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.

Manekute no Yurei – The Inviting Ghost Hand

Mizuki_Shigeru_Manekute_no_Yurei

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara and Other Sources

Late at night, when you have to get up to go to the bathroom, a mysterious hand beckons you from a wall. That’s strange enough, but when you go into the room the hand was inviting you to, no one is there. Most likely, you have encountered the yurei of someone who died in that room long ago—they want something, but have only the strength to manifest a single hand to plead with you.

These kinds of stories are typical in Japan, especially in yurei in houses. Generally, they want nothing more than for someone to acknowledge their presence, and read a sutra in their honor at the local temple. Manekute no Yurei tend to gather around houses near temples, or the particularly pious, those who they feel will be able to perform the desired ceremony.They are spooky, but amongst the least dangerous of the types of yurei.

Here is a typical story from the Edo period:

An abbot was making a trip to Akiyama village, when he heard the sounds of footsteps behind him. The abbot was particularly sensitive to ghostly matters, and knew at once what it was. “Ah, that is a poor, lost soul who died in the terrible drought in this village awhile back. So sad to think it is still hanging on long past its time.”

When he arrived at the village, the abbot prepared a copy of a Buddhist sutra. This done, he returned to where he had heard the footsteps and waited for dark. Sure enough, a milk-white hand thrust out to him from the darkness. The abbot laid the sutra in the disembodied hand and began to chant the memorial service for the dead. The unknown yurei disappeared and was never heard from again.

Translator’s Note:

Another yurei story for Halloween, this one short and sweet compared to the last tale of bloody revenge. The Manekunote Yurei (招く手の幽霊; meaning招く手 (manekute; inviting hand) +幽霊 (yurei) is one of those ghosts where there was probably a story or two about it, and Mizuki Shigeru made up a name the phenomenon to include in his yokai encyclopedia. I haven’t found any other reference to the Manekunote Yurei, except for those that specifically site Mizuki as a source. However, like many of his stories the Manekunote Yurei has escaped Mizuki’s pages and into the popular imagination.

Menekute_no_Yurei_TV_Show_1

Menekute_no_Yurei_TV_Show_2

Pictures of a Manekute no Yurei on a TV show from this site.

But naming aside, this is another story that illustrates one of the fundamental principles of yurei, Japanese ghosts—they want something. Western ghosts can linger in a place like psychic residue, or play over and over again like a strip of looped film. But not Japanese ghosts. They are bound to this world by a specific desire, and when that desire is satisfied they move on. One of the most basic desires—and the most common—is the desire for more ritual. Yurei need to be properly feted before they can peacefully move on to the afterlife.

The unusual element of this story is the disembodied hand. It is atypical for yurei to manifest only a hand, and the will of the dead person must be weak indeed if that is the best that they can do.

Further Reading:

For more tales of random body parts, check out:

Tanuki no Kintama – Tanuki’s Giant Balls

Kyōkotsu – The Crazy Bones Yōkai

The Speaking Skull

The One-Armed Kappa

The Severed Heads Hanging in the Fowling Net

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

Hidarugami – The Hunger Gods

Hidarugami Mizuki Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Showa: A History of Japan, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, and Other Sources

If you are walking through a mountain trail, and find yourself overcome with a sudden hunger—a soul-killing hunger that drives you to your knees like true starvation—you might need to do more than reach into your backpack for an energy bar. You might be under attack by the Hidarugami, the Hunger Gods.

What Does Hidarugami Mean?

Hidarugami is written with the katakanaヒダル (hidaru) + the kanji 神 (kami; god). Things written in katakana have no inherent meaning. However, the word “hidaru” is most likely connected with饑い (hidarui), meaning hunger. Hidarui is a colloquial term, used mainly in Gifu prefecture. Hidarugami is also sometimes writtenひだる神 using the hiragana for “hidaru,” also with no inherent meaning.

The fact that the kanji “kami” is used places the hidarugami on a higher level than most yokai, alongside such devastating deities like the Binbogami (貧乏神; God of Poverty) and Shinigami (死神; God of Death). This elevated status is due in part to arising from human spirits, from reikon.

There are other names for the Hidarutami. In Kitakyushu, it is known as the Darashi (ダラシ), in Mie and Wakayama prefectures it is sometimes called the Dari (ダリ), while in Nara and Tokushima prefectures it is called Daru (ダル). All of these use katakana for the names.

The Hunger Strike of the Hidarugami

Hidarugami Road

Hidarugami are said to be the spirits of those who starved to death wandering the mountains. Because they died alone, with no marker for their grave or any ceremony, their spirits become evil and seek to share their death agonies.

They are found almost exclusively on mountain trails and passes. Hikers and travelers in the presence of the Hidarugami are suddenly overcome with acute hunger, fatigue, and numbness of the limbs. The feeling is said to be that of actual starvation. The victim is unable to move and often collapse. This attack is a form of possession. The Hidarugami enters your body. If no action is taken, the Hidarugami can cause death—actual death by starvation in a healthy body.

If you are killed, you join the Hidarugami group. In this way, Hidarugamai groups slowly enlarge to contain many souls.

Expelling the Hidarugami is easy, so long as you are prepared. Just a small mouthful of a staple food, such as rice or grain, staves off the attack and the starvation leaves as quickly as it arose. That is why—even today—hikers are advised against going into the mountains without a few riceballs or a bento to eat. Even then, they never eat the entire meal, always leaving a few grains behind in case of emergency.

Old Japanese kaidanshu and traveler’s guides are full of stories of the Hidarugami. In a story coming from 1736 a man named Senkichi was found exhausted and unconscious on a mountain trail. Unable even to speak, he was loaded into a cart and carried back to town where he was fed and recovered. Senkichi related an account of an attack by Hidarugami. Another typical story tells of a merchant crossing the Noborio Pass towards Onohara. Only a few hours after finishing his lunch he became ravenously hungry, struggling to make his way to a nearby temple. A traveler’s guide from 1861 warned of the dangers of going into the mountains without a few riceballs for protection.

Are the Hidarugami Yokai or Yurei?

Obake_Karuta_Hidarugami

Hidarugami defy simple classification, and show the complicated nature of Japanese folklore. Are they yurei? Are they yokai? Are they Gods? Yes to all three questions. (And yes, it is a trick question as all yurei are yokai. Smart catch there!)

Because Hidarugami enter the body and possess it, they are considered a type of the Tsukimono yokai – A Possessing Thing. While most tsukimono are magical animals, anything that possess can fall into this category.

Higarugami are most definitely yurei—they are referred to as either akuryo (悪霊; Evil Spirit) or onryo (怨霊; Vengeful Spirits). But they are not typical yurei. Like Funa Yurei and oddities like the Shichinin Dōgyō – The Seven Pilgrims, the Hidarugami act as a group and actively make new members. Because they are bound to their location, they would be considered a type of jibakurei (地縛霊; Earth-bound Spirit).

Hidarugami are also muenbotoke (無縁仏). This refers to the unworshiped dead, those who die without burial or ceremony. Special rites are often held on Obon, the Festival of the Dead, specifically for muenbotoke to try and get their spirits to pass one. One passage says that the Hidarugami’s grip on the world is not particularly strong—that they are a weak god—and they should be banished by a simple muenbotoke ceremony.

Gaki Hungry Ghosts

They are also associated with Gaki ( 餓鬼), the Preta or Hungry Ghost of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist mythology. The association is vague and only based on the dual obsession with hunger. Gaki are those whose sins of gluttony condemn them to be reborn as foul creatures with a rapacious hunger for disgusting things such as corpses or feces. Gaki are not native to Japanese folklore, and at sometime after their importation from China a link was made between the Gaki and the Hidarugami.

Hidarugami Across Japan

Like all widespread folklore, the Hidarugami have regional variations and associations. In Wakayama prefecture, —along the ancient pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo—there is a deep hole called the Gaki Ana, or the Gaki’s Pit. The exact location of the pit is unknown, but it is said to be someone near Mt. Okumotori and Mt. Shokumotori in Wakayama prefecture. Wherever it is, staring into the Gaki Ana is said to summon the Hidarugami.

In Shiga prefecture, possession by a Hidarugami is much more dreadful. The possessed person’s stomach suddenly swells like a starvation victim, and they begs for a bowl of rice with tea. If someone answers that they had food, but have eaten it, the possessed victim will attack with a fury, ripping open their stomachs in search of undigested bits of rice to eat.

In Mie prefecture, Hidarugami are said to attack not only humans but also cattle being moved across mountain trails.

In Kochi, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima prefectures, there are small shrines set up along mountain roads and mountain passes enshrining the kami Shibaorigami (柴折様). Making a small offering at these shrines, even something so small as laying down a few token branches of wood, is said to provide protection against the Hidarugami.

Translator’s Note:

This is the next in my series of yokai who appear in Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan. A young Mizuki Shigeru encountered the Hidarugami once walking through a mountain road. He survived the attack due to finding a few stray grains of rice. It was only much later in his life while reading a book that he learned to put a name to the strange phenomenon he had encountered.

Further Reading:

To read more about Tsukimono and other sundry ghosts, check out:

Tsukimono – The Possessing Thing

Shichinin Dōgyō – The Seven Pilgrims

Funa Yurei

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