Investigating the Paranormal Realm

Japanese Ghosts

By Sawaki Suushi

At Haunted Times we are fascinated by ghosts from all cultures and love playing the Ayakashi Ghost Guild phone app game which while not all that authentic at times blends Japanese Ghosts with mysticism from other countries.

Thanks to Tim Screech we can learn much more about Japanese Ghosts and some of the culture and folklore surrounding them.

The Japanese world of the supernatural comprises a dizzying array of characters, from the humorously bizarre to the downright terrifying.

In the 18th century, Toriyama Sekien attempted to categorize the many different types of ghostly beings that inhabit the Japanese landscape, its heavens and its hells; the results of his efforts filled four huge volumes.

Here, Tim takes us on a slightly more abbreviated tour in this fascinating study of the ghosts and legends of Japan.

Japanese Ghosts by Tim Screech

Obake, the Japanese “ghost,” is exactly what its name suggests: o is an honorific prefix, while bake is a noun from bakeru, the verb meaning “undergo change.” Japanese ghosts, then, are essentially transformations. They are one sort of thing that mutates into another, one phenomenon that experiences shift and alteration, one meaning that becomes unstuck and twisted into something else. Obake undermine the certainties of life as we usually understand it.

The Japanese ghost is a thing of summer. There are none of the scary tales told around a winter fire–flames spitting and logs crackling, as shadows deepen and listeners become too afraid to go to bed. Myths about Japanese ghosts do not talk of the ghoul on the frozen staircase, the skeleton in the musty closet, or the drafty bell-tower, but of the tangled bedclothes or the broken fan. The classic type are spawned from steamy weather–squeezed out, as if in some fetid moment, from other things.

The materials that breed obake can be many, and often routine, as if it is precisely the near-at-hand object that is the most susceptible to transformation. A discarded umbrella may enter the world of the strange as an umbrella obake–steam seeming to rise oddly from the waxed-paper brim and forming a leering face. There is also the lamp (chochin) obake that grows out of a normally swinging lantern, investing its approachable, dangling form with weird life, as the shade and candle inside bounce angrily against the blasts of a gale.

Obake can possess an element of cuteness as well; indeed, they sometimes evoke more amusement than fear. Children make drawings of umbrellas with grinning faces, and may giggle at the image of a ripped and gaping lantern. Most of the time such things are perfectly harmless. But therein also lies their danger–no one can ever be quite certain when the transformations will take place.

A significant number of obake are explicitly related to fire. In many societies, fire is seen as the chief helper of working people, but also as their deadliest menace, and so fire is often an indication of strange forces in the offing. A face suddenly appears and then disappears in the flames of a bonfire, a “will-o’-the-wisp” (hi no tama) lingers too long above harvested paddies, the “fox fire” (kitsunebi) is both seen and not seen behind hedges and thickets. Fire is one of the greatest of all transformers, for it alters anything it touches, turning dead meat into food, frigid pallor into warmth. But fire will also reduce homes or temples to ashes, destroy the labor of many hands, or cruelly terminate life. The fire obake will not submit to anyone’s control.


Obake / Bakemono

Literally, “transforming thing.” Refers to any type of preternatural being. Comprises yokai and yurei, and can also be used more generally to refer to anything that is weird or grotesque.


Literally, “bewitching apparition.” Encompasses a wide spectrum of ghouls, goblins and monsters–some frightening, some amusing, and many bizarre. Yokai usually appear at dawn or dusk.


Literally, “dim/hazy/faint spirit.” Spirits of the dead who remain among the living for a specific purpose, usually to seek vengeance. Yurei generally appear between 2 and 3 AM.


“Demons” or “ogres.” Ferocious creatures with horns and fangs that are best known for manning the gates of the various Buddhist hells and performing some of the tortures that take place in them.

Centuries ago in India, the Buddha taught that nothing in this world is stable, no form of existence is anything more than a wandering through flux. People may think they have a self, and may strive to build an ego, or worry about their personal consistencies or reputations, but these concerns are delusions. A “self” is an imaginary construct; and so, in a sense, “transformation” is actually the truest manifestation of being. Obake, the ultimate transformers, point up the folly of our human security in the unchanging status of things, and obliterate our proud sense of understanding the structure of the world.

Obake both reflect and remind us of the inherent mutability in the world around us. At the same time, the elements of the observable world that appear particularly prone to change naturally come to be thought of as obake. For example, the fox is both an animal in nature and a bakemono, or “transforming thing.” Once very common throughout Japan, foxes were nevertheless seldom seen since they moved at night; dead birds, broken fences and chicken’s blood were the only evidence of their nocturnal passages. It may have been the difficulty of seeing a fox, or of keeping it in view for any period of time, which led to the notion that they undergo actual physical shift. A fox might skulk into the farmyards looking like a fox, but exit in an entirely different form–as an old woman, a boy, a demon, or a princess. In Japanese lore, they live a sort of mirror image of human society, with fox lords and ladies, servants and laborers–standing on hind legs, dressed in human clothes, and carrying out their mystic rituals by lantern light in the middle of the forest.

To the end of mitigating the powers that these worrisome animals possessed, shrines were erected, and the fox-god, Inari, became the most popular roadside divinity, honored with a clap of the hands on passing by, or with a gift of flowers, sake, or fried tofu (aburage, believed to be a favorite food of foxes). Even today, it is common to see a little street-corner shelter with a ceramic fox image housed behind a grill, offerings carefully placed in front to ward off all dangerous eventualities. Foxes have to be placated, for they are potentially disastrous to the livelihood of the farmer. They are also constant and salutary reminders of the fox-like characteristics that lie at the root of human behavior as well.


Tengu: A powerful mountain goblin, originally portrayed with a long beak and wings but gradually becoming more human-like, with a long nose instead of a beak. Tengu can assume various forms and can be kind protectors or cruel tricksters, carrying off small children, starting fires, and even inciting wars.


Tengu By: A.Davey

Kappa: A scaly river monster with a beak-like snout and a water-filled dish on its head that gives it supernatural powers. Kappa are dangerous pranksters, known for dragging people into the water and then pulling their intestines out through their anuses. Kappa love cucumbers and sumo wrestling–but if you are challenged to a bout, and value your life, you had best let the kappa win.

Rokurokubi: A female monster with an extremely flexible neck. By day they are indistinguishable from normal women, but after nightfall rokurokubi stretch their necks out to any length in search of prey. According to one theory, they are seeking out men in order to suck the life energy out of them.


According to Shinto beliefs, all people are endowed with a spirit or a soul, called reikon. When a person dies, the reikon leaves the body and joins the souls of its ancestors, provided the correct funeral and post-funeral rites have been performed. Ancestral souls are a comforting presence; they are believed to protect the family, and are welcomed back to the home every summer during the obon festival.

However, when a person dies in an unexpected manner or with an excess of emotion, or when he or she hasn’t been given an appropriate funeral, the reikon may become a yurei, a tormented ghost who remains among the living in order to seek revenge or take care of unfinished business.

In the beginning, yurei were visually indistinguishable from their original human selves. Then, in the late 17th century, as kaidan (“ghost stories”) became increasingly popular in literature and in the theater, yurei began to acquire certain attributes which continue to characterize them today. It is believed that the main purpose of these attributes was to make it easier to distinguish yurei in art and on the stage from ordinary, living characters.

Most of the yurei’s characteristics derive from Edo-period funeral rituals. For example, they appear in white, the color in which people were buried at that time–either in white katabira (a plain, unlined kimono) or in kyokatabira (a white katabira inscribed with Buddhist sutras). Yurei also appear with a white triangular piece of paper or cloth on their forehead–usually tied around the head with string–called hitaikakushi (lit., “forehead cover”). These were originally conceived to protect the newly dead from evil spirits, but eventually became just part of the ritual ornamentation of Buddhist funerals.

Yurei began to appear without legs in the mid-18th century, as part of the movement toward increasingly lurid and gruesome kaidan. Some attribute this new characteristic to Maruyama Ohkyo, a well-known artist of the time. In the theater, actors portraying yurei wore long kimono to cover their legs, and were often hung by a hidden rope to appear more yurei-like. The outstretched arms and dangling hands typical of yurei also arose as a convention of the theater.

In the 1780s the scholar and artist Toriyama Sekien began an exhaustive study of ghosts and ghouls in which he attempted to offer the reader a full list of all known types. The project was slightly absurd, of course, since ghosts cannot be counted up in that way, and by their very nature, obake resist normal categorization. The first volume appeared in 1781 under the title of The Hundred Demons’ Night Parade.

Toriyama produced The Illustrated Bag of One Hundred Random Ghosts (Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure-bukuro) three years later, and completed two further volumes in the years that followed, ultimately compiling what remains the most definitive list of spectral types. Each volume of the set was fully illustrated with monochrome pictures, one entire page devoted to the likeness and description of each particular spook. Toriyama’s books were wildly popular in their day, and went through numerous impressions. Most modern collections of Japanese rare books have at least a few copies.

The various ghouls, ghosts and monsters that Toriyama set out to categorize are generically termed yokai. However, he also included some creatures that are usually thought to lie outside the realm of yokai–for example, oni, the Japanese demon, shaggy-haired and horned, and often wielding a huge gnarled club. Oni are generally malevolent towards humanity; they are fearsome creatures that guard the portals of hell.

Once a year on February 3rd there is an oni-bashing ceremony, when beans–symbolizing wealth–are thrown outside of doorways and throughout the house to cries of “Oni out, good luck in!” (Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi). But oni, like all other beings, are susceptible to shifts; it was even said that they could be turned to good. One, included in Toriyama’s list, permitted itself to become the bearer of a lamp to light a Buddhist altar.

But such oni remained demons nonetheless, and would likely revert to their old selves at some unsuspecting moment, for neither their good nor their bad states were constant. In a category all by itself, separate from yokai, is yet another type of Japanese ghost: the yurei. Whereas yokai, for all their creepiness, can have a certain element of fun to them, yurei are downright scary. They are the spirits or souls of the dead, and so, unlike yokai in this way as well, were once ordinary people.


Bancho Sarayashiki (The Story of Okiku)

Okiku works as a maid at the home of the samurai Tessan Aoyama. One day while cleaning a collection of ten precious ceramic plates–a family treasure–she accidentally breaks one of them. The outraged Aoyama kills her and throws the corpse into an old well. Every night afterwards, Okiku’s ghost rises from the well, counts slowly to nine and then breaks into heartrending sobs, over and over and over again, tormenting the samurai. Finally, vengeance is wrought when Aoyama goes insane. (In an alternate version, Aoyama wishes Okiku to become his mistress, and falsely accuses her of breaking a plate so that he can offer forgiveness in exchange for her love. When she refuses, he kills her.)

The Ghost of Okiku by Tsukika Yoshitoshi

(The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's Ghost of Okiku

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s Ghost of Okiku

More specifically, yurei are the ghosts of those who at the moment of death were deprived of the time to repose themselves. Quietness is necessary to achieve the spiritual calm required for attainment of Buddhahood, and the most common cause of ending up as a yurei is sudden death by murder, slaying in battle, or rash suicide. The soul of the Japanese person cut off too soon is left to mope through a sorry existence until it is properly laid to rest, but it will never allow itself to be laid to rest until its purpose for remaining among the living (usually revenge) has been fulfilled. Most yurei ultimately avenge themselves and rise to a better state of being, but this may take centuries–and some are never quite appeased.

It is rumored that Oiwa, Japan’s most famous yurei, who obtained vengeance for her husband’s cruel deeds over three hundred years ago, still haunts the area around her grave.

In general, yurei do not roam arbitrarily, but stick to familiar locales–such as the place marking their untimely death. A late-night sojourner (specifically one traveling between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 AM, when yurei are apt to appear) who unwittingly crosses a field where someone once took her own life, or who traverses a bridge spanning a river in which a body was once left to float, may well encounter a yurei. Rising up from the darkness, yurei reanimate themselves with the flame of their passion. This makes them partially human again, reinvested with their original mind and something of their former bodies to–scars, blood and all. But unlike a living person, yurei are utterly concentrated on a single goal. Retribution or clearing their name occupies their entire being, and so they lack the roundedness of a mortal. A yurei is a purpose.

Many yurei are female ghosts who suffered badly in life from the vagaries of love, and whose powerful emotions of jealousy, sorrow, regret, or spite at their time of death has brought them to seek revenge on whomever it was who caused their suffering.

Male yurei are less common, and less likely to be seeking revenge; a common type is the warrior who was killed in battle and so has no personal grudge (since to die was part of his profession), but cannot pull himself away from the historical events in which he figured. This type of yurei figures often in Noh plays, and he is often indistinguishable at first sight from a real person. He hangs around ancient battlefields or moss-covered temple precincts waiting for a kindly person to come along who will listen to his story of what took place there in the past. A record is set straight, a smeared reputation untarnished, a name cleared. Such ghosts let out the secrets of history, and are bent only on letting the truth be known. The matters in which they had been involved in life are too long past for the struggles to be rekindled.

An interesting physical aspect of yurei is that they have no legs, trailing off instead into smoke-like wisps where a person’s legs would normally be. The absence of legs fits with the general non-corporeality of the yurei, for their whole bodies are wraithlike and lacking in that outer boundary of skin or scale that holds other living things in shape. Legs serve to join creatures to the soil, they root being to the earth, and so to be legless is in a sense to be disengaged.

This feature of the Japanese ghost is not dissimilar to the ability of the Western ghost to float slightly above the ground, or slightly beneath it, without using the legs it still theoretically has.

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Tokaido Yotsuya)

The masterless samurai Iyemon has fallen upon hard times. It is a constant struggle to support his beautiful but ailing wife Oiwa and their newborn child, and he grows increasingly resentful of her.

He finally succumbs to temptation when the granddaughter of a well-to-do neighbor falls in love with him. Encouraged by the grandfather, who wants Iyemon as a son-in-law, he poisons Oiwa with a supposedly “medicinal” drink. She becomes horribly disfigured from the poison and dies a brutal death.

To justify his murder of Oiwa, Iyemon fabricates the story that she was having an affair with his servant, Kobotoke Kohei. He then murders Kohei, nails the two bodies to opposing sides of a door, and throws the door into a river.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi's portrait of Oiwa.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s portrait of Oiwa.

Now Iyemon is free to enjoy his wedding rites.

Flush with joy, he lifts his bride’s veil to kiss her–but alas, he is confronted by the terrifying visage of Oiwa instead. In a panic he cuts off her head, only to find that he has really just killed his new wife. He rushes off in horror to confess to the grandfather, but his path is blocked by the appearance of Kohei’s ghost. Again he slashes off its head, this time to find that he has killed the grandfather.

Wherever Iyemon goes, he encounters the grisly spirits of those he has murdered. One day he goes fishing to seek solace, only to reel in the door with the corpses of Oiwa and Kohei attached.

Terrified, he escapes to a mountain cottage, where he is continually tormented by frightening images, such as that of Oiwa’s face emerging from a lantern that swings over his head. Finally Iyemon is put out of his misery when Oiwa’s brother arrives at the cottage to take vengeance for his sister’s death.

There is another point to be made of the legless ghost: by binding people to the soil, legs stress what part is on top and what is on bottom; they advertise a right way up and a wrong one. To be without legs is to be devoid of this proper standard. Ghosts are likely to come at night, not only because they relish the dark, but because people sleep lying down, their feet on the same level as their heads. At funerals, Japanese corpses were buried seated (although cremation is common today) so that they entered the next life still in the correct posture, mind firmly at the top. Ghosts are apt to invert.

This would all seem quite far off to contemporary Japanese. They may know the stories, but they surely don’t believe in them. Or do they? Such myths tend to run deep. And is it not intriguing that in this very year, Toriyama’s books were reissued again after a lapse of over two centuries? A deluxe edition appeared a couple of years ago, just in time for a long and abnormally torrid summer.

Tim Screech is a professor of Japanese art history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Article first published