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Deconstructing Japanese Urban Legends

For the 10 years that I lived in Japan, 都市伝説 (to-shi-den-setsu), which literally translates into urban legends, was something that I was constantly obsessing over. Whenever my parents allowed me to use the desktop computer after completing my school assignments, I would go onto Internet Explorer and fervently browse through as many urban legends as possible. I was not alone in my fascination with urban legends; in fact, half the time, the conversations with my friends from elementary school concerned the mystery of urban legends. We would talk about the stories we had read on different sites, the myths we had seen on TV and the anecdotes we had heard from our upperclassmen. Like many Japanese young adults and teenagers, these urban legends, no matter how superstitious, numinous and unpleasant, constituted a defining aspect of my childhood.

So, why do urban legends play such a prevalent role in the modern Japanese culture? Urban legends are essentially a form of folklore that take place in the contemporary and urban setting, taking on topics that range from ghost stories, superstitions to conspiracy theories and pop culture. Very much like the Western ghost stories and creepypastas, these legends are widely distributed on a variety of mass media outlets. However, they are much more likely to travel in the form of word-of-mouth, like random rumors and gossips. In my personal experience, they also diverge from western horror stories in that the Japanese legends are much more subtle. Rather than being straight up frightening, Japanese urban legends highlight the mystical nature of the mentioned subjects, oftentimes inspiring either chills or curiosity. 

To illustrate, one Japanese urban legend tells the story of a man who oversleeps on a subway train and is transported to an entirely unknown station. When the man leaves the station, he realizes that he is surrounded by no one. It is thought that he was transported into some sort of an alternate universe. Another infamous urban legend is of a pedestrian traffic sign, which depicts a silhouette of a man holding a little girl’s hand. Legend has it that the sign was inspired by a photograph of an abductor kidnapping a little girl. Although these legends seem like hoaxes, they went viral on social media.

Many have attempted to debunk these urban legends, knowing that some of the stories are in fact plain nonsense. But why do these urban legends continue to pervade through the town, permeating our lives in Japan?

An article from Japanese news outlet Excite News elucidates the prevalence of urban legends amongst Japanese city dwellers who, according to the article, often feel overwhelmed and oppressed. Despite residing in a densely populated community, many find themselves feeling isolated and dislocated. On top of that, certain urban phenomena that cannot be experienced in the countryside (though there are certainly urban legends that concern rural areas as well) can be nerve-wrecking. City dwellers often wonder why trains only travel certain routes, why there are specific customs to follow in the cities, why certain anime shows are never broadcasted, and the list goes on. Instead of delving into these topics through logical research and attempting to understand them, it is much easier to come up with rumors and strange theories, constructing a world of make-believe. In a sense, these myths serve as a means to escape. Believing in obvious rumors allows one to temporarily forget about the mundane and stressful reality, meanwhile building a community of urban legends believers.

Nevertheless, Japan is clearly not a pioneer of urban legends. The Japanese cities are indeed dense and extensive, with desperate residents yearning for a mythical escape. But urban legends exist almost everywhere in the world. The United States, for one, has urban legends such as slender man and big foot. Curiosity about things that are out of the ordinary is a fundamental human tendency.

Even so, what separates Japanese urban legends from those of other countries, as mentioned above, is their subtlety. The subtle nature in these legends can be traced back to the Japanese ghost/monster literature genre, 怪談 (kai-dan). Dating back to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603), the genre often highlights the very mystical yet chilling details of ghosts and monsters. The custom of subtlety in story-telling even in regard to unpleasant events, in my opinion, is a way to make the stories more thought-provoking, further enhancing the curiosity of the listeners.

There may be many more reasons as to why urban legends play such an integral role in the contemporary Japanese culture. As superstitious, numinous and unpleasant as they may be, the nuances of these urban legends embody the lives of the Japanese city dwellers who, no matter how overwhelmed or dislocated they may feel, can find a sense of relief- or a way of escaping to an alternate universe if you will.

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