Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

yurei-amazon-cover

I am proud to announce that my book Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is finally available for preorder! This book is the culmination of more than eight years of research, including work done for my MA thesis for the University of Sheffield. It is a deep dive into the history, folklore, religion, and culture behind Japanese ghosts—yūrei.

Windy_Japanese_Ghost

In other words, if you have ever wondered about the pale girl in the white kimono with the long black hair, dripping water—this will give you all the answers.

Click to preorder Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

What’s it about?

Unsurprisingly, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is about everything to do with yūrei. The book begins with Maruyama Ōkyo and his famous painting, The Ghost of Oyuki. Then we dive into the Edo period kaidan boom that set the stage for Ōkyo’s painting, and examine the influence of kabuki on yūrei and why they look the way they do. Next Lafcadio Hearn takes the stage with his Rule of the Dead, and we take a tour of the Japanese afterlife and the World Over There. We learn why Heian period Japanese aristocrats worried so much about their final thought, and hired zenchishiki to mid-wife them to death. Next we meet the San O-Yūrei—the Three Great Yūrei of Japan; Oiwa, Otsuyu, and Okiku. Then it is Obon, Japan’s festival of the dead, and finally we meet the warrior ghosts of Japan in noh theater and hear some Tales of Moonlight and Rain.

Yurei_Chapter_List

I modeled the book after Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, telling the stories of the people and history behind the various yūrei legends as well as the yūrei themselves. We will meet the painter Maruyama Ōkyo, the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, the Confucian scholar Hayashi Razan who invented the word kaidan, and the Buddhist priest Asai Ryōi who wrote one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories of all time, Botan Dōrō, called The Tale of the Peony Lantern. The book intertwines these stories with the story of the yūrei, showing how the concepts developed over time and how Japan changed to encompass new beliefs in the supernatural.

Are there Japanese ghost stories in Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost?

Of course! Although that is not the main focus. I like to say it is a book about Japanese ghost stories not a book of Japanese ghost stories. So this is far more than just a collection of tales. But you will get lots of my translations in here.

Ghost_of_Oyuki_Closeup

Are there pictures in Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost?

Absolutely! We are still working on the details for this, but I plan to pack the book with as many yūrei-e as I can!

Japanese_Ghost_Closeup

Will the book look cool?

Oh yes! The book itself is going to be amazing. My publisher, Chin Music Press, specializes in making cool physical books. They believe the best way to compete in the modern digital market is the make the physical book stand on its own as a piece of book art. Clothbound with an embossed cover— Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is going to look tremendous on your book shelf.

Yurei_Galley_Copies

 

Please Preorder!!!

Yurei Amazon Cover

And now my pitch! If you are planning to buy my book at all I encourage you to preorder it. You’ll never have a better price on the book than right now, and you will have time to save  before you actually have to pay! Plus you will be doing me a huge favor.

In the modern publishing world, preorders are king. The amount of preorders indicates interest to publishers and retailers. Retailers use preorder numbers to determine how much they will order and market the book. The publisher uses retailer orders to determine how large the print run will be.

This is especially true of a first-time author such as myself. I’ve been translating and writing for free here on hyakumonogatari.com for more than six years. If you have been enjoying reading the site I would appreciate your support for my book! And I know you will love it!

Click to preorder Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

 

Katabira no Tsuji – The Crossroad of Corpses

Katabira_no_Tsuji_Mizuki_Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, A Diplomat in Japan, Part II: The Diaries of Ernest Satow, 1870-1883, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

At the beginning of the Heian era, during the reign of the Emperor Saga, lived the Empress-Consort Tachibana no Kachiko (橘嘉智子; 786-850CE). A devout Buddhist and holy woman, Tachibana founded the great Buddhist temple complex and learning center of Danrin-ji, and because of this was known as the Empress Danrin.

All of her life the Empress wanted to use her position and education to forward and spread the teachings of Buddha. But she had one major problem—Tachibana no Kachiko was cursed with a beautiful face. So much so that whenever she tried to teach people of the Buddha and warn them of the impermanent nature of life, she found herself constantly assailed by love letters and obscene offers instead of interested students . Even when she went to the mountain retreats to practice ascetic disciplines amongst the holy brothers—those who should have been spiritually armored against the temptations of flesh—the unwanted attentions were never ceasing.

This troubled Tachibana deeply. She knew that the beauty of her face and body were nothing; mere illusion that would fade and disappear. Yet with everyone so distracted by her transient beauty, how could they learn about the deeper truths of eternity? It was a question that would cloud her entire existence.

When the Empress died at the age of 64—still beautiful—her last will and testament was opened, and shocked the entire royal family. Instead of a state funeral and proper internment, the Empress requested that her body be garbed in the simplest cloth, then flung onto the streets. When people saw her delicate flesh rot away, the meat of her body picked at by crows and wild dogs, and her beautiful body reduced to unlovely bones, at last they would understand the impermanence of things and perhaps learn the lesson she had been trying to teach them.

And that is exactly what happened. The body of the Empress Tachibana no Kachiko was flung onto a dirty street in Kyoto, where it slowly rotted away and was picked at by crows and wild dogs. The body was dressed only in a simple katabira—the white kimono worn by Japanese corpses—and so the street where her body lay became known as the Katabira no Tsuji – The Crossroad of Corpses. Although many have forgotten the reason, the name remains and you can still go to Katabira no Tsuji today (Stop B1/A9 on the Arashiyama and Kitano lines in Kyoto).

Katabiru no Tsuji Train Sign

Translator’s Note:

Another grim tale for Halloween, but one that involves no actual ghost. In fact, according to Japanese tradition it would be impossible for Katabira no Tsuji to be haunted because the Empress got exactly what she wanted—she would have no lingering attachments or resentments keeping her tied to the living world. But you have to love the gruesome image, and the story that goes with it.

Katabira no Tsuji was included in Takehara Shunsen’s Yokai Catalog, the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (絵本百物語; Picture Book of a Hundred Stories).

ShunsenKatabiragatsuji

There is slightly more to the story. The devout Empress Tachibana no Kachiko’s final act did not go unnoticed, and started an entirely new kind of Buddhist painting known as Kyuaizu (九相図; The Nine Signs). These paintings juxtapose scenes of a person beautiful and alive with the nine stages of their corpse as it decomposes. These pictures were extremely realistic, and obviously drawn from studies of actual corpses decomposing over time.

Kyuaizu were generally painted of famous, beautiful woman to show how their charms and wonders were nothing more than rotting flesh and death—only the soul mattered. The honored courtesan Onono Komachi was a popular subject of Kyuaizu, which lead to some mixing between her story and the story of the Empress Tachinbana.

Ernest Satow, a diplomat stationed in Japan, was being shown around Kyoto in the late 1800s when he related this story in his diary:

“Passed Katabira ga Tsuji where the body of Onono Komachi was flung out to be devoured by kites. Kukakusa no Shosho made love to her and was refused. She promised to be his if he would visit her first during 100 continuous nights. He walked 3 ri there and 3 ri back, but when the 100th night came she was from home.”

This blog shows the Kyuaizu of Komachi in its entirety.

Stage 1 – Still Living (生前相)

Kyuaizu Stage 1

Stage 2 – Freshly Dead (新死相)

Kyuaizu Stage 2

Stage 3 – Filled with Gas (肪脹相)

Kyuaizu Stage 3

Stage 4 – Consanguinity (血塗相)

Kyuaizu Stage 4

Stage 5 – Flesh Rot (肪乱相)

Kyuaizu Stage 5

Stage 6 – Discoloration (青瘀相)

Kyuaizu Stage 6

Stage 7 – Food for Beasts (噉食相)

Kyuaizu Stage 7

Stage 8 – Skeletal (骨連相)

Kyuaizu Stage 8

Stage 9 – Nothing but Dust (古墳相)

Kyuaizu Stage 9

Further Reading:

For other death customs of Japan, check out:

What is the White Kimono Japanese Ghosts Wear?

Nagarekanjyo – A Death Custom

Yuigon Yurei – The Last Request Yurei

Yuigon_Yurei_Mizuki_Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Ehon Hyaku Monogatari, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

It is said that people who die with some lingering issue—those who didn’t properly close up their lives before dying—go into the afterlife with an overwhelming thirst. They want water. They beg and cry for water. But no one can see or hear them.

This story comes from an acquaintance who I will call A-san. She lives in Musashino city, Tokyo, and one night she met these yuigon yurei. When she was in middle school, one of her classmates suddenly showed up at her house one night. She appeared at the door and mumbled the words “Water please …. Water please … “ A-san ran to the kitchen to get a glass of water, but by the time she returned her classmate was gone. A-san thought it was weird that the girl was so thirsty but she couldn’t even wait the few minutes it took to retrieve the water.

She found out later her classmate had committed suicide that very night.

Later, when A-san told this story to her classmate’s mother, she was overwhelmed by A-san’s kindness in offering her dead daughter a final drink of water, and the two of them went together to place the glass before her child’s grave.

Translator’s Note:

This story is a first-person account from Mizuki Shigeru, telling the story he had heard from a friend about a late-night visit from a yuigon yurei. The term yuigon yurei (遺言幽霊) translates somewhat literally into “last-request ghost,” and refers to yurei making some sort of plea from the living. Usually this is for a drink of water, but it can be for other things—a prayer service, for example. The water-requesting version is also sometimes referred to as a Mizukoi Yurei (水乞幽霊; Thirsty Ghost).

This illustrates how yurei have needs even after death. It is a common custom in Japan to place offerings of food and drink before graves. Usually these are just comfort foods—a can of favorite beer, a pack of cigarettes, a pack of chips. On more formal occasions like the Obon Festival of the Dead they will get a bowl of rice and ritual sake.

The story comes for Yuigon Yurei comes from Mizuki Shigeru, but he modeled his picture after Takehara Shusen’s Yuigon Yurei picture from his Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (絵本百物語 ; Picture Book of a Hundred Stories).

Takehara Shunsen Yuigon Yurei

Takehara wote:

“Those who die without making their final testament, or with some unfinished business or desire, will find themselves thirsty in the afterlife. They will cry bitterly for a drink of water.”

Further Reading:

For more yurei stories, check out:

The Ghost of Oyuki

Shoraida – The Rice Paddy Ghosts

Gatagata Bashi – The Rattling Bridge

The Speaking Skull

Aizuwakamatsu no Yurei – The Yurei of Aizuwakamatsu

Shoraida – The Rice Paddy Ghosts

Shoryoda Mizuki Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from the Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, An Explanation of the Tateyama Mandala and the Tateyama Faith, and Other Sources

The great Hida mountain range of stretches between Gifu and Nagano prefectures. In the mountain range, on the summit of Mount Norikura, lies the Swamp of Senchogahara. One day the mountaineer Uemaki Taro was traveling near Senchogahara, when he came on a group of men and women together—about 10 of them—drinking from the swamp water.

Uemaki was justifiably terrified when he saw their were wearing the white katabira robe and triangle hat that are the garb of yurei. He was even more terrified when the group of yurei looked up and saw Uemaki watching them, and their eyes began to glow red as if on fire. Uemaki closed his eyes tight against the terrible sight and chanted the Amida Buddha’s name over and over again. With this display of devotion, the horrible ghosts vanished instantly.

Uemaki reasoned that the ghosts were making their trip to the Hell Valley of the sacred Mount Take, and had stopped to appease their thirst along the way. When he returned from the mountains, he told others of his terrifying tale and warned them of wandering ghosts on Mount Norikura. Over the years Uemaki’s story passed into legend, and the ghosts of the mountain became known as the Shoraida (精霊田)—the Rice Paddy Ghosts.

Translator’s Note:

Another Halloween tale of Japanese ghosts! This one is short, but has a few unusual characteristics. First is the name. The kanji used here–精霊田—is unusual. Well, the reading is unusual. Normally the kanji 精霊 is read either Seirei or Shoryo (See What is the Japanese Word for Ghost?) This is the only instance I know of it being read Shorai. Also the kanji 田 (ta; rice paddy) is an odd addition since the yurei appear at a swamp (沢) and not a rice paddy. But Japanese yokai have never been known for adhering to strict naming conventions.

Also, this is another tale of Tateyama (立山; Mount Tate). Tateyama—whose name translates as “standing mountain” has a long history of ghosts and the supernatural. Along with Mount Fuji and Mount Haku, it is one of the “Three Holy Mountains of Japan (三霊山)” and was the center of its own religions cult from the Heian period to the end of the Edo period.

Tateyama Jigoku TaniPhoto of the Tachiyama Jigokudani from this personal blog

Up near the summit of Tateyama is a placed called Jigokudani (地獄谷)—Hell’s Valley. The place earned its name due to the desolation of its volcanic rock surface and the sulfurous steam that pours of vents in the mountain. There are also several mineral-laden pools of boiling water that are a deep red color and called Lakes of Blood (血の池; Chi no Ike). This references a specific level of Hell in Japanese Buddhist mythology, and there are several “Chi no Ike” across Japan.

Tateyama_Pool_of_BloodImage of the Pool of Blood sold to pilgrims to Tateyama. Image comes from the Tachiyama Museum

Around the Heian period a religion sprang up based on the Tateyama Mandala, which showed a map of the mountain including pilgrimage sites. Tateyama was considered an actual portal to Hell and the gods, and someone walking the true path would find themselves in the welcoming arms of the Amida Buddha. Itinerant priests and aesthetics would carry copies of the Tateyama Mandala with them to preach the faith, and through a form of sympathetic magic guide the faithful through the map of the mountain which was said to have the same benefit as making the pilgrimage itself.

Stories sprang up based on the Tateyama Shinko (立山信仰Tateyama Faith), including ones of bands of yurei taking the trip together to the far mountain. It is implied from most of these stories that the dead are on their way to the Jigokudani instead of the merciful arms of Amida. But you shouldn’t feel too bad for them. Later variations of the Tateyama Shinko placed the every-helpful Jizo in the Jigokudani, allowing the suffering a final way out of their plight and into the Western Pure Land.

Further Reading:

For more Japanese ghost stories, check out:

Gatagata Bashi – The Rattling Bridge

Chikaramochi Yurei – The Strong Japanese Ghost

The Ghost of Oyuki

The Yurei Rock of the Cemetery

The Speaking Skull

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Mizuki_Shigeru_Bakekujira

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

Legends of a Great White Whale usually bring to mind Moby Dick, but the white of this whale is the color of its bones. For bones are all you can see of the Bakekujira—a massive, skeletal baleen whale that appeared and disappeared under mysterious circumstances once of the coast of Japan. Is it a monster? Is it a ghost? Is it a god? No one really knows for sure.

What Does Bakekujira (化鯨) Mean?

Bakekujira’s name is the same as many magical animals in Japanese folklore, with a difference of nuance. For most bake- creatures (bakeneko, bakenezumi, etc … ) the kanji 化 (bake; change) refers to a transformation, the ability to shift from one form to another. In Bakekujira—化 (bake; change) +鯨 (kujira; whale)—bake does not refer to a transformation. It just sounds scary and bizarre. This is one instance where translating bakekujira as “ghost whale” or “goblin whale” instead of “transforming whale” would be perfectly appropriate.

Inland Whaling2 Ukiyoe

The Tale of the Bakekujira

One rainy night, something massive and white appeared off the coast of Okino Island, Shimane prefecture. Fishermen from the village watched it get closer and closer, and finally decided to take a rowboat out and see what it was. From its size, they knew it must be some sort of whale, but no one had seen a whale like that before. As they rowed out their boat, they saw the waters of the ocean glimmer with thousands upon thousands of fish, the likes of which they had never seen.

As they neared the white whale, one of the fisherman threw his harpoon and it passed through the mass of white unnoticed. Their vision obscured by the pounding rain, the fishermen finally got a good look at the monster—it was the skeleton of a great baleen whale, without an ounce of skin nor meat on it. But it was moving and alive.

The men were terrified, even more so because the ocean was writhing with unknown fish, and the skies were filled with strange birds. In the distance they saw an island that hadn’t been there before, as if they had rowed into some mysterious country. Then suddenly the vision ended, and the massive bakekujira—for that is what they called it—retreated back to the open sea as quickly as it had come.

When the fishermen went back to shore, they speculated that it might have been the ghost of a whale killed in a hunt or some strange god. Whatever it was, the bakekujira was never seen again.

The History of the Bakekujira

That’s it. There is that one story of the one appearance of the bakekujira, and that is the sum total of knowledge on the boney beastie. Anything else you read about the bakekujira is pretty much just made up to try and fill in the gaps.

In fact, for being so well-known in the modern world, the bakekujira is a limited and obscure yokai. It wasn’t important enough to be added to Toriyama Sekien’s numerous Edo-period yokai collections; there aren’t any ukiyo-e prints or kaidan collections including the bakekujira—at least not that I could find when I was researching for this article. In fact, the first mention I could find of the bakekujira was from Mizuki Shigeru, whose cool character design seems largely (solely?) responsible for the bakekujira being known today.

But Japan does have a long history of whale gods and venerated bones, to which the bakekujira fits in nicely. So allow me to segue to another aspect of Japanese folklore—the Whale Cults of Japan.

Hyochakushin – The Drifting Ashore God

Whale God Ukiyoe

In pre-seafaring Japan—before Samurai William brought the secret of keels and ocean-going vessels—fishermen were limited to the coastal waters their small ships could take them too. They eked out a subsistence living harvesting what was in reach. But every now and then, the oceans would deliver a bounty beyond imagination.

Whales would sometimes come inland, or beach themselves on the shore. Fishermen hunted these whales in a practice called Passive Whaling, using harpoons to kill the whale that was trapped in the shallows. This was a rare and auspicious event—a single whale provided vast amounts of meat and resources for the village, and seemed like a gift from the gods. And the whale itself was only a piece of the bounty. Whales often came in following larges schools of fish, so their arrival meant an abundance of sea life beyond the leviathan itself. The arrival of a whale could save a village teetering on the edge of starvation and ruin. It was mana from the oceans.

Passive Whaling Ukiyoe

Like modern Cargo Cults, the villagers could not understand from where or why the whale came in to shore. They only knew that a whale meant wealth and rare full stomachs. Whales were considered to be embodied deities (神体; shintai), and whale religions sprang up in coastal villages, called Hyochakushin (漂着神; Drifting Ashore God) or Yorikami Shinkyo (寄り神信仰; The Religion of the Visiting Kami).

The Whale and Ebisu

These original whale cults were primitive. The people praying generally had one request—send more whales. But in time they evolved. Like many religions, the Whale Cults in Japan were built on a portion of respect and gratitude and a portion of fear. Because whaling—even Passive Whaling—was a dangerous operation, some whale religions also saw in whales the ability to be malevolent gods, and prayed to appease their spirits and assuage their wrath. Bad storms of poor catches could mean an angry whale god, and nobody wanted that.

In time, these whale religions merged with another, more popular deity, the god of abundance Ebisu. Whales were first thought to be emissaries of Ebisu, and then became considered to be an incarnation of Ebisu himself. Because whales were thought to have the power to control fish, fishermen began carrying images of the god Ebisu as a whale to give them the same fish-controlling powers.

Kujira Jinjya – Whale Shrines

120713_1102

When you have feasted on the body of a god, it only makes sense to give the leftovers a proper burial. After stripping the body of everything useful, villagers buried the whale carcass in mounds called Kujira Tsuga (鯨塚; whale mounds). Kujira Tsuga were capped with monuments of some sort, varying from carved stone tablets to pagodas to small wooden or rock shrines. Often these Kujira Tsuga were created in memory of some particularly bountiful harvest, and annual festivals where held like the Daihyo Tsuifuku (大漁追福; Big Catch Memorial Service). Or people prayed to the Kujira Tsuga for Kaijyo Anzen Kito (海上安全祈祷; Prayers to Ensure Safety at Sea).

Places where passive whaling was more prevalent also had Kujira Haka (鯨墓; whale graveyards) and Kujira Ishibumi (鯨碑; whale stone monuments). There are about 100 known whale graveyards throughout Japan.

Many Kujira Tsuga have their own legends and myths. In Miyagi prefecture, Kesenmema city, Karakuwa town, a legend is told of a ship foundering in the storm that was approached by two massive, white whales. The two whales swam to either side of the ship and steadied it, guiding it into port before sailing away. From that day forward, the citizens of Karakuwa down abandoned their ancient custom of whale eating.

The legend is attached to the MIsaki Shrine in Karakuwa, but the connection is not exactly accurate. Misaki Shrine is an old Kujira Tsuga, raised over a whale corpse and topped with a stone monument expressing gratitude for the whale’s death.

In Ehime prefecture, Seiyo city, Akehama town there are three known Kujira Tsuga, one of which is high up in the mountains. The shrine is ancient, and overlooks the ocean. It now sits along the national highway route making it much more accessible. Hauling up that carcass must have been quite the event.

On June 21st, 1837 (Tenpo 8th), a massive whale came to shore directly underneath this shrine. This was during the Great Tenpo Famine, and the whale saved the entire area from starvation. The villagers gave the whale a posthumous Buddhist name, meaning roughly “The Great Whale Scholar of the Universe who Brings Health.” That was extremely rare at the time, as posthumous Buddhist names was an honor reserved for great lords. The shrine is still honored by the villagers today

Whalebone Tori Gates

Whalebone Tori Japan

By the Edo period, Japan had become a seafaring nation and created a whaling industry and culture. Whaling Associations established and maintained official Whale Shrines in coastal areas, many of which still exist today. Whale shrines were also built in Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule, usually dedicated to Ebisu.

The most dramatic of these have Whalebone Tori gates—the picturesque post-and-lintel design that signifies the presence of a kami spirit.. The oldest Whalebone Tori is in Wakayama prefecture, Taijicho town, called the Arch of Ebisu. Ihara Saikaku mentions this Tori in his book Nippon Eitaigura (日本永代蔵; Japan’s Warehouse of Eternity; 1688). The tori is probably much older, however. The newest whalebone tori is in Nagasaki, Shinkamigostocho town at the Kaido Jinjya (Shrine of the Sea). Dedicated in 1973, it was built by the Japan Whaling Association.

Nirai Kanai

In an odd and unrelated Okinawan legend, a whale dressed in a kimono was said to have brought the secrets of rice cultivation to Japan. You can read more about this in my article on Nirai Kanai.

The Curse of the Bakekujira

Island Whale Ukiyoe

There are two odd footnotes to the story of the bakekujira, that don’t really fit in anywhere else so I am sticking them on here at the end.

In the 1950s, manga artist Mizuki Shigeru was working on a kamishibai story about the bakekujira, and also eating a lot of whale meat. He suddenly came down with a terrible fever, that only stopped when he quit working on the story. He calls this the “Curse of the Bakekujira.”

In 1983, an intact whale skeleton was spotted floating off the shores of Anamizu, Ishikawa prefecture. The press jumped on the story naming it a “real-life bakekujira.”

Translator’s Note:

This article was done at the request of comic book writer Brandon Seifert, who does the incredibly cool folklore/horror comic Witch Doctor, as well as other things. If you are a folklore fan, I highly recommend his work. And look for the bakekujira to possibly pop up his boney head in one of Seifert’s upcoming comics!

Further Reading:

For more tales of ocean-going yokai, check out:

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Funa Yurei

Nirai Kanai

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

Previous Older Entries

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