Japanese Language Blog

Japanese Ghosts Posted by on Oct 28, 2009 in Culture

Generally speaking ゆうれい means ‘ghost’ in Japanese. However, there is a slightly negative connotation with the word ゆうれい. The word ゆうれい could imply a number of things such as: the ghost had died violently or suddenly, the ghost has some kind of grudge or unfullfilled desires of revenge, or the ghost had not received proper burial rites. If a ghost has moved on peacefully to the afterworld, the spirit or ghost is called れいこん. A れいこん is believed to be a benevolent spirit who may one day become the guardian of the family. The source of most Japanese horror/ghost stories involve the negative spirit called ゆうれい.

In traditional Japanese ghost stories, there are several characteristics that define the ゆうれい. The ゆうれい will usually be dressed in a white kimono. Sometimes the ghost will wear a hitaikakushi (額隠) which is a small piece of white, triangular cloth worn on the head. The ghost will also have long black untied hair, usually unkempt. Sometimes the ghost is described as a ひとだま. A ひとだま is a light blue or green flame symbolic of the ghost’s soul. In Kabuki theater, a voice with a ひとだま may serve as a representation of a ghost. Lastly, ghosts are  described as lacking legs and arms, which means that they get around by floating.

In many of the plot sequences of traditional Japanese ghost stories, the ゆうれい may be appeased by the ゆうれい‘s family exacting the revenge. However simple solutions like burying the ghost next to the ghost’s lover’s grave (in the case of a suicide caused by a prohibited love)or placing toys in front of the grave (in the case of a accidental child’s death) may appease the ghost. When the ghosts start to become violent, the ghost is exorcised by ofuda (御札), which are holy Shinto writings. When the ofuda (御札) are placed towards the entrance of the house, they prevent the ghost from entering the house and haunting the family.

Onryoo (怨霊) are specifically ghosts that seek revenge. The majority of onryoo (怨霊) ghosts tend to be women. More specifically, the onryoo (怨霊) were usually oppressed women who had died from a cruel death caused by a husband, lover, etc. In many traditional Japanese stories, the onryoo (怨霊) exact their revenge through intense psychological and physical torture. The hour that the ghosts appear is stated as two to three in the morning, which is considered the hour when supernatural phenomena has the strongest hold on the living world.

What’s interesting about Japanese ghosts is that the ghosts are stated as having a certain purpose for the reason why they remain a ゆうれい. You don’t really hear of stories where the ghosts just wander the earth for no reason at all!

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  1. Tamara:

    I think that Japanese ghosts are really fascinating. There is such an extensive list of different types of ghosts with interesting backgrounds of how they came to be. There could probably be an entire encyclopedia dedicated to Japanese ghosts.