Yurei FAQ – Five Facts About Japanese Ghosts

Hokushū Shunkōsai Ghost of Oiwa

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Yurei—Japanese Ghosts—follow certain rules; obey certain laws. They have a specific appearance and purpose. These rules supply authenticity, making them culturally relevant and recognizable. Also, these rules make them more horrifying than the constantly changing Western ghost, which can be played for laughs, romance, or fear at any given moment.

Each aspect of a yurei is bound by centuries of culture and tradition. There is a “why” behind everything, and the story of the individual aspects of the yurei can be as fascinating as the yurei stories themselves.

Click the title of each to be taken to the full story.

5. How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

yurei

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.

4. What is the White Kimono Japanese Ghosts Wear?

dead body

Black hair. White face. White kimono. Whisper the word Japanese ghost to anyone, and that is the image that will appear in their head. For Americans, the image generally comes from Japanese horror films where white-kimonoed girls crawl from TV sets or rise from wells. But to Japanese people, the costume of a white kimono has a more somber feel. Most likely over their lives they will wrap more than one loved one in the traditional burial garment called a kyokatabira.

3. What is the Triangle Headband Japanese Ghosts Wear?

yureisankakuboshi

What are those odd, triangle-shaped hats or headbands worn by some Japanese ghosts? That is a difficult question to answer because, while there are several opinions, nobody really knows.

2. Why do Japanese Ghosts Not Have Feet?

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost

The gentle drops of falling rain. A lonely willow tree standing near a graveyard. And a Japanese ghost, called a yurei, waiting below. This is our image of a yurei, and when we imagine this picture of the yurei, it has no feet.

1. What’s the Difference Between Yurei and Yokai?

Yokai_or_Yurei

What is a yokai? What is a mononoke? What is a bakemono? Are yurei also yokai? These seemingly basic questions have no precise answers. Almost everyone has their own ideas, and they seldom agree with each other. Because folklore isn’t a science.

Neko No Kai – The Cat Mystery

Neko_no_Kai_-_The_Cat_Mystery

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

March 17th: A black-spotted, two-tailed cat appeared suddenly, slinking around the Motoyoshi family farmhouse. The son of the family, Genjiro, was fond of cats and decided to take the cat in and care for it. Genjiro was a healthy boy, but since taking care of the cat he started looking haggard, getting emaciated and weak. He didn’t have any particular illness, and no one could explain the decline in his health.

Genjiro’s parents blamed his condition on the cat. They noticed that the cat curled up in Genjiro’s bedclothes every day, the same clothes that Genjiro slept in. Without a doubt, he was catching some sort of infection or allergy from the cat. Genjiro’s parents tried many times to get rid of the cat—throwing it out the door, even carrying it to different towns to abandon it—but the cat always managed to find its way back. Eventually, the cat stayed away from everyone but Genjiro. The parents could no longer get close to it.

But Genjiro’s condition worsened, and his parents insisted that he get rid of the cat. His mother had Genjiro take up the cat, and she followed them as they walked to a distant town, going so far that the cat could never find its way back.

They made it as far as Koshinzuka, when Genjiro’s mother suddenly lost sight of him. She looked around, but couldn’t find Genjiro anywhere. She recruited some local children to help in the search, but it was fruitless. No sign of Genjiro was found, and his mother was forced to return alone.

April 9th: In the vicinity of Saidaiji temple, a dog was seen carrying a human arm in its mouth. The arm had scraps of a torn kimono hanging off of it, and these kimono scraps were taken to Genjiro’s mother for her to see. She confirmed that they were Genjiro’s, the same kimono he was wearing the day of his disappearance.

The official finding was that the cat must have attacked and killed Genjiro, and devoured most of his body. Given the strange nature of the cat, no one was really surprised.

Translator’s Note:

I haven’t done a magical cat story for awhile. And it’s been even longer since I translated a story from this book! I’ll probably do more of this style while working on the final edits for my book, Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. The full “yokai encyclopedia” style entries take a LOT more work and research than translating stories.

This was an actual newspaper report about a disappearance and death, printed in one of Japan’s kawaraban clay block printed newspapers, probably from around the 17th century. It comes from the Natural History collection of Waseda University.

It’s a strange story in that the cat was identified as a nekomata right at the beginning. You would think that if a two-tailed cat suddenly showed up on your doorstep, you would know better than to take it in and try and make it into a

Further Reading:

For more magical cat stories, check out:

Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat

Bakeneko Yujo – The Bakeneko Prostitutes of Edo

Bakeneko – The Changing Cat

Kasha-The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

Gotokoneko – The Trivet Cat

The Cat’s Grave

Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat

Mizuki Shigeru and American Horror Comics

Kitaro_and_Four_Color_Fear

When you think of influences on Japanese comic book legend Mizuki Shigeru, names like Basil Wolverton, Bob Powell, and Warren Kremmer don’t usually spring to mind. After all, those artists drew for 1950s American horror comics like Tomb of Terror and Crypt of Horror. They hardly seem like source material for a young man thousands of miles across the ocean. Where would he find them? And if he did find them, how could he read them?

But the influence is obvious. Mizuki Shigeru’s early work has the same shadowy gloom, the same lines and dramatic poses. This is especially true in Mizuki’s comic Hakuba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro), his darker, more horrific version of his famous character Kitaro before it was lightened and made more child-friendly at the publisher’s request. The opening story in Hakuba Kitaro—called Kitaro no Tanjobi or Kitaro’s Birthday—in particular looks and feels like a 1950s EC comic. If it weren’t for the Japanese lettering and some of the faces, Kitaro no Tanjobi could easily have risen from Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horrors.

Mizuki has never been shy about these influences. He is widely read, and was fascinated with American and European authors and philosophers. He borrowed freely for his comics, adapting obscure horror authors like W. F. Harvey, whose 1928 story The Beast with Five Fingers was transformed into the Kitaro adventure The Hand. (See Kitaro and the Beast with Five Fingers.)

In his historical/auto-biographical comic Showa: A History of Japan Mizuki describes how American comics came into his hands. In the post-war period, Mizuki’s father had a position working with the occupation government. Mizuki’s father spoke English and even worked as an English teacher, which made him a valuable bridge between the occupiers and the native Japanese. Mizuki’s father knew his son was struggling, trying to break into the fledgling kashihon rental-comic market after his former kamishibai (paper theater) business had vanished. He brought home the various comic books left behind by American GIs and civilians working in the occupational government, and gave them to his son to use as reference material and inspiration for his own comics.

It is pretty obvious which American comic inspired Mizuki’s first hit with the kashihon rental-comic market. Although he called his version Rocketman, Mizuki made no attempt to disguise the character’s origin, and didn’t even bother to alter the famous “S”-shield on the chest into an “R”—which would have been more appropriate for “Rocketman.” Mizuki may have taken the look of Superman directly from the comic, but he told it with his own sense of whimsy and style. It almost looks like he is imitating the Fleisher Brothers’ Popeye cartoons instead of Superman, as Rocketman flexes a muscle in the shape of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud to show off just how mighty he is.

Shigeru Mizuki RocketmanSo the influence was always there. But it wasn’t until the publication of Fantagraphics’ Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s that it became clear just how much of an influence there was. (Or at least until a copy of that book found its way into the hands of Natsume Fusanosuke who wrote the initial blog that inspired this post.

In the time-honored tradition of comic artists, it looks like Mizuki Shigeru may have had his own “swipe file” of poses and characters that came straight from American comic book artists.

Shigeru_Mizuki_EC_Comics_1

These first images come from the 1959 kashihon comic Yokaiden by Mizuki Shigeru. There can be no mistake that Mizuki took several of the poses and faces directly from Warren Kremmer’s 1953 comic Amnesia. The poses are identical, even though they are being used for different story elements.

Shigeru_Mizuki_EC_Comics_2

The biggest surprise—and “Ah ha!” moment—comes when looking at Kitaro’s father. The mummy in these pictures is Kitaro’s father, before he liquefies and renders into the famous version of Medama Oyaji that we all know and love. I always thought this was a weird design for Mizuki. Mummies aren’t exactly prominent in Japanese folklore and horror, and it never really made sense that Mizuki would chose a shambling mummy to represent the last of the Yurei Zoku, the Ghost Tribe, that once ruled over the earth.

Shigeru_Mizuki_EC_Comics_Kitaros_FatherBut here, in Bob Powell’s 1951 comic Servants of the Tomb we see the origin and inspiration of Kitaro’s father. This one isn’t a direct swipe like the others, but it is obvious that Mizuki Shigeru saw this comic and thought enough of the monster to use it for the brief appearance of Kitaro’s father as a whole creature. Finally, the design makes sense.

Bob Powell and Warren Kremmer are in good company. Mizuki Shigeru also collects early European prints by artists like Albrecht Dürer, and uses them for inspiration. I have seen several posts by Mizuki where he shows the original, and his version next to it. He also copies the work of Japanese masters like Toriyama Sekein and Katsushika Hokusai for his Yokai Encyclopedias and print series, and uses famous photographs and historical works of art to ground his series like Showa: A History of Japan.

As Natsume mentions in his article, there are probably more of these swipes from early comics to be discovered by someone with the patience and means to find them. Natsume further speculates that, if American GIs carried American comics with them to Japan and inspired a young Mizuki Shigeru, perhaps they brought them to Europe and influenced a certain young man who would come to be known as the artist Moebius.

Who knows? But American comic art traveled far, and the American GIs served as unknowing Johnny Appleseeds, leaving behind their discarded bits of Americana and pop culture that got absorbed and assimilated into something else, something that has become a foundational element of Japanese culture.

Further Reading:

For more about Mizuki Shigeru, check out:

Mizuki Shigeru in Rabaul

6 Types of Japanese Yokai From Showa

Countdown to Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

Mizuki Shigeru’s French Fry Heaven

Happy 91st Birthday Mizuki Shigeru!

Two Tales From the Konjaku Monogatari

Konjaku Monogatari

Translated and Adapted from Konjaku Monogatari – Tales of Times Now Past

How Tosuke Ki’s Meeting with a Ghost-Woman in Mino Province Ended in His Death

Tosuke Ki was traveling to his estate in Mino province. While crossing the Seta Bridge, he encountered a woman in a kimono, who asked him to deliver a small box to a lady who sat at the bridge in Kara-village.

Tosuke agreed, and was warned not to open the box. On his trip, Tosuke forgot about the box, and instead brought it home to Mino and placed it in his storeroom.

His wife, jealous in nature, thought it was a gift from a lover, and opened the box secretly. The box was full of gouged-out eyes and penises. Tosuke, being alerted by his wife to the nature of the box, immediately went to Kara-village to deliver it.

When he met the Lady on the bridge, she was outraged that the box had been looked into, and Tosuke died as soon as he got home

So they say.

How a Man’s Wife Became a Vengeful Spirit and How Her Malignity was diverted by a Master of Divination

A man had abandoned his wife of many years for no particular reason. Perhaps he had simply gotten bored of her. In any case, he left his house to go adventuring, leaving the poor woman to waste away and die in their former home.

In death, however, the stubborn woman refused to leave, and her bones stayed together, and her long black hair only grew longer. At night, strange lights and sounds would come from the house, prompting neighbors to summon a Master of Divination, to help them. The Master told the villagers that she was waiting for her husband’s return, and that he must come and break her will.

As soon as possible, the husband was brought back to the village, and during the day, the husband entered the house and sits astride his wife’s body like a horse, and held onto her hair like reigns. At nightfall, the body came to life, and tried to buck the man off, but he held on tightly and they flew out the window and roughshod over the entire countryside. When dawn finally came, the husband still clung tightly, and the wife’s will was overthrown, and her bones disintegrated to dust, leaving the husband undamaged.

So they say.

Translator’s Note:

A couple of new stories for everyone. As you noticed, I haven’t posted anything new since my snow yōkai series of December. The reason for that is I have my edited manuscript for my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost back from my publisher, and I have been busy getting those edits made and doing final adjustments to the book. If all goes well, I will be able to announce a publication date soon! And don’t forget, you can still get copies of my limited edition chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki.

I am also busy making final edits to the next volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan. Drawn and Quarterly posted a preview recently, so take a look!

Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

In the meantime, here are a couple of tales from the Konjaku Monogatari to tide you over. I’m especially fond of the first one, as it showed up in an issue of Mike Mignola’s brilliant Hellboy comic, which all lovers of the folklore and weird tales should have in their library!

So they say.

7 Types of Yokai – Japan’s Snow Monsters

Mizuki Shigeru Snow Monsters of Japan

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

In the frozen north of the Japan, the snow piles deep and high and brings monsters. Whether riding on the avalanche, or coming in the guise of a beautiful young woman or a little lost boy, or hoping on one leg, Japan’s snow yokai are as varied and miraculous as any in folklore. Some are dangerous. Some are famous. Some are sad. Some are spectacular.

Japan’s snow monsters are like the snow itself; they bring comfort, solace, and beauty, but only for awhile. For spring comes, and snow melts, and all things must pass—good or bad.

Click Each Title to Read the Full Story of Each Yokai.

7. Yuki Jiji – The Old Man of the Snow

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Jiji

An old man who rides the avalanche, or an ancient God of Snow? The Yuki Jiji is a mysterious, powerful figure in Japanese folklore.

6. Yuki Onba and Yukinko – The Snow Mother and the Snow Child

Suuhi_Yuki-onna

Anytime a solitary woman approaches you and asks you to hold her baby for a few seconds, you are in trouble. This wintery variation on the Ubume legend delivers its own chills.

5. Yuki Warashi / Yukinbo – The Snow Babies

Mizuki Shigeru Yukinbo

One is cute and sweet—the answer to a childless couples prayers—and the other is a bizarre creature out of your nightmares.

4. Yukinba/Yukifuriba – The Snow Hags

Bakemono_Yuki-baba

Nothing ambiguous here. The Yukinba and Yukifuriba are terrifying creatures out for blood. The most horrifying of Japan’s snow yokai.

3. Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tsurara_Onnna

Does she come to love you, or eat you? The Tsurara Onna goes both ways, and you are never sure just which one is going to come to your door.

2. Oshiroi Baba – The Face Powder Hag

Mizuki_Shigeru_Oshiroibaba

Another oddity of Japanese folklore—is the Oshiroi Baba a dangerous snow hag, or some long-forgotten Goddess of Cosmetics?

1. Yuki Onna – The Snow Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Onna

By far the most famous of Japan’s snow monsters, the Yuki Onna is an enigma. There are thousands of stories about her, with thousands of variations. Which one is true?

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