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Yūrei: the Ghosts of Japan

8 min read

In many cultures, the dead have great relevance.
And Japan is no exception, as death is almost as important as life.
When a person dies, their soul travels to the yominokuni (黄泉の国), the Shinto afterlife, or the anoyo (あの世), the pure land of the Buddhists. But the road is not easy, and any obstacle towards that goal can make this spirit turn into a yūrei (幽霊), a Japanese ghost.
These souls, trapped between the world of the living and the dead, have had a great transcendence in the world of storytelling in Japan. Legends, rumors, traditions, and mysteries have endured till nowadays.

Yūrei (幽霊) in Japanese folklore are figures analogous to the Western model of ghosts.
The name consists of two kanji, 幽 (yū), meaning “faint” or “dim” and 霊 (rei), meaning “soul” or “spirit”.
Like their Chinese, Korean and Western counterparts, they are thought to be spirits barred from a peaceful afterlife.
Believing in the supernatural, superior, and fearsome spirits is deeply rooted in Japan’s unique dominant religion — a mix between Shinto and Buddhist — which greatly influenced Japanese culture and society. The Shintoist’s idea that everything has a spirit or kami (神 – God) inside every thing and being, and the Buddhist‘s belief of the afterlife.

According to traditional Japanese beliefs, all humans have a spirit or soul called a 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 may join its ancestors.
If this is done correctly, the reikon is believed to be a protector of the living family and to return yearly in August, the traditional month of the spirits, during the Obon Festival to receive thanks.
If the person dies, however, in a sudden or violent manner such as murder or suicide, if the proper rites have not been performed, or if they are influenced by powerful emotions such as a desire for revenge, love, jealousy, hatred or sorrow, the reikon is believed to transform into a yūrei which can then bridge the gap back to the physical world.
The emotion or thought need not be particularly strong or driven, and even apparently innocuous thoughts can cause a death to become disturbed.
Once a thought enters the mind of a dying person, their yūrei will come back to complete the action last thought of before returning to the cycle of reincarnation.
The yūrei then exists on Earth until it can be laid to rest, either by performing the missing rituals, or resolving the emotional conflict that still ties it to the physical plane. If the rituals are not completed or the conflict left unresolved, the yūrei will persist in its haunting.
Oftentimes the lower the social rank of the person who died violently or who was treated harshly during life, the more powerful as a yūrei they would return.

Yūrei are usually dressed in white, signifying the white burial kimono used in Edo period (between 1603 and 1867 in the history of Japan) funeral rituals. In Shinto, white is a color of ritual purity, traditionally reserved for priests and the dead.
The hair of a yūrei is often long, black and disheveled, while their hands are said to dangle lifelessly from the wrists, which are held outstretched with the elbows near the body. They typically lack legs and feet, floating in the air, and they are frequently depicted as being accompanied by a pair of floating flames or will o’ the wisps (hitodama in Japanese) in eerie colors such as blue, green, or purple.

While all Japanese ghosts are called yūrei, within the category there are several specific types of phantom, classified mainly by the manner they died or their reason for returning to Earth.

For example, Onryō are vengeful ghosts who come back from purgatory for a wrong done to them during their lifetime.
Victims of domestic abuse or women martyred by wicked stalkers or maniacs will most likely turn into onryo in the afterlife.
It is believed that once an onryo decided to manifest itself, the victim starts to experience nausea, heavy headache and pain in the chest. When just passing by, this ghost could look like a collapsed woman, probably unconscious but as you approach, she starts to make weeping, groaning sounds and whispers incomprehensible words. Eventually, she levitates towards the victim reaching for the head in a bid to catch her or him, and finally covers the victim with its unkempt thick hair. Due to the dark and heavy aura around the onryo, the victim experiences an unbearable headache, which eventually leads to death.

Ubume is a mother ghost who died in childbirth, with or without her baby, and returns to care for her children, often bringing them sweets.
She is usually depicted as a baby-carrying woman, who gives her baby to passersby and then disappears. Once the passerby gives a look at the baby, it turns out that it was merely a big rock or bundle of leaves. She is sometimes depicted as a dreadful woman in a blood-stained koshimaki (Japanese summer attire) carrying an underdeveloped fetus.
In the case where her baby survived, the ubume mother strives to save and care for her still-living child by any means. She can enter the shops and buy some food for her baby, but instead of money, the seller will get a bundle of dry leaves.

Goryō are vengeful ghosts of the aristocratic class, especially those who were martyred. Literally translated as “honorable spirit,” first mentions of them go back to the Heian period, and they are believed to be “the spirits of powerful lords, who have been wronged, that were capable of catastrophic vengeance.” Existing solely for vengeance, goryo are a type of ghost that chase after those who wronged them during their life and wreak havoc on them, causing calamities and disasters.

Funayūrei are the ghosts of those who died at sea, sometimes depicted as scaly fish-like humanoids with some that may even have a form similar to that of a mermaid or merman.
According to some legends, funayurei are remnants of those who sank in shipwrecks and crave for vengeance due to their death. Trying to take the living away with them, Funayurei cause sea storms or damage ships, and they appear in the sea standing on the ghost ship blazing in the foggy night and willing to expand their gruesome crew.
It seems that, once the funayurei crew notices the bow of the ship they won’t leave until their number multiplies. In order to wreck the ship, they rush towards the living, forcing the flustered crew to steer away so harshly that the ship overturns.

Shiryo are the Japanese ghosts of those who just left this world.
The kanji “shi” (死) in this case means “death” and strongly hints that this sort of yurei is not to be romanticized or taken as a mystically attractive. Despite shiryo usually appear just after death, commonly to say one last goodbye to relatives, sometimes things turn out differently, and it appear not only for a farewell, but also to take their beloved along with them.

Zashiki-warashi are ghosts of children, often mischievous rather than dangerous, but there are also floating spirits (浮遊霊, literally Fuyūrei), who do not seek to fulfill an exact purpose and wander around aimlessly. In ancient times, the disease of the Emperor of Japan was thought to arise as a result of these spirits floating in the air.
Their counterparts are earth-bound spirits (地縛霊, Jibakurei), spirits that do not seek to fulfill an exact purpose and are instead bound to a specific place or situation.

The yūrei is one of the only creatures in Japanese mythology to have a preferred haunting time, midtime of the hours of the Ox, around 2:00 am–2:30 am, not by chance when the veils between the world of the dead and the world of the living are at their thinnest.
Some famous locations that are said to be haunted by yūrei are the well of Himeji Castle, haunted by the ghost of Okiku, and Aokigahara, the forest at the bottom of Mount Fuji, which is a popular location for suicide.
The easiest way to exorcise a yūrei is to help it fulfill its purpose. When the reason for the strong emotion binding the spirit to Earth is gone, the yūrei is satisfied and can rest in peace.
Sometimes, Buddhist priests and mountain ascetics were hired to perform services on those whose unusual or unfortunate deaths could result in their transition into a vengeful ghost, a practice similar to a real exorcism.

Like many monsters of Japanese folklore, malicious yūrei are repelled by ofuda (御札), holy Shinto writings containing the name of a kami. The ofuda must generally be placed on the yūrei’s forehead to banish the spirit, although they can be attached to a house’s entry ways to prevent the yūrei from entering.
But don’t forget Fudakaeshi, notorious for their ability to persuade people to remove their protective charms against fuda (ghosts) and let vengeful spirits in!
Fudakaeshi was firstly described in Kyoka Hyaku Monogatari—a collection of comical poems of the late Edo period about Japanese spirits. Being yurei themselves, fudakaeshi can not touch or remove protective fuda, but by tempting or bribing foolish and greedy people, they achieve this goal and can attack their poor victims.
It usually appears as a long-haired, semi-transparent woman, clad in a kimono, and its legend can be found in the ghost story Botan no Doro (The Tale of the Peony Lantern).
It tells about a female ghost who fell in love with a human but couldn’t get into his house because of the protection charms. Desperate to be united with her beloved, she begs him to remove the charm and let her in. Eventually, the man falls in love, too, and removes the protective talismans. As a result, they can spend a night together but this forbidden affair cost the man a lot, as the ghost drains him of all life….

Images from web – Google Research