A question I am commonly asked is, “What is the Japanese word for ghost?” However, what seems a simple question is actually complicated.
Ghost. Spirit. Specter. Wraith. Revenant. Several words in the English language describe souls of the dead who have not moved on to the afterlife. Many of these come from other languages; like ghost, which has its probable roots in the pre-Germanic word ghoizdoz, meaning fury or anger; or spirit from the Latin spiritus meaning breath. Then there are more direct loan words, such as the Dutch spōk (spook), or the French phantom, or the Scottish wraith. Each word can mean “ghost,” but each word carries a different nuance or flavor.
Some words are even more specific. Poltergeist combines the German words poltern meaning to rumble or to make noise and geist meaning spirit or ghost. Put the two words together and you have a very specific entity that cannot be mistaken for some other type of ghost. A poltergeist is only ever a poltergeist.
A country as obsessed with ghosts as Japan is obviously going to have more than a single word. Just as in English, there are several words meaning “ghost,” but each with a different usage and feel.
All(most) all Japanese words for ghost use some variation on the kanji 霊. 霊 can be read as either –rei or –ryō (or tama, or mitama, or –ki — no one ever said Japanese was easy). Whatever the pronunciation, 霊 always retains the rough meaning of spirit.
Here is a list and definition of all the Japanese words for ghost that I know. I am sure the list must be incomplete:
幽霊 – yūrei – 幽 (dim) +霊 (spirit) – Probably the most common Japanese word for ghost, yūrei translates pretty happily as dim
spirit. This seems like an obvious explanation – ghosts are see-through, after all – but the word has a further connection. One of the words of the land of the dead in Japanese is 霊の世界 Yū no Seikai – The Dim Land.
亡霊 – bōrei – 亡 (departed) +霊 (spirit) – Bōrei is the Gothic term for ghost in Japanese, meaning ruined or departed spirit. This is the word with the most literary overtones. Probably the best example is Japanese translations of Shakespeare where the ghost of Hamlet’s father is called Hamlet no Bōrei.
心霊 – shinrei – 心 (heart) +霊 (spirit) – Shinrei is the term preferred by spiritualists in Japan, and carries a more mystical feel.
精霊 – seirei/shōryō – 精 (vitality) +霊 (spirit) – This combination of kanji has religious connotations. When pronounced, seirei, it is most likely talking about Western ghosts. When pronounced shōryō it has Buddhist connotations.
聖霊 – seirei – 聖 (holy) +霊 (spirit) – The same pronunciation as seirei above, but changing the kanji makes the word for the Holy Ghost of Christianity.
死霊 – shiryō – 死 (dead) +霊 (spirit) – Because it has the kanji for “death” right there in the front, shiryō is a little bit scarier term for a ghost in Japanese.
生霊 – ikiryō – 生 (living) +霊 (spirit) – Ikiryō is a specific term for a person who releases their ghost-energy while still alive. It is a rare manifestation, seen mainly in The Tale of Genji.
怨霊 – onryō – 怨 (grudge) +霊 (spirit) – A popular figure in J-Horror flicks, onryō are ghosts who died with some lingering grudge, and seek revenge against those who wronged them.
騒霊 –sōrei – 騒 (disruptive) +霊 (spirit) – This is a rarely-used term for poltergeist, meaning ghosts who just rattle the chandeliers and move chairs around. In modern Japan, most people would just use the loan-word poltergeist.
祖霊 – sorei – 祖 (ancestor) +霊 (spirit) – Similar pronunciation as above, but with a long vowel and and a drastically different kanji. Sorei are ancestor spirits who protect the living, and are deeply honored.
神霊 – shinrei – 神 (shrine) +霊 (spirit) – Another rarely used term, this refers to the spirits of Shinto shrines.
悪霊 – akuryō – 悪 (bad) +霊 (spirit) – This is a somewhat loaded term that mean’s simply “bad spirit.” It carries a more Western feel to it, and could be applied to devils as well as ghosts. Definitely bad news.
浮かばれない霊 – Ukabarenairei- 浮かばれない(cannot rest in peace) + 霊 (spirit). Essentially, the Restless Dead. Often used for those who died in isolated places, like mountains, whose bodies were not properly cared for.
英霊 – eirei – 英 (heroic) +霊 (spirit) – Spirits of the war dead/heroes.
幽鬼 – yuki – 幽 (dim) + 鬼 (ki) – Demon spirit. A seldom-used term for evil ghosts.
亡者 – mojya - 亡 (dead) + 者 (person) – Dead person. An older, seldom-used term for ghosts.
お化け/化け物 – obake/bakemono お化け (changing) + 物 (thing) – The terms refer not specifically to yūrei but translate in usage to something closer to supernatural creature. Obake and bakemono use the kanji 化 (bakeru) which carries the meaning of to adopt a disguise or change form, with the implication of changing for the worse.
The Ghost of Oyuki
For more about the origins of Japanese Ghosts, you can purchase Zack Davisson’s limited edition yomihon chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki from Chin Music Press.
Check out other yurei tales from hyakumonogatari.com: