Noppera-bo, the Faceless Ghost

Noppera-bo. Artist: Asai Ryoi

Noppera-bo. Artist: Asai Ryoi

It’s a sunny day, with only a few puffy white clouds in the sky. The temperature is perfect — warm enough you don’t need a jacket, but cool enough to be comfortable. You decide that it’s time to go fishing. When you tell your wife (or husband, as the case may be) where you intend to fish, they become frightened. “Don’t go,” they say, “There’s a cemetery near that pond, and it’s haunted!”

You laugh and go anyway, thinking that ghosts are the things of children’s stories. You reach the pond, which is a cozy little place tucked away from the outside world among a little copse of trees. You can see the grey bumps of headstones off to one side. You drop your line in the water and wait for the first bite. You’re about to drift into a well deserved nap when you hear footsteps approach.

When you look up, you find a beautiful young woman approaching you. She asks you to please stop fishing in her pond, and tells you that it is a sacred place. You ignore her, figuring that she is just a local playing a prank. Then, much to your horror, she wipes away her face, leaving nothing but a flat, featureless expanse of flesh in its place.

Naturally spooked, you run. When you return home and tell your wife (or husband) the story, they say “I told you so!” and proceed to wipe away their own face.

You, my unfortunate friend, have just encountered the Noppera-bo, the faceless ghost. The story I just told is a modified version of one of two traditional stories about this ghost species. In the original the fisherman is lazy and is going to fish from a sacred imperial koi pond. He also runs into a second person (after his wife) who tells him not to fish there. The second story involves a man traveling on a road, where he comes across a woman crying. When he tries to comfort her, she turns around and reveals her face is smooth as an eggshell. The man understandably flees, and comes to a food stand, where the vendor also reveals he is a faceless ghost.

Noppera-bo are apparently harmless. They do nothing more than scare the ever-loving crap out of unsuspecting people. As for why they do this, well, their motives are unclear. They often appear initially in human form, often as someone who is familiar to their potential victim. Once they’ve ingratiated themselves to the victim, or otherwise attracted their attention, they then go full horror movie on the poor guy (or gal, but usually a guy).

If the koi pond story is any indication, the Noppera-bo may have functioned as a kind of boogeyman, a way to ward people away from places they ought not fool around in. The second primary story involving Noppera-bo smacks of paranoia toward strangers, reading almost like a feudal Japanese version of the phantom hitchhiker. Whatever the message might be, Noppera-bo are strange critters, and yet another example of the bizarre menagerie of monsters the Japanese believed haunted their countryside.


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