The Ghosts of Japanese Folklore

The Ghosts of Japanese Folklore

Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who died in exile, becomes an onryō (vengeful spirit) (1856)—ukiyo-e (woodblock print) by Utagawa Yoshitsuya (1822-1866), Wikipedia.
Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who died in exile, becomes an onryō (vengeful spirit) (1856)—ukiyo-e (woodblock print) by Utagawa Yoshitsuya (1822-1866), Wikipedia.

A close friend of mine, whom I met in Bangkok, has always been too interested in ghosts—their stories, also in mysterious techniques by which contact could be made with them. A Burmese of Theravada Buddhist background, she is greatly influenced by the animism of her homeland. I find her to be exceptionally intelligent—and we have had some wonderful conversations on literature, philosophy, politics, culture and social issues. Normally, you wouldn’t expect people who are so intellectually gifted in these areas to suddenly, during dinner, start talking of dead bodies in a marshland.

She once, with another mutual friend, claimed she was summoning spirits with the help of six pencils (each person holding three, forming a rectangle). The pencils moved—when questions were asked! Up and down, side to side, very rapidly—and it was evident my friends weren’t voluntarily bringing about these shifts. When I witnessed this, I just laughed. I was convinced of the reality of the invisible presence, but I wasn’t scared or too curious.

Recently, however, my understanding on the matter was broadened. I now “get” my friend’s fascination. Whether we can contact and communicate with ghosts or whether ghost stories are factual or fictitious—that is not something that I still care much about. But my keenness as to why ghost stories exist at all has definitely been sharpened. I found a very sophisticated take on the issue offered by Devalina Mookerjee, a translator of Bengali literature (from eastern India). She maintains that when these ghost stories are told, especially by the marginalised, “they embody a hope that the universe has a sort of corrective mechanism built into the scales of justice, that wrongs will be righted, if not in this life, then the next…The degree of anchoring in strict truth becomes less important in such narratives, because they are meant to tell of collective understandings of life.”

Shimobe Fudesuke and the Ghost of the Woman in the Waterfall (1865) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), Wikipedia.
Shimobe Fudesuke and the Ghost of the Woman in the Waterfall (1865) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), Wikipedia.

Mookerjee presents another weighty insight. If ghosts did not exist, we would have to invent them “because we need a socially acceptable understanding for the very important idea that the past rarely moves on and disappears. It hangs around our lives, and looks over our shoulders as we try to make decisions, forge relationships, and walk towards the future. Fragments of the past habitually intrude on the present…”

When I think of representations of ghosts in art—particularly the indignant and restless aspect of their personalities owing to unfair treatment or unfinished  business—my mind immediately goes to Japan. In my teens, I discovered Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films like Ring (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). In 2019, I encountered “Japan Supernatural” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales—which shed light on several folkloric spirits and creatures in the country. The classification is complex, and straightforward dichotomies of benevolence or malevolence, angelic or demonic may not always be applicable to the characters.

In the Shinto religion, divinities that are venerated are called “kami”. “Yōkai” are lesser supernatural entities that can be very diverse (having animal, even inanimate, features). “Yūrei” are the spirits of the human dead, similar to the Western concept of ghosts. A whole genre of art exists dedicated to their tales known as “yūrei-zu”, which was very popular in the 19th century in the form of woodblock prints.

There are different types of yūrei: onryō (those who died with a grudge), ubume (mothers who died in childbirth or left children behind), goryō (a noble individual dying prematurely),  funayūrei (those who died at sea), zashiki-warashi (those who died in childhood), and more. The categorisation is nuanced, displaying context sensitivity for the deceased, sometimes leading to sub-categorisation. For instance, onryō could also be of different kinds; one among them is kuchisake-onna, the slit-mouthed woman, the unfaithful wife of a neglectful samurai. Also, yūrei may be historical figures or derived from fiction.



A Scene from the Play "Yotsuya Kaidan" (1836) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861),
A Scene from the Play “Yotsuya Kaidan” (1836) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861),

In the first artwork above, we find Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who was defeated by his brother and banished from the imperial capital Kyoto to the Sanuki Province, where he led a monastic life. Carrying resentment, he is said to have become an onryō (one of the three great in Japan). The palace’s subsequent troubles—decline in wealth, natural calamities, clan rivalries, civil war, the rise of samurai powers—are, in legend, attributed to Sutoku’s revengeful haunting.

The second artwork comes from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories of yūrei-zu ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). It features the ghost of the virtuous wife Hatsuhana, who committed suicide instead of succumbing to the advances of the malicious soldier Takiguchi Koozuke. She appears to her servant Shimobe Fudesuki near a waterfall, and partners with him to avenge her own death by murdering Takiguchi.

The third scene is part of the play “Yotsuya Kaidan” (1825) that has been transformed and adapted multiple times. Here the samurai Tamiya Iemon is visited by the ghost of his wife Oiwa at a mountain retreat. Iemon has been driven mad following a web—of sexual obsession, sexual disgust, marriage, prostitution, betrayal, accidental and intentional violence—involving many characters. In the end, he is slain by Yomoshichi, the husband of Oiwa’s sister, in an act that is simultaneously punishing and pitying.

Yūrei, in their varied forms, are potent symbols of the simple and enduring universal human need for right over wrong that a specific culture generously extends to us.

To learn more about the rich and absorbing world of Japanese folklore and its portrayal in visual art, check out these titles: Yurei: The Japanese Ghost (2020) and The Book of Yokai (2024), as well as the online database


Written by Tulika Bahadur