As you know by now, the traditional Japanese ghost is quite different from the ghosts we’re used to. In the Japanese imaginary, two things determine the existence of a ghost: the conditions of death and the actions of the living. It may sound strange, but there is an explanation for this. As we saw in Part 1 of this article (read HERE), Japanese religious culture places a lot of importance on ancestor worship and deference to the dead. In both Buddhism and Shinto, the living not only have to pray for the dead, but they also must make offerings, pay homage and take on actions that help the deceased rest in peace, whether it’s by fulfilling promises made to them in life, making their last wishes come true or simply performing certain social obligations. So, it is a common belief that if the living do not comply with these rules, the dead could return in the form of ghosts.
Respect and debt to the Dead is even more important when it comes to the souls of those who passed away in suffering. That is, if a person is murdered, commits suicide, or dies as a result of a traumatic event, such as an accident, a very serious illness or some kind of catastrophe, there is a higher chance that their soul will not rest in peace, which makes it is all the more important that the living perform the appropriate rituals. These rites usually have a deep connection to the social values Japanese society holds important, and to social taboos that, if broken, can cause a sort of fracture or the social fabric.
This is why there are many different “types” of Ghost in the folklore and religious imagery of Japan, and each of them reflects a specific form of social concern or trauma. The most generic term for the soul of the dead in Japanese is Shiryo. shi, which means death or dead, and ryo, alternative spelling of rei, which means “soul” or “spirit”. Therefore, Shiryo means “souls of the dead”, or any soul who has passed away, whether they are a ghost or not. For the ghost, that is a dead soul that is not at peace, there are two terms used:the more common yuurei, the combination of rei, or soul with yu, which gives the idea of “indistinct” or “tenuous” spirit, and borei, which means “soul in ruin”. Within this general “classification” we can find many variations, far more than it would be possible to account for in a single article. That is why we’re only going to look at the types of apparition that are most often found in folklore and literature.
Ubume or Kosodate-Yurei (maternal Ghosts)
A long time ago, the wife of a farmer from the Katsurada region died suddenly during her last month of pregnancy. One night, after 49 days had gone by since her passing, people began to notice that the rice balls left as offering in the local temple started to mysteriously disappear. No one knew who was stealing them. The townspeople began to investigate, and were shocked when the clues led them to the grave of the farmer’s wife. There, they found a large hole. The woman’s family was immediately notified and decided to open the grave to figure out what was happening. Inside, they found the woman’s body perfectly preserved. But that wasn’t the most shocking part. In her arms they found a little baby, dressed in white, as is the tradition to dress the dead for the funeral. The baby was chewing on a rice ball like those that kept disappearing from the temple. Somehow, the child had survived the death of the mother, and was born inside the tomb where it had been feeding on the stolen dumplings.
The villagers tried to get the baby out of the grave, but the mother’s corpse wa so stiff her arms wouldn’t let go of the child no matter how much they tried. After many failed attempts, a woman who had recently given birth approached the dead mother and, showing her breast full of milk, told her “I promise I will feed your baby, you can give him it to me.” Only then did the corpse finally released the baby.
The above story deals with a type of haunting known as Ubume.
Ubume (also the name of a type of small sea urchin) or Kosodate-yuurei (kosodate means “child rearing”, so one could translate as a ghost that “takes care” of children) are the ghosts of mothers. Of course, not all mothers become ghosts after they die. There are three particular circumstances in which a mother can become an Ubume: dying during pregnancy, during childbirth, or if her children are still young at the time of her death. In the case of those who died in childbirth or leaving small children behind what causes the soul to return as a ghost is dying without the certainty that her children will be taken care of. This type of haunting rarely acts aggressively or maliciously, because her actions are always aimed at caring for or protecting her children. So, the best way to “exorcise” this particular spirit is by offering her assurances that her children are safe and well cared for.
However, when the ubume is the spirit of a woman who died during pregnancy, for her to rest in peace it is necessary to remove the fetus from her womb and bury it in the arms of the mother, in a ceremony that honors both. This tradition would also be a way to ensure that in the event of the death of a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, a caesarean section would be performed that could, with some luck, save the child. In the story we saw above, the farmer’s wife was buried without this precaution, so her family had no idea that the child had survived. If the dead mother had not returned as a ghost, the child would have starved to death and the grave would never have been opened, allowing the baby to be saved and entrusted to the care of another mother.
But not every story has a “happy”ending.
One of the most famous Ubume apparitions is the one that is said to haunt the mountains near Sayo no Nakayama in the Honshu area. Legend has it that there a Weeping Rock can be found. A long time ago, the body of a murdered pregnant woman was found on the exact same spot where the rock now stands. As the story goes, she was traveling by herself when someone attacked her and, after stealing her belongings, killed her and abandoned the body by the side of the road. Because the killer was never found, it is said that the soul of the murdered woman istill wanders the forest. This narrative demonstrates how the different” categories “of ghosts can overlap, as the rock Ghost has elements of jibakurei, or ghost” stuck ” in a locality, but we’ll talk about this type of Ghost in more detail later.
Zashiki-warashi (Ghosts of children)
In Japan there is a saying that goes “until the age of seven, the child belongs to the kami” (that is, the spirits or deities of nature). This phrase reflects the belief that children are, in a way, more in tune with the supernatural world, either it be the spirits of nature or the spirits of the dead. That’s in part because, given their youth, their vital energy would be at its peak but they would still lack the maturity to control it. The age of seven would mark the moment in which children begin to learn the rules of social interaction, and the meaning of abstract concepts such as death. At this age they would cease to “belong” to the supernatural world and tak become fully part of human society. For this reason, it is believed that the ghosts of children who have died before the age of seven are particularly powerful and rather difficult to appease, (although not necessarily evil), as they died before they could begin to understand the codes of behavior that govern society and learn how to cope with their emotions and the idea of death.
Ghosts of children appear in folklore all throughout Japan but they’re particularly common in the north of the country, where there are many stories of children’s ghosts, known as Zashiki-warashi (zashiki refers to a type of living room, while warashi is an archaic term of the northern dialect that indicates a small child, so the expression means something like “child of the room” indicating ghost that haunts a domestic environment). Some scholars believe that this belief is associated with a somewhat macabre tradition of the region: burying aborted fetuses or dead newborns under the floor of the House.
This haunting usually won’t be seen by adults, preferring to interact with children, which is a common explanation for “imaginary friends”. But this does not mean that they are sweet little ghosts who just want a friend. Even though they’re not intentionally malevolent, Zashiki-Warashi are known to be powerful and very bothersome, stubborn and willful like tantrum prone children. They are rather similar to poltergeists: they make objects vanish, knock things down, make noise, disturb the daily life of the family, and can rarely be exorcised with prayers and offerings alone; pacifying them usually requires a priest and appropriate rituals, which does not always work. One of the zashiki-warashi’s favorite kind of shenanigans was sitting on a person’s chest while they were asleep, causing nightmares, shortness of breath, and other sensations normally associated with sleep paralysis.
A good example of their behavior can be seen in the following tale, which comes from Iwate Prefecture in the Honshu region:
It is said that the ghost of a child inhabited the roof beams of the Yamashita family home. The villagers gathered at the house to recite the prayer known as Nenbutsu, dedicated to Amida Buddha, or the Buddha of infinite light and life. But as they chanted the prayer, a small child’s voice came from the ceiling, repeating their words. No matter how much the family, their friends and acquaintances prayed, the ghost only repeated the prayer, refusing to be exorcised.
The people of the village were terrified, and rumors began to spread claiming that the ghost on the roof was that of a child who had died of mistreatment during the Tenmei era. Some said the child had stolen something or done some kind of mischief, and as punishment had been locked in a room where they had suffocated or starved to death. Now their soul was trapped in the house. But since it didn’t really want to scare anyone, the Yamashita family decided to just live with the ghost.
There are many examples of stories of Zashiki-Warashi and other ghosts of children who died as a result of mistreatment or hunger, were victims of infanticide or were executed for stealing and other petty crimes. For many scholars, this repetition of the same theme offers a glimpse into Japan’s social instability in periods of famine, extreme poverty, and civil war, when even children weren’t safe from violence.
Funa Yurei (Sea Ghosts)
At the time of the Meiji Restoration, a fishing vessel ran into a storm off the coast of Seto, an area well known as the scene of many wrecks. The captain and his crew fought with all their might and skill to keep the boat afloat and prevent disaster. They were nearing port when there was a loud bang followed by screams, as if they had collided with another craft. Barely able to control of their own vessel, they simply couldn’t rescue the other boat. Desperately struggling to avoid being swallowed by the waves, they spotted a person emerge from the water. The drifting man clung to the side of the fishing boat, screaming for help, but the crew could not help him. As his screams grew desperate, the captain became so agitated that he hit the castaway on the head with an oar. The man let go, and fell back into the water, immediately going under.
The fishing boat managed to escape the storm and return to port. But in the following weeks a rumor began to spread around the region that strange lights were being spotted out at the sea. The captain of the fishing vessel was so terrified that he abandoned his position. But since he had to earn his living somehow, he decided to work with the museel divers. Around the same time, one of these divers found a dead body at the bottom of the sea, stuck to a rock. Spooked, he decided not to tell anybody about his grisly discovery.
One day, when the captain was working with the divers, he noticed that the sea seemed more full of fish and mussels than usual. Excited, he forgot his fears and decided to go in too. Soon, the men who had stayed on the surface realized that he was taking too long to resurface. They went into the water to look for him, but the current was too strong. After a long time trying, they finally found him. His corpse lay at the bottom of the sea, stuck to a rock in the exact same spot where the diver had found a body days before.
After the captain’s death, the strange lights were never seen again.
Japan is deeply connected to the sea. Which is to be expected, after all, it is an archipelago, and its geography sometimes makes agriculture difficult, so throughout history, the Japanese economy has depended a lot on the sea for both food and transport. And given the size of Japan and its shape, “broken” into thousands of islands, a lot of the population lives near the coast as a matter of convenience. So, as you’d expect, Japanese culture is profoundely connected to the sea as well. It is not for nothing that the artistic image most often associated with Japan is Hokusai’s “The great wave of Kanagawa”. In Japan, the sea is always present: in music, in art, in literature, in folklore… and of course, in ghost stories. So much so that there is even an entire category of specifically “marine” ghosts, the Funa Yuurei.
The word funa means “boat”, and funa yuurei is an expression that indicates both the ghosts of people who died at sea and ghost ships, basically any type of sea haunting. And given the constant coexistence of the Japanese with the sea, there’s no shortage of tales of ghost boats, fishermen and sailors.
One of the most common legends of Japanese coastal folklore is that the ghosts of those who perish in a shipwreck come back on rainy nights (or nights of full or new moon) aboard a ghost vessel. If a boat crosses the path of one of these ghost vessels, it would not, at first, be possible to identify it as a supernatural apparition. But if the two ships get close, the crew of the ghost vessel will ask the crew of the other boat to give them buckets. Experienced fishermen know that, in case this happens, the trick is to hand over only bottomless or broken bucket, because the moment the ghosts receive the buckets, they’ll use them to fill the boat of the living with water until it sinks, and then they’ll drag the crew members to the bottom. Another legend has it that one should never sail during the days of the Obon festival, the time the dead return, as the ghosts of the sea will cling to the boat and pull it under or smash it against rocks and reefs. In several regions of Japan, it is believed that funa yuurei can make navigation instruments fail or even cause crew members to hallucinate, leading them to commit suicide.
There are numerous regional variations of this haunting: funa yuurei can appear as human figures sailing ghost boats, as lights on the surface of the water (which is probably an explanation for the natural bioluminescence of various species of algae and marine animals), or as oddly shaped waves, shadows, heads or skulls floating in the water, and even in The Shape of the Umibosu (the water Monk) a shadow so big that it rises from the waters and covers the whole sky. As commercial navigation and fishing are among the main economic activities in Japan, each region has a veritable plethora of stories and beliefs about funa yuurei.
It is worth noting that people who fall victim of this kind of haunting are quite often completely innocent, sometimes they’re even trying to help. In Japanese tradition, ghosts that bring harm to the living usually target those against whom they want to take revenge (we’ll talk about them later). However, the ghosts of the sea attack randomly. That is, anybody who’s at sea runs the risk of crossing their path and coming to harm. The explanation would be that death at sea leaves behind the residual energy of the dead soul, which in a certain way merges with the sea itself, becoming a part of it. And as we know, the sea, and nature in general, does not “choose” its victims because they “deserve” it. That’s why funa yuurei are considered as dangerous and unpredictable as the ocean itself, as if their death turned them into nature spirits, in a way. A deeper analysis of these stories reveals that sea ghost narratives are a way of explaining shipwrecks, drownings and other sea tragedies and also serve to teach and reinforce the importance of safety and following proper navigation rules.
As the Japanese economy remains very tied to the sea, funa yuurei continue to appear in urban legends, and the narratives about these hauntings are constantly renewed, which give us many modern stories and retellings. A good example is the case of cargo ship Toya Maru, which sank during Typhoon Marie in 1954, causing the death of most of her crew. Almost immediately after the catastrophe, stories began to circulate associating the accident with funa yurei. An Investigative Committee found scratches on the ship’s propeller, which gave rise to the legend that the Toya Maru had been dragged to the bottom of the sea by ghosts. Other stories were told all over the region surrounding the wreck site, most famously that Navy officers working at Aomori station would hear the sound of knocking on the windows, always at midnight. Whenever somebody went to find the source of the noise, they’d find a woman completely drenched, shouting “the crew of the Toya Maru needs help!” before disappearing.
Ikiryo (living ghosts)
Not all ghosts in Japanese legends are dead. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? The idea of a living ghost seems to go against the very definition of the word, after all, a ghost is the soul of someone who has died… right? Well, not necessarily, at least in the case of Japan. Ikiryo or “living ghost” is an entity with rather unique characteristics. This apparition occurs when a living person’s soul leaves their body temporarily.. There’s a common belief that those who are about to die can appear as ghosts to their loved ones. These apparitions would have the purpose of helping friends and family prepare for their loved one’s imminent passing. Ikiryo can appear in fully human form or as hitodama, floating fireballs. However, hitodama can be associated with many types of ghosts, and living ghosts tend to manifest in this form immediately before or after death, when the dead have already lost consciousness. That is why they are not always classified as Ikiryo.
But not all of Ikiryo’s appearances are projections of the spirits of people on the brink of death. There are other situations in which the soul can separate itself from a living body. In the Edo period, it was believed that there was a disease called rikonbyo (soul separation disease) or kage no yamai (shadow disease), which caused soul and body to separate, forming a pair of “identical twins.”. It’s a similar phenomenon to that of the doppelganger. In both Japan and the West, there are many possible explanations for the appearance of a duplicate version of a person, ranging from mere coincidence, that is, the double being simply a look-alike, to hallucinations brought on by mental illness. It’s possible that claims of a “disease” separating the soul from the body were merely a way of explaining a type of hallucination known as autoscopy, in which the individual perceives the environment around him as if they’re outside their own body, a symptom commonly associated with schizophrenia.
Another common belief was that the soul could leave the body and become Ikiryo in cases of extreme emotion or for the express purpose of tormenting someone. In this case, a person who felt offended or wronged would have the ability to “create” a ghostly apparition of themselves to attack those they deemed responsible. In cases of people who are sick or on the verge of death, body separation is usually voluntary and controllable. When Ikiryo is produced by feelings of anger or a desire for revenge, it operates more impulsively. The most famous and oldest story of Ikiryo fits into this description, and comes from the “Tale of Genji” written by the noblewoman Lady Murasaki in the 11th century. It’s the story of Lady Rokujo
Genji, the protagonist of the tale, is the emperor’s second son. Despite his position, he lives as a simple court official, and has no prospect of ascending the throne because his late mother was a concubine. Despite not living as a prince or enjoying all the privileges of a legitimate son of the emperor, due to his great beauty and charisma, Genji is loved by many women, including Lady Rokujo, an older woman, the widow of Prince Zembo. Genji, young and womanizing, divides his time among Lady Rokujo, his wife, and a second mistress, Yugao. This causes Lady Rokujo to feel such uncontrollable jealousy that her spirit involuntarily exits her body several times, and haunts her rivals.
However, Lady Aoi, Genji’s wife, is pregnant, and the apparitions torment her so much, that the stress causes her to die shortly after giving birth to the couple’s son. Lady Rokujo unable to control her jealousy and its supernatural consequences, feels guilty and ashamed, and worries about what might happen should the true reason for Lady Aoi’s death come to light. To atone for her actions she decides to retire along with her daughter Akikonomu in the temple of Ise, where the young woman is to become a priestess, and spend the rest of her life in prayer.
Jibakurei and Fuyuyurei (“trapped” ghosts and “floating” ghosts)
A long time ago, there was a beautiful servant girl named Okiku. She worked in the House of the samurai Tesan Aoyama, who was in love with the young woman. Aoyama professed his love to her several times, but Okiku did not reciprocate his feelings. Deciding that he would have Okiku at any cost, Aoyama devised a plan to blackmail her and force her to accept his advances.
Aoyama’s family had a collection of ten very delicate and precious blue porcelain plates. He hid one of them, leading Okiku to believe she had lost it. At that time, a servant who lost, stole or damaged a valuable object belonging to their master could even be sentenced to death, so Okiku was desperate. After looking everywhere for the missing plate, Okiku, terrified and in tears, went to Aoyama to explain what had happened and beg for his forgiveness. Aoyama said he would only spare her if she agreed to become his mistress. Okiku again refused. Enraged, Aoyama threw the young woman into a well in the back garden of the house, where she drowned.
After Okiku’s death, Aoyama and his servants began to hear a disembodied voice coming from the well every night. The voice would count to nine, then let out a horrendous scream, only to start counting again. Soon, Aoyama realized that the voice was Okiku’s, or rather her spirit’s, still desperately searching for the lost plate, without ever finding it. The voice continued to torment Aoyama, who no longer slept, nor had a moment of peace. Exorcisms and prayers were useless, and the samurai didn’t know what else to do. The torment only came to an end when a neighbor, upon hearing the voice counting from one to nine, shouted back ” TEN!”, thus convincing Okiku’s spirit that the tenth plate had been found. Only then could she finally rest in peace.
Bansho Sarayashiki, or “The Haunted Plate House”, better known as The Legend of Okiku is one of the most popular in Japan, second only to Oytsuya Kaidan (which we’ll talk about later). The tragedy of Okiku has been depicted in countless Ukiyo-E works, plays, movies, and even anime. The above narrative is the oldest folkloric version, but the legend only gained popularity with Kabuki. Kabuki plays inspired by Okiku’s story often expand on the original narrative, adding a fitting punishment for the villain and transforming Okiku into a more dynamic character, who seeks revenge and torments her killer, literally coming out of the well to haunt the samurai. By the way, the film “Ring” borrowed the image of Okiku coming out of the well precisely because it is an extremely familiar story for Japanese audiences, which ensured that anyone who watched the film immediately ‘caught’ the reference.
Okiku is a classic example of the type of haunting known as Jibakurei.
Jibakurei is a difficult word to translate, since the word jibaku it means ” self-destruction.” Jibakurei are spirits who are stuck in a specific location (or, sometimes, tied to a specific object), usually because they have suffered such a traumatic, sudden or violent death that the spirit becomes confused and stuck in a kind of self-destructive and obsessive “loop”. Due to this, jibakurei usually repeat laments, words or actions or wander lost in the place where they died as if they were imprisoned, always “reenacting” their own death. A good example of Jibakurei in popular culture can be found in the movie “The Grudge”, in which the ghost of a woman haunts the house where she died, repeating movements and making sounds that reveal details of her death.
Several other types of haunting can be considered jibakurei (a good example are the sea hauntings we already talked about), because although the concept of haunting attached to a place is very old, the word jibakurei itself only began to be used in the 1970s. It first appears in the manga Ushiro no Hyakutaro (1973), coined by manga artist Tsunoda Jiro to refer to several similar ghosts he encountered in the folklore he researched to write his work. The word has entered the popular imagination precisely because it offers a “definition “label” to a ghostly figure that was already very common in legends, books and plays.
Tsunoda is also responsible for naming another type of haunting that is almost the opposite of Jibakurei: Fuyuyurei (“floating” or “wandering”spirits).
While Jibakurei are spirits bound to a place, Fuyuyurei are spirits that wander around aimlessly. These are people who have suffered some kind of unexpected death, such as accident victims and soldiers or civilians who have died in modern wars, as in these conflicts people can die suddenly, due to bombings, land mines and other more recent war technologies. In these cases, sudden death causes make it difficult for the spirit to reach the awareness that it is dead, thus becoming a “lost” ghost. These ghosts are quite common in urban legends.
Jikininki and Gaki (Hungry Ghosts)
These two categories of ghosts form a very specific group because they are unique to the Buddhist tradition and both are considered “hungry” ghosts. The concept of the Hungry Ghost exists in all Asian cultures in which Buddhism is practiced, and basically refers to the ghost of someone who was excessively miserly or greedy in life, especially if these character flaws have led the deceased to commit crimes, immoral acts or to harm other people in some way. In fact, in several traditions, such as in China, thieves, murderers and rapists are also condemned to become hungry ghosts, because these crimes would be the result of desires that one should not have, which is seen as a form of “greed”. It is believed that this attachment, either to material goods or to the most impure desires, prevents the spiritual evolution of the deceased, causing them to remain “hungry” after death, that is, to continue to desire that which they cannot (or should not) have or do. In several Asian countries, the offerings of the celebrations of the dead include food and money to appease these particular spirits.
The image of the “Hungry Ghost” is connected with the Buddhist origins of the Obon festival, as it is come from the traditional bon-odori dance.
According to legend, this traditional dance was created when a disciple of Buddha had a horrifying vision: he saw the spirit of his own deceased mother trapped in the underworld and transformed into a Hungry Ghost. In his vision, the son sees the mother, unable to detach herself from material life, constantly eating without ever feeling full. Horrified, the disciple goes to the Buddha and asks how to help free his mother’s spirit. Buddha advises him to do many charitable works in the name of his mother. The disciple follows this advice diligently, and has a new vision. But now he sees the spirit of the mother is free and enlightened, and he also sees all the sacrifices she had made in life to raise him, and how these trials that caused her to become attached to material things, for she had given up many material comforts so that he could be well-cared for. Moved, the disciple thanked the spirit of his mother for her love and generosity, and his heart was filled with such joy that he began to dance. It was from this dance, born of the love and gratitude of the son for his mother and the liberation of her spirit thanks to his faith and good deeds, that the bon-odori dance was born.
In Japan, the Buddhist the “Hungry Ghost” takes the form of the Gaki, which has one more macabre element: it is believed that these hauntings are overtaken by the compulsion to eat disgusting substances. A kind of “sub-category” of this ghost, the Jikininki, feeds specifically on corpses. This haunting appears in one of the stories compiled by Lafcadio Hearn. In this story we can identify how hungry ghosts serve to illustrate the Buddhist concept of compassion. According to Buddhism, true compassion exists only when disgust, revulsion and judgment are set aside.
Once upon a time, a Buddhist monk by the name of Musou Kokushi got lost in the mountains during a pilgrimage. A little before sunset he came across a cabin, high up on a hill. As he approached, he realized the cabin it was an anjitsu, a monastery for one person, a type of building intended for monks or priests who wished to isolate themselves in contemplation. As he approached, he saw that the anjitsu was already occupied by a very elderly priest. Musou asked if he could spend the night, but the priest sharply refused his request. However, he told Musou how to get to a nearby village in the valley below.
Following his directions, Musou arrived at a tiny settlement of half a dozen small houses, where he was given food and lodging. Exhausted, he went to bed early, but before midnight, he woke up to the sound of crying. When he got up, he saw a young man standing by the door with a lantern in his hand. The young man was the eldest son of the family that sheltered Musou, and he told the monk that his father had just passed away. According to the custom of the village, the body had to spend the night indoors waiting for the funeral the next day, but the family had to leave and could only return in the morning, as strange things could happen in a house in which lies a corpse. Musou, who was not afraid of spirits, decided to stay and spend the night praying for the deceased and conducting the proper funeral rituals, as a way of thanking the family for their hospitality.
The family left and Musou began the rituals. In the dead of night, the Monk saw something move. Strangely, he didn’t hear any noise. He then realized that whatever it was, the thing looked like a shapeless shadow. The shadow crept into the room, and, right before the monk’s shocked eyes, proceeded to swallow the body of the dead man whole, funeral robes and all. The shadow also devoured the offerings left by the family, and then quietly disappeared.
The next day, Musou recounted everything he had witnessed, but none of the villagers seemed surprised. They told The monk that this had been going on for years, and Musou asked them why they did not bring the old priest to do the funeral rites. Surely, this would solve the problem.
“What priest?” the residents asked
“The one who lives in the anjitsu on the hill.”
“There is no anjitsu at all on the hill, and no priest has lived here for years.” they said
Musou immediately understood what was happening and went back to the anjitsu on the hill. There, the old priest welcomed him and apologized profusely.
“No need to apologize.”replied Musou “I found the village, and they treated me very well.”
“I’m apologizing for appearing in front of you in my true form. I’m not a priest, or rather not anymore…I was, a long time ago. In the past, I was the only priest in this area. I was always very busy taking care of the rituals, but I didn’t do them from the heart. All I could think about was the food and clothes I would get in return. When I died, I was reborn as a hungry ghost…what you saw last night. I beg you to pray for me, so that I can be freed of this existence.
Musou promised that he would do so. Suddenly, the anjitsu disappeared along with the old priest, and Musou found himself in front of a tomb.
Onryo and Goryo (vengeful ghosts)
Finally we come to the most well-known, most popular category, the crème de la crème of Japanese ghost lore: vengeful ghosts. If you’ve ever watched a supernatural-themed J-Horror movie, read a horror manga, or had contact with any form ghost story from Japan, chances are you already know how this haunting operates. Someone, often a woman, suffers a great injustice or cruelty that ultimately causes her death. The victim may have been murdered or may have committed suicide, or maybe they died as a result of some trauma, or they have been the victim of an accident or negligence…whatever the case, their death is somebody’s fault. And as we know, Japanese tradition dictates that the soul of those who die in suffering cannot rest, and need their situation to be corrected in some way. But if “ordinary ” ghosts only need the living to say prayers and do charity so that their suffering ends, a ghost whose death was provoked by someone else’s actions does not rest until the culprit is punished.
The word goryo is first recorded in the Heian period (794-1185), when there was a common belief that nobles and other members of the elite had the ability to return from the dead to take revenge if they had died violently or as martyrs. The Heian Period was considered the height of the Japanese Empire, when the imperial court held centralized power, particularly the Fujiwara clan, whose members often married with members of the royal family. The aristocracy was seen as a special group, an elite so powerful that even their ghosts had more power than ordinary ghosts. That is why the term goryo appeared, being the junction of the kanji “go” meaning “honorable” and “ryo“, or “spirit”. These hauntings were called “honorable spirits” because they were the souls of aristocrats and members of the elite, and also because they were often considered martyrs depending on the political leanings of the storyteller. There is also another reason for this name: using a respectful title was a way to avoid their wrath.
Over time, the power of the court crumbled in the hands of various clans, culminating in the destabilization of the Sengoku period. As we have already seen in the previous article, this era in the history of Japan was marked by numerous civil wars and conflicts between different political factions within the aristocracy. Unsurprisingly, combat deaths and political assassinations were rife, which spawned numerous myths and legends about assassinated warriors and nobles returning from the dead in search of revenge, causing goryo to become a common theme for ghost stories.
However, with the end of the Sengoku period and the beginning of the Edo era, vengeful ghosts began to change. They were no longer warriors killed in battle, or aristocrats murdered by their enemies. Now, anyone could become a powerful ghost. These hauntings are called Onryo, which literally means “vengeful spirit”, although the term goryo continued to be used as a sign of respect. Unlike the ancient goryo, which had a strong political component and were usually associated with power disputes, the onryo is more “democratic”: these hauntings can not only belong to any social category, but can have any origin: women murdered by their husbands or lovers, men killed in fights, people killed in accidents, suicides. That is, the element of the “political martyr” associated with goryo is lost, replaced by more everyday themes. Basically, the Onryo could be anywhere.
An interesting aspect of this second type of haunting in particular is the fact that most of the ghosts that fit into this category are women. Many theorize that there may be an element of catharsis involved. Japanese society has always been deeply sexist. In fact, it still is. Despite being a technologically modern and economically developed country, Japan retains a very traditional view when it comes to social issues, especially gender equality. Women receive salaries on average 22% lower than men, sexual harassment is a serious problem from work environments to public transport and there is still a strong expectation that women marry and leave the work force to take care of the house and children, while men dedicate themselves exclusively to work. As a matter of fact, the work day is often so long that in families in which only the husband works, men do not have free time to spend with their own children who spend time almost exclusively with their mothers. Topics such as divorce and sexual and domestic violence are little discussed, and there are still fewer women in politics than in other Asian countries.
Gender inequality and the expectation that women will be subservient to men are constant in Japanese history, which may be one reason ghost stories in which a woman is mistreated, abandoned, or even killed by her husband or lover and returns from the afterlife seeking revenge are very common. These stories take inspiration from the very real vulnerability of women, and ” turn the tables.” It is telling that in Japanese culture the woman is represented as a powerful entity only when she dies, indicating the impossibility of holding any power in life.
Although not every vengeful ghost is necessarily a woman, it is noticeable that the association of these hauntings with the feminine has found traction in Japanese popular culture, as the most popular stories always have a female ghost as protagonist (or antagonist). An the most popular Japanese ghost story of all time, which has inspired more than 30 films in addition to plays, works of art, anime and music is practically the prototype of this type of narrative: Yotsuya Kaidan.
Yotsuya Kaidan presents an interesting exception to the” rule ” that ghost stories always begin as myths or folklore, before being assimilated into literature or theater. The tale in its original form is a kabuki play written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV, under the title Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, or The strange story of Yotsuya in Tokaido. When it premiered, the play was performed as a double feature with the already famous play Kanadehon Chunshigura (“The Revenge of the 47 samurai” inspired by historical events), but nowadays, thanks to its enormous popularity, it tends to be staged as a single feature.
The author was inspired by two real crimes to write the story of Oiwa and her cruel husband Iemon. The first was the case of two servants who murdered their respective masters and were both executed on the same day, while the second was that of a samurai who, upon discovering that his concubine cheated on him with an employee, nailed the couple to a wooden board, and threw them into a river, where they drowned. The play picks elements of the two cases to create an entirely original narrative that would give rise to several legends, to the point that the border between fiction and truth became blurred. It is even believed that the protagonist Oiwa really existed and is buried in the temple of Myogyoji in Tokyo. Incidentally, Kabuki tradition dictates that actors playing the role of Oiwa should visit Oiwa’s grave and pay their respects in order to prevent any tragedy from happening during the performance. The tradition lives on in Kabuki and has also migrated to film and TV, as film crews, directors and actors perform the same ritual when working on any adaptation of the work.
The numerous adaptations of Yotsuya Kaidan don’t always follow narrative of the original play to the letter, and over the years elements have been added or removed, and various retellings have changed the interpretation of the themes covered in the story, but the narrative thread common to most adaptations is as follows:
Iemon Tamiya is a ronin, a samurai without a lord. He’s planning to improve his situation by marrying the beautiful Oiwa, one of Samon Yotsuya’s daughters. The young woman’s father does not approve of the match, and the two men have a heated argument, during which Iemon kills Samon. By chance, a criminal named Naosuke witnesses the murder and offers Iemon a deal. Naosuke is in love with Oiwa’s sister, Osode, who is already betrothed to another man, Yomoshichi Sato. So the two push Yomoshichi from the top of a waterfall, then convince the sisters that their father and fiancé were both murdered by a group of bandits and marry them.
Some time later, Iemon and Oiwa have a son, but the two couples are living in poverty, as Iemon and Naosuke are too lazy and self-centered to be decent husbands and provider. Osode is forced into prostitution to try to support her family. That’s when Oume, the daughter of the wealthy Ito Kei, falls in love with Iemon. Oume’s family (or Naosuke in some versions) presents Iemon’s wife with a toxic substance disguised as a face cream. The poison ends up destroying Oiwa’s face, who later dies. Oiwa’s manner of death varies from version to version: in some tellings the poison itself kills both Oiwa and her baby, in others Iemon himself either kills her or causes her accidental death or suicide by accusing her of adultery.
Iemon throws Oiwa’s body into the river (in some versions he nails her body on a wooden board, sometimes along with the body of the man he falsely accused of being her lover.) and is now free to marry Oume.
On their wedding night, however, Oiwa’s ghost appears in the couple’s room and kills the bride. It’s just the beginning of her revenge. One by one, several members of the Ito family meet their demise in strange circumstances. Iemon is constantly haunted by the ghost of Oiwa, whose deformed face appears to him everywhere. The more he sees her, the more the tragedies pile up, and the more Iemon descends into insanity. His already violent temper gets entirely out of control, until he kills his mother-in-law in a fit of rage. As he loses control of himself, Iemon goes on a rampage of crimes, and the souls of his victims start to haunt him as well. Oiwa’s Ghost also appears several times to Naosuke and Osode. Thanks to the ghost of her sister, Osode finally finds out everything Iemon and Naosuke did. Naosuke then kills himself to escape the consequences of his crimes.
Almost at the end of his rope, Iemon, flees to a monastery in the mountains, hoping that retreat and prayer can bring an end to his suffering. But the hallucinations only get worse. Completely isolated, he sees the spirit of Oiwa and his other victims everywhere, all the time. He can no longer separate hallucination from reality, nor does he know when he is asleep or awake. His entire existence becomes a relentless nightmare.
Iemon’s suffering only comes to an end when, Yomoshichi Osode’s fiancé, who miraculously survived being pushed off a waterfall’s, returns. Osode tells him everything that happened, and the young man hunts Iemon down in order to get revenge for himself and the Yotsuya family. However, upon finding the samurai completely insane, Yomoshichi gives up his original plan of challenging him to a duel, and gives him a quick and merciful execution.
And with this classic tale we have reached the end of our tour of the world of Japanese ghosts. Of course, there are still countless stories and myths we haven’t covered, and this list is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it’s a good start for you to venture into the world of Japanese horror beyond J-Horror.
Ghost hidden by mosquito net, illustration by Hiresaki Heimei
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