If monsters are deviants––if they represent the abnormal, the Uncanny, and the deep-seated fears of society, then the monsters of Japan are a complex looking glass into the psyche of their creator. Most famously, perhaps, is the monster Godzilla, a metaphor for the nuclear bomb.
With Japanese monsters, several components come into play: the country has a complicated religious history, practicing Shinto (a belief that all things, even inanimate, have spirits that can curse, control, or reward) and Buddhism alongside each other, as well as accepting, rejecting, and then accepting Christianity again. That rejection of Christianity also resulted in one of the most famous events in Japanese history: a two-hundred year seclusion from the rest of the world that ended when Commodore Perry demanded trade be opened again, under threat of cannon fire. (You can see why the U.S. and Japan have had a pretty tumultuous relationship.) That seclusion meant an extreme refinement of Japan’s internal culture, and in turn, a refinement of their societal, and primal, fears. Monsters from the Edo Period (1600-1868) are twisted, haunted, and karmically-shackled to their existence. Most of these yokai, or monsters of calamity, are aware of how pitiful they are, and at least in the case of the humanoid ones, know that trying to run from their eventual destruction is impossible.
Take the case of Rokurokubi, or the Rubber-necked Woman. Original depictions of the rokurokubi show that she (for it was always a she) was relatively harmless as a monster, and in many cases, not even aware of her affliction. Rokurokubi often lead regular lives, but at night, their head tends to wander, rather literally. The head will travel to other rooms, other houses, or even lick the oil from lamps like a cat. When or if they were discovered, early versions of this monster would lament and meet their fate honorably (usually by beheading).
It is in the Edo period that this monster got a remake, her new iteration including more nefarious tendencies, such as eating humans. Interestingly, rokurokubi is one of the few humanoid monsters that does not have a specific body part they enjoy over others (a hallmark of evil Japanese monsters), which perhaps shows this relatively new addition to the cannon.
Another interesting development to this monster during the Edo period was the inclusion of an origin story. Rokurokubi are often considered cousins of the nukekubi, a similar monster whose head detaches completely. Because nukekubi’s head separating completely from her body was considered a literal manifestation of the soul departing the body, rokurokubi also began to share this trait. In addition, and perhaps the most relevant point for Monster Monday, is that the rokurokubi is usually born a monster not out of any fault of her own, but rather from the crimes of her parentage–usually the father. Wikipedia has a simple story illustrating this:
A certain monk from Enshū named Kaishin and a woman named Oyotsu eloped, but since Oyotsu collapsed due to illness, and since they ran out of money for the journey, he killed her. Afterwards, when Kaishin returned to secular life, when he and a girl of an inn he stayed at became attracted to each other and slept together, the girl’s neck stretched and her face turned into Oyotsu, and told him about her resentment. Kaishin became regretful of the past, and spoke about everything to the girl’s father. When he did so, the father said that he also killed a woman in the past and stole her money, and used the money to start that inn, but the girl that was born afterwards, due to karma, naturally became a rokurokubi. Kaishin once again entered Buddhist priesthood, and built a grave for Oyotsu, and it is said to be the “Rokurokubi Mound” (ろくろ首の塚, Rokurokubi no Tsuka), telling the story to people afterwards.
Rokurokubi, for this reason, are daughters that carry the sins of their creator, doomed to a violent death and scorned by the general populace. Though she can not change her affliction, there is no sympathy (characters, even recognizing her origin in the stories, still condemn her to death). Many try to lead honest, human lives, working as barmaids and in brothels, only to have to go on the run again when the tell-tale stretch marks on her neck are discovered, or questioned.
But, some do get into the role, taking pleasure in scaring their victims:
The Great Wave by Christopher Benfey [Recommended read on the opening of Japan and its cultural significance]
Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn [First translations of Japanese monsters by a highly respected scholar]
Rokurokubi @ yokai.com [Excellent yokai database!]