Like every culture in the world, Japan also has its own type of vengeful spirits that can appear as specters or ghosts. In the Land of the Rising Sun, we call them Yūrei.
Yūrei (幽霊, lit. Ghosts) are figures from Japanese mythology, analogous to the Western model of ghosts, and the third type of Yokai in Japanese Folklore. The Yūrei classification regroups ghosts and spirits that are trapped on Earth because of sorrows, angers, or regrets, and who’s soul cannot leave this world before being appeased.
Let’s discover together a little more about them: #intro
What does Yūrei mean?
Yūrei is the common name for ghost or spirit in Japan. Morever, if you want to say Ghost in Japanese, you also can use the words Bōrei (亡霊) which means “ruined or vanished spirit” or Shiryō (死霊) which means “dead spirit”.
The term Yūrei is a combination of two kanji, yu (幽), which means “weak” and rei (霊), which means “spirit” or “soul”.
According to traditional Japanese beliefs, all humans have a spirit or soul called Reikon (霊魂). When a person dies, the Reikon leaves the body and enters a form of purgatory, where it waits for the proper funeral and post-funeral rites to be performed so that it can join its ancestors. If this is done properly, the Reikon is supposed to be a protector of the living family and return every August during the Obon festival to receive thanks.
However, if the person dies suddenly or violently, such as murder or suicide, if the proper rites were not performed or if they are influenced by powerful emotions such as desire for revenge, love, jealousy, hatred, or grief, the Reikon would turn into a Yūrei which could then bridge the gap between it and the physical world.
The emotion or thought need not be particularly strong or motivated. Even harmless thoughts can disrupt a death. Once a thought enters a dying person’s mind, their Yūrei will return to complete the action they last thought of before returning to the cycle of reincarnation.
Yūrei then exist on Earth until it can be put to rest, either by performing the missing rituals or by resolving the emotional conflict that still ties it to the physical plane. If the rituals are not performed or the conflict is not resolved, the Yūrei will persist in its haunting.
Often, the lower the social rank of the person who died violently or was treated harshly during their life, the more powerful they are as a Yūrei. This is illustrated by the fate of Oiwa in the story Yotsuya Kaidan, or the servant Okiku in Banchō Sarayashiki.
Types of Japanese Ghosts
Although all Japanese ghosts are called Yūrei, there are several different types of Japanese ghosts in this category, classified mainly by how they died or why they returned to Earth:
Onryō (怨霊) are vengeful ghosts who return from the beyond after a very violent and tormenting death. They are condemned to wander on Earth, looking for vengeance.
Ubume (産女, lit. woman on the point of giving birth) is a ghost from a mother Who died giving birth, or who died leaving young children behind. This Yūrei returns to care for her children, often bringing them candy.
Goryō are vengeful ghosts of the aristocratic class, especially those who were martyred.
The ghosts of those who died at sea. These ghosts are sometimes depicted as scaly, fish-like humanoids and some may even have a form similar to a mermaid or human.
the ghosts of children; often mischievous rather than dangerous.
Floating spirits (浮遊霊, FuYūrei): these spirits do not seek to fulfill a specific purpose and wander aimlessly. In ancient times, it was thought that the illness of the Emperor of Japan was due to these spirits floating in the air.
Jibakurei (地縛霊, lit. Earth Spirits) are similar to FuYūrei. These spirits do not seek to fulfill a specific purpose and instead are tied to a specific place or situation. Famous examples include the famous story of Okiku at the well in Himeji Castle and the hauntings in the movie Ju-On: The Grudge.
There are two types of ghosts specific to Buddhism, both of which are examples of unfulfilled earthly hungers that continue after death. They are different from other Yūrei classifications because of their religious nature:
In Japanese folklore, it is not only the dead who can manifest their desire to be haunted. Living beings, possessed by extraordinary jealousy or rage, can unleash their spirit in the form of an Ikiryō (生き霊), a living ghost that can carry out its will while alive.
The most famous example of an ikiryo is Rokujō no Miyasundokoro, from the novel The Tale of Genji. The mistress of the titular Genji who falls deeply in love with him, the lady Rokujō is an ambitious woman whose ambition is denied when her husband dies.
The jealousy she suppresses over Genji slowly turns her into a demon, then takes form as an ikiryō upon discovering that Genji’s wife is pregnant. This ikiryō possessed Genji’s wife, ultimately leading to her death. Realizing that her jealousy had caused this misfortune, she locked herself away and became a nun until her death, after which her spirit continued to haunt Genji until his daughter performed the correct spiritual rites.
What does a Yurei look like?
Today, the appearance of the Yūrei is somewhat uniform, instantly signaling the ghostly nature of the figure, and ensuring that it is culturally authentic.
- White clothing: Yūrei are usually dressed in white, which means that the white funeral kimono is used in funeral rituals of the Edo period. In Shintoism, white is a color of ritual purity, traditionally reserved for priests and the dead. This kimono can be either a katabira (a plain, white, unlined kimono) or a kyokatabira (a white katabira inscribed with Buddhist sutras). They sometimes have a hitaikakushi (literally “forehead cover”), which is a small triangular piece of white cloth tied around the head.
- Dark Hair: A Yūrei’s hair is often long, black, and disheveled, which some believe is a trademark carried over from kabuki theater, where wigs are used for all actors: Traditionally, Japanese women had long hair and wore it pinned up, and it was let down for funerals and burial.
- Hands and feet: A Yūrei’s hands are said to hang lifelessly from the wrists, which are held taut with the elbows close to the body. They are usually missing their legs and feet, which float in the air. These features originated in the ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period, and were quickly copied to kabuki. In kabuki, this lack of legs and feet is often represented by the use of a very long kimono or even by hoisting the actor in the air by a series of ropes and pulleys.
- Face: Japanese Ghost faces are very versatile. They can be normal as well as well as completely disfigured with scars, wounds or holes all over the skull.
- Hitodama: Yūrei are often depicted as being accompanied by a pair of floating flames or scrolls (hitodama in Japanese) in sinister colors such as blue, green, or purple. These ghostly flames are separate parts of the ghost rather than independent spirits.
Japanese Ghost Myths
While there are lots of different types of Yokai in Japanese Folklore, Yūrei myths differs from them by several aspects such as their temporal specificity.
Indeed, Yūrei are one of the only creatures in Japanese mythology to have an ideal time to haunt (middle of the Ox hours; around 2:00-2:30 in the morning, when the veils between the world of the dead and the world of the living are thinnest).
In comparison, normal Obake and Bakemono (Monsters and second type of Yokai) can strike at any time, often darkening or altering their surroundings if they feel the need.
Moreover, Yūrei tend to have a specific purpose for their haunting, such as revenge or the completion of unfinished business. This means that their spirit can never find peace, and will therefore remain a jibakurei (“earthbound spirit”).
How to banish a Yurei?
The easiest way to get rid of a Yūrei is to help it fulfill its purpose. When the reason for the strong emotion that binds the spirit to the Earth is gone, the Yūrei is satisfied and can move on.
Traditionally, this is done through the revenge of family members on the Yūrei’s killer, or when the ghost consummates its passion/love with its lover, or when its remains are discovered and properly buried with all rites performed. The emotions of the Onryō are particularly strong, and they are the least likely to be soothed by these methods.
Occasionally, Buddhist priests and mountain ascetics were hired to perform exorcisms for those whose unusual or unfortunate death might result in their transformation into a vengeful ghost, a practice similar to exorcism. Sometimes these ghosts were deified in order to appease their spirits.
Like many monsters in Japanese folklore, malevolent Yūrei are repelled by ofuda (御札), Shinto sacred writings containing the name of a kami. The ofuda must usually be placed on the forehead of the Yūrei to banish the spirit, although they can be attached to the entrances of a house to prevent the Yūrei from entering
Japanese Ghost Stories
Here is a list of the most popular and creepiest Japanese ghost stories from Japan:
Hanako-san, or Toire no Hanako-san (トイレのはなこさん, “Hanako of the Toilet”) is the sinister spirit of a young girl who haunts school toilets. Spookiest yokai of Japanese folklore, Hanako has short straight black hair, she wears a school uniform with a red skirt and braces over a white shirt.
Some legends say that her dark look can freeze the blood of the bravest people, this explains why it is said Hanako son is popular initiation rite or a bravery test at schools very similar to Bloody Mary or Veronica.
Nure-Onna (濡女, lit. “wet woman”) are aquatic spirits that look like a sea snake with vampire traits and that roams the coast in rivers in search of humans to eat. Nure-Onna are are most commonly found on the coast of Kyushu, southern Japan, but they’re also stories that place them North in the archipelago.
We can find two versions of Nure-Onna, one without arms which resembles a huge sea snake with a woman’s head and one with human arms that end in claws as if it were a mermaid but with a snake’s tail.
Oiwa was the very pretty woman of a Samurai that was struggling to maintain is family by crafting and selling umbrellas. After giving birth to their first child, she fell sick but was still very happy as she was in love with our husband.
One day, his husband met a local doctor that wanted to hire him as a Samurai in exchange of his daughter. The husband accepted and used poison to get ride off her wife. However, the poison didn’t work and disfured completely Iowa.
After trying to find other solutions to leave her, it’s finally Oiwa herself that committed suicide after acknowledging the state of her face and after learning the plans of her husband to kill her.
On her last breath, Oiwa cursed her husband a powerful spell that would hunt it forever. During the wedding ceremony with the doctor’s daughter, the face of the bride turn into that of her deceased ex wife. Scared, the husband took his Katana and killed her by cutting her through.
Unfortunately, the person that he had killed was indeed the doctor’s daughter. Ashamed and full of sorrow, the husband came back to his home and committed Sepuku (Traditional Japanese suicide procedure).
Yuki-onna (雪女, lit. “snow woman”) is one of the most classic characters in Japanese culture and the personification of the Winter. She is described as a beautiful woman, tall with long hair. Her skin is inhumanly white, almost transparent, and she is hardly visible in a snowy landscape.
The legend says that Yuki-Onna are ghosts that haunt men during strong snow tempests in the mountains of Japan. She seduces them and kill them by blowing their icy breath in their face, freezing them to death.
5. BANCHŌ SARAYASHIKI
In the kabuki play Bancho Sarayashiki, Okiku is a servant in the mansion of the Japanese samurai Tessan Aoyama. The samurai wants to seduce the pretty girl but she rejects his advances. Aoyama uses a ruse. He hides one of the ten valuable Dutch plates and threatens Okiku with making public the fact that she stole the plate, unless she agrees to become his mistress. In her desperation, Okiku throws herself into the well and drowns.
Okiku’s ghost comes out every night, counting from one to nine, and then starts screaming and sobbing. Finally, Aoyama becomes mad by the daily apparitions of the night.
6. BOTAN DŌRŌ
Obon, the period when the spirits of the ancestors come back to visit the living, usually takes place in August (the dates can change according to the lunar calendar) for 3 days. A long time ago, on the first night of Obon, a man (from one version to another a student, a widowed samurai, etc.) noticed a very beautiful woman passing in front of his house with her servant carrying a peony lantern. This was the beginning of a passionate love story.
Every night, by the light of the lantern carried by the maid, the young woman named Otsuyu joined her beloved and he sank more and more into passion. A neighbor, worried about not seeing the man anymore, decided to visit him one night, curious about these mysterious visitors who passed by his house every night. Peering through the bedroom door, he nearly fainted when he discovered the man entwined in the arms of a skeleton. He ran to warn the nearest Buddhist priest who managed to convince our protagonist that he was in great danger.
He then decided to create a protective spell around his house to keep out those who belong to the world of the dead. This one is effective, and every night Otsuyu and his servant come to the door crying, reminding the man of their passion. The latter, who lived only in sadness and love for Otsuyu, saw his health deteriorating more and more, because of despair. One night, unable to resist, he removed the charm and let the two women enter. At the end of a last night of love, he too died, and his corpse apparently had a radiant smile, his soul taken to the world of the dead where he would live forever with his beloved Otsuyu.
7. OTSUYA KAIDAN
The story begins with a murder. Iemon, an unemployed ronin, killed his wife Oiwa’s father, because her father was aware of Iemon’s past evil deeds. Penniless, Iemon was forced to earn a living as an oil paper umbrella maker to support his delicate wife and new child. This situation has led him to resent Oiwa.
Iemon is attracted by a plan to marry the beautiful granddaughter of a wealthy neighbor, who is in love with him. To pave the way for this new marriage, Iemon and the neighbor plot to murder Oiwa. Iemon slips a poison into her drink, intended to give her strength. The poison does not kill her, but it does disfigure her, causing her hair to fall out and her eye to droop. When a mirror is held in front of her, her despair at her disfigurement and the knowledge of her husband’s betrayal cause her to die.
When a faithful servant, Kobote Kohei, becomes aware of the murder, Iemon accuses him of theft and has him killed. He then has the bodies of Kohei and Oiwa crucified on both sides of a wooden door, which is then thrown into a nearby river.
Thinking that his troubles are over, Iemon plans his new marriage. On his wedding day with his new wife, Iemon lifts his veil to see Oiwa’s ruined face. He instantly decapitates her, only to discover that he has killed his new wife. Horrified, he flees to the neighbor’s house to confess, where he is confronted by Kohei’s ghost. Upon striking the ghost, Iemon discovers that he has killed his neighbor, his new father-in-law.
From there, the haunting continues, with Oiwa’s vengeful spirit pursuing Iemon. Everywhere he goes, he sees his damaged face, protruding even from a lantern. Seeking to escape, he retreats to the mountains and goes fishing. Instead of fishing, he hangs the board with the dead bodies of Oiwa and Kohei. He then flees to a hut in Hebiyama, where the ropes and vines in the hut turn into snakes and the smoke from the fire turns into Oiwa’s hair.
While fleeing the hut, he meets his brother-in-law, who kills Iemon and avenges all the murders.
Japanese art encompasses a huge number of sub-genres and can be divided according to technique, type of support used, period of production and, of course, what it represents. In Japan, there is an art form typically centered on the Yūrei, the Yūrei-zu.
Yūrei-zu (幽霊図) is a genre of Japanese art consisting of painted or woodblock printed images of ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings. They are considered a subgenre of fūzokuga, “images of manners and customs.” These types of artworks reached the peak of their popularity in Japan in the mid to late 19th century.
Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Ōkyo created the first known example of the now traditional Yūrei, in his painting The Ghost of Oyuki. Moreover, Tokyo’s Zenshō-an is home to the largest collection of Yūrei paintings, which are only displayed in August, the traditional month of the spirits.
Japanese Ghosts in Pop Culture
The Yūrei have been featured in films such as The Grudge, The Ring, and Silent Hill in the United States, which unfortunately led to some confusion among American audiences, who believed that the characters were somehow the same in each of the films.
Western audiences were unfamiliar with the appearance of the Yūrei, which has very little in common with the “transparent silhouette under a sheet” type of Western ghosts. As J-Horror remakes continue to be made, it is likely that American audiences will eventually learn to accept the appearance of this new type of ghost.
Japanese Ghosts representation in Anime
- Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day
- Hanada Shounen-shi
- The Young Spirit Master
- Kitarou no Gegege
- Kaidan Restaurant
- Ghost Hound
- Ghost Stories
- Natsuyuki Rendezvous
- Ghost Slayers Ayashi
- Blue Exorcist
- Hell Girl
- Ghost Hunt
- Natsume Yuujichou