Hunting for Hanako

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Hey, hey have you heard? Girls have entered the bathroom on the third floor and never returned!

Please, you really believe that?

It's true. They say the third stall down is haunted. Knock on the door three times...one...two...three... and she appears.

Who?

Hanako-chan. You'll know its her from her red jumper and short dark hair. If you ask if she's there she replies, "Yes, it's me." and then...

And then what?

Her pale white hand reaches through the door and drags you to hell.

~~~

Why do we tell ghost stories? There's no catch all answer for the oral tradition of whispering our fears to one another. Folklore can be cautionary tales thought to keep the youngest members of our collective community safe--to steer them away from risky behavior. Red Riding Hood tells us to speak to strangers at our own peril and The Hook seeks to scare lovers seeking a late night rendezvous straight. Other stories seek to explain the unknown; to manifest our inexplicable fears and vulnerabilities.

There are few places in the home that tap into our sense of vulnerability, especially as children, as the bathroom. Only the bedroom might outnumber it. Our rooms are home to creepies lurking underneath the bed and inside the closet waiting to take advantage of while sleep. During our waking hours, though, it's the bathroom where we are most exposed. The shower, where we're both nude, alone, confined to a small space, and actively closing our eyes, is a prime attack site for giant spiders, ghosts, and Hitchcockian killers. Foggy mirrors might reveal terrifying reflections of something else in there with us. Toilets, too, add a sense of vulnerability as we sit over a hole to below; something we can't see but are safe to assume is probably filthy.

Michael Dylan Foster writes in his The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, “In that sense, the bathroom is a place of transition, and the toilet in particular is a portal to a mysterious otherworld. Even though we generally flush things down, it would not seem surprising for something mysterious to come up through the toilet."


Something craws out in episode 10 of Yamishibai

It's easy to see why the bathroom is regularly the setting of spooky tales and movies around the world. "Bloody Mary" immediately comes to mind. I spent more than my share of sleepovers daring other girls to go into the bathroom with me at night and recite the ghost's name. The version I heard mixed in elements of La Llorona; "Mary" was the ghost of a woman seeking her children and calling her would infuriate her when she discovers the ritual participants aren't her children or she may pull them into the mirror world itself.

Japan has a whole population of bathroom ghosts and monsters ranging from the humorously gross to lethal. The popular kappa yokai and their taste for humans has linked them to outhouses and toilets. What better way to grab a shirikodama than to foist a whole hand up an unsuspecting person's butt at night? Another yokai, akaname, is harmless but still a startling sight. It spends its evening creeping into bathrooms and lapping up the soap scum. Modern ghosts have worked their way into this "liminal space" as well with far more sinister intentions than shaming your poor cleaning habits, like the legless Kashima Reiko that quizzes her victims before slicing them in two.


Hanako of the Toilet from RINNE

Like Kashima Reiko, the child ghost that haunts the third bathroom stall is a relatively new urban legend whose story began taking hold across Japan in the wake of World War II. Hanako is routinely described as an elementary-aged child with a dated, bobbed haircut wearing a red jumper and white blouse. The cause of her untimely end varies; sometimes she's the victim of abuse and while other versions directly cast her as a casualty of the war. The Nihon Gendai Kaii Jiten Fukudokuhon (Japan Modern Monster Encyclopedia Supplementary Reader, 2019) by Itsuki Asato claims to have tracked down the first written incident of the Hanako tale to Kurosawajiri in Iwate prefecture (now known at Kitakami city). The local ghost story was collected, seemingly for the first time, in Gendai Minwakō 7 (Investigation into Modern Folktales Vol 7.) by Miyoko Matsutani in 1948.

The story spread like wildfire with regional variants popping up across the country, but the little ghost's popularity really came to the forefront in the 1990s alongside other school ghost stories. By 1997, enough little girls were scared of the ghost to spark an actual scientific study linking the legend to incontinence at school and bed-wetting. The study's abstract states: "Ghost tales about lavatories, such as 'the tale of Ghost Hanako,' prevail in almost every elementary school in Japan." The decade would see an urban legend became the subject of of live-action horror films, manga, video games, and of course, anime.

Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun recasts the ghost as a boy that presides over the six other Wonders of the Kamome Academy middle school. Hanako-kun, voiced with a mischievously alluring tone by Megumi Ogata, carries some obvious similarities to his feminine counterpart. The most obvious is his appearance. Hanako-kun wears a gakuran, the commonly seen black, button-up school uniform with a matching cap. While gakuran are still used for modern school uniforms, Hanako-kun's accompanying cap and cape are not and signify a visual shorthand to turn-of-the-century and Imperial era Japan. The style also has connotations of rejection of the status quo; bankara. Bankara men were older than our Hanako-kun, but they wore the same style uniform, caps and capes as a way to show rejection of haikara, the well-to-do upper class and embracing a military-like brotherhood among each other.


A group of bankara students

Hanako-kun is likely from the same time period as the modern legend, although it's possible that Iro Aida's incarnation of Hanako is just the latest evolution of a god dating back to the Edo period, the venerable Kawayagami, in some areas known as Benjogami no O-Fudo-sama, or God of the Toilets. Its dominion was small, but Kawayagami was important to the Japanese household. Infants were introduced a few days after birth and offerings were made in the outhouse to appease the god and maintain good health.

To earn the god's favor, some areas called for offering red and white dolls, akakeshi (red poppy dolls) along with fresh flowers. It was thought that toilets represented the end of beginning of a cycle as waste and the dead were voided there to create fertilizer, the nourishment for the next cycle. The dolls, in turn, were offered to guarantee children's health. Human fertilizer was used in Japan up until the end of World War II when flush toilets became more common than the typical pit toilets.


Modern and Edo period akakeshi

The connection is tenuous but the color of the offerings to Kawayagami mirror the outfit of modern Hanako, and of course, her name refers to flowers which are used as a motif through out the Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun anime. Once Japan entered the Meiji era, focus was drawn away from individual deities to Emperor worship and the practice of honoring the God of the Toilet disappeared by World War II, just in time to awaken again as Hanako of the Toilet.


Further Reading

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster (2015)

There was a time when 'Hanako-chan of the Toilet' was the entrance to another world by occult researcher Bintarō Yamaguchi (Asahi Shimbun's AERA dot, 2019) Japanese

Toilet, Outhouse: Haiku Topics, Theory and Keywords by Dr. Gabi Greve, WKD (2006)

The Bankara Student Look from Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style by W. David Marx (2015)

Get to Know Your Japanese Bathroom Ghosts by Eric Grundhauser (Atlus Obscura, 2017)

The origin of Hanako-chan of the Toilet is revealed?! A visual analysis of the Japanese mystery (Da Vinci News, 2019)


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