The Gratitude-Expressing Yurei

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara

This took place sometime during the Meiwa era (1764-1772). In Shimabara, there was a famous courtesan named Uriuno. She had been redeemed from the Tomiya house, and now lived in the vicinity of Takatsuji.

One night, Uriuno was awakened by a strange noise. When she listened closer, she could faintly hear the sound of footsteps. It sounded as if someone was approaching her bedroom from the garden just outdoors.

“Good Evening. Is someone out for a stroll tonight” Uriuno called out, thinking this was a very strange thing indeed and strained her ears for an answer.

The answer came at last with a rattle of the paper screens that served as a wall between Uriuno’s bedroom and the garden, and the figure of a woman projected like a shadow against those screens. The mysterious shape bowed down and whispered expressions of gratitude to Uriuno. Just as Uriuno was about to raise her voice in response, the figure blinked out of existence.

When the mysterious apparition had vanished, Uriuno suddenly recalled an odd encounter she had when she still worked in the red light district. One night, a maid of the Tomiya was looking at Uriuno as if she had something very important to say. But Uriuno did not get a chance to hear her, as the maid soon fell terribly ill and fainted dead away. For several days and nights, the maid went in and out of consciousness, and then she spent her final breath saying that she needed to see Uriuno and tell her something. But it was too late.

Uriuno thought about the shape of the figure projected on her screens, and felt that there was no mistake about it. That figure must have been the ghost of that maid of Tomiya. It could be no one else.

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What is the Triangle Headband Japanese Ghosts Wear?

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

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.

The triangular, white corpse-hat consists of a small strip of cloth, cut or folded into a triangle, which covers the forehead and wraps around the back of the head. It works like a headband, and the Japanese use the word boshi (hat) or nuno (cloth) when describing it. The cloth is not a consistent item on the costume of a yurei, a Japanese ghost. As with everything else in life, burial fads come and go. Although the white burial kimono, called a kyōkatabira, has stayed the same for centuries, the same thing cannot be said about the cloth.

The cloth appeared around the Heian period and yurei-e (ghost pictures) from this era often show yurei wearing the cloth. It is possible the corpse-hat was based on the Heian period eboshi hat that was popular at the time. Whatever its origins, the custom seems to have vanished by the Edo period. It is worth noting that in Maruyama Ōkyo’s famous painting “The Ghost of Oyuki,” considered an accurate portrait of a yurei, Oyuki does not wear the cloth. In modern times, the cloth has become particularly associated with the sea ghosts called funa yurei, who always wear it.

I keep calling it “the cloth” because there is no specific word for it. The cloth goes by multiple names. The most grandiose term is tenkan, meaning heaven’s crown. The most commonplace is zukin, which is a standard word for hood or kerchief. Several of terms are simple and descriptive, like hitaieboshi meaning forehead hat, or hitaikakushi meaning forehead-hider and kamikakushi meaning hair-hider. The most basic term of all is sankaku no shiroi nuno. This means triangle-shaped white cloth.

The meaning of the cloth is speculative, although there are two main theories why it came into fashion. One says that the dead have ascended to a higher level, and thus the tenkan (heaven’s crown) is placed upon their heads to show their new status. Another says that the sharp point of the triangle wards off evil spirits or demons from entering the now-empty body from the head and resurrecting the corpse or preventing the spirit’s transition.

In all likelihood, there is some truth in both of these explanations.

The Ghost of Oyuki

For more about the origins of Japanese Ghosts, you can purchase Zack Davisson’s limited edition yomihon chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki from Chin Music Press.

The Ghost of Oyuki Chapbook

Further Reading:

Check out other yurei tales from hyakumonogatari.com:

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

Goryo Shinko – The Religion of Ghosts

Why do Japanese Ghosts Not Have Feet?

The Yurei Child

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In the 2nd year of Koka (1845), there was a turtle who was worshiped in Lake Shinobazu, in Ueno. This turtle was different from normal turtles. Its shell was white, and had faint markings on it that could be read as kanji characters. Its neck, legs, and arms were unusually thick. The turtle was originally from the great lake of Nagai in Settsu, and had been brought to Lake Shinobazu by virtuous local men who had purchased the turtle in Osaka then brought it home and dedicated it to the goddess Benzaten.

White turtles have a history of sacredness. There is a legend from India of a one-eyed white turtle who listened intently to the sermons of the Buddha Shakuson. China speaks of a white turtle who descended from Heaven and brought with it peace and tranquility. And in Japan the white turtle is revered as a symbol of peace. The appearance of a white turtle is thought necessary to ensure a peaceful Imperial reign.

To see a white turtle was said to result in an unending spring of good fortune. A long life for you, prosperity for your descendents, and freedom from illness were all said to be blessings conferred by the white turtle. There are many other legends where turtles appear as omens or signs.

In the 16th year of Meiji (1883), May 10th , the Iroha newspaper published the story of a “straw-raincoat wearing turtle.” Whether it was called a straw-raincoat wearing turtle, or a spirit turtle, or even a God turtle, the appearance of an unusual turtle was an auspicious sign during a change in Imperial eras.

The particular turtle was sighted by Yamada Miyakawa, in Mie prefecture. In that same place the turtle was purchased by the merchant Tahata Shudo, acting under the guarantee of Nakagawa Chubei of Nippon-bashi ward. Nakagawa had previously engaged the sake dealer Yorozuya Taijiro to aquire a turtle, and Tahata and Yorozuya took 1,000 yen of Nakagawa’s money to go and buy the straw-raincoat wearing turtle and to bring it back with them. They were able to make the purchase, and with the guidance and advice of a local museum, brought back the previous turtle with great care.

Kiyomizu Seifu of the Iroha newspaper saw the straw-raincoat wearing turtle on its trip back to be enshrined, and drew a picture of it. From the area of its shoulders, blue hair streamed like fine silk thread. It looked exactly as if the turtle were wearing a straw-raincoat. The turtle was not much different from normal turtles other than its hair, which needed to be combed every day with great care to prevent tangles and to prevent the hair from pulling out.

Translators Note: The straw-raincoat wearing turtle in this story is called a minogame (蓑亀; 蓑=Straw Raincoat  亀=Turtle) in Japanese.  Minogame are an actual phenomenom, where pond plants root and grow on the back of turtle shells.

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