Was an Evil Spirit Released When Japan's 'Killing Stone' Split in Half?

By: Tara Yarlagadda  | 

Killling stone
This is Sesshō seki, the "killing stone" on the plains of Mount Nasu in Japan after it split March 5, 2022. Miyuki Meinaka Wikimedia Commons (CC By SA 4.0)

In early March 2022, all hell broke loose on the internet when a Japanese-language tweet went viral. The tweet from user @Lily0727K featured a picture of a sizable dark stone at a sightseeing spot in Japan that had fractured into two pieces — along with the following translated text via Google:

"I came alone to the killing stone, where the legend of the nine-tailed fox remains."

After some additional details, the tweet ominously concludes: "If it's a manga [Japanese comic book or graphic novel], it's a pattern that the seal is broken and it's possessed by the nine-tailed fox, and I feel like I've seen something that shouldn't be seen."

The "nine-tailed fox" is a reference to the devious fox spirit, known in Japan as Tamamo-no-Mae. As news outlets reported at the time, Tamamo-no-Mae had allegedly been trapped for centuries in a volcanic rock on the plains of Mount Nasu in Japan. The stone was called Sesshō seki, or the "killing stone" in English.

With the stone split in half, internet denizens and scholars began to speculate about what might happen now that the spirit of Tamamo-no-Mae was potentially let loose in the Japanese countryside, free to terrorize unsuspecting citizens.

But it seems there's more to this story than the media initially reported.

"I was a bit dismayed at how so many Western media sites got the facts wrong and didn't seem to look beyond Twitter for the actual story behind the superstition," says Matthew Meyer, a folklorist based in Japan who runs yokai.com, which is an illustrated database of Japanese ghosts and monsters.

As it turns out: An evil spirit probably didn’t escape from the stone after all.

"Tamamo-no-Mae was never 'trapped' in the stone. She was the stone," Meyer says.

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Who Is Tamamo-no-Mae?

"Tamamo-no-Mae is one of the three 'greatest evils' to befall Japan," says Emerald L. King, a lecturer in humanities at the University of Tasmania and a cosplayer who researches Japanese literature and popular culture.

There are numerous versions of her story, but the most relevant one for our purposes concerns the 74th Japanese emperor Toba, who ruled the nation from 1103 to 1156 C.E. As the legend goes, the fox spirit Tamamo-no-Mae disguised herself as a woman to bewitch the emperor as part of a scheme to overthrow his rule. The emperor was so enthralled that he did nothing but pay attention to Tamamo-no-Mae, neglecting his rule.

Killling stone
Detail of a late 1820s woodblock print showing the warrior Miura-no-suke confronting Tamamo-no-mae as she turns into an evil fox with nine tails (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

"This is again a tale as old as time. A powerful, beautiful woman comes to court and bewitches a king and is accused of witchcraft or magic," King says.

According to Peter Durfee's English translation of the book "Folktales of Nasu" by Matsumoto Takeo, the emperor fell gravely ill around this time, but a Japanese soothsayer known as Abe no Yasunari suspected Tamamo-no-Mae of wrongdoing. Revealing her true identity, Tamamo-no-Mae fled into the lands around Mount Nasu.

"Legend says that Tamamo-no-Mae was slain in that plain, and her body turned into that stone," Meyer says.

To be clear: Instead of being trapped in a rock as some news outlets suggest, it turns out that Tamamo-no-Mae actually turned into a rock herself.

"Because she was such an evil spirit in life, in death her evil lingered on the stone, turning it into the 'killing stone.'

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The Politics of Tamamo-no-Mae

Folklore often intersects with real life in complex ways, and some scholars think the tale of Tamamo-no-Mae may reflect the turbulent nature of Japanese politics during the Hōgen Rebellion — a time period that marks the power transition from noble to samurai rule in Japan.

"The year this story takes place, 1156, is an extremely important year in Japanese history," says Nick Kapur, historian of Japan and author of the book "Japan at the Crossroads," who tweeted about the stone splitting incident when it occurred.

Meyer says that monsters often terrorize the imperial court in Japanese folklore, perhaps as a way to suggest that the emperor's power is so divine that monsters would attack him. So Tamamo-no-Mae's story isn't necessarily unique in that sense.

"Monsters have always targeted the emperor, and heroes have always been called upon to slay them, so she can be counted as part of a long tradition of powerful spirits targeting the political center of Japan," Meyer says.

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Tamamo-no-Mae in Japanese Culture

King says that Japanese locals in Togichi prefecture are likely very familiar with Tamamo-no-Mae, whose legend helps support the local tourist industry.

"Japan has a strong history of contents-based tourism — come to this obscure spot to see this one famous thing — so the rock in the plains of Nasu and its surrounding volcanic activity would be well known," King says.

But the story of Tamamo-no-Mae isn't just local legend, but also a tale told throughout Japan, appearing in many video games, anime and manga. King says Tamamo-no-Mae has become an "incredibly popular" figure in the mobile games "Fate GO" and "Onmyoji​​​," among others.

"Tamamo-no-Mae is almost universally known in Japan," Meyer says.

The long-lasting legacy of the stone probably has partly to do with the fact that many scholars and artists have written about it over the years in plays and a Japanese travelogue by haiku poet Matsuo Basho titled "The Narrow Road to the Deep North."

"The stone has been consistently well documented in Japanese literature," Kapur says.

That being said, Tamamo-no-Mae's role in Japanese culture has shifted over time as views on women have changed.

"In the original stories, Tamamo-no-Mae is pretty much pure evil, as a woman attempting to usurp power from male emperors, but over the centuries her image has shifted and now she is often portrayed in pop culture as a kind of proto-feminist anti-hero," Kapur says.

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Why Is This Rock Considered the "Killing Stone"?

The infamous "killing stone" or Sesshō seki is a 6-foot-tall (nearly 2-meter-tall) volcanic rock spanning a whopping 26 feet (8 meters) in circumference, which sits on the slopes of Mount Nasu in Nikko National Park. The park is located in Togichi Prefecture in Japan, which is roughly 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Tokyo, according to The New York Times.

But how did this particular stone become known worldwide as the "killing stone"? It has to do with its location on a volcanic plain near Mount Nasu as well as its large size, which people could easily spot among the smaller stones. Sulfurous hot springs surround the area, contributing to the idea of deadly gases in the rocks — though they're not really harmful.

"There actually are some poisonous gases that seep out of the ground in the area and people have been known to find dead small animals nearby in the past, although the stone and the gases in the area are not actually dangerous to human beings," Kapur says.

Especially since Tamamo-no-Mae was rumored to have died in this area, Meyer says, "it's easy to see how people might have viewed it as an evil object or spirit with the power to radiate death."

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Is the Stone Splitting Really That Serious?

Despite all the internet doom-and-gloom surrounding Sesshō seki, seemingly not much evildoing has happened since the stone split — as far as we can tell.

In fact, some experts suggest it was always internet hype pushing the idea of an evil spirit being released into the world rather, than concerned Japanese citizens.

Meyer says that while people in Japan were amused by a story connected to a famous legend like Tamamo-no-Mae, he adds that "nobody truly feared that an evil spirit was loose, and nobody really believed it was a bad omen."

King suggests that our increasingly negative expectations of the world — spurred on by a global pandemic — and the online presence of gamers familiar with Tamamo-no-Mae's story contributed to it going viral online.

Blaming our worldly ills on a curse unleashed by Tamamo-no-Mae was "more like a way to laugh at our collective pain," Meyer says.

But there's always the chance that Tamamo's spirit could be out there causing mayhem again.

"I guess, keep an eye out for a beautiful and alluring new aide-de-camp standing too close to powerful world leaders in the next few years," King says jokingly.

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