5 Japanese Urban Legends

November 11, 2013 Updated: June 24, 2015

Urban legends are those stories that circulate widely, are quoted as true, but that never actually happened. At least nobody can say for sure they happened, since the story invariably involves a friend of a friend. Most cultures have their urban myths. You’ve probably heard about the deep fried rat in a bucket of KFC, or the teenage babysitter who receives prank calls from a creepy stranger who it turns out to be in her attic. Here are a few goods ones circulating in Japan that you may not know.


1. “Sony Timer” Kill Switch

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(Burning computer image via Shutterstock)

For decades in Japan, consumers have been convinced that Sony manufactures its electronic products with a kill switch, designed to cause your device to break as soon as they warranty runs out. Some even say the device can be activated remotely. There are many message threads on Japanese tech chat boards that talk about this alleged timer. Of course, the recall of about 1 million Dell computers with Sony batteries in 2008 because the batteries could short-circuit and cause a fire, didn’t help Sony’s cause.


2. “Made in USA”

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(Made in USA image via Shutterstock)

In Japan’s struggle to recover its industrial base after World War II, it turned to mass producing inexpensive goods, usually of poor quality, for export largely to the United States. “Made in Japan” at the time, as a synonym for a cheap, disposable product (much as “Made in China” is today). The legend goes that a town renamed itself “Usa” in order to be able to label their goods as “MADE IN USA” and thus be seen as higher quality. There is a town called Usa in Oita Prefecture, but the name dates back to the 8th century and it’s never been a manufacturing base. Moreover, products are labeled with the country of origin, not the city.


3. Bonsai Kittens

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This one doesn’t take place in Japan, but it hinges on a Japanese man so it’s included. It’s not clear if there a fuss about this in Japan too. A petition has been widely circulated, with over 6,700 signatures so far to protest the horrific practice of Bonsai Kittens. Here’s the text of the petition:

A Japanese man in New York breeds and sells kittens that are called BONSAI CATS.
That would sound cute, if it weren’t kittens that were put in to little bottles after being given a muscle relaxant and then locked up for the rest of their lives! The cats are fed through a straw and have a small tube for their feces.
The skeleton of the cat will take on the form of the bottle as the kitten grows. The cats never get the opportunity to move. They are used as original and exclusive souvenirs.
These are the latest trends in New York, China, Indonesia and New Zealand. If you think you can handle it, view bonsaikitten.com and have a look at the methods being used to put these little kittens into bottles. This petition needs 800 names, so please put yours on it! Copy the text into a new email and put your name on the bottom, then send it to everyone you know!


4. 1932 Fire and Women’s Underwear

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(Public domain via Wiki Commons)

On 16 December 1932, a fire broke out at the Shirokiya Department Store in Tokyo resulting in 14 deaths. When a group of saleswomen were ushered to the roof to escape, legend has it that they refused to jump to the waiting firemen below because women did not wear undergarments under their kimonos and didn’t want to reveal themselves. After the fire, the manager made his female employees wear underpants which allegedly started the habit in Japan of women wearing Western-style underwear. Apparently, there’s no evidence to support the story and it’s usually dismissed as Western fancy.


5. Jinmenken (Human Faced Dog)

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Jinmenken are dogs with human faces that can talk. Usually they’ll tell anyone who comes near, “leave me alone.” They only appear appear at night and are either in alleys or run extremely quickly alongside highways. The Jinmenken legend goes back to the Edo era (1603 to 1868), but in modern variations they are said to be either escaped scientific experiments or ghosts of car accident victims. They’re considered an omen of coming accidents or disasters.

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