Jikininki: The Hungry Ghosts of Japanese Folklore

Jikininki, which means “human-eating ghosts” in Japanese, are featured in Lafcadio Hearn’s book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) as spirits that consume corpses. According to Japanese Buddhism, jikininki are akin to Hungry Ghosts or Gaki and are the spirits of people who were greedy, selfish, or impious during their lifetimes. These individuals are cursed after death to relentlessly search for and devour both human beings and human remains. In modern Japanese, jikininki are pronounced as shokujinki.

Jijinki, also referred to as Phantasm, is a type of supernatural creature that originated from a legend in which a pregnant woman outwitted a being that feeds on corpses. This tale bears similarities to “Aozukin,” a story found in Ueda Akinari’s Ugetsu Monogatari from 1776.


Jikininki are said to be grotesque and scary-looking creatures, with sharp teeth and long claws. They are often depicted as emaciated beings, due to their constant hunger for human flesh. Jikininki are also said to be nocturnal creatures who roam the countryside at night, searching for their next victim.


The Jikininki is a monstrous being who is condemned to this existence because of his selfishness and desire for material possessions, as well as his indifference to how the dead are treated in mountain villages in Japan. He continues to haunt the citizens of a mountainous Japanese village in the afterlife, and their fear of him reflects their common beliefs. The Jikininki embodies the loss of their values, which terrifies the community. This monster was created as a result of the neglect of both local customs and broader religious principles.

Jikininki are typically found near human settlements, inhabiting abandoned temples or ruins. Although they avoid humans, they stay in close proximity to them as they rely on human flesh and bones as their primary source of sustenance. They don’t enjoy their existence nor do they take pleasure in consuming the dead, but it is necessary to relieve the agony of their perpetual hunger.

Jikininki are considered to be in a state between the living and the dead, displaying some ghost-like characteristics. During the day, both the Jikininki and their dwellings are often invisible, and they only appear to unsuspecting travelers during the night. They mostly hunt their prey at night, sneaking into temples where the corpses are laid out for funeral prayers.

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Origin Behind Jikininki’s Horrific Transformation

Jikininki are creatures with a strong connection to gaki, which are hungry ghosts from Buddhist beliefs. Gaki are always hungry, yet unable to consume anything. Jikininki, on the other hand, are created when an individual commits evil acts and corrupts their soul. Some jikininki were corrupt priests who couldn’t move on after death, while others were previously human but developed a desire for human flesh. Over time, as they continued to consume people, they gradually transformed into the monstrous beings they are now.

The Legend of Jikininki: How Evil Deeds Lead to Eternal Suffering

Legend has it that Muso, a monk or priest, was traveling alone in the mountains of Japan’s Mino prefecture when he lost his way. As night began to fall, he spotted an old hermitage, or Anjitsu, atop a nearby hill that belonged to a solitary priest. Muso climbed the hill and asked the priest if he could spend the night there. Despite Muso’s request, the old priest rudely denied him lodging but directed him to a nearby hamlet where he could find food and a place to sleep.

After following the old priest’s directions, Muso arrived at the hamlet where he was warmly welcomed by the headman who provided him with food and a place to sleep. During the night, a young villager approached Muso and informed him that his father had passed away earlier that day, but he had not mentioned it earlier so as not to burden Muso. The entire village was leaving for a nearby village as it was customary to leave the corpse alone for the night to prevent any misfortune. However, as a priest, Muso offered to perform the burial services and stay with the corpse overnight. He was not afraid of the demons or evil spirits that the young man had warned him about.

After the villagers left, Muso began the burial service next to the corpse and offerings. During the deepest part of the night, a shapeless entity appeared while Muso was meditating, rendering him speechless and motionless as he watched it consume the corpse and offerings. When the villagers returned in the morning, Muso informed the young man of what had occurred, but the young man was unsurprised.

Muso then questioned why the priest living on the nearby hill had not performed the ceremony. Perplexed, the young man denied the existence of any nearby priest, as none had resided in the area for many years. The young man also denied the existence of the hermitage, causing Muso to leave the village with proper directions to continue his journey.

After completing his duties in the village, Muso went back to the hill where he had encountered the old priest and the Anjitsu. The old priest let him in and explained that he was the shapeless being that had devoured the corpse the night before and had become a Jikininki after leading a selfish life as a priest. The old priest asked Muso to perform a Segaki Requiem service for him so that he could escape his fate as a Jikininki. Muso performed the service, and the old priest disappeared along with the Anjitsu. Muso found himself kneeling on a grassy hill in front of a tombstone and the ruins of the Anjitsu.

The story picks up years later when a young scholar, who is pregnant, has an encounter with a Jikininki while she is out exploring and studying. She is the daughter of a spiritual father who gave her a stone for protection, but she never truly believed in its power. She carries the stone with her in a pouch along with her writing tools. The stone was originally blue, but it has become black from being in the same pouch as the charcoals.

Although she is not a spiritual person, the scholar only believes in things she can see with her own eyes. When the Jikininki approaches her, her beliefs are challenged. The creature is able to sense that she is hungry for knowledge, and he offers to share his knowledge with her in exchange for something valuable. He hopes that she will offer him the stone, which he knows he cannot touch.

The story continues with a young pregnant scholar who is wandering and studying when she encounters a Jikininki. Despite not being a spiritual person, she believed in what she could see with her own eyes. When the Jikininki approaches her, he senses her hunger for knowledge and offers her information in exchange for her stone of protection. She agrees and takes a seat on a nearby boulder, ready to learn. However, the Jikininki grows impatient and demands that she come closer. When she opens her hand to give him the stone, he swats it away and swallows her whole. Unbeknownst to the Jikininki, she had actually swallowed the stone earlier and had swapped it with a piece of charcoal in her hand.

After consuming the Jikininki, the woman felt a strong tugging sensation within her body until the creature was completely absorbed into the stone of protection she had swallowed. Despite never passing the stone, she gave birth to healthy twins who inherited supernatural abilities. One of the twins could sense what someone’s soul desired, either by touch or in dreams, while the other could absorb the kinetic energy of people and objects. As they grew older, their abilities strengthened, and they were able to use them to defend their village. The villagers referred to them as Jijinki, a reference to their Jikininki heritage, while some on the outskirts of the village called them Phantasms. The woman always felt the presence of the stone in her stomach, and she was grateful for her father’s superstitious beliefs.

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Wrapping Up 

Jikininki is a fascinating and terrifying creature from Japanese folklore. The legend of Jikininki serves as a reminder to live a good life and to treat others with respect and compassion. We hope you enjoyed this post and learned something new about Japanese mythology.


The Fate of a Materialistic Buddhist: A Cultural Edition of “Jikininki” by Lafcadio Hearn

Jikininki By Katie Ann