Yurei: Japanese Ghosts

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Takahiro Saeki

    Guest

    Takahiro Saeki is the president of Seisen University and specializes in contemporary Japanese literature. Saeki conducts research on works such as modern novels, short stories about Japanese ghosts, and funny stories.

  • Fuyuko Matsui

    Guest

    Artist Fuyuko Matsui specializes in nihonga, traditional Japanese-style paintings. While employing age-old painting techniques. Matsui creates depictions of modern-day horror, many of which feature female figures. Her talent is widely acclaimed.

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August 21, 2018

Yurei: Japanese Ghosts

*You will leave the NHK website.

Boo! In many countries, ghost stories are told on and around Halloween, but in Japan, it's summer that features the spookiest tales. That means there's no better time to learn more about Japan's unique take on ghosts, or yurei. What form do ghosts take in Japan? How are they depicted in art? And why do they appear in summer? The answers to all those questions and more are revealed on this bone-chilling edition of Japanology Plus. Don't watch it alone!

The first thing many viewers will notice about yurei, especially in contrast to those from other countries, is that a great many of them are female. Expert guest Takahiro Saeki, university president and specialist on spine-tingling Japanese tales, explains that in the past, women occupied a lower rung on the Japanese social ladder and were thus more susceptible to betrayal, exploitation, and other forms of injustice. In the afterlife, the tables were turned as these mistreated women came back for revenge.

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Many yurei are women seeking vengeance, with their hair hanging long and loose.

In fact, there is a specific Japanese word for the kind of grudge and anger felt by these yurei: onnen, which combines kanji characters for "grudge" and "feeling." It is said that yurei are bound to the mortal realm until their onnen can be soothed in some way. Though this onnen is usually directed toward a certain person, an innocent bystander may also feel its wrath if he or she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is one aspect of what makes yurei so frightening. If you're in Japan, don't get between a yurei and the subject of its onnen!

Though female yurei are common, they definitely have plenty of male counterparts. Perhaps the most infamous male ghost, at least for those who live in Tokyo, is Taira no Masakado. A real-life warrior from the Heian period (around 1,000 years ago), Masakado was an upstart who claimed he was the new emperor of Japan. This did not please the actual emperor, who put a bounty on Masakado. The warrior was killed a few short months later, and his corpse was decapitated.

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Another male yurei. This one has turned into a ghost in order to protect his child.

Next, according to the ghost story, Taira no Masakado's infuriated head leapt to the skies in search of its body, eventually landing in Edo, now Tokyo, on a hill currently known as Masakado no Kubizuka (The Hill of Masakado's Head). In the 1300s, a monument was built in the area to quell Masakado's angry spirit.

Now things get really interesting: in modern times, this area, near Tokyo Station, became a hot financial center, and land prices soared. The Ministry of Finance razed the memorial... and soon thereafter, 14 employees (including the Minister of Finance himself!) had perished from accidents, illnesses, and the like. The monument to Masakado was rebuilt, and still stands to this day.

In the program, we see some women go on a night tour of some places in Tokyo where yurei have supposedly appeared. These sights are called shinrei spots (shinrei being another term for ghosts), and there are plenty of famous ones throughout the capital. One is the area around what used to be Hachioji Castle—in west Tokyo, near Mt. Takao, the focus of a previous edition of Japanology Plus.

During Japan's Sengoku (warring states) period, Hachioji Castle was a base of the Hojo clan, holdouts against military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was attempting to unify the country by force. Hideyoshi attacked the castle in 1590 in particularly brutal fashion, causing many Hojo men and women to, as the story goes, become yurei haunting the spot for centuries. The ruins were later designated as one of Japan's Top 100 Castles, and now attract many summer thrill seekers hoping to catch a glimpse of some ghosts.

Why summer, anyway? Host Peter Barakan gives us one clue at the beginning of the program: hearing a chilling ghost story can cause you to break into a cold sweat—and cold of any kind is a blessing in Japan's hot summer months. There's a deeper religious meaning  as well. In Japan, summer is considered the time when ancestral spirits return to this realm, and that gets people thinking about less friendly spirits too. While summer is an important time for remembering one's ancestors, it's also a great time for visiting haunted houses and shinrei spots.

But whether or not you've ever been to Japan, there's a chance you've encountered a yurei. As Saeki mentions, Japanese horror stories have grabbed the interest of people everywhere, and yurei-like ghosts have appeared in video games, manga, and even Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films. Next time you encounter one of these Japanese ghosts, remember there are centuries of history and culture behind them!

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Yurei spotters on a tour of spooky locations in Tokyo.

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Can you spot the yurei in this depiction of a moonlit night?

*You will leave the NHK website.