a renowned samurai and military commander who served during the Heian Period.
He was widely celebrated for his superb fighting skills.
During the reign of Emperor Ichijō, a monstrous ogre besieged Kyoto.
It kidnapped many women, killed people, and ate the flesh of its victims.
Yorimitsu decapitated the wicked monster with his mythical sword and finally ended the fear that reigned in the village for a long time.
9. Issun-Boshi (One-Inch Boy)
The story of Issun-boshi begins with an old couple who longed to have a child.
They kept praying to have a child, no matter how small.
Eventually, they gave birth to a son who was no larger than a grown man's fingertip!
As Issun-boshi grew older and realized he would not get bigger, he went on a trip to seek his place in the world.
He wandered until he found himself at the royal mansion. He begged the Lord to allow him to become his servant.
Everyone in the mansion began to like the intelligent and charming little man.
Later, he became the princess’ personal servant and saved her life during an unfortunate event.
The princess repaid his good deeds by turning him into a full-grown handsome warrior.
And like other love stories, they ended up marrying each other.
Written in the early 10th century, the story of Kaguya-Hime was about a princess from the moon who came to earth and discovered a baby inside a bamboo plant's stalk.
She grew up to be the most beautiful woman in the country.
Aristocrats repeatedly approached her, and even the Emperor courted her, but she flatly turned everyone down.
Later, she revealed her celestial origins and told her parents that she has to go back to her home.
Kaguya-Hime just disappeared, leaving her robe, handwritten notes, and the remnant of the immortality elixir she drank before departing.
Japanese folklore is an interesting piece of the past that remains socially and culturally relevant today.
With every story you finish, you uncover some of the most beautiful and fascinating historical insights about Japan, along with life lessons to guide your way.