Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

Yurei 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 ten 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.

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_Book_Table_of_Contents

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.

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!

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.

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 several months to save the $15 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

 

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.

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!

What’s the Difference Between Yurei and Yokai?

Yokai_or_Yurei

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

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.

Defining these words is like trying to define “monster” or a “superhero.” I have seen (and participated in, ‘cause that’s how I roll) debates on whether the xenomorph from the “Alien” films belongs in a category of “movie monsters.” Some say that because it is an “alien”—and aliens aren’t traditional folkloric monsters—it can’t be a monster. (I disagree.) But the word “monster” isn’t clearly defined. Basically, anything scary can be a monster. So by that token, are ghosts “monsters?” What about “human monsters” like serial killers? Dragons in fantasy movies? When does something stop being a monster? Or start being a monster? What about the Cookie Monster? Or Monsters Inc.?

And how about superheroes? Even though he lacks super powers, Batman is generally accepted as a superhero, but how about Sherlock Holmes? Or Tarzan? Or Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Heracles? Where do you draw the line? Should the line be drawn at all? Does popular consensus matter?

As you can see, there is no real answer. Just opinions. And almost all of the great folklore researchers have their own opinions. They disagree with each other on the definition and categorization of yokai, on exactly what a yokai is and if a yurei counts as a yokai or not. Almost every book on yokai and yurei begins with the definition of terms—what that particular researcher/writer considers to be a yokai or a yurei.

You just kind of have to pick your camp and decide who makes the most sense to you. Or start your own camp, because that’s valid too. Just don’t expect anyone to agree with you.

Etymology of Yurei and Yokai

Hansho

Hansho from Osaka Prefectural Library

Like (almost) all kanji, the characters for yurei and yokai originate from Chinese. According to researcher Suwa Haruo, the kanji for yurei (幽霊) first appeared in the works of the poet Xie Lingyun who wrote during the time of China’s Southern Dynasty (5 – 7 CE). The kanji for yokai (妖怪) appeared much earlier, in the classical 1st century Book of Han (漢書) which coincidentally also records the first known mention of the island of Japan. (Strange that the first known use of yokai and the first known mention of Japan appear together—there is some deeper meaning in that!)

Neither word has quite the same meaning in Chinese as it does in Japanese. Chinese uses the kanji 鬼 (gui) to mean ghost, which was imported into Japanese as the word “oni.” And the Chinese usage of 妖怪 (yokai) refers specifically to human beings under some sort of supernatural influence. (This is all according to Suwa Haruo, by the way. I have no personal knowledge of the Chinese language!)

Japan imported both terms, with yokai first appearing in the 797 CE history book Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀 ; Chronicles of Japan Continued), the second of the six classical Japanese history texts. Yokai described an unseen world of mysterious, supernatural phenomena. The term represented something invisible, without form or identity; a mysterious energy that pervaded the deep forests, oceans, and mountains.

In truth, the word “yokai” was barely used at all. Ancient Japan had a more common name for this invisible, mysterious energy—mononoke. The idea of mononoke was something to fear—a mysterious, natural force that could come out any time and kill you, like a lightning strike or a tidal wave. It took the artists of the Heian period to give form to this mysterious energy, and transform the mononoke into bakemono, changing things. And then it took the writers of the Edo period to take these shapes and give them stories. Few of these artists and writers would have recognized their work as “yokai.”

Yokai as a word only came into general use the during the Meiji period, thanks to folklorist Inoue Enryo (1858 – 1919). He founded a field of study he called Yokaigaku, or Yokai-ology. Inoue used the term “yokai” in the same way we would say Fortean phenomenon—meaning any weird or supernatural phenomenon. Wanting Japan to move into the modern world, Inoue used the term “yokai” to point out the foolishness of believing in such things in a scientific age, and vowed to shed light into the dark, superstitious corners of Japan. He hoped to eradicate “yokai” by studying it and explaining it scientifically.

Yanagita Kunio’s Yurei vs. Bakemono

Yokai DangiYokai Dangi cover from Amazon.co.jp

Yanagita Kunio took the next attempt at parsing out the various folklore and coming up with some kind of workable system or definitions. Yanagita put differentiated between “obake/obakemono”—being bound to a particular place, and “yurei”—being able to move freely, yet bound to a specific person. Here’s what he said in his Yokai Dangi (妖怪談義;Discussions of Yokai):

“Until recently there was a clear distinction between obake and yurei that anybody would have realized. To start with, obake generally appeared in set locations. If you avoided those particular places, you could live you entire life without ever running into one. In contrast to this, yurei—despite the theory that they have no legs—doggedly came after you. When [a yurei] stalked you, it would chase you even if you escaped a distance of a hundred ri. It is fair to say that this would never be the case with a bakemono. They second point is that bakemono did not choose their victims; rather they targeted the ordinary masses … On the other hand, a yurei only targeted the person it was connected with … And the final point is that there is a vital distinction regarding time. As for a yurei, with the shadowy echo of the bell of Ushimitsu [the Hour of the Ox, approximately 2-2:30 AM], the yurei would soon knock on the door or scratch on the folding screen. In contrast, bakemono appeared at a range of times. A skillful bakemono might darken the whole area and make an appearance even during the daytime, but on the whole, the time that seemed to be most convenient for them was the dim light of dust or dawn. In order for people to see them, and be frightened by them, emerging in the pitch darkness after even the plants have fallen asleep is, to say the least, just not good business practice.”

Translation from Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai.

In Ikeda Yasaburo’s book Nihon no Yurei he almost agrees with Yanagita, seeing two distinct types of yurei. The first kind, as evidenced by the story The Chrysanthemum Vow, show a spirit with a specific purpose and attachment towards another human being. They have the ability to travel, to move “a hundred ri” as Yanagita puts it. The other kind of spirits, as evidenced by The Black Hair, are those spirits bound to a particular place. They may have some sad story keeping them put, but ultimately it is the location that matters.

Ikeda says:

“Usually I just call both types yurei, but it might make sense to make a distinction. You could call the first group—the ones bound to a specific person—yurei, and the second group—those bound to a specific location—yokai. But these groupings are just made for ease of discussion. In truth, the spirit realms are far too complicated for simple classification; any rule or distinction you make is immediately broken.”

Obviously, Ikeda is correct; Yanagita’s distinctions fail the simplest of tests. Look at three of Japan’s most famous ghosts, Okiku (Bancho Sarayashiki), Oiwa (Yotsuya Kaidan), and Otsuyu (Botan Doro). The plate-counting Okiku is bound to her well, and by Yanagita’s definition would be an obakemono and not a yurei. Oiwa is free to travel where she wills, but doesn’t care at all about the Hour of the Ox. When she appears at her husband’s wedding, it is the middle of the day. And the Chinese origin of Otsuyu means that she obeys almost none of Yanagita’s rules, making her neither obakemono nor yurei.

Yanagita was one of Japan’s first folklorists, and a great researcher and gatherer of tales, but I often disagree with his conclusions. Not for any fault of his own; Being the first, he was operating with a limited amount of materials and information, and not able to discuss or cross-reference his findings.

Mizuki Shigeru’s Inclusive Yokai World

Mizuki Shigeru Yokai ParadeJapanese Yokai battle Western Yokai in Mizuki Shigeru’s Great Yokai War

Mizuki Shigeru takes a much broader approach, In his Secrets of the Yokai – Types of Yokai he put everything under the general term of “Yokai” (or “Bakemono,” which he considers the same thing”) and then broke it down into four large categories, one of which is “Yurei.” Mizuki started studying yokai seriously in his 60s when he had largely retired from drawing his famous Kitaro comic. He also did something Yanagita Kunio had never done—he traveled the world and learned about the folklore of other countries, and compared it to his native Japanese folklore he knew so well. From this, he developed a definition of yokai that was as inclusive as possible, broadening the use of the word “yokai” outside of Japan to include “Western yokai” and monsters, and the natural phenomenon and deities of all countries.

Mizuki’s approach is the most widely accepted today, as seen by the Japanese definition of yokai from Wikipedia:

“Yokai as a term encompasses oni, obake, strange phenomenon, monsters, evil spirits of rivers and mountains, demons, goblins, apparitions, shape-changers, magic, ghosts, and mysterious occurrences. Yokai can either be legendary figures from Japanese folklore, or purely fictional creations with little or no history. There are many yokai that come from outside Japan, including strange creatures and phenomena from outer space. Anything that can not readily be understood or explained, anything mysterious and unconfirmed, can be a yokai.”

I personally fall into Mizuki’s camp—I believe yokai are so much more than just Japanese monsters. In fact, if you look at Toriyama Sekien’s yokai encyclopedias many Japanese yokai did not originate in Japan—they are characters from Chinese folklore or Indian Buddhism added to Japan’s pantheon. And even inside Japan, yokai encompass so much more than monsters. There are yokai winds. Yokai illnesses, Yokai transformed/possessed humans. Pure yokai monsters.

But then again, I am as guilty as anyone for also using the word yokai as a shorthand for Japanese monsters. Because it is convenient, and gets the meaning across in a simple fashion. And sometimes, convenience trumps accuracy. Because folklore isn’t a science.

Yurei and Yokai – Dead Things

yureisankakuboshiYurei entry from Toriyama Sekein’s Hyakkai Yagyo

Then you get into a whole other area—Are yurei a type of yokai? Or are they something different? Again, there is no universally accepted answer. Yanagita Kunio considered yurei to be yokai, but not bakemono. Mizuki Shigeru considers yurei to be one of the Big Four categories of yokai. Matt Alt calls yurei and yokai out as two separate things in his books Yokai Attack! and Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide. (I respectfully disagree.)

To me, this is the easiest question—of course, yurei are yokai. All you have to do is look at the yokai collections from the Edo period. Yurei were always included as entries. Edo period kaidan-shu freely mixed ghost and monster stories. Games of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai always included strange stories of any type, with no differentiation between yurei and yokai. They were all just “weird tales.”

For that matter, some yokai monsters are in fact dead humans who returned as yokai. Many things can happen to a human spirit after death. They can move on to peace, transform into a yurei and haunt away, or transform into a monster with a life that lasts far beyond their death. Perhaps the most famous example is the Emperor Sutoku who died and was reborn as the Evil King of the Tengu, a story that appears in both the Hōgen Monogatari and Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Translations from the Asian Classics)
. Or there is the massive Gashadokuro, sometimes said to be the assembled bones of people who died of starvation. Or Dorotaro, the spirit of a farmer whose fields were mistreated by his son.

There are many others. Yurei is clearly just one form a human being can manifest as after death. They can become kami. They can become yurei. They can become yokai. All though saying “they can become yokai” is redundant, as they are all yokai.

Religion and Yokai – Degraded and Unworshiped Gods

Another thing Yanagita Kunio says—and this I agree with him on—is that some yokai are the traditional, historical, and forgotten gods of Japan. In his book Hitotsume Kozo he outlines his “degradation theory,” showing how ancient gods are slowly demoted into small-time monsters, and then folktales. He uses the kappa as an example. Once a powerful water deity—and there are still a few kappa shrines in Japan—the kappa was demoted over the centuries to a beastly monster, to something almost harmless, until now it is little more than one of Japan’s “cute character mascots.”

Many yokai also share strong ties with Buddhism. During the Edo period Kaidan Boom, several strange monsters and gods were imported from India and China and recast in roles as Japanese yokai. As with Yanagita’s degradation theory, these once-mighty beings become silly goblins in the Japanese pantheon,

Komatsu Kazuhiko put forward  the idea that yokai are sort of the B-List of the kami pantheon, the “unworshiped gods.” It has long been thought that spirits can be transformed into kami via ritual and worship. By that measure, yokai are simply proto-kami, amassed spiritual energy that has managed to take form, but needs the extra boost from human worship to advance to the next stage and become a true kami.

Just as many yokai have no connection to religion at all. Toriyama Sekein created a host of yokai for his books, some of which were just ghostly twists on plays on words or popular phrases. Kyokotsu the Crazy Bones being one of the most obvious examples. A few hundred years later, and these Toriyama-invented yokai are considered just as valid as something like a kappa that is thousands of years older.

Modern Yokai

Kitaro Mizuki Shigeru Cover

When you ask “What’s the Difference Between Yurei and Yokai?” you sort of have to decide if you mean historical, or modern. In the Edo period and older, there was absolutely no difference. You go back even further, and yokai and yurei are indistinguishable. But as we move more and more into the modern manga-influence era, where yokai are being used as characters in comics, and the meanings of the words appear to be changing.

I think manga is the biggest influence on yokai today. Comics like Kitaro, Inuyasha, and Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan are teaching a new generation of readers what yokai are, and it is something entirely different from what Yanagita Kunio recorded in his notebooks. Modern yokai have distinct personality and complex motivations, instead of Yanagita’s repetitious monsters bound to their locations and lacking true motive power. And yurei are being left out of the party, treated as something different from yokai entirely.

kejoro Nura Clan YokaiKejoro from Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan

Those manga yokai are probably just as valid as Toriyama Sekein’s yokai catalog. The definitions of yurei and yokai have changed over the centuries, and will continue to change going into the future. Because “change” is at the heart of yokai. They mold to meet the needs of the current generation. They are mutable.

In his book Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai, Michael Dylan Foster puts it best. He says he ”intentionally leaves the definition open-ended, for the history of yokai is very much the history of efforts to describe and define the object being considered.”

Translator’s Note:

This is a long, rambling answer to a question by reader Chiara Leerendix, who was having a debate with her professor on the differences between yurei and yokai. He claimed that yurei were spirits of the dead and related to death and religion, while yokai were just monsters without any deeper meaning or religious connection. Obviously, I disagree with that. But the debate is ongoing.

While I don’t have an exact answer for Chiara, hopefully this will provide her with some good arguing points to take to her professor. Of course, her professor is welcome to respond to this post as well!

What Does Ayakashi Mean in English?

Mizuki Shigeru Ayakashi

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, and Other Sources

A sea serpent so massive it takes three days to pass by in a boat? Mysterious lights floating by the beach? A generic term for ghost stories? Ayakashi is one of the most complicated and convoluted terms in all of Japanese folklore. There is no easy answer to this simple question.

What Does Ayakashi Mean?

Usually when investigating a yokai I like to start with deciphering the kanji that make up the name. That is your first, best clue as to what the monster or phenomenon is. But ayakashi is written either in hiragana (あやかし) or katakana (アヤカシ), neither of which give any hints as to the meaning. There is an alternate and specific spelling of ayakashi that does use kanji, and we will look into that later.

In its most basic usage, ayakashi is a general term for yokai that appear above the surface of the water, and can be translated as “strange phenomenon of the sea.” That fact that this is the surface of the water is important—yokai tend to appear at boundaries, places where one thing becomes another thing. So ayakashi are yokai that haunt the boundary between the ocean and the air, instead of sea monsters swimming in the dark depths.

There are many yokai that have been called ayakashi over the years. Here are a few of them:

Ayakashi no Kaika – The Strange Lights of Ayakashi

Seiban_Kaidan_Jikki_Kumobi

In Nagasaki, the term ayakashi refers to strange lights that dance above the surface of the water, and are found mostly on the beaches in twilight.

These lights are different from the typical Japanese kaika (怪火; strange lights), in that the floating fires are said to contain what looks to be small children running around inside of them. This phenomenon is particularly associated with Tsushima city, Nagasaki.

Some of these ayakashi no kaika also appear out on the water, where it is said they can suddenly take on the appearance of massive rocks or landmasses that appear out of nowhere. The goal of this transformation is to panic ships, forcing them to change course and run aground or sink. But the irony is, if the brave captain sails right through the mirage, they vanish leaving everyone unharmed.

Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

Funayurei

See Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

In Yamaguchi and Saga prefectures ayakashi refers to funa yurei, a group of yurei who drowned at sea and now try to sink boats to increase their numbers. Funa yubrei are known to float up to the surface of the water appearing first as kaika, then transforming into figures when they reach the surface. They will demand a hishaku—a bamboo spoon—from any boat they encounter, and if given one they will swiftly fill the boat with water and drag the crew down to the depths.

A wise captain always carried a hishaku with holes drilled in it when sailing in funa yurei infested waters. Giving this spoon to the funa yurei means that they cannot sink your boat.

Several other areas in Western Japan use the term ayakashi to describe ghosts of those drowned at sea, who try to sink boats and drown swimmers either for revenge or to swell their ranks. A good example of this is the Shudan Borei.

The Woman of the Well

This story of the ayakashi appears only once, in the Edo period Kaidanshu Kaidanro no Sue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for an Old Man of Kaidan).

In Taidozaki, in the Chosei district of Chiba prefecture, a group of sailors put to show in order to re-stock their fresh water holds. As they pulled into the beach, a beautiful woman came walking by carrying a large bucket. She said the bucket was filled with fresh water that she had drawn from a nearby well, and that she would be only too happy to share it with the sailors.

Hearing this, the Captain said “There’s no well nearby. I’ve heard similar stories of thirsty sailors beguiled by a beautiful woman offering them water, never to be seen again. That woman is an ayakashi!” He ordered the boat swiftly back to the sea. As the men pulled their oars, the woman came running towards the ship in a rage, and leapt into the ocean biting the hull of the ship and holding on tight. The quick-thinking Captain beat her off with one of the oars, and the ship sailed away unharmed.

Remoras

Spearfish_remora

A real-life animal associated with the term ayakashi are remoras, the leach-like fish with sucker bellies that fasten themselves onto sharks and other ocean-going objects in order to get a free ride and some free food.

According to folk belief, if remoras fasten themselves to the underside of your boat, you will become stuck in the water and unable to move. In this case, remoras are called ayakashi.

Ikuchi – The Oily Sea Serpent

Sekien Ayakashi

By far the most famous depiction of ayakashi is the massive sea serpent Ikuchi. The association comes from Toriyama Seiken (鳥山石燕), and his entry for ayakashi in his Konjyaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; A Collection of 100 Ghosts from Times Past)

Toriyama wrote:

“When boats sail the seas of Western Japan, they encounter a beast so large it takes 2-3 days just to sail past. The body of the beast drips oil, but if the sailors work together to clear the boat of the oil no harm will come to them. If they don’t, they will sink.“

The Ikuchi is a legendary monster from Ibaraki prefecture, that was written about in Edo period Kaidanshu like Tsumura Soan (津村正恭)’s Tankai (譚海; Sea Ballads) and Negishi Shizumori (根岸 鎮衛)’s Mimibukuro (耳袋; Ear Bag). The Ikuchi is described as eel-like and massively long, several kilometers at least. It was not inherently dangerous, but would become tangled up with ships accidently. Crews had to work often for days to get their ship free of the Ikuchi. The most dangerous part was the oil that seeped from the monster’s body. The crew had to diligently clean up all the oil, or the ship would sink.

Why Toriyama called his depiction of the Ikuchi “ayakashi” isn’t known. Perhaps he didn’t know the monster’s true name, or perhaps he was using the general term for sea monsters instead of the specific name of Ikuchi. But for whatever reason, such is Toriyama’s influence that Ayakashi has come to describe the Ikuchi in most modern depictions.

Other Depictions

The word ayakashi has been put on almost every variation of sea monster you can think of. The 1918 book Dozoku to Densetsu (土俗と伝説; Local Customs and Legends) describes the ayakashi like this:

“The ayakashi is a mystery of the sea. They haunt boats on the open waters. Their appearance is like an enormous octopus. It will wrap itself around a boat, and only let go when gold coins are given to it.”

The 1923 book Tabi to Densetsu (旅と伝説; Travels and Legends) says this about ayakashi:

“While traveling the open sea at night, you will see lights in the distance. A ship approaches, mysteriously traveling against the wind. The ship is blazing, covered in lanterns of every shape and size, and suddenly overtakes your vessel. Or sometimes it disappears all together, and reappears next to you. The boat is filled with the souls of those who drowned at sea, and they want to add to their number. If they get close enough, they will fling an iron basket filled with fire onto your ship, killing all on board.”

Another Edo period kaidanshu offers this description:

“When the winds blow from the West, the dead travel on the waves. With lanterns hanging from the prow, you can make out the site of a woman clad in a white kimono, standing in the prow of a small ship. This is the ayakashi.”

There are many, many more. Most of the stories are slightly similar—describing either some kind of great sea monster, or a boat full of drowning victims out for revenge—but few of them are exactly the same. This is probably what cause folklorists and storytellers to throw up their hands and say “Fine! Ayakashi just means all sea weirdness. That covers everything, right?”

Not quite …

Ayakashi and the Masks of Noh

Noh Mask Reiayakashijpg

While no one agrees on exactly what kind of ocean phenomenon ayakashi is, they are all at least agreed that it is SOME kind of ocean phenomenon. Except for Noh theater.

Many of Japan’s arts have a specialized vocabulary that is used nowhere else (try going to a sushi restaurant in Japan and asking for some “purple” and you will see what I mean.) As you know (ha ha!) Noh theater uses masks. All of the masks have names, and the name for a male mask of a ghost or violent god is called ayakashi.

Noh uses a specialized kanji, 怪士 meaning strange (怪; ayaka – ) + warrior (士; shi). These masks come in variation, like the chigusa ayakashi which is fleshy and more human-like, or the shin no ayakashi with protruding eyes and bulging blood vessels. The most terrifying is the rei no ayakashi, a skeletonesque face with a white pallor and sunken eyes. The ayakashi masks were designed around the Muromachi period and where used interchangeably for many ghostly roles, but by the Edo period each mask had been assigned a specific role.

Because of the masks of Noh, and Ayakashi no Mono (怪士のもの) can refer to a ghost story of Noh, where one of the ayakashi masks are used. And that is where the confusion comes in, from using the term “ayakashi” as a general word for yokai or “ghost story.” It is … but ONLY in Noh theater.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales

ayakashis samurai horror tales

And that brings us to where most Westerners have heard the term ayakashi, in the anime Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. While this is a brilliant series, you will notice that nowhere is there a sea creature of any kind, neither monster nor boat full of lantern-bearing yurei.

That is because the series is named after the Noh usage of ayakashi, which gives it a mysterious, nostalgic feel (and is also a bit misleading, as the stories in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales come from Kabuki theater and not Noh. But that’s marketing for you … )

Translator’s Note

This started out with me answering a reader’s question on the difference between yokai, ayakashi, and mononoke. It soon became apparent that there was far too much information for a simple answer, and blossomed into this article.

And I still didn’t answer the question! Sorry! But at least you will have a better understanding of what ayakashi means!

Further Reading:

For other informative posts about yokai and such, check out:

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

A Brief History of Yokai

Funa Yurei

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Previous Older Entries

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