Ancient Japanese Stone Said to Contain ‘Demon’ Cracks Open

Legends say the evil spirit of a beautiful woman plotted to kill the emperor was trapped inside more than 1,000 year ago

painted illustration of woman and armed warrior fighting
A woodblock illustration depicts a warrior challenging Tamamo-no-mae, a evil nine-tailed fox disguised as a woman who tries to kill the emperor. Legends say the "killing stone," which recently split in half, contained her vengeful spirit.   Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 1.0

A cracked stone in the small town of Nasu, located in the Tochigi Prefecture of Japan, is drawing a lot of attention, reports Justin McCurry for the Guardian. News spread throughout Japanese social media outlets last Monday that a famous rock rumored to contain a demon has split in two.

According to local folklore, the volcanic rock, called Sessho-seki (meaning “killing stone”) held the evil spirit of Tamamo-no-Mae, a nine-tailed fox who took the form of a beautiful woman. She became involved in a plot to overthrow Emperor Toba, who ruled from 1107 to 1123, per the Guardian. A warrior by the name of Miura-nosuke caught wind of the plan, however, and killed her before she could execute it.

Upon her death, Tamamo-no-Mae’s fleeing spirit became trapped inside the chunk of volcanic stone, which, according to the myth, kills anyone who touches it, reports Newsweek’s Thomas Kika. Per the Guardian, the boulder became a registered historical landmark in 1957, and is referenced in several notable Japanese works including Zen poet Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a play, a novel and an anime film.

On March 5, a photo of the broken killing stone shared by a Twitter user named “Lillian” was circulated on social media. In the Google-translated tweet, Lillian described arriving at the site alone before noticing the “rock was split in half and the rope was also detached.” The visitor added: “I feel like I've seen something that shouldn't be seen."

The image drew speculative comments on whether the spirit escaped from the stone after being trapped for 1,000 years.

Despite the buzz, some locals provided a more plausible explanation. According to the fact-checking website Snopes, the Nasu Town Tourist Information Center explained to Japanese news website Yomiuri Shimbun that moisture from recent rains and freezing temperatures likely seeped into cracks on the stone’s surface, causing it to weaken and split.

"It's natural, so it can't be helped, but it's a shame because it's a symbol of the local area,"

Masaharu Sugawara, an 83-year-old local tour guide, tells Yomiuri Shimbun, according to a Google-translation.

According to Japanese news site Shimotsuke Shimbun, officials are still determining what to do with the stone. One tourism official hopes it can be restored, but knows that it may be a difficult task. The wooden path leading to Sessho-seki is narrow, which would make it hard to maneuver the heavy machinery needed to move the stone.

While the former prison of the vengeful fox spirit awaits its fate, some found a bit of dark humor in the grim scenario.

As Paul Dallison writes in Politico, “Rumors that the evil demon saw the state of the world in 2022 and hid in another rock, pledging not to return for another 1,000 years were unconfirmed at the time of going to press.”