Japan is one of the most haunted places on Earth. In Japanese folk belief, Japan as an island is infused with supernatural powers–The very soil of the land is charged with potential, magical energy. Human beings share in this energy. Inside each human being is a reikon, a being of profound power that is unleashed on death. The Japanese fear ghosts–called yurei in Japanese–but they also honor them. And for as far back as the written word goes in Japan, they tell stories about them.
The Golden Age of yurei was the Edo period (1603-1868), an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. People swapped ghost stories in a story-telling game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai that was the passion of the nation. Players sat in a circle and told stories in succession as one hundred candles were extinguished one by one. The light slowly dimmed to the rhythm of the game. In search of more stories, the Japanese people peered into every dark corner, dug up every suspicious stone half-buried in an abandoned temple, and pestered every grandparent for some snatch of an old tale half-remembered.
And the stories are good. Dead lovers returned from the grave. Parades of dead souls on the trail to hell. Ghostly hands with no purpose at all. Below are ten of my favorite Japanese ghost stories.
Click the title of each to be taken to the full story.
In 1750, Edo-period Japan, Maruyama Ōkyo opened his eyes from a fitful sleep and beheld a dead woman. She was young. Beautiful. And pale. This is the true story of Japan’s most famous ghost painting, of the brilliant artist who painted it, and answers the question “Why do Japanese ghosts look the way they do?”
A married couple is disturbed by a ghostly woman at night. Both the husband and wife claim they have no idea who the ghostly woman is, but is one of them lying? Is the woman the husband’s dead lover–or the wife’s?
One of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, famed in the film Kwaidan and in the books of Lafcadio Hearn. But the story is older than each of these. Much older. Here is the original.
One of the most offbeat stories in this list. A village woman is known for her unnatural strength, and … other attributes. After she dies, a yurei with the same unnatural strength appears to terrorize the village in which she lived.
A story with Buddhist leanings, a man finds a skull on the side of the road. And the skull is feeling quite chatty, and not above asking a few favors.
It’s hard to sleep when your house is on the path of the road to hell. A man and his family see a nightly parade of ghosts making their final journey.
Hunger is a terrible way to die, and all these ghosts want to do is share their pain. Is that too much to ask?
A mysterious hand beckons from a dark wall. This entry explores some of the differences between Western and Japanese ghosts.
A ghostly tale of bloody revenge. One of the few true horror stories on the list.
Another of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, famed in Noh and Kabuki theater and performed over and over every year. At the end of Japan’s greatest civil war, the Heike clan lies scattered and defeated. But the ghosts of Japan never take defeat lying down.