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!

Garei – The Picture Ghost

Mizuki_Shigeru_Garei

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

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Ochiguri Monogatari, and Other Sources

Long ago, there was a dilapidated folding screen with the portrait of a woman holding her child. The screen was the property of the Kanju-ji temple in Kyoto, where it was kept buried away in a storehouse. One day, a request came from a retainer of the samurai Honamiden to borrow the screen. Thinking it was nothing more than a worthless nuisance, the temple was only too happy to comply with the request. The priests sent Honamiden the screen with all due haste.

Even though the screen was old and neglected, the painting was beautiful and Honamiden proudly put it on display in his house. That very night, reports started coming in of a mysterious woman who appeared in the vicinity of Honamiden’s manor. She was beautiful, and was reported to be carrying a small child. The unknown woman appeared every single night and wandered the grounds of the manor. Finally, one of Honamiden’s servants followed the woman. He watched her as she entered the house, and gasped as she suddenly disappeared while standing in front of the ancient painting.

Upon hearing this, Honamiden returned the screen to Kanju-ji as quickly as possible, mentioning nothing of the mysterious woman or the incident. A beautiful picture was one thing, but he did not need to attract strange spirits.

Now, that same mysterious woman began to appear around the Kanju-ji temple. Suspecting the painting was the origin of this apparition, a clever servant placed a piece of paper over the head of the woman in the painting. Sure enough, that evening when the ghostly woman was seen her head was covered by a piece of paper.

Kanju-ji assembled some artists to investigate the painting, and they all agreed it was the work of the artist Tosa Mitsuoki—and an important work at that. Because Tosa was dead, there was no way of knowing the story behind the woman in the painting, but they all agreed that it was a shame that such a valuable painting was allowed to degenerate to such poor condition. Hearing that, Kanju-ji paid to have the screen restored to its former condition and properly displayed.

From that time onward, the mysterious woman never appeared again.

Translator’s Note:

Winding down on my Halloween yurei posts! Although the last two haven’t exactly been yurei, but spirits of a different sort …

This story comes from Fujiwara Ietaka’s Ochiguri Monogatari (落栗物語; Tales of Fallen Chestnuts), thought to be written sometime in the 1820s. Ietaka’s book is a loose collection of random bits and pieces, observations of daily life of the time and stories overheard. Obviously, the Garei falls into the latter category.

The connection between art and ghosts is an old one, going back at least to The Ghost of Oyuki and probably even further. The story of the Garei builds on the idea that certain works of art and craftsmanship are able to be infused with some of the soul of the artist and take on a life of their own. The story serves as a cautionary tale with a definite moral—treat works of art with respect, or they will come out and haunt you.

(Speaking of which, this can almost be seen as an inspiration to films like Ringu, with the ghost emerging from the painting instead of Sadako emerging from the TV. Of course, the Garei from this story wasn’t quite so vengeful as Sadako; she just wanted her picture to be appreciated and treated nicely. )

Yokai researcher Oda Kokki identifies the Garei as a type of Tsukumogami , a belief in Japan that household objects can gain life after 100 years. I’m not personally sure I agree with that, as the painting in this story is not yet 100 years old. And Tusumogami tend to be everyday objects that are handled and used daily, slowly gaining life as human’s infuse them will small pieces of their motive energy over the century. Garei-type stories tend to be more about the power of the artist, how certain artists attain such skill that they are able to infuse their works with souls. A similar story has an artist painting such realistic portraits of Hell that they become actual portals to the netherworlds. Sounds like an episode of Twilight Zone, doesn’t it?

Oh, and by the way: Mizuki Shigeru ends his retelling of the Garei with a further warning—you better be nice to his comic books or he will make sure that all of the monsters he puts in there will come out to get you!

Further Reading:

For more stories of yurei and art, check out:

The Ghost of Oyuki

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

More Hokusai Manga Yurei

Yurei-zu: A Portrait of a Yurei

A Portrait of an Ubume

Konnyaku no Yurei – The Konnyaku Ghost of Tenri

Mizuki_Shigeru_Konyaku_Yurei

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

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Legends of Tenri, and Other Sources

This peculiar story comes from Tenri city, in Nara prefecture. In the span separating Kabata ward from Inaba ward, there is a stone bridge nicknamed the Konnyaku Bridge. This is why.

Long ago, a rice dealer named Magobei was making his way across the city at night when he went to cross the stone bridge. Before he could cross, a female yurei appeared on the center of the bridge, with a large piece of konnyaku hanging from her mouth. Terrified, Magobei dropped to his knees and began chanting the name of the Amida Buddha over and over again. When he reached the 99th repetition of the Buddha’s name, the bizarre konnyaku yurei disappeared. With the way cleared, Magobei ran home as fast as his legs could carry him.

He later heard that there had been a married couple in town who had quarreled over a piece of konnyaku, and that somehow lead to the wife’s death. The details were unclear, nor did anyone know exactly what the woman wanted. It is said that she appeared from time to time on that bridge, always with the same chunk of konnyaku dangling from her mouth. And that stone bridge has been known as the Konnyaku Bridge ever since.

Translator’s Note:

Another short and sweet yurei tale for Halloween! This one is a local legend that Mizuki Shigeru collected, from the town of Tenri in Nara prefecture. I lived in Nara for several years, but unfortunately didn’t know this story at the time. I would have gone in search of the Konnyaku Bridge!

There are actually several Konnyaku Bridges across Japan. Some have legends attached to them, like the Konnyaku Ghost of Tenri, but most likely these legends came long after the name. Traditionally, Konnyaku Bridges were low water wooden crossing bridges that tended to wobble and shake like the eponymous konnyaku. The sturdy stone bridge in Tenri being called a “Konnyaku Bridge” is odd enough for someone to create a ghost story about.

They are fairly unsafe, and most of these have been replaced by modern bridges although they retain their names. Like many vanished parts of Japan, those wobbly Konnyaku Bridges are nostalgic enough for a sappy pop song to be written about them.

Konyaku Bashi

Here’s a picture of a Konnyaku Bridge in Hyogo, from this blog

If you aren’t familiar with it, konnyaku is a unique Japanese food that is almost impossible to describe. The dictionary calls it “solidified jelly made from the rhizome of Devil’s Tongue.” It usually comes in a squishy block of …. yeah, OK. “Solidified jelly” is about the best term there is. So a block of “solidified jelly” that is sliced and added to salads, or boiled and added to soups like nabe and oden, or put on a stick and grilled. I made konnyaku once, and it is a process as bizarre as the food sounds. It makes you wonder who on Earth saw the nasty, starchy root called Devil’s Tongue and figured that it you pounded it and boiled it enough you could render it into something edible.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Needless to say, konnyaku is an acquired taste. I like it myself, mainly grilled and slathered with hot karashi mustard, but I know far more people that loathe it than love it. At least amongst the non-Japanese. In Japan it is just standard fare.

Oh …. And although it doesn’t relate to this story, konnyaku is known to be a killer. Because of its solidified jelly status it can literally be hard to swallow. Konnyaku has been known to get stuck in the throats and suffocate those whose throat muscles aren’t strong enough to move it down—mainly small children and the elderly. With the konnyaku hanging out of this yurei’s mouth, it makes you wonder if her husband didn’t kill her by shoving a piece down her throat. Not a pleasant way to die.

There is another story from Wakayama prefecture called the Konnyaku Yurei, but instead of the ghost of a woman it is about an old piece of konnyaku that somehow became a yokai. A story for another time.

Further Reading:

Bridges are a popular haunting spot for Japanese ghosts and monsters. Check out:

Gatagata Bashi – The Rattling Bridge

Hashihime – The Bridge Princess

The Tale of the Hashihime of Uji

The Kappa of Mikawa-cho

Tajima no Sorei – The Poltergeist of Tajima

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tajima_no_Sorei

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Taihei Hyakumonogatari, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

This is a tale of the Edo period, from Tajima province (modern day Hyogo prefecture).

A down-on-his luck ronin named Kido Gyobu wandered into Tajima one day. He had heard rumors that there was an obakeyashiki—a haunted house—in town that had lay abandoned and unoccupied for years. Kido was very proud of his courage, and vowed to stay at the house as a Test of Courage.

From outside the house was dilapidated and the garden was overgrown, but it was livable. Kido took his small belongings, which were just his traveling clothes, bedding, and the two swords that it was his right to wear, and went into the house where he would live. He wandered through, kicking up dust and disturbing cobwebs. The tatami-mat floors were old and bug-ridden. The paper in the windows torn and yellow. The cooking utensils rusting. But he found nothing to evoke the terror that was the reputation of the house. Kido put it down to rural superstition, and made a bed for himself in the main room. He spent his day without incident—cooked his food. Took his bath. Drank his sake and smoked his pipe. All which lead him to think that there was nothing to fear.

That night, when Kido had put out the candle and climbed into his futon, the house suddenly lurched and began to shake violently. All of Kido’s belongings were scattered about the room, and the entire house shook like it was in the grips of some monster. Kido assumed it must be a massive earthquake, but when he steadied himself enough to look out the window, he saw the rest of the village was as calm as a pool of still water. It was only inside the house that the world was being shaken to pieces.

With the coming of dawn, the house settled down and the shaking ended. Kido was not to be beaten so easily, and resolved to continue his stay in the house. The second night was identical to the first. The day passed without incident, but at night the house came to live and rattled Kido around like dice in a gambling cup.

Kido had enough of the house, and went to ask advice from a distant relation, a monk named Chisen, who lived in a temple in a nearby village. Chisen listened calmly to his story, and thought for a short while, and told Kido he would accompany him back to the house and stay the night with him.

The third night was a repeat of the first and second—a boring day and a lively night. With the house doing its best to dislodge Kido and Chisen or at least to smash them into something, Chisen sat calmly in the center of the main room as if meditating. He stared intently at the floor for hours as if searching for something, oblivious to the chaos around him. Suddenly, in one swift move Chisen drew Kido’s short sword—which he had tucked into his obi sash—and plunged it into a particular spot in the tatami-mat floor.

The instant Chisen plunged the stabbed into the floor, the house stopped shaking. Blood welled up from the spot Chinsen had stabbed, staining the tatami mats. But that was all. The house was silent. Leaving the sword standing upright in the floor, the exhausted Kido and Chisen settled down for some much needed sleep.

The next morning, they pulled out the knife and lifted up the tatami mat to see what Chisen had wounded. The found an odd memorial plague, reading “Eye-stabbing Sword Bear Memorial Tablet” (刃熊青眼霊位 ). Chisen’s had stabbed the sword directly into the kanji for “eye,” and that was where the blood was welling up from.

Leaving the house, the revealed this to the villagers who told them of an odd legend. Years ago, the man who lived in that house had killed a bear who wandered in from the forest one night. Fearing the wrath of the bear’s spirit, he had a memorial tablet created and a proper funeral given for the bear. But it was apparently in vain, for the bear’s spirit possessed the man and killed him, and had haunted the house ever since. Many strange things were seen in the house every night, and none had dared to stay there until Kido and Chisen.

Translator’s Note:

A definite twist to this Halloween yurei story, eh? I bet you didn’t see that ending coming! I certainly didn’t expect that when I started translating it.

This story originally comes from the Taihei Hyakumonogatari (太平百物語; 100 Stories of Peace and Tranquility). The Taihei Hyakumonogatari uses the title Tajimekuni no Yanari no Densho (但馬国の家鳴の伝承; Legend of the Crying House of Tajime), which Mizuki Shigeru changes to Tajime no Sorei (但馬の騒霊; The Poltergeist of Tajime).

Yanari is a term for a particular type of haunted house that shakes and groans without any visible cause. The kanji translates to家(house) + 鳴(cry), and Harry Potter fans would recognize the Shrieking Shack as a classic Yanari. There are Yanari legends from almost everywhere in Japan. They were popular during the Edo period, with newspapers reporting on local Yanari and particularly popular ones becoming flash tourist attractions as the curious tried desperately to glimpse actual supernatural phenomenon.

Most Edo period portrayals of Yanari show small oni and other yokai on the outside shaking the house. However, these yokai are completely invisible and only their effects can be seen.

Toriyama Sekien Yanari

Mizuki uses the term sorei, which uses the kanji 騒 (disruptive) +霊 (spirit). This is a rarely used term for poltergeist-style ghosts that rattle the doors and shake walls just like Western poltergeists. Thanks to the movie series, the term sorei has almost disappeared and most people just use the term “poltergeist” (ポルターガイスト) in modern Japanese.

And yes, to the unanswered question–the story ends there. It never goes on to say if Kido and Chisen were successful in banishing the spirit, or if stabbing the memorial tablet did the trick.  That part of the story is the most bizarre, as it runs counter to all other Japanese ghost stories.  Most ghosts WANT memorials and funerals and to be worshiped. This is the only one I know of where destroying the tablet ends the haunting.

All I can think of is this–that the bear spirit was not Buddhist, and resented the Buddhist memorial tablet and funeral. This makes sense in a way if you think of animal spirits as being more of the Shinto tradition than the Buddhist.  And after all, the haunting and hubbub didn’t happen until AFTER the funeral, soooo ….

Further Reading:

For more Japanese ghost and spirit animal stories, check out:

Onikuma – Demon Bear

Kimodameshi – The Test of Courage

The Cursed Mansion of Yoshioka Gondayu

The Long-tongued Old Woman

Yokai of the House

10 Famous Japanese Ghost Stories

hokusai manga yurei

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

Japan is one of the most haunted places on Earth. In Japanese folk belief, Japan as an island is infused with supernatural powers–The very soil of the land is charged with potential, magical energy. Human beings share in this energy. Inside each human being is a reikon, a being of profound power that is unleashed on death. The Japanese fear ghosts–called yurei in Japanese–but they also honor them. And for as far back as the written word goes in Japan, they tell stories about them.

The Golden Age of yurei was the Edo period (1603-1868), an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. People swapped ghost stories in a story-telling game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai that was the passion of the nation. Players sat in a circle and told stories in succession as one hundred candles were extinguished one by one. The light slowly dimmed to the rhythm of the game. In search of more stories, the Japanese people peered into every dark corner, dug up every suspicious stone half-buried in an abandoned temple, and pestered every grandparent for some snatch of an old tale half-remembered.

And the stories are good. Dead lovers returned from the grave. Parades of dead souls on the trail to hell. Ghostly hands with no purpose at all.  Below are ten of my favorite Japanese ghost stories.

Click the title of each to be taken to the full story.

10. The Ghost of Oyuki

Maruyama_Okyo_The_Ghost_of_Oyuki

In 1750, Edo-period Japan, Maruyama Ōkyo opened his eyes from a fitful sleep and beheld a dead woman.  She was young. Beautiful.  And pale. This is the true story of Japan’s most famous ghost painting, of the brilliant artist who painted it, and answers the question “Why do Japanese ghosts look the way they do?”

9. The Yurei of Aizuwakamatsu

Aizuwakamatsu_no_Yurei_Mizuki_Shigeru

A married couple is disturbed by a ghostly woman at night. Both the husband and wife claim they have no idea who the ghostly woman is, but is one of them lying? Is the woman the husband’s dead lover–or the wife’s?

8. The Black Hair

Yurei Picture

One of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, famed in the film Kwaidan and in the books of Lafcadio Hearn. But the story is older than each of these. Much older. Here is the original.

7. The Strong Japanese Ghost

Chikaramochi Yurei Mizuki Shigeru

One of the most offbeat stories in this list. A village woman is known for her unnatural strength, and … other attributes. After she dies, a yurei with the same unnatural strength appears to terrorize the village in which she lived.

6. The Speaking Skull

Kyokotsu

A story with Buddhist leanings, a man finds a skull on the side of the road. And the skull is feeling quite chatty, and not above asking a few favors.

5. The Rattling Bridge

Masasumi Tateyama Gatagata Bashi

It’s hard to sleep when your house is on the path of the road to hell. A man and his family see a nightly parade of ghosts making their final journey.

4. The Hunger Gods

Hidarugami Mizuki Shigeru

Hunger is a terrible way to die, and all these ghosts want to do is share their pain. Is that too much to ask?

3. The Inviting Ghost Hand

Mizuki_Shigeru_Manekute_no_Yurei

A mysterious hand beckons from a dark wall. This entry explores some of the differences between Western and Japanese ghosts.

2. The Yurei of the Blind Female Musician

Mizuki_Shigeru_Goze_no_Yurei

A ghostly tale of bloody revenge. One of the few true horror stories on the list.

1. The Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike Clan

Heikeichizoku_no_Onryou_Mizuki_Shigeru

Another of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, famed in Noh and Kabuki theater and performed over and over every year. At the end of Japan’s greatest civil war, the Heike clan lies scattered and defeated. But the ghosts of Japan never take defeat lying down.

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