The Spirits of Japan’s Past

by M-Gillies
Murderers are haunted by Yurei in Japanese culture

Yurei are Japanese spirits that haunt those who caused the death of another.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japanese have for centuries built a name for themselves as a culture obsessed with the supernatural and the superstitious. From the vast funeral rituals to their ultra-violent horror cinema, the Japanese have delved into the riches of their orated folktales of the strange, mysterious and supernatural and breed a mythology of paranormal enigmas. With many of Japan’s supernatural media tracing back to the mythology of Kaidan, the roots of the supernatural stretch further beyond the Edo period (1608-1868).

As early as the eighth century, during the Nara period (710-794), the practice of ancestral worship was first recorded in Japan’s oldest text known as the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters). It was in this early document of folklore, history and mythology that Japan’s indigenous animistic religion Shinto (Way of the Gods) was recorded and codified, stating that human spirits (reikon) are destined for the eternal world.

However, this deep rooted ancient practice was also the genesis of the Japanese superstition of paranormal activity. When political strife and battle dominated the instability of the Heian period (794-1185) a new threat loomed across the vast landscape. Victims of murder and suicide, particular those of jealousy and family pressure whose wronged soul became caught in an in-between realm, a nebulous of sorts, which saw these spirits of violent deaths marred with impurities for the eternal world clung to earth with malicious intent as they plagued the living with curses so potent that those who had nothing to do with them were pulled into their wrath and punished indiscriminately.

Known as Yurei (dim spirits), these grudge-bearing spirits of violent deaths remained a powerful presence on the living. Though they had no inclination to communicate with the living, when the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living was at its thinnest, the threat of yurei loomed between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., the Japanese witching hour.

Adorned in white burial kimonos, these pale figures with long black hair floated lifelessly, haunting the living as they waited for the wrongs of their lives to be righted. Bound to specific locations, objects or the places where the wrong had occurred, Yurei refused to transcend to the spirit world until their purpose was fulfilled.

With their anger growing more powerful through vengeance, jealousy, hatred and sorrow, yurei eventually grew into onryo, ghosts so consumed by hateful vengeance that they are unable to pass on even when their purpose is fulfilled. Attributing natural disasters and plague to the malice of onryo, these paranormal entities became so consumed with hateful emotions that even after a family member enacting revenge upon the yurei’s slayer, or the consummation of a passion intended for a lover, or even giving proper burial to the discovered remains, they remain dissatisfied.

To exorcise the wrath of Onryo, Buddhist priests and mountain ascetics were consulted to perform services of placating the vengeful spirits. Many times holy Shinto talismans known as ofuda were used to keep Onryo away. Containing the name of a kami (deity), these prayer sheets would be placed on a door, or if the Yurei was present, on their forehead to banish their presence.

However, for many Yurei, posthumous rituals which saw the rise in court rank and title of the spirit became a means of preventing the restless spirits from bearing their wrath upon the populace. By enshrining them as kami within the Shinto shrines, yurei were transformed from destroyers to protectors of Japan.

During the years to follow, the folklore behind Yurei blossomed. Woodblock artists soon interpreted the depictions of Yurei in multiple prints, while the growing popularity of Kaidan-inspired publications and Kabuki ghost plays quickly earned the repository of Japanese popular culture, eventually giving birth to Japan’s horror cinema and titles such as Kwaidan, The Ring and The Grudge.

Read more:

Yurei | The Mask of Reason

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