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.

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.

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!

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

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