Japanese Scary Stories: The Killer Poem

  • Are you afraid of the dark? Every culture has ghost stories and scary urban legends. Scary urban legends and ghost stories can shed a lot of light on the culture of the place and the people where the story is based. This is the seventh and final in a series of articles based on Japanese Scary Stories. This is the story of Tomino: The Killer Poem.

    The Killer Poem

    “Just do it! What are you, chicken?” Taro held the old battered piece of paper in his hands. 4 of the other boys in his class shouted in agreement, jeering him. It was just a silly old poem. It wasn’t so long. All he had to do is read it out loud, but if he did he might die…

    Taro racked his brain to come up with excuses, or reasons to avoid reading it. Tomino’s Hell was an old poem by Saijo Yaso in 1919. It was infamous. The legend said that anyone who dares to read it aloud will suffer terrible luck, sickness, or even death. But, it was just a legend, right?

    The biggest boy grabbed his uniform jacket, “DO IT!” he shouted. Taro held up the poem and read:

    Elder sister vomits blood,
    younger sister’s breathing fire
    while sweet little Tomino
    just spits up the jewels.

    All alone does Tomino
    go falling into that hell,
    a hell of utter darkness,
    without even flowers.

    Is Tomino’s big sister
    the one who whips him?
    The purpose of the scourging
    hangs dark in his mind.

    Lashing and thrashing him, ah!
    But never quite shattering.
    One sure path to Avici,
    the eternal hell.

    Into that blackest of hells
    guide him now, I pray—
    to the golden sheep,
    to the nightingale.

    How much did he put
    in that leather pouch
    to prepare for his trek to
    the eternal hell?

    Spring is coming
    to the valley, to the wood,
    to the spiraling chasms
    of the blackest hell.

    The nightingale in her cage,
    the sheep aboard the wagon,
    and tears well up in the eyes
    of sweet little Tomino.

    Sing, o nightingale,
    in the vast, misty forest—
    he screams he only misses
    his little sister.

    His wailing desperation
    echoes throughout hell—
    a fox peony
    opens its golden petals.

    Down past the seven mountains
    and seven rivers of hell—
    the solitary journey
    of sweet little Tomino.

    If in this hell they be found,
    may they then come to me, please,
    those sharp spikes of punishment
    from Needle Mountain.

    Not just on some empty whim
    Is flesh pierced with blood-red pins:
    they serve as hellish signposts
    for sweet little Tomino.

    (English translation by David Bowles)

    With a shaky voice, Taro finished the poem. The other boys were all quiet, staring at Taro as though they expected him to suddenly drop dead in front of them. The silence was deafening.

    Finally, one of the other boys finally broke the tension by saying, “It looks like you’re not dead.” A few weak laughs lead to a few conversations, and after a few minutes things seemed to be back to normal.

    As Taro was walking home, he started to feel foolish. There is no such thing as a killer poem. He started to think of his foolishness. How could a poem bring harm to people? He didn’t feel any different. He giggled a little at his own foolishness. The giggle erupted into a full laugh.

    Laughing, Taro never noticed the huge truck, whose drowsy driver fell asleep at the wheel and drove onto the sidewalk, taking him away to meet Tomino…