Yurei: 5 Tales of Japanese Ghosts and Undead Spirits

Yūrei are the Japanese equivalents of “ghosts” from Western culture. The name is a combination of two different kanji:

  • “yu” which means “faint” or “dim”
  • “rei” translated as “soul” or “spirit”.

A question that frequently comes up when discussing yūrei is how they are distinct from yōkai—that is, how do yōkai and ghosts differ?

A first hint comes from the fact that yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity” and “apparition; mystery; suspicious”.

More often than not a yūrei is associated with a human being who has died. Given the broad definition of yōkai, then, the best solution is to consider ghosts a subset of the larger category of yōkai.

Thus, yūrei ghosts can be thought of as a special subcategory of yōkai just as we think of human beings as a special subcategory of animals.

Because humans are animals who possess a particular kind of culture, they tend to receive special attention within the wider study of living things. So too have the yūrei, as yōkai with a particular relationship to humans, have received special attention within the widerstudy of yōkai.

Yūrei in Japanese history and culture can be roughly divided into two related “types.”

The first type is what we might call folkloric ghosts: people who have died harboring a lingering attachment or with unfinished business of some sort.

They wander about in the present world appearing much as they did when they were alive. If you did not know they were dead, you might not notice anything odd about them. Such ghosts often harbor a deep resentment toward a particular individual, or perhaps unquenchable feelings of love or friendship.

In some cases, a person becomes a ghost because he or she has died suddenly with no opportunity to make peace with the world.

This type of ghost is common in legends and personal experience narratives, in which the plot revolves around the sudden, shocking realization that a person who seems very much alive is actually dead.

The second type of ghost is common in drama and art, and sometimes overlaps with the first. Its distinguishing feature is that it clearly appears as somebody who has already passed to the other side; he or she might be dressed in a funeral shroud or have no feet—a particularly common trope forJapanese ghosts.

When you see one of these ghosts, you know right away that you are dealing with a dead person. This type of ghost makes for good theater and artwork but rarely appears in folk narratives or local legends. Asignificant aspect of both these types of ghosts is that they are not just some vague scary presence, but rather they are associated, often by name, with a specific person who once was living.

Stories of Japanese Yūrei

Kazane no Enkon

The ghost of Kazane, depicted as a female with large round face, touzled hair and sometimes biting the blade of a curved knife. She was a jealous wife who was murdered with a scythe by herhusband, Yorimon, and then thrown in a river.

Her husband married againafter his crime, and the ghost of the murdered woman haunted him and his new wife night and day, until the monk Yuten Shonin prayed for the disappearance of the ghost.

In Hokusai’s Manga, she is represented with one eye shut (symbolical of the moon) and the other open (symbolical of the sun).

O Kiku

The Well Ghost, popularly called Bancho Sarayashiki (Plate-house of Bancho) from the name of the street in Tokyo, though is supposed to have originated at Banshu in Harima.

It forms the subject of a play, Aoyama Tessan was a Hatamoto (a high ranking Samurai during the Shogunate period of Japan), and the possessor of ten pieces of precious plate received from the Dutch, the keeping of which was entrusted to a maid, O Kiku, who steadfastly refused to accept Aoyama’s love.

In course of time the desperate soldier hid one of the plates, and suddenly ordered O Kiku to produce the whole.

A hundred times she wearily counted them, but could only find nine. Aoyama then suggested that if she became his mistress he would overlook her supposed carelessness. She refused and he killed her, throwing her body into an old well. Since then her ghost visited the place, counting one-two three nine finishing with a heart rending wail, until Mitsakuni Shonin exorcised the well.

In another version of the tale, the woman is said to have actually broken a plate, and being imprisoned by Aoyama, she managed to escape and threw herself in the well.

Mikoshi Niudo

A bald headed yūrei, pulls its tongue and lolling it about, looks over screens.

Mitsume Kozo or Mitsu me Nyudo

Depicted as short necked with a long hairy face embellished with three eyes, one of which is in the centre of the forehead.Sometimes depicted as the ghost of the Palace of Soma, frightening a court lady.

Ubume

The ubume is found in various forms throughout the country and in collections of ghost stories, religious texts, and other documents. Although details vary, she is most commonly thought of as an incarnation of a woman who has died during child birth. She appears at a crossroads or on a bridge as evening falls, her lower body covered with blood, crying and cradling her infant in her arms.

She asks a male passerby to hold the baby, and then she leaves. In his arms, the baby gradually gets heavier and heavier until the man cannot move at all for fear of dropping it. (In some versions, the baby turns into a stone.)

Ubume narratives have many different outcomes, and it is not always clear what becomes of the baby or the woman; but at least in a number of legends, the man is rewarded for his efforts with great physical strength, a trait he passes down to his descendants.

As a parallel to the Ubume, note the German myth of the old woman of Müggelsberger in Altmark near the Teufelsee.

She is seen in the form of a beautiful fair girl combing her hair who wishes to be set free from the enchantment which binds her to an underground castle.

The only way to do so is for a man to carry her on his back round the church three times without looking backwards. However, strange sights and hideous beasts surround the rescuer, and the woman will grow heavier as the task proceeds until the man drops.


Legend in Japanese art; a description of historical episodes, legendary characters, folk-lore myths, religious symbolism by Henri L. Joly

Mythology of All Races – Japanese and Chinese by John Calvin Ferguson and Masaharu Anesaki

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top