The Okiku Doll, is a legend of a haunted doll that grows hair in Japan and is preserved in a temple looked after by monks. Allegedly it is haunted by the ghost of a girl that once received it as a gift.  

There is something about dolls that makes us fall into a confusion about what is and isn’t real and we both love them and hate them in equal measure. The haunted doll trope is one of the most famous and creepiest. There is something about the almost lifelike object that takes us through the uncanny valley and makes us believe that maybe, just maybe, there might be something more behind those glass eyes. 

This is the case with the Okiku Doll (お菊人形), a type of Ichimatsu doll (市松人形) which is a type of traditionally dress up dolls in Japan, often clad in nice kimonos with dark glass eyes. The chubby cheek dolls are as cute as they are creepy, and perhaps the creepiest that has been named Okiku lives now in a monastery, well looked after by the monks. This haunted doll must not be confused by the ghost story of Okiku, the maid:

Read the full story:

Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku

The tale of Banchō Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷, The Dish Mansion at Banchō) is a well known Japanese ghost story (kaidan). It was popularized in the kabuki theater tradition, and lives on in popular culture and folklore alike.

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At first glance, Okiku just looks like an old doll, weathered by time with frayed hair and old clothes like so many dolls forgotten by their children. But there is a legend surrounding this particular haunted doll, and the legend keeps growing, apparently, just like the doll’s hair. 

The Two Girls

The Doll: This Ichimatsu doll is called Miss Shimane and is a Japanese friendship ambassador doll.
Photo: Daniel Schwen
The Okiku Doll: This Ichimatsu doll is called Miss Shimane and is a Japanese friendship ambassador doll.
Photo: Daniel Schwen

There are some variations of this legend, as there often is when they happened a long time ago. The most told version of it, though, starts In Hokkaido, north in Japan, in 1918 at the Taishi Expo in August, bustling with life, people and stuff to buy, including dolls. 

A teenager named Eikichi Suzuki bought a doll for his younger sister in the shopping street of Tanukikoji in the city. Often, the girl is given the same name as the doll, but in most Japanese sources, they were not named the same, but the girls name was either Kikuko or Kiyoko. The seventeen year old brother was visiting Sapporo for a marine exhibition and the doll almost called for him to be bought for his dearest little sister. 

The two or three year old sister grew very fond of the doll that was a gift from her brother and they became inseparable. The porcelain doll had an okappa hair style which was common for traditional dolls with cropped hair around the jawline and a short fringe over the forehead. It was around 40 cm tall and dressed in a traditional kimono.  

She carried it everywhere and slept with it every night the following year, but the child-like play would come to an abrupt end. The little sister died however after falling ill the following year after some complications of a severe fever. Very likely to be Yellow Fever or the Spanish flu as it was ravaging across the globe during this time period of time. Or in some cases, Pneumonia is also mentioned as the cause of death.

The Haunted Doll at the Family Altar

The family initially wanted to place the doll together with their daughter in the grave but wasn’t allowed, or in some sources, simply forgot to put the doll in the coffin. The family mourned the loss of the daughter and placed the doll on the family kamidana altar instead, a practice common in some Japanese households to remember and honor the dead. There Okiku could look out at the mourning family that paid her tribute as if Okiku was their own daughter. 

They prayed every day by the altar and started to notice strange things about Okiku. According to them, they found out that the hair of the doll was growing just like human hair. And the short okappa haircut grew longer, just like the hair grows of a 3-year-old child would have grown.

The haunted doll at the altar: The Okiku doll who once was a little girl's favorite toy, is now placed in an altar to appease the spirit inside.
Photo: Picture first found source/via TinEye
The haunted doll at the altar: The Okiku doll who once was a little girl’s favorite toy, is now placed in an altar to appease the spirit inside. She is know known as the doll that grows hair in Japan.// Photo: Picture first found source/via TinEye

At night they dreamt about Okiku and when they woke in the morning, sometimes they would find the haunted doll sitting by their side without having put her there. The strange occurrences started to get more intense and scarier with light flickering, banging in the house and strange voices and noises. The scary manifestations were usually around certain dates, like their dead daughters birthday and the day she died. 

This led them to believe that the soul of their daughter was not at peace yet, and had entered the doll. They had shamans come to the house and meet Okiku and confirm it and believed they had to appease the spirit through the doll. 

Offered and Displayed in Mannen-Ji Temple

They kept Okiku on their family altar until 1938 when the family decided it was time for them to move away from Hokkaido. In some sources they moved even further north to Sakhalin, an island between Japan and Russia. They felt that the best for the spirit of Okiku would be to remain on the island where she had been born and spent her few years alive. 

It was then the family decided to offer the doll to Mannen-ji Temple located in Iwamizawa. The monks promised to care for the haunted doll and pay it the respect it had received at the family altar. The Okiku doll was given a special wooden box like at the home altar and placed at the altar with the monks looking after and taking care of her every need.

The monks at the temple noticed too that the hair of the haunted doll kept growing. When it was around 25 cm, they decided to cut it for the first time, and the doll’s hair was cut many more times over the years as the hair just continued to grow. Apparently, some of the monks at the temple had a dream that the doll wished for the hair to be trimmed regularly. 

And after the war, when many Japanese were deported from Sakhalin, the brother who bought the doll came back and saw for himself how the doll had changed over the years. When he saw what the doll had become, he asked that the haunted doll had to stay at the temple permanently.  

The Science of the Hair?

Dolls have always had some sort of an unfair reputation as haunted across the globe, and in Japan, this type of doll is no stranger to having supernatural and haunted rumors surrounding them. But this one is by far the most famous example in the country and of its kind. 

Some sources try to claim that the doll has been examined by scientific tests that the monks have sent out to have tested, showing that the haunted doll’s hair really is of a human toddler, and growing just like one, although no one can explain just how this is happening. The place of the supposed test was sent to Hokkaido University School of Medicine according to some sources. 

There are of course non paranormal theories as to why the hair seemingly grows from the haunted doll. The use of human hair on dolls is a well known phenomenon, especially before synthesized hair became the norm. One way they did it was to fold a long human hair, making it seem like strands of hair on the doll. Over time the strand of hair can glide out of place and look like it has grown. But then again, it is supposed to stop at one point in time, not just continue to grow indefinitely. So what is happening at the temple where the doll is still displayed? 

Visiting the Haunted Doll

You can still visit the Mannen-Ji temple in Japan to see the haunted doll whose hair is reaching its knee, but you are not allowed to photograph it as the doll apparently has told you that it doesn’t like it at all. We must simply just take the monk’s words for the strange doll. The legend of the doll is continuing to grow, and has been the base of many movies and horror tales as well as the traditional kabuki plays.

According to the legend, the power of the haunted doll is only growing, bit by bit, just like the hair grows. and another rumor surrounding the doll nowadays is that if you get close enough to the haunted doll, you can also now see the growing of human teeth. 

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