Before I was finished writing this post, I had two people ask my WHY I would chose to put such a random topic up. During my holiday trip back home, I got into a conversation with a friend about Paranormal Activity, and during said convo, he said something to the effect of “That sh*t wouldn’t happen in any other country”. My immediate response was that Japanese folklore has a rich and terrifying tradition of all sorts of wild ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and goblins. When I had to explain some of them to him, I figured I’d throw up a post about it.
Japanese ghosts collectively known as yūrei (幽霊), and Japanese monsters collectively known as yōkai (妖怪) are arguably the most popular. But how many traditional Japanese spooks do you actually know anything about? Check the method…
Traditional Japanese beliefs state that every human being has a soul called a reikon (霊魂). After death, the reikon exits the body and enters a temporal stage where it waits for the living to perform final rites and funeral rituals for them. If these are completed properly, the reikon is satisfied and it can be at peace in death, leaving spiritual limbo and continuing on to the afterlife. This sort of reikon will become a spiritual protector of its family, looking down on its ancestors with favor.
However, if a person dies an unnatural, traumatic death, or if their final rites aren’t properly performed, the reikon becomes a yūrei and starts wreaking havoc on everyone’s sanity. The yūrei wallows in temporal space, forever yearning for whatever needs to be done for it to finally achieve peace in the afterlife. If the yūrei has strong enough emotional ties to the physical world however, it can return as a ghost. A scary ghost. These ghosts dwell on Earth, haunting its fleshy inhabitants. While all Japanese ghosts are referred to as yūrei, there are a handful of specific types differentiated mostly by the circumstances surrounding their death.
Onryō – 怨霊
Onryō are female ghosts who were abused or neglected by their lovers in life. These ghosts dwell in the physical world seeking vengeance on those who wronged them. Strangely enough though, they rarely do actual harm to the lovers who hurt them. They are also the most common type of ghost seen in Japanese horror films. In the case of onryō, the emotions tying them to the land of the living are usually hatred or sorrow- sometimes both. So if you’re in Japan, be sure to not piss off any ladies because they might come back as onryō and ruin your life.
Ubume – 産女
Women who die in childbirth or without providing for their children before death are classified as ubume. The power of their motherly love allows them to remain in the physical world to attempt to help the children they failed in life. Usually they come back to help their child in a time of need or leave gifts for them mysteriously. A mother’s duty is very important in Japan, and the stories of ubume are many.
Appearing in the form common to most Japanese ghosts, ubume are clad in robes of white, have long, unbound, disheveled hair, and are creepier than your perverted uncle Mike. Given their grim origins, the stories revolving around ubume are more sorrowful than those of onryō and focus mainly on the mother’s quest to ensure her child’s continued safety.
There’s no haunting to be had in these stories; the mother’s spirit directly interacts with her child after death, serving as a sort of guardian angel. However, in her providing for the child, the mother inadvertently leaves clues that otherworldly devices are at work. The most common sign are coins and gifts left for the child that turn into dead leaves after they’ve been discovered. Worst. Birthday. Ever.
Goryō – 御霊
Goryō are malicious, vengeful spirits – martyred in life and returning for revenge in the form of widespread death and destruction. Usually these spirits were those of the ruling class (the more powerful the person, the more powerful the spirit). Out of all the yūrei, goryō are undoubtedly the most dangerous. They can be incredibly powerful. They are capable of everything from destroying crops to evoking widespread natural disasters.
In medieval Japan, it was a common belief that one’s social status carried over with them into the spirit world so goryō were almost always spirits of the aristocracy. The more powerful someone was, the more likely they would return as a ghost capable of great destruction, so naturally respecting the dead was very important. On the other hand, if some jerk assassinates you for no good reason, it doesn’t really matter if there’s a shrine built in your honor because you’re going to be mighty peeved regardless.
Goryō are vengeance ghosts similar to onryō. However, their destructive ways didn’t necessarily end with the death of those who had wronged them. Only the super-cool-mountain-powered yamabushi could put these spirits to rest for good.
Zashiki-warashi – 座敷童
Zashiki-warashi are child ghosts who dwell in large, well maintained, fancy houses. They’re a squirrely bunch and really enjoy playing pranks on their fleshy housemates. However, seeing a zashiki-warashi or having one in your home is considered very lucky and can even bring fantastical fortunes.
These spirits usually appear as five or six year old children with bobbed hair and red faces. Zashiki-warashi are unique in the fact that they aren’t hell-bent on murdering everyone or seeking vengeance on those who wronged them. Instead, these ghosts just act like trouble-making kids. They’re brats, but at least they aren’t trying to drown you, right?
Once they’ve decided to haunt your home, they will demand your attention much like any bratty child would. If you choose to ignore the spirit, it will then begin to play increasingly devilish pranks on you until you acknowledge its presence. If you still don’t learn to love your forcibly adopted ghost-child, it will cry its little ghost eyes out and run away from home forever. Congratulations. You’ve failed as a ghost parent. When you die you’ll become an ubume for sure.
Despite their somewhat annoying nature, zashiki-warashi are considered lucky and are capable of bringing riches to those whose homes they inhabit. Should the family successfully adopt and care for the ghost child, they will be rewarded financially. But keep in mind, these kids are no angels. If you want those riches, you’re gonna have to work for ‘em, girl.