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Ghosts, Demons and Spirits in Japanese Lore

Norman A. Rubin
P.O.B. 1020 Afula 18550, Israel

Belief in ghosts, demons and spirits has been deep-rooted in Japanese folklore throughout history. It is entwined with mythology and superstition derived from Japanese Shinto, as well as Buddhism and Taoism brought to Japan from China and India. Stories and legends, combined with mythology, have been collected over the years by various cultures of the world, both past and present. Folklore has evolved in order to explain or rationalize various natural events. Inexplicable phenomena arouse a fear in humankind, because there is no way for us to anticipate them or to understand their origins. The mystery of death is a phenomena that does not offer a rational explanation to various cultures. Death is an intruder. Death is the change from one state to another, the reunion of body with earth, of soul with spirit. Humans, throughout the ages, have seldom been able to believe or to understand the finality of death. For this reason fables and legends have evolved around the spirits of the dead. The Japanese believe that they are surrounded by spirits all the time. According to the Japanese Shinto faith, after death a human being becomes Fig 1: One Hundred Stories of Demons and a spirit, sometimes a deity. It is believed that eight million deities inhabit Spirits the heavens and the earth - the mountains, the forests, the seas, and the very air that is breathed. Traditions tell us that these deities have two souls: one gentle (nigi-mitama), and the other violent (ara-mi-tama). Buddhism, which was introduced into Japan in the sixth century CE, added a new dimension to the belief in spirits and other supernatural forces. The Buddhist belief in the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the „Pure Land of Buddha‟ (Jodo)1 achieved a new meaning. The way a man behaved during his lifetime determined whether he would go to the world of the dead or the „Pure Land‟. Those driven to the nether-world found it to be a hell in all its vileness. The Japanese believe that after death a spirit is angry and impure. Many rituals are performed for seven years to purify and pacify the soul. In this way the person becomes a spirit. According to belief, a spirit wanders between the land of the living and the world of shadows. For this reason, prayers are offered to insure passage to the Land of the Dead.

Ghosts (Yurei)
If the soul of the dead is not purified, it can return to the land of the living in the guise of a ghost. Also, if a dead person is not delivered, through prayer, from personal emotions such as jealousy, envy or anger, the spirit can return in a ghostly guise. The ghost haunts the place where it lived and persecutes those responsible for his or her bitter fate. The ghost will remain until released from its suffering through the good offices of a living person who prays that the soul of the dead may ascend.

especially in Netsuke figures3. could become deities in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). also this was a way to mock the heavy-handed feudal rule. This was a way in which the people equated the demons with the upper classes. Most creatures in stories of unfortunate spirits were women. the more threatening her ghostly spirits would be after her death. both natural and man-made.” “At Tokaido. Bandits accosted her and she was barbarously murdered. and sometimes they wreck havoc. some demons are the root of all disasters. combined with natural disasters that occurred at that time. that led people astray. added to the lore of evil and vengeful spirits and ghosts. Murder was presented on the stage in all its gory details. Demons have supernatural powers. these plays were quite popular. Ghost stories then began to be enacted in various theaters including Sumizu theater of Osaka and Nakamura-za theater in Edo. edicts were passed forbidding the display of theatrical performances with the theme of frightening ghostly spirits. The scenes of crime and bloodshed presented were shocking and intended to arouse suspense and fear. In the Edo period they began to depict the demons with humour. At the close of the Edo era. Ghost stories were dramatized for puppet theaters in the early1700‟s. .During the Heian era (794-1185) it was believed that ghostly spirits floated above the living causing disease. there is a famous rock known as „The Rocks that Weeps at Night‟. on the road between Tokyo and Kyoto. 2: House of Plates Japanese Demons Demons in Japanese lore wander between the living and the dead. such as raccoons and foxes. An example of this theme is in one of the plays enacted at the Kabuki theater called the „The Rock That Weeps at Night. Her blood spilled onto the rock. Vengeful spirits became the central theme in the Kabuki theater at the end of the 18th century. Cruelty to women is a recurring theme in Japanese lore and legend. Lore tells of a pregnant woman travelling along this road at night to meet her husband. which became the habitation of her ghost. when a hundred years old. And in the Momoyama (1573-1600) and the Edo periods (1603-1868) there was a belief that if a man died of disease or in an epidemic. Surprisingly. and print artists reproduced many scenes of these Kabuki productions. These venerable objects were thought to possess special powers and were treated with care and respect. and female ghosts were distinctly portrayed. According to Japanese belief. plague and hunger. They were vengeful ghosts. Household objects. but they also have the magical ability to affect natural phenomena. Japanese demons are not altogether evil but are also tricksters and enjoy playing practical jokes. In the Kamakura era (1185-1333) a belief was reinforced that spirits turned into small animals. Legend has it that the rock weeps at night. and the greater the misery endured by the woman during her lifetime.”2 Fig. he turned into a monstrous demon. Sometimes demons do good deeds in the world. for fear of undermining the government. The despotic feudal regime which prevailed during the Edo period.

but also embodiments of the evil facets of human nature. their fingers are clawed. The „Oni‟ who are women are those transformed into demons after death by jealousy or violent grief. demons depart!” The fear of pain causes the demons to run away. The Oni In folklore there are also tales of supernatural creatures called the „Oni‟. The belief in the „Tengu‟ continued until the beginning of the 20th century. are performed to exorcise demons. In the Buddhist belief they became guides for monks in understanding the Dharma tenets and sacred rites.The Mountain Demon Another prominent demon in Japanese folklore is the „Tengu‟. in a flash.In Buddhist lore there are tales of monks who after death became „Oni‟ in order to protect temples from potential disasters. The woodcutters and huntsmen offered tributes to the „Tengu‟ deities in order to receive success in their work. They can transform themselves into anything they desire. a mythological being living in mountain forests. The belief in the „Oni‟. These artistic renditions of demons not only represent the supernatural.In the 18th and 19th centuries they were revered as mountain deities. Some ancient beliefs depicted the „Tengu‟ as creatures of war and conflict. reached its zenith in the 18th and 19th centuries. anyone entering the territory of the „Tengu‟ unwittingly can fall into strange and unpleasant situations. Until the 14th century. “Enter. bearded creatures to beings with great lumpy noses.Ceremonies. Those that were less respectful found themselves in all sorts of trouble. Today ceremonial festivals are held in their honour. Artists depict the „Oni‟ with horns and wearing tiger skins. just as quickly they vanish. They have no neck. according to Buddhist belief. ANIMALS WITH SUPERNATURAL POWERS According to legend certain animals are created with supernatural powers. The „Tengu‟ can. are responsible for disease and epidemics (they are dressed in red). the god of hell. and can even acquire other magical abilities. 3: Rokurokubi (Long-necked Demon) Tengu . These rites are usually conducted at the last night of the year in the Emperor‟s Palace: The ritual is comprised of people throwing roasted soy beans in the four directions and calling out. and their arms elevated to the shoulders. good fortune. Artistic depictions of the „Tengu‟ range from stumpy. known as the „Oni-Yari‟ or „Tsuina‟. The earth „Oni‟. Artists depicted them with a bird‟s head on a human body with spreading wings and clawed feet. and also protected Buddhist shrines. but a crest of hair and a big mouth. Sometimes their actions in legends are hypocritical. but gradually they evolved into both good and bad beings. The Japanese raccoon (tanuki) and the fox (kitsune) are the most popular animals attributed . Many tales were told of the „Tengu‟ overcoming evil. transform themselves into ugly little men. Fig. evil legends were told about the „Tengu‟. then they maliciously tease people with all sorts of nasty tricks. There are invisible demons among the „Oni‟ whose presence can be detected because they sing or whistle. In some areas. Tales are still being told of them in modern Japan. woodsmen still offer rice cakes to the „Tengu‟ before starting their work. As quickly as they appear. The Buddhist „Oni‟ demons did not always represent the forces of evil. women and children. The „Oni‟ of hell (red or green bodies) hunt for sinners and taking them by chariot to Emma-Hoo. According to lore.tributes were offered to them.

be frightening creatures.‟ When the abbot wanted to boil some water. who lived on the very top of mountains. foxes pretend to be humans in order to lead men astray. A male becomes a serpent because his desires are not satisfied in life. and this illumination is known as a „foxflare‟ (kitsune bi). In some Netsuke figures the „tanuki‟ appears as a Buddhist monk dressed in robes and banging on his scrotum as if it were a temple drum. and all-seeing eyes. at times. In Japanese folklore there are tales told of people who turned into snakes after death because of their evil ways and their miserly habits. In folklore. pointed horns. Many strange and uncanny qualities are attributed to the fox. He bought a teakettle and instructed one of the monks to clean it. three foxes together portend disaster. A female snake appears as an attractive woman who marries a human: if rejected by her lover. When the seduced come to the realisation of the true identity of their supposed love. he goes about tricking and misleading men into seduction. and it is believed that he can transform into a frightening creature. Suddenly a voice spoke from the kettle. The Buddhist religion told of the dragon-god „Ryu‟ who ruled the clouds. It dumbfounded the poor abbot and he tried to catch the kettle. the rain. They are pictured as mischievous rogues who often get themselves into trouble. „Ow that hurts. They can. Buddhist legend tells of 'kitsune‟ who disguise themselves as nuns. or a one-eyed demon who murders his victims with thunder. Legends tell of how „Kitsune‟ can hypnotize people and lead them into perilous situations. a white fox calamity. Dragons and Snakes In Japanese legend there are tales that depict snakes and dragons with supernatural powers. but it eluded him. one of the demon-gods who protected Buddhism. Women are often associated with snakes because of tales told of them being fierce and possessive towards their lovers. legs and arms of a „tanuki‟ and the vessel started to run about the room. A black fox is good luck. The „tanuki‟ is sometimes seen as a witch. “There is a fable that tells of an incident by the abbot of the Morinji Temple. having a gigantic scrotum which he drags behind him or wears it as a kimono. sharp fangs. please be more gentle. The „tanuki‟ is a small hairy animal. They have similar roles in folklore. and the water. Fables tell how the fox likes to appear as women. and at other moments be capable of making a negative situation positive. To do this. a cannibal monk.” The fox (kitsune) is frequently a subject in Netsuke figurines. They appear Fig. Children born of the union of a snake with a human may either appear as a serpent or as a human with snake-like qualities.with magical powers. The„kitsune‟ have the ability to change their shape. All these deities have wide mouths. Sometimes they are treated as godly figures and become cultural heroes. 4: The Ghost Kohada Koheiji . In ancient Japan the people believed in the snake-god „Orochi‟. they illuminate the path leading to such disasters. the fox disappears. There was the dragon „Yasha‟. out popped the tail. and wear traditional robes (depicted in Netsuke figurines). but their faces remain fox-like. lightning or earthquakes. Sometimes he is depicted humourously. her jealously will cause disaster. Stories tell that while the „kitsune‟ is in such a guise. according to the tales.

Another favourite is „The Warrior Watanabe no Tsuna‟ fighting the Demoness of Rashomon. Some people are reborn in the guise of snakes after death when they wish to avenge wrongful deeds. long banners (nobori) were hung outside houses inhabited by small children. They are seen in art and netsuke figures breathing out their souls via their breath. the earth dragons who determine the course of rivers. the ocean and the rain. walk on clouds. A bachelor called Yaichiro fell in love with her and sent her many missives of love to her. there lived a beautiful girl in Senju in the province of Musashi. When the bride‟s mother entered. In order to avert troubles on that day. This is why they are believed to be producers of storms and surrounders of watersboth water-controlling and water-granting. the exorcist. the exorcist of devils and evil spirits. and pass through water unharmed. and a snake crawling out of one of the bride‟s eyes. Today in Japan they have begun to connect „Shoki‟ with the Boy‟s festival. In the Kansei era (1789-1800). artists depict the dragon as the ruler of the waters. The peach4 is the symbol of immortality and many netsuke figurines are depicted with this fruit. or carrying gourds. The most famous of the immortals are the „Sennin‟. “Long ago in Keicho era. held on May 5th. ceremonies were conducted to drive away these poisonous creatures. Natural disasters. These banners were sometimes decorated with „Shoki‟. but also of love with no bounds. and evil spirits and ghosts bringing misfortune. .6 Subjugating a demon is a favourite theme in the famous tales of warrior heroes. The avenger‟s ghost in Japanese lore is usually considered heroic. There are four types of dragons in Japanese mythology: the heavenly dragons who guard the palace of the gods. wearing the robes of Taoist sages.” Serpents and dragons are also associated with nature. because it is believed that this colour has the power to ward off misfortune. It is believed that after storms they are washed out of their dens and come into the open. but she did not respond. On the morning after the wedding. the Taoist creed appears in their literature and art. Then the soul is saved and the snake-body is shed. Immortals and Heroes The notion of immortality told in Japanese folklore is derived from Chinese Taoism based on the ideas of the philosopher Lao-Tsu in the fourth century BC. The relative either reads a Buddhist sutra or recites special prayers. The villagers believed that the snake was none other than the heartbroken Yaichiro. Yaichiro died of sorrow. and the girl married someone else. are linked to them. In the past periods. asking them to pray for the release of their souls from their snake-like bodies. In many paintings. the spiritual dragons who bring the blessed rain. The legend of the „Four Samurai of Minamoto no Yorimitsu‟ conquering monsters and demons in their citadel is a well-loved theme. Even though Taoism never became an official religion in Japan. Those who achieved immortality could fly. Snakes were not always thought of as symbols of evil.Another prominent fighter of demons is „Shoki‟. or pictured riding on a giant carp5 or a horse. „Shoki‟ is usually depicted in art striding from left to right after a unseen demon. to repel demons and evil spirits. Immortals are also depicted carrying a three-legged frog. she found the bridegroom dead. the eight Taoist immortals. the couple didn‟t emerge from their room. He was a giant of a man with great strength.in the dreams of their family and friends. and the dragons who are the guardians of all earthly treasures. They were considered guardians of Taoism and protectors of humankind. this was believed to be the day on which demons appear. especially floods. He is usually coloured red.

demons and spirits are presented on television and in cinema. sculpture. .a small artistic figurine in bronze. chief curator. where existence is devoid of pain. Even today. The authors of such dramas combine fact with fiction. The Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art. [back] BIBLIOGRAPHY 1) Catalogue and Exhibition „Things that go Bump at Night‟ . 2) Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology .Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Art. Fig.Prometheus Press. [back] 2) In the print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1791-1861) the tormented ghost is depicted giving her baby son to her son. London. [back] 6) Gourd . 3) An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols .. then she goes with the husband to avenge the crime. prints. and the classic tension between the tormented and the tormentor. New York.an emblem of the Samurai as symbols of courage and dignity. [back] 3) Netsuke Figurine . wood or metal. violence and bloodshed.. 5: The Ghosts of Togo and His Wife NOTES: 1) „Pure Land‟ or paradise established by the Buddha Amida. ceramic. These productions create a sense of fear and suspense among the audience.in the form of drawings. The story was adapted by the Kabuki theater of Osaka in which. It also symbolizes endurance and good fortune.Fables and legends sustained these beliefs through art. Plays with ghostly and spiritual themes are still being performed in theaters throughout Japan. ornaments. tales of ghosts.J.the ghost tells her husband about her dastardly murder. [back] 5) Carp .symbolizes longevity. and words.the Tree of Life in the Kun Lun Paradise. Cooper Thames and Hudson Ltd. ivory.Ilana Singer. sadness. [back] 4) Peach (Taoist) . It was thought that the peaches in the celestial orchard ripened every 3000 years.C. Haifa. Israel . hunger and anxiety. Scenes recreate the lore and mysticism of the spirits of the dead. much to their delight. Bestowing immortality and being the food of the Taoist immortals. Smoke rising out of a gourd is the setting free of the spirit from the body. paintings.

Octopus Books Ltd. ..4) Encyclopedia of World Mythology . London.foreword by Rex Warner.