This month’s urban legend is one of many niche legends out of Japan: bathroom or toilet ghosts. So who is Hanako-San, and why is she doomed to spend an eternity in a bathroom stall? Let’s explore.
Yōkai and Yūrei
Before we get into the specific legend of Hanako-San, we need to get into the folklore traditions of Japan to lay the foundation. Of course, I must note that I am in no way an expert on Japanese folklore or culture. There are many excellent resources out there if you’re interested in learning more about yōkai, yūrei, and Japanese folkloric traditions from native Japanese persons and experts. The following explanation is based on my own research.
Hanako-San is considered a yōkai or a yūrei. While there is no simplistic and universally accepted definition of yōkai, the term is basically a blanket that covers supernatural phenomena, monsters, demons, and other types of spirits that are seen in Japanese folklore. Yūrei are essentially ghosts, or spirits of the deceased trapped within the earthly realm. The main difference between yōkai and yūrei (to my basic understanding) is that yūrei are tied to individuals that were once alive, and yōkai tend to be supernaturally occurring beings.
Descriptions of Hanako-San are relatively uniform across all variations – she almost always is said to be wearing a red suspender skirt with a light colored shirt. Though it is never explicitly stated, this may be a school uniform, as uniforms are common in Japan. She has black, chin-length hair. To summon her, one must enter a girls’ bathroom and knock three times on the door of the third toilet stall. Most variations of the summoning state that the bathroom must also be on the third floor. I find this repetition of threes in the legend very interesting – it’s considered a lucky number in Japan (or, at least, not unlucky). The visitor must then ask if Hanako-San is in the bathroom with them. If she is, the visitor may see a ghostly hand emerge from the stall to pull them into the toilet and into hell.
There are three main variations to the legend when it comes to how Hanako-San’s spirit became trapped in the bathroom. The first, most popular, and most grandiose is that Hanako-San was playing in the school and was buried alive when the building was bombed. Some versions of this origin state that she was playing hide-and-seek in the school, others simply say she was hiding. The second variation of the origin claims that Hanako-San was murdered in the bathroom – either by an abusive parent or unrelated homicidal maniac. The final variation of Hanako-San’s origin is that she was a young girl that completed suicide in the bathroom due to bullies in her school.
This urban legend can be traced back to the 1950s, after the resolution of World War 2. It seems to be one of those stories that verbally gets passed along through word of mouth, either from generation to generation, or through classes at a school. I can’t find any information regarding its exact point of origin, but that tale of Hanako-San has seemingly become a fixture in school cultures across Japan, and its prominence has only been reaffirmed by Hanako-San’s appearance in pop culture. She’s been a character in anime, manga, and films, and her tale had a noticeable resurgence in the 1990s because of this. There is even contemporary media, most notably an anime and manga still in production as of the writing of this blog. It’s safe to say Hanako-San is here to stay.