The rokurokubi (ろくろ首, 轆轤首) is a strange creature from Japanese mythology, close to the nukekubi. During the day, it looks like a completely normal person, but at night, its neck gets longer.
A rokurokubi can be either a man or a woman. Thus, they play tricks on humans during the night by spying on them, scaring them, drinking the oil from the lamps.
Sometimes, they go as far as devouring people while they sleep. Females attack men a lot, and vice versa. However, rokurokubi sometimes take a liking to their life and have the desire to become human.
Some don't even know they are one. They think that the misdeeds they committed during the night were just a dream. You can see a purple vein on their necks.
There are two types: those whose necks stretch and those whose heads break off and fly freely.
They often appear in classic kaidan and essays, and are often the subject of yōkai depictions, but it has also been pointed out that they may have simply been created as a hobby to make up supernatural stories.
There are several theories about the origin of the word rokurokubi:
They do not look very different from humans but are divided into different types, those whose necks detach and float around and those whose necks extend abnormally.
It has been determined that those with heads that come off are the original type of rokurokubi. This type of rokurokubi performs evil deeds such as attacking humans at night, drinking their blood, etc.
For rokurokubi whose heads come off, there is a theory that when they are asleep (when only the head is flying around), they have this weakness that if the body moves, it cannot return to where it was before.
In typical classic rokurokubi stories, when his head comes off in the night, someone else can testify to this.
There is also the theory that if the head becomes detached, the soul also becomes detached from the body (sleepwalking) and in the Sorori monogatari (曾呂利物語), under the title "Wandering Wild Thoughts of a Woman" (女の妄念迷ひ歩く事, Onna no Mōnen Mayoiaruku Koto), a passage is interpreted as a woman's soul detaching from the body during sleep.
In the same book, a man encounters a nukekubi who changes his appearance into a chick and a woman's head and when he pulls out his sword and chases her, the nukekubi flees into a house and from there it is reported that a voice says, "I lived a frightening dream.
I was chased by a man with a sword and ran home and woke up ".
The Shokoku hyaku monogatari (諸国百物語) takes much from the Sorori monogatari and under the title "About rokurokubi in Echizen Province" (ゑちぜんの国府中ろくろ首の事, , Echizen no Kofuchuu Rokurokubi no Koto ), is the story where a man chases a nukekubi (which is the soul of a woman detached from her body) all the way home.
It is said that this woman, ashamed of a crime, leaves her husband, shaves her hair and commits suicide.
In the Edo period essay Hokusō Sadan (北窻瑣談) by Tachibana Nankei (橘春暉), even here the phenomenon is interpreted as a disease where the soul becomes detached from the body.
It is presented the story that occurred in the first year of Kansei era where, in Echigo province (now Fukui prefecture), a servant girl who worked in a house, when she was sleeping, only had her head rolling off the pillow and moving without detaching from the torso, but it was rather explained that the soul detached from the body to take the form of a head.
In the kaidan Kokon Hyaku monogatari Hyōban (古今百物語評判), which has the characteristic of being a book that explains yōkai tales, under the title "How the priest Zetsugan saw a rokurokubi in Higo" (絶岸和尚肥後にて轆轤首を見給ふ事, Zetsugan Oshō Higo nite Rokurokubi o Mitamō Koto) in Higo province (nowadays Kumamoto prefecture),
there is a story of how the head of a woman in a certain inn came off and floated in the air and when things came back to normal the next day, there was a line around the neck of this woman, and the author of this book, Yamaoka Genrin, referring to several examples of things that are written in Chinese books,
proposes the interpretation that "as these kinds of things have often been observed in Southeast Asia, and are not limited to the creation of the heavens and the earth, it is difficult to understand them with ordinary common sense such as the idea that octopuses do not have eyes,
and that these things are unheard of in the capital, anything strange is found in distant lands. " On the other hand, in the village of Tawa in Nagao in the Ōkawa district of Kagawa Prefecture (now Sanuki), in the same book and in the same way, is a legend of a woman with a ring-shaped bruise around her neck as a rokurokubi.
Also in the essay Churyō Manroku (中陵漫録), it is said that in the rokurokubi village located in the recesses of Mount Yoshino, all residents are rokurokubi who wear scarves around their necks, as they are children and have a line around their necks when this scarf is removed.
According to an essay in the Kasshi Yawa (甲子夜話) by Matsura Seizan in Hitachi province, a woman was afflicted with an incurable disease. Her husband having learned from some peddler that "the liver of a white dog will be a miracle cure", he kills the pet dog and makes his wife eat the liver as medicine.
She regains her health but the baby girl born afterwards becomes a rokurokubi. Then, when the head came out and flew into the air, the white dog appeared somewhere, bit the head and killed it.
Rokurokubi and nukekubi are basically very often female, but in the Edo period essay Shousai Hikki (蕉斎筆記), the story of a male nukekubi is reported. In a certain temple, while the priest is sleeping at night, a person's head comes up around his chest and when he catches it and rejects it, it went somewhere else.
The next morning, the temple valet asks to take his leave and when asked the reason, states, "Last night, did not a head come to visit?" When he is told that it did come, he says, "I have nukekubi disease. This is incompatible with my service" and then returns to his former home in Shimōsa Province. It was determined that nukekubi disease was common in Shimōsa.
In Negishi Shizumori's essay Mimibukuro, a woman suspected by rumor of being a rokurokubi marries, but since it appears that the rumor is ultimately nothing more than a rumor, it is said that afterwards she is able to lead a harmonious life as a married couple.
Since this was not really a rokurokubi, this story serves as an exception, because in almost all rokurokubi-related tales such as those mentioned above, bad fortune comes to light once its true form is revealed.
In the Wakan Sansai Zue encyclopedia of the Edo period, the last ones from China are written 飛頭蛮 ("flying-headed barbarians" and use their ears like wings to fly and also eat insects, but it is specified that those from China and Japan are nothing more than foreigners.
In Lafcadio Hearn's tale Rokurokubi, these nukekubi also appear. They are depicted as pretending to be a family of lumberjacks who originally live in the city but kill and eat travelers.
The "when people sleep, their necks stretch" type of tales began to appear during the Edo period and then continued to appear in literature with works such as Buya Zokuda (武野俗談?, Kanden Kōhitsu (閑田耕筆), Yasō Kidan (夜窓鬼談) etc.
This type of rokurokubi comes from legends that rokurokubi (nukekubi) have a spiritual rope-like object (represented in works by people like Toriyama Sekien) connecting the head to the torso, which is then mistaken for an elongated neck.
In the Kasshi Yawa (甲子夜話), the following story is told: a servant girl is suspected of being a rokurokubi. When her master wants to verify this while she is sleeping, something resembling steam gradually rises from her chest.
As the steam gets thicker and thicker, the maid's head disappears right in front of the master's eyes, her neck rising and spreading. Perhaps noticing her master's presence, the maid then turns over in her bed, and her neck returns to normal.
Despite the fact that this servant was quite ordinary except for a paler than average face, her master dismissed her. She was always dismissed wherever she went, so she had no chance of finding a job.
This Kasshi Yawa and the previously mentioned Hokusō Sadan where souls that forsake bodies create the shape of a neck, have sometimes been interpreted as a type of ectoplasm in psychic research.
In the yomihon Rekkoku Kaidan Kikigaki Zōshi (列国怪談聞書帖) by the popular writer Jippensha Ikku from the late Edo period, rokurokubi are presented as coming from human karma.
The story goes like this: a monk from Enshū, named Kaishin, and a woman named Oyotsu run away together. Oyotsu collapses due to her illness, and, with money running out for the trip, the monk kills her.
Soon after, Kaishin returns to lay life, when he and a girl he met at an inn are drawn to each other, eventually sleeping together. During the night, the girl's neck stretches and her face changes into Oyotsu's, showing him her resentment.
Kaishin, overcome with remorse, tells everything to the girl's father. The father confides in him, revealing that he also killed a woman in the past, stole her money and used it to create this inn.
His daughter, born afterwards, because of karma, naturally became a rokurokubi. Kaishin again integrates the Buddhist priesthood and builds a tomb for Oyotsu which is called the rokurokubi mound (ろくろ首の塚, Rokurokubi no Tsuka), which tells the story to future travelers.
There are also rokurokubi who are not yōkai, but rather men with a type of abnormal body condition.
The Edo period essay Kanden Kōhitsu by Ban Kokei gives an example of a story set in Shin Yoshiwara where a geisha's neck stretches during sleep, stating that it was a condition of the body where her heart would become detached and the neck would be stretched.
Oral traditions also make much of the estion of rokurokubi: for example, on an ancient highway between the village of Iwa and Akechi in Gifu Prefecture, it is said that a snake metamorphosed into a rokurokubi.
Similarly, according to an oral tradition from Koikubo in Iida in Nagano Prefecture, it is said that a rokurokubi appeared in someone's house.
During the Bunka era, the following kaidan story became popular: a prostitute gets into bed with guests and, when they have fallen asleep, her neck stretches out gently and licks the oil from the paper lanterns; thus rokurokubi were said to be things into which women transformed, or a strange type of illness.
Also during this period, rokurokubi gained a lot of popularity as something that was shown at monster shows. According to the Shohō Kenbunroku (諸方見聞録), in 1810 (Bunka era 7) a freak show company in one part of Edo actually had a man with a long neck celebrated as a rokurokubi.
Even during the Meiji era tales of rokurokubi circulate. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was said that a couple from a merchant family in the village of Shibaya near the town of Ibaraki in Osaka Prefecture witnessed the lengthening of their daughter's neck every night and that nothing could be done about it, even the support of Shinto and Buddhist precepts.
The people of the town also came to see the show, and the couple could not stand it any longer and disappeared, leaving no indication of where they were going.
The type of rokurokubi whose necks separate from the rest of the body is passed off as coming from the Chinese yōkai, the hitōban (飛頭蛮), yōkai whose heads separate from the body and float around.
In addition, the aforementioned characteristic of having a line around their necks is also something they have in common with the Chinese hitōban.
Similarly, there is said to be a yōkai in China called the rakutō (落頭) whose head is said to clearly detach from the body and fly around, and when its head floats, only the torso remains in the futon.
According to a story told during the Three Kingdoms period, General Zhu Huan of the Wu kingdom employed a maid who was a rakutō. It is reported that he used his ears as wings to fly.
Similarly, in the Qin period, there were tribes in the south called rakutōmin (落頭民) who were said to be able to fly with their heads alone.
There are legends of Ponti An in Borneo in Southeast Asia and legends of penanggalan in Malaysia, where the head floated with the entrails attached.
In addition, the chonchon (en) from South America also takes on the appearance of a human head flying through the air and sucking the life out of people.
Tada Katsumin a researcher of yōkai, states that since the Muromachi period or the Azuchi Momoyama period, when trade with southern China and South Asia developed, these legends from abroad came to Japan and when the sakoku policy was adopted in the Edo period, the appearance among the original Japanese yōkai of the rokurokubi legend was observed.
It is a magic trick using curtains and life-size dolls (without heads), and according to modern classification, it is a type of body trick. According to the available documents, a doll wearing a kimono and sitting in seiza is placed in front of the curtain and a fake long neck is installed behind the curtain while the face of a real woman - who shows only her face - is connected to a rope.
As the woman hides her body behind the curtain, the fake neck stretches and contracts, giving the impression that the woman is a real rokurokubi. Explanations and photos disclosing this trick appeared in magazines of the Meiji era, so it is known that this trick was practiced in the nineteenth century.
According to the scholars of that time, it was a period when mysterious phenomena were seriously exposed in a scientific way and the unveiling of the secret of rokurokubi must be understood in the context of that period.
Even during the Taishō era, there was also a similar show business of displaying rokurokubi in demonstration tents at temple and shrine festivals as well as temple fairs, shows that enjoyed great popularity.
There are also similar body magic tricks outside of Japan and as they consist of catching their own heads as they fall from their own hands (in Ireland the dullahan fairies for example), similar magic tricks have been organized in various countries and used in exhibitions.