Monday, 29 June 2009

Japanese Creatures IV: Yurei

Hello and welcome to The Obscuritan. For the last (for now) in our Japanese Creatures articles, we’re departing from the previous format and discussing one creature in particular – the Yurei or ghosts – and the various forms in which they appear.

Ghosts ( – Rei) in Japan come under a variety of names. The most common is Yurei (faint spirits), although Borei (ruined spirits) and Shinryo (dead spirits) are occasionally used. In some popular culture, Ayakashi is also sometimes used, although this is technically only used for those who have drowned at sea. The process of becoming a ghost was, to the Japanese, similar to the one most people who believe would subscribe to, in that it arises from complications in “passing on”. Japan, like many Asian countries, maintains a strong belief in Ancestor Spirits, the ghosts of departed family members and historical clan members, some of whom over time may be promoted to the status of minor deities, particularly if they were the clan founders. Furthermore, the spiritual dimension of the afterlife was distinct from that occupied by gods and spirits, which overlapped closely with the material realm. This then necessitated a “crossing over” that the spirit (Reikon) must achieve in order to depart the mortal realm, a process aided by the prayers and offerings of incense given at funerals. However extreme emotion, usually of anger, hate and so forth, though sometimes of simply things like envy or grief, can cause either the person’s spirit itself or a part of it to remain behind, either seeking vengeance for its being wronged (assuming it can even remember the life it had) or simply expressing its fury and grief to anyone who crosses its path. Some are simply a “loop” of such anger that lashes out at bystanders, and as such are extremely dangerous. In some cases, too, the spirit of a living person can enter this state as an Ikiryo, similar to Astral Projection, as the result of great rage or hate, in order to deliver a curse to the object of their feelings.

As one might expect from a feudal (and therefore patriarchal) civilization where hardship was a common factor of the majority of the population’s lives, women faced a hard life and thus many of the more popular archetypal Yurei have been of women wronged by husbands, lords or just the simple facts of life. This is so prevalent that many associate the term Yurei exclusively with such female spirits (perhaps due to its similarity to the feminine name Yuri or Lily). Below we have illustrated some of the most well-known of these wronged women and their origins.


Famously illustrated in the painting “The Ghost of Oyuki” by Maruyama Okyo, Oyuki was the ghost of his mistress in one of the Geisha (escort) houses who died young, but appeared to her deeply grieving lover in a dream, thus inspiring the portrait. Although not illustrating the depth of emotion on her part that characterized many Yurei before and after, she is notable for having inspired many of the features of the Yurei, particularly from the Edo period onwards, which would become hallmarks of ghostly apparitions – long dark hair, a frail body hidden under long white robes (white being the Japanese funereal colour rather than black) even when frailty was not one of their living characteristics, and the tapering off of their bodies at the legs which, particularly when such characters appear in Kabuki theatre, is often the first confirmation that the character is a ghost (alongside, in the theatre, their makeup).

The Nightly Weeping Rock

This tale takes place on the Tokaido highway, a road stretching from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). Travelling upon this road one night on her way to see her husband, a pregnant woman is ambushed and murdered by a brigand. After she does not arrive her husband, chancing upon the site of the murder, is confronted by the ghost of his wife, which was ensorcelled into the rock when her blood splashed upon it. The ghost then hands their child to her husband alive and well, as the Bodhisattva Kannon had taken the child into her care after the murder.


This tale concerns the local baron Tessan, who owned ten porcelain plates given by a Dutch merchant, and his beautiful maid Okiku. Many times he tried to seduce her, only to be rebuffed. Finally, Tessan hid one of the ten plates, and demanded that Okiku bring out all ten plated for him to use. She counted them time and time again, but could not find the last plate, and either (according to the teller) was thrown down the well by Tessan or jumped in herself. However, Tessan was plagued for many months afterwards by the spectre of Okiku rising up from the well, counting mournfully to nine, before breaking down into sobs, sometimes as many times a night as the times she counted the plates before her death.


This story takes place as part of the famous play Yotsuya Kaidan, by Tsuruya Nanboku IV, and concerns perhaps the most destructive and well-known Yurei of all. This story begins with the young couple of Oiwa and her husband Iyemon. Iyemon was a samurai, but due to his wife’s frailty, was forced to become an umbrella-maker to support them, a fact which led him to hate and resent his unknowing wife. The daughter of a rich local family also loved Iyemon, and her parents were eager to see her married to a man who, once no longer forced to perform menial

work, could regain his status as a Samurai. They finally made their move by providing Iyemon poison in the guise of medicine, to give to Oiwa. However, the medicine failed to kill her, instead horribly disfiguring her. In her last moments, Oiwa realized Iyemon’s deceit and cursed him with the same level of hate that he felt for her, the fury of which finally killed her. Not wishing to bear the shame and eager to be wedded soon, Iyemon simply dumped Oiwa’s body in the river, along with a servant who saw him do it, and the wedding took place a few days later. When Iyemon lifted his new bride’s veil, however, he was confronted by the leering, disfigured face of Oiwa, and struck out at her with his sword and killing the girl. Fleeing the wedding, he ran to confess to the girl’s parents, but was accosted in the road by Oiwa and the servant. Slaying them again, he found the bodies of his mother- and father-in-law at his feet. In once infamous scene Iyemon, having fled, tries to take solace in the wilderness by fishing, only to dredge up the bodies of his first two victims, miles away from the river where he dumped them. Finally, he flees to an abandoned shack on Snake Mountain, where the ghost of Oiwa finally comes to him through a leering, burnt-out lamp (as seen in the picture), as the very vines of the mountain itself writhe and come alive around him…

Two things are of particular interest in the case of Oiwa. Firstly, although she is horrific in appearance, and leads to the death of many people, Oiwa is not at heart a malevolent ghost, and those that die are merely the corrupt people who conspired with Iyemon to kill her. Secondly, to some in the audience, it is perhaps debatable whether Oiwa is indeed a ghost at all – an equally compelling explanation is that these apparitions are merely the unravelling of Iyemon’s sanity after killing the woman he once loved.

The Ghosts of Matahachi and Kikuno

In many stories, particularly those adapted for Kabuki theatre, the suicide of two lovers – each damning the other with their love – is represented by the two spirits, bound together by a length of cloth or rope, haunting future couples whose love is similar to their own. An interesting reversal of this, however, is the story of Matahachi and Kikuno, who instead found the younger brother of the man whom Matahachi served and Kikuno was the concubine of, having an affair with his deceased brother’s widow, who was now a nun. The younger brother kills them before they can tell anyone, but that night the two illicit lovers are interrupted in their bedchamber by the bloodied ghosts of the murdered pair who appear between them.


This spirit, unlike the ones we have looked at so far, is more of an apparition, and a predatory one at that, than a Yurei as such. Lurking in the mountains during the dead of winter, this spirit is sometimes depicted as a long-lost victim of freezing, and upon encountering a wanderer, she will open her arms and offer them a warm embrace. Though she is usually quite beautiful, accepting her embrace allows her to draw the life out of the traveller, leaving them a frozen corpse. Although feared by early winter travellers, modern depictions of the Yuki Onna have been more favourable, most likely stemming from the account of her given in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan (him again) of her sparing a man from his fate after having fallen in love with him.

A similar creature, the Yama-Uba (mountain hag) is often confused with the Yuki Onna, both living in the mountains and preying on humans. However, the Yama-Uba is more akin to the Yokai, and exhibits many forms which include features resembling Bakemono such as the Futakuchi-onna and the Hari-Onago, as well as the defining feature of the

Kuchisake Onna

Another departure from the standard Yurei archetype, this spirit has taken on a life of its own as a wildly popular Urban Legend amongst school-age Japanese teens. The form it takes in the modern day is as follows: A man (usually) is wandering through the streets at night on his way home from either the office or a bar, when he spots a woman approaching in the opposite direction. It is very late, and in concern he pauses. She is quite attractive from what he can see, even though she is wearing a white surgical mask over her face, common in Japan for people suffering from a cold. She looks up and asks him; “Do you think I’m pretty?” The man, seeing no reason not to play along, replies “Yes”. At this point, the woman quickly rips down her mask, revealing a horrifically wide mouth, seemingly slashed open from ear to ear yet nonetheless bristling with teeth, through which she asks “…How about now?” The victim has no time to reply, however, as she invariably flicks out a switchblade and slashes their throat.

Being a popular tale, though this story is thought to have began as the tale of a Samurai’s jilted lover, it has spread to just about every city in modern Japan, and from each locale (and indeed each teller), the manner of warding her off varies, from offering it hard candies to muttering the word garlic under one’s breath while drawing the Kanji for “Dog” on one’s palm.

Funa Yurei

We have already noted the Ayakashi being the souls of the drowned. However, another group of spirits of drowned sailors are just as well-known, and far more feared. The Funa-Yurei are a troupe of sailors which sail alongside a boat during a storm, and ask the sailors for a ladle. Failure to provide one would cause the ghosts to sink the ship in anger, but providing one would mean they would begin ladling water into the boat instead of out, sinking it as well. Canny captains, however, would keep on board a ladle with no bottom, meaning the ghosts could ladle all they wanted, without sinking their ship.


During the long summer twilight in the Edo period, many groups of people would play the game Hyaku Monogatari, or 100 ghost stories. Sat in a room with 100 candles, each person in the circle would tell a ghost story and blow out one candle. When the last one went out, a leering apparition would loom out from the blue andon lamps the candles were placed in – the Ao-Andon.


Worth mentioning at this point is this small forest at the base of Mt Fuji, which has developed a reputation for both its beautiful scenery and abnormally high number of suicides – some 30 a year, and more than 500 in the past 50 years, making it the most ‘popular’ suicide spot after the Golden Gate bridge in San Fransisco. While the choice to die in such a beautiful place is perhaps a deciding factor for some, it may also have something to do with its appearance in the books The complete manual of Suicide, written in 1993 by Wataru Tsurumi, discussing the issue of suicide in Japan (rather than being some grisly how-to) and mentions Aokigahara as a hot-spot, and Kuroi Jukai by Seito Matsumoto, in which the protagonists finally commit suicide in the forest. This high instance has apparently had an effect upon the area, with spiritualists reporting a deep-seated malevolence in the very trees themselves (perhaps similar in nature to the Jubokko tree we discussed alongside the Bakemono), perhaps the reason why compasses have been claimed to go haywire inside the forest, although military-grade ones have been shown to work. Teams of searchers now patrol annually in the forest looking for any such victims, and are often alerted to any potential suicides by the practice, which has somehow gained prominence in Japan, of taking one’s shoes off and leaving them behind when one commits suicide, as one would when entering a house. The bodies themselves are housed in the Park-keeper’s lodge, where a person must stay with the body overnight for fear of its soul screaming all night and causing the body to get up and move about.


As we have discussed, many of these spirits pose an active threat to the living, due to the sometimes irrational nature of their complaints, and all of these spirits, malevolent or no, were seen as objects of pity that lived tortured existences separate from the love of either dimension. But how then did one go about redressing the issue? In cases where the death was recent, the spirit may simply be pacified by allowing it some measure of closure; in popular stories, relatives of the deceased would find and punish (usually kill) the wrongdoers, or find their remains and bury them. In hauntings motivated by love, merely a chance to ensure that their feelings are heard is enough to allow the Yurei to find peace. The spirit does not always receive the closure it seeks, however. Okiku’s haunting, for example, was ended when a neighbour of Tessan’s agrees to exorcise her, and does so by hiding in the bushes until she begins her counting, and cutting her off at the end by yelling “TEN!”, at which point she shrieked and vanished, with no mention ever made of whether Tessan was punished for his actions. Given his status as a baron, however, it seems unlikely.

Sometimes indeed this is altogether impossible, as the passage of time has erased any possibility of finding the culprit – suspects and witnesses die, evidence is destroyed and so on. In other cases, there are spirits who have continued to haunt even after gaining some degree of vengeance. Oiwa, for example, is sometimes depicted to have remained on the mortal plane after aiding in the demise of Iyemon, her anger not having subsided (though this may just be an addition by later storytellers hoping to add a little more shock to their retelling). This may be as a result of the “loop” we mentioned earlier; what remains behind is not necessarily the individual, but a manifestation of their anger as an entity all of its own, whether or not it bears their name. In cases such as these, an exorcism may be required, for which there are four distinct schools of practitioners. The Kitoshi, a certain caste of Shinto priest (Kannushi) dedicated to healing practices were adept at exorcising, utilizing the Shinto rituals of purity and natural order to placate the spirit and restore harmony. A similar goal was the aim of the Buddhist monk (Bonze), who would recite mantras and prayers to the Buddha and other saints, or reciting passages of the sutras, in order to calm both the possessor and possessed. Two other schools of practitioners were more esoteric in nature, but seen as even more effective if the former two failed. The Onmyoji, practitioners of ancient Chinese customs, performed similar rites to the Kannushi, but combined with Taoist geomancy and other formulae. The Buddhist equivalent was the Yamabushi (whom we mentioned as being connected to the Tengu mountain Yokai), who would combine similar Chinese practices with the Buddhist approach. Often these placations would involve the use of Ofuda, strips of hemp cloth with the name of a deity or saint or excerpt from a sutra upon it, which was either used to keep the Yurei out, or attatched to its forehead to forcibly dispel it. In the most severe cases, shrines had to be built and prayers offered, much like a minor Kami or particularly powerful Yokai/Henge.

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