Rokurokubi: The Rubber-Necked Woman

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.

Rokurokubi's neck extended.
Rokurokubi’s neck extended.

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 nukekubia 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:

[Sources]

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!]

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22 Comments

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  1. It seems like a lot of European monsters have to do with children, like Krampus, but it seems like a lot of the Japanese ones have a relation to women.

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    1. There are a fair number of monsters who are actually “thing” based, like the Umbrella Monster, or Sandal Monster, but I specifically am looking at women monsters for that blog because that’s their leaning. 🙂 There are also a ton of male monsters! Japan likes its youkai!

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    1. I was surprised by the production value of such an old movie. The woman’s face was definitely creepy!!

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  2. Fascinating post, thank you. I’d not heard of Rokurokubi before. It’s so interesting to see how popular depictions of monsters and mythological creatures evolve over the years. They often seem to get remade into something more threatening as time goes by, although I suppose the opposite is also true quite often, as with fairies.

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    1. That’s a really good point about the faeries! And trolls. The evolution of a story is always, in my mind, the most interesting aspect of the tale. 🙂 I’m hoping you’ll enjoy my upcoming posts, as well. There are a bunch of lady monsters, and I’m hoping to highlight the patterns of mythology that connect them over time. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for visiting! I’m really glad Alex was here to post about this one, because I didn’t know about it either. She’s got some other awesome ideas, too. 🙂

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    2. Thanks for stopping by, Cindy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. If I were honest, I’d say it’s the opposite for me. A lot of the Greek gods and goddesses are no more than names to me — I was always poking my head in East Asian and Native American mythologies when I was young.

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    1. I’m very glad you enjoyed it, Corina. Yes, we definitely have the “sins of the father” in Western psychology and story as well. I guess a lot of what the stories teach is to do carry the responsibility of those actions with dignity—or suffer the fate of the twisted and pitiless.

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    1. Any particular reason? There are a lot of weird monsters in Japan (if you track down the whole movie from that clip, you’ll see a scene of an umbrella monster, as well. :P)

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      1. I just see my head deciding to wander off one night. Because it wanders enough during the day. It wouldn’t surprise me if one night it just made its own mind (HA!) and took off for far flung places. And then I’d be a rokurokubi and have a crazy long neck.

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        1. Hahaha~ well, if you had to be any Japanese lady monster, a Rokurokubi is probably the one to be — relatively harmless! And there are plenty of stories where they must simply run from town to town when they are discovered.

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  3. I love this post! In addition to learning about an intriguing Japanese monster, we also discovered delightful references to the rich tapestry of Japanese beliefs. I can’t wait to learn more. The clip was fun too; that Rokurokubi sure wasn’t hiding! 😀

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    1. I’m really looking forward to some of them, Melissa! Rokurokubi doesn’t have a long story to her name, but many of the female monsters do! I’m looking forward to cracking open their mythologies–and a bit more about the psyche they exist within.

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    1. Yes. This is unfortunately a common aspect of Japanese “karmic” stories: a woman often eats the sins of the men around her. In modern iterations, we see cases where the woman will overcome, or at the very least get revenge, on the person who wronged her, but in these old stories, they quietly accept the fate that should be their father’s/brother’s/husband’s without complaint. I suppose it is their own form of honor.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Shawn. Rokurokubi is a very interesting monster, but I’m sure the upcoming ones will be a delight as well!

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  4. Reblogged this on Alex Hurst and commented:
    Today, I’m over at Part Time Monster, sharing the origin of Rokurokubi, a Japanese monster. This is the first in a monthly series of posts examining the female monsters of Japan, and I am honored to have been given the slot. I hope you’ll check it out and join the discussion over there!

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