Japanese Ghost Stories: Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike Clan

Japanese Ghost Stories: Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike Clan

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The story of the vengeful ghosts of the Heike Clan (Heike Ichizoku no Onryo) is told.

百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, British Museum.org, Funa Benkei, The Warrior Ghosts of Noh, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

The year is 1185. Minamoto no Yoshitsune stands in the prow of his boat as it speeds through Daimotsu Bay in the province of Settsu (Modern day Hyogo prefecture). Yoshitsune is fleeing from his brother, Minamoto no Yorimoto, who recently seized power from the Heike clan and declared himself Shogun. Yorimoto sees his brother as a potential rival. By exiling himself from the capital, Yoshitsune hopes to calm his brother’s jealousy and paranoia.

The omens for the trip had not been auspicious. Yoshitsune had been forced to leave behind his mistress, the famed dancer Lady Shizuka. But during a farewell dance she performed in his honor—her masterpiece shirabyoshi, also known as The Parting—her headdress had toppled to the floor. The seas were rough, and Yoshitsune thought of delaying his flight. But his faithful retainer, the mighty Musashibo Benkei, had pressured Yoshitsune into leaving without delay and braving the tumultuous seas. Delay could mean Yoshitsune’s death at the hands of his brother’s soldiers.

At first, the voyage went well despite the roughness of the seas. Then things changed. As the boat left behind the shores of Daimotsu Bay and headed towards the Yoshino mountains, a mist rose up without warning swallowing his ship and cutting off all light. From the sea arose great waves that battered Yoshitsune and his men, tossing their ship around like a toy. Yoshitsune’s ship was stuck in the sea—unable to advance or retreat, as if in the grip of some supernatural power.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Sesshu Daimotsu-no-ura ni Heike no Onryo Arawaruru no Zu

Looking over the side of the boat revealed the truth—this was no sudden squall. Hidden in the depths of the waves were the white bodies of the warriors of the Heike clan recently destroyed by Yoshitsune himself. Skeletal hands swarmed about the ship, holding it fast in the water. The ship was going nowhere but to Hell.

One of the ghostly warriors leapt from the ocean onto the ship. At a glance, Yoshitsune knew who it was—Taira no Tomomori, dread general of the Heike. His eyes blazed red with wrath as he swung his massive naginata long-spear and maneuvered to engage Yoshitsune. Remarkably, Yoshitsune betrayed not the slightest glimmer of fear. He calmly drew his own sword and prepared to face off with this dead warrior.

The warrior-monk Musashibo Benkei knew that the day would not be carried by skill at arms. No matter how deadly his master Yoshitsune’s blade was, it could not cut dead flesh. But Taira no Tomomori’s naginata had no such concern.

Bento dropped to his knees and began to chant and earnest prayer to the gods. He called on the five directions—the deities of the North, South, East, West, and the mysterious fifth and unknowable direction. While Yoshitsune’s steel held off Taira no Tomomori’s attack, and the rest of the onryo of the defeated Heike clan continued to assault their ship, Bento fought a spiritual war of faith and devotion, pitting his prayer against the power of the dead.

Such was the earnestness of Benkei’s spirit and the devoutness of his prayer that the waves and mist dissipated as quickly as they had arisen. The vengeful ghosts of the Heike vanished, unable to stand against the protective power of the gods. There attack was over, and Yoshitsune and his men peacefully continued their flight from Kyoto.

Translator’s Note:

An “oldy but goody,” as they say. This story of attack on the Yoshitsune’s ship by the onryo of the Heike first appeared in the book Gikeiki (Chronicles of Yoshitsune). Gikeiki is an interesting book. It took elements of the quasi-historical Heike Monogatari (平家物語 Tales of the Heike) and added fantastical elements, such as Yoshitsune being trained by the mountain spirits the Tengu, and giving him a mystical companion in the form of Musashibo Benkei—known in his youth as Onikawa the Demon Boy. I guess you could say Gikeiki is an ancient equivalent of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

This particular passage, with the spiritual battle of Benkei against the Heike onryo, was adapted for a Noh play by Kanze Kojiro Nobumitsu. called Funa Benkei (船弁慶 Boat Benkei). Just in the title you can see that Benkei is the star of the show, and Yoshitsune is reduced to a supporting role. Funa Benkei was later adapted into a Kabuki play and continues to be popular.

Several artists have depicted the climactic battle of Funa Benkei, most notably Utagawa Kuniyoshi in his triptych Sesshu Daimotsu-no-ura ni Heike no Onryo Arawaruru no Zu (Depiction of the Appearance of the Vengeful Ghosts of the Heike in the Bay of Daimotsu in Sesshu).

Oh, and while Benkei’s actions may have diffused the desire for revenge in the Heike ghosts, he could not rid the world of them entirely. They would later appear to torment a hapless, blind lute player into endless repetitions of songs singing their praise (in the story Miminashi Hoichi, by Lafcadio Hearn) and many say they have been reincarnated as a distinct species of crab that lives in the waters off the shore of Shimonoseki—the Heike Crab.

Aizuwakamatsu no Yurei – The Yurei of Aizuwakamatsu

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara

Long ago, in the town of Aizuwakamatsu (modern day Fukushima prefecture) lived a man named Iyo lived with his wife. One night the yurei of a woman appeared in their house.

At first the dead woman—who was completely unknown to Iyo—appeared outside in the garden. She knocked on the closed door and called out the name of Iyo’s wife, who was sleeping beside him. Now, Iyo’s wife was a no-nonsense type of woman. When she heard the yurei calling her name, she shouted back “Who the hell are you and what do you want?” There was no answer other than the yurei again calling her name.

Being prepared for such a thing, Iyo’s wife reached into a special box she kept near their futon and withdrew an ofuda. The ofuda was a strip of paper, prepared by a local monk, with a charm of exorcism against ghosts. Iyo’s wife hurled the ofuda at the yurei, who disappeared like smoke blown away by a fan.

However, this yurei was not finished with Iyo and his wife. The next night she appeared in the kitchen, coming out of the fires of the burning stove. After that, she was in the garden again, walking the perimeter and pounding a bell with a wooden mallet. This went on for four days.

The wife knew when she was outmatched, and went to the local shrine to enlist the help of the kami and Buddhist spirits to protect their house. She reverently prayed to anyone who would listen, and as a result their house was quiet for the night. The yurei did not appear.

It was the eighth day since the haunting began. Apparently the protection Iyo’s wife was good for one night only. This time the woman’s yurei appeared directly in their bedroom, hovering over them near their pillows. Slowly she made her way to the foot of the bed, where she began to caress Iyo’s wife’s feet with her cold, dead hands.

That was enough for Iyo and his wife, who promptly moved out of the house. The ghostly woman remained a mystery No one in the Iyo household had ever seen her before, or knew what she wanted, or why she had appeared.

Translator’s Note:

Another yurei story for Halloween. This one comes from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, and I have not been able to discover his source. As seen in Chikaramochi Yurei, Mizuki has no problem renaming stories when he thinks he has a better title, which can make it difficult to track down the originals. This may possibly just be a story he was told once.

This story is interesting because it illustrates one of the main trademarks of yurei (Japanese ghosts)—They want something. The people in the story may not always know what the yurei wants, and it can be something as simple as wanting to say thank you to someone that you didn’t get a chance to when you were alive (The Gratitude Expressing Yurei) to keeping a promised appointment (The Chrysanthemum Vow).

Mizuki makes a point in the story to reinforce the point that Iyo and his wife did not know the woman’s ghost nor what she wanted, which makes the haunting all the more bizarre from the Japanese perspective. Because they don’t know what she wants, they don’t know how to appease her.

(Of course, I think the wife in this story knew EXACTLY what the woman’s yurei wanted, and was just hiding it from her husband. The yurei is clearly only interested in Iyo’s unnamed wife, but her attentions seem like more of a sorrowful companion than a vengeful mistress. That makes me think Iyo’s wife was the one with the secret lover.)

For more yurei tales of lost love and obligation, check out:

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Hoichi the Earless: A Classic Japanese Ghost Story

More than seven hundred years ago, at Dan-no-ura, in the Straits of Shimonoseki, was fought the last battle of the long contest between the Heike, or Taira clan, and the Genji, or Minamoto clan. There the Heike perished utterly, with their women and children, and their infant emperor likewise–now remembered as Antoku Tenno. And that sea and shore have been haunted for seven hundred years… Elsewhere I told you about the strange crabs found there, called Heike crabs, which have human faces on their backs, and are said to be the spirits of the Heike warriors. But there are many strange things to be seen and heard along that coast. On dark nights thousands of ghostly fires hover about the beach, or flit above the waves,–pale lights which the fishermen call Oni-bi, or demon-fires and, whenever the winds are up, a sound of great shouting comes from that sea, like a clamor of battle.

Picture of onibi. Source: yokai.com.

In former years the Heike were much more restless than they now are. They would rise about ships passing in the night, and try to sink them and at all times they would watch for swimmers, to pull them down. It was in order to appease those dead that the Buddhist temple, Amidaji, was built at Akamagaseki. A cemetery also was made close by, near the beach and within it were set up monuments inscribed with the names of the drowned emperor and of his great vassals and Buddhist services were regularly performed there, on behalf of the spirits of them. After the temple had been built, and the tombs erected, the Heike gave less trouble than before but they continued to do queer things at intervals,–proving that they had not found the perfect peace.

Some centuries ago there lived at Akamagaseki a blind man named Hoichi, who was famed for his skill in recitation and in playing upon the biwa [A Japanese lute] From childhood he had been trained to recite and to play and while yet a lad he had surpassed his teachers. As a professional biwa-hoshi he became famous chiefly by his recitations of the history of the Heike and the Genji and it is said that when he sang the song of the battle of Dan-no-ura “even the goblins [kijin] could not refrain from tears.”

A biwa. Source:japanesestrings.com.

At the outset of his career, Hoichi was very poor but he found a good friend to help him. The priest of the Amidaji was fond of poetry and music and he often invited Hoichi to the temple, to play and recite. Afterwards, being much impressed by the wonderful skill of the lad, the priest proposed that Hoichi should make the temple his home and this offer was gratefully accepted. Hoichi was given a room in the temple-building and, in return for food and lodging, he was required only to gratify the priest with a musical performance on certain evenings, when otherwise disengaged.

One summer night the priest was called away, to perform a Buddhist service at the house of a dead parishioner and he went there with his acolyte, leaving Hoichi alone in the temple. It was a hot night and the blind man sought to cool himself on the verandah before his sleeping-room. The verandah overlooked a small garden in the rear of the Amidaji. There Hoichi waited for the priest’s return, and tried to relieve his solitude by practicing upon his biwa. Midnight passed and the priest did not appear. But the atmosphere was still too warm for comfort within doors and Hoichi remained outside. At last he heard steps approaching from the back gate. Somebody crossed the garden, advanced to the verandah, and halted directly in front of him–but it was not the priest. A deep voice called the blind man’s name–abruptly and unceremoniously, in the manner of a samurai summoning an inferior:–

“Hai!” [Japanese word for “yes”] answered the blind man, frightened by the menace in the voice,–“I am blind!–I cannot know who calls!”

“There is nothing to fear,” the stranger exclaimed, speaking more gently. “I am stopping near this temple, and have been sent to you with a message. My present lord, a person of exceedingly high rank, is now staying in Akamagaseki, with many noble attendants. He wished to view the scene of the battle of Dan-no-ura and to-day he visited that place. Having heard of your skill in reciting the story of the battle, he now desires to hear your performance: so you will take your biwa and come with me at once to the house where the august assembly is waiting.”

In those times, the order of a samurai was not to be lightly disobeyed. Hoichi donned his sandals, took his biwa, and went away with the stranger, who guided him deftly, but obliged him to walk very fast. The hand that guided was iron and the clank of the warrior’s stride proved him fully armed,–probably some palace-guard on duty. Hoichi’s first alarm was over: he began to imagine himself in good luck–for, remembering the retainer’s assurance about a “person of exceedingly high rank,” he thought that the lord who wished to hear the recitation could not be less than a daimyo of the first class. Presently the samurai halted and Hoichi became aware that they had arrived at a large gateway–and he wondered, for he could not remember any large gate in that part of the town, except the main gate of the Amidaji. “Kaimon!” the samurai called,–and there was a sound of unbarring and the twain passed on. They traversed a space of garden, and halted again before some entrance and the retainer cried in a loud voice, “Within there! I have brought Hoichi.” Then came sounds of feet hurrying, and screens sliding, and rain-doors opening, and voices of womeni n converse. By the language of the women Hoichi knew them to be domestics in some noble household but he could not imagine to what place he had been conducted. Little time was allowed him for conjecture. After he had been helped to mount several stone steps, upon the last of which he was told to leave his sandals, a woman’s hand guided him along interminable reaches of polished planking, and round pillared angles too many to remember, and over widths amazing of matted floor,–into the middle of some vast apartment. There he thought that many great people were assembled: the sound of the rustling of silk was like the sound of leaves in a forest. He heard also a great humming of voices,–talking in undertones and the speech was the speech of courts.

Hoichi was told to put himself at ease, and he found a kneeling-cushion ready for him. After having taken his place upon it, and tuned his instrument, the voice of a woman–whom he divined to be the Rojo, or matron in charge of the female service–addressed him, saying,–

“It is now required that the history of the Heike be recited, to the accompaniment of the biwa.”

Now the entire recital would have required a time of many nights: therefore Hoichi ventured a question:–

“As the whole of the story is not soon told, what portion is it augustly desired that I now recite?”

The woman’s voice made answer:–

“Recite the story of the battle at Dan-no-ura,–for the pity of it is the most deep.”

Then Hoichi lifted up his voice, and chanted the chant of the fight on the bitter sea,–wonderfully making his biwa to sound like the straining of oars and the rushing of ships, the whirr and the hissing of arrows, the shouting and trampling of men, the crashing of steel upon helmets, the plunging of slain in the flood. And to left and right of him, in the pauses of his playing, he could hear voices murmuring praise: “How marvelous an artist!”–“Never in our own province was playing heard like this!”–“Not in all the empire is there another singer like Hoichi!” Then fresh courage came to him, and he played and sang yet better than before and a hush of wonder deepened about him. But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless,–the piteous perishing of the women and children,–and the death-leap of Nii-no-Ama, with the imperial infant in her arms,–then all the listeners uttered together one long, long shuddering cry of anguish and thereafter they wept and wailed so loudly and so wildly that the blind man was frightened by the violence and grief that he had made. For much time the sobbing and the wailing continued. But gradually the sounds of lamentation died away and again, in the great stillness that followed, Hoichi heard the voice of the woman whom he supposed to be the Rojo.

Hoichi playing for his mysterious audience in a scene from the 1964 movie Kwaidan. Image source: uponobservingthis.wordpress.com

“Although we had been assured that you were a very skillful player upon the biwa, and without an equal in recitative, we did not know that any one could be so skillful as you have proved yourself to-night. Our lord has been pleased to say that he intends to bestow upon you a fitting reward. But he desires that you shall perform before him once every night for the next six nights–after which time he will probably make his august return-journey. To-morrow night, therefore, you are to come here at the same hour. The retainer who to-night conducted you will be sent for you… There is another matter about which I have been ordered to inform you. It is required that you shall speak to no one of your visits here, during the time of our lord’s august sojourn at Akamagaseki. As he is traveling incognito, [6] he commands that no mention of these things be made… You are now free to go back to your temple.”

After Hoichi had duly expressed his thanks, a woman’s hand conducted him to the entrance of the house, where the same retainer, who had before guided him, was waiting to take him home. The retainer led him to the verandah at the rear of the temple, and there bade him farewell.

It was almost dawn when Hoichi returned but his absence from the temple had not been observed,–as the priest, coming back at a very late hour, had supposed him asleep. During the day Hoichi was able to take some rest and he said nothing about his strange adventure. In the middle of the following night the samurai again came for him, and led him to the august assembly, where he gave another recitation with the same success that had attended his previous performance.

But during this second visit his absence from the temple was accidentally discovered and after his return in the morning he was summoned to the presence of the priest, who said to him, in a tone of kindly reproach:–

“We have been very anxious about you, friend Hoichi. To go out, blind and alone, at so late an hour, is dangerous. Why did you go without telling us? I could have ordered a servant to accompany you. And where have you been?”

Hoichi answered, evasively,–

“Pardon me kind friend! I had to attend to some private business and I could not arrange the matter at any other hour.”

The priest was surprised, rather than pained, by Hoichi’s reticence: he felt it to be unnatural, and suspected something wrong. He feared that the blind lad had been bewitched or deluded by some evil spirits. He did not ask any more questions but he privately instructed the men-servants of the temple to keep watch upon Hoichi’s movements, and to follow him in case that he should again leave the temple after dark. On the very next night, Hoichi was seen to leave the temple and the servants immediately lighted their lanterns, and followed after him. But it was a rainy night, and very dark and before the temple-folks could get to the roadway, Hoichi had disappeared. Evidently he had walked very fast,–a strange thing, considering his blindness for the road was in a bad condition. The men hurried through the streets, making inquiries at every house which Hoichi was accustomed to visit but nobody could give them any news of him. At last, as they were returning to the temple by way of the shore, they were startled by the sound of a biwa, furiously played, in the cemetery of the Amidaji. Except for some ghostly fires–such as usually flitted there on dark nights–all was blackness in that direction. But the men at once hastened to the cemetery and there, by the help of their lanterns, they discovered Hoichi,–sitting alone in the rain before the memorial tomb of Antoku Tenno, making his biwa resound, and loudly chanting the chant of the battle of Dan-no-ura. And behind him, and about him, and everywhere above the tombs, the fires of the dead were burning, like candles. Never before had so great a host of Oni-bi appeared in the sight of mortal man…

“Hoichi San!–Hoichi San!” the servants cried,–“you are bewitched!… Hoichi San!”

But the blind man did not seem to hear. Strenuously he made his biwa to rattle and ring and clang–more and more wildly he chanted the chant of the battle of Dan-no-ura. They caught hold of him–they shouted into his ear,–

“Hoichi San!–Hoichi San!–come home with us at once!”

Reprovingly he spoke to them:–

“To interrupt me in such a manner, before this august assembly, will not be tolerated.”

Whereat, in spite of the weirdness of the thing, the servants could not help laughing. Sure that he had been bewitched, they now seized him, and pulled him up on his feet, and by main force hurried him back to the temple,–where he was immediately relieved of his wet clothes, by order of the priest. Then the priest insisted upon a full explanation of his friend’s astonishing behavior.

Hoichi long hesitated to speak. But at last, finding that his conduct had really alarmed and angered the good priest, he decided to abandon his reserve and he related everything that had happened from the time of first visit of the samurai.

“Hoichi, my poor friend, you are now in great danger! How unfortunate that you did not tell me all this before! Your wonderful skill in music has indeed brought you into strange trouble. By this time you must be aware that you have not been visiting any house whatever, but have been passing your nights in the cemetery, among the tombs of the Heike–and it was before the memorial-tomb of Antoku Tenno that our people to-night found you, sitting in the rain. All that you have been imagining was illusion–except the calling of the dead. By once obeying them, you have put yourself in their power. If you obey them again, after what has already occurred, they will tear you in pieces. But they would have destroyed you, sooner or later, in any event… Now I shall not be able to remain with you to-night: I am called away to perform another service. But, before I go, it will be necessary to protect your body by writing holy texts upon it.”

Before sundown the priest and his acolyte stripped Hoichi: then, with their writing-brushes, they traced upon his breast and back, head and face and neck, limbs and hands and feet,–even upon the soles of his feet, and upon all parts of his body,–the text of the holy sutra called Hannya-Shin-Kyo. When this had been done, the priest instructed Hoichi, saying:–

“To-night, as soon as I go away, you must seat yourself on the verandah, and wait. You will be called. But, whatever may happen, do not answer, and do not move. Say nothing and sit still–as if meditating. If you stir, or make any noise, you will be torn asunder. Do not get frightened and do not think of calling for help–because no help could save you. If you do exactly as I tell you, the danger will pass, and you will have nothing more to fear.”

After dark the priest and the acolyte went away and Hoichi seated himself on the verandah, according to the instructions given him. He laid his biwa on the planking beside him, and, assuming the attitude of meditation, remained quite still,–taking care not to cough, or to breathe audibly. For hours he stayed thus.

Then, from the roadway, he heard the steps coming. They passed the gate, crossed the garden, approached the verandah, stopped–directly in front of him.

“Hoichi!” the deep voice called. But the blind man held his breath, and sat motionless.

“Hoichi!” grimly called the voice a second time. Then a third time–savagely:–

Hoichi remained as still as a stone,–and the voice grumbled:–

“No answer!–that won’t do!… Must see where the fellow is.”…

There was a noise of heavy feet mounting upon the verandah. The feet approached deliberately,–halted beside him. Then, for long minutes,–during which Hoichi felt his whole body shake to the beating of his heart,–there was dead silence.

At last the gruff voice muttered close to him:–

“Here is the biwa but of the biwa-player I see–only two ears!… So that explains why he did not answer: he had no mouth to answer with–there is nothing left of him but his ears… Now to my lord those ears I will take–in proof that the august commands have been obeyed, so far as was possible”…

At that instant Hoichi felt his ears gripped by fingers of iron, and torn off! Great as the pain was, he gave no cry. The heavy footfalls receded along the verandah,–descended into the garden,–passed out to the roadway,–ceased. From either side of his head, the blind man felt a thick warm trickling but he dared not lift his hands…

Before sunrise the priest came back. He hastened at once to the verandah in the rear, stepped and slipped upon something clammy, and uttered a cry of horror–for he say, by the light of his lantern, that the clamminess was blood. But he perceived Hoichi sitting there, in the attitude of meditation–with the blood still oozing from his wounds.

“My poor Hoichi!” cried the startled priest,–“what is this?… You have been hurt?

At the sound of his friend’s voice, the blind man felt safe. He burst out sobbing, and tearfully told his adventure of the night.

“Poor, poor Hoichi!” the priest exclaimed,–“all my fault!–my very grievous fault!… Everywhere upon your body the holy texts had been written–except upon your ears! I trusted my acolyte to do that part of the work and it was very, very wrong of me not to have made sure that he had done it!… Well, the matter cannot now be helped–we can only try to heal your hurts as soon as possible… Cheer up, friend!–the danger is now well over. You will never again be troubled by those visitors.”

With the aid of a good doctor, Hoichi soon recovered from his injuries. The story of his strange adventure spread far and wide, and soon made him famous. Many noble persons went to Akamagaseki to hear him recite and large presents of money were given to him,–so that he became a wealthy man… But from the time of his adventure, he was known only by the appellation of Mimi-nashi-Hoichi: “Hoichi-the-Earless.”

Types of Yūrei

All Japanese ghosts are known as yūrei, but you can classify into several types depending on how they had died or the kind of wrongful deed had been done to them.


An onryo. Photo by Katsushika Hokusai (www.wikipedia.org)

Driven by vengeance, these wrathful spirits are the most dangerous of all types. They can injure or kill their enemies and are powerful enough to trigger natural disasters to avenge the wrongs that had been done to them.


Similar to onryō, but these ghosts belonged to the aristocratic class and were martyred instead of committing suicide or being murdered. They are capable of causing natural disasters and destroying crops. Only a yamabushi (an ascetic mountain hermit) can pacify them by performing some specific rites.


An ubume holding her child. Photo by Brigham Young University (www.wikipedia.org)

The ghost of a mother who had an infant or died in childbirth. These are earthbound yūrei that return frequently to take care of their children.


Translated as “boat spirits”, these ghosts are a kind of onryō (vengeful ghosts) that died at sea. They can look like a mermaid or merman, and some artists have portrayed them as scaly fish-like humanoids.


Ghosts of children who live in zashiki (storeroom). They are mischievous spirits that perform pranks on people. According to popular beliefs, seeing them means being blessed with good fortune.

Fuyūrei (floating spirits)

Unlike other yūrei types, these spirits don’t get driven by the desire to fulfill a purpose. They just wander around by floating in the air.

Jibakurei (earth-bound spirits)

Ghost of Okiku. Photo by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (www.wikipedia.org)

These rare spirits are similar to fuyūrei but bound to particular circumstances or places. Jibakurei appears in its place of death because of being the victim of wrongdoings or bearing hatred towards someone. Himeji Castle’s ghost is a famous example of this type.

Buddhist ghosts

Jikininki (corpse-eating spirits) and Gaki (hungry spirits) are two ghost types related to Buddhism. Jikininki are the spirits of cursed people and eat human corpses while Gaki are the spirits of greedy people and they have an insatiable hunger for a specific object.

Ikiryō (living ghosts)

Ikiryo. Photo by Toriyama Sekien. (www.wikipedia.org)

Living people possessed by an intense passion can release their spirit as ikiryō and haunt a specific place or people. Shiryō do the same, but these are the spirits of dead people. One example of ikiryō is Lady Rokujō from the novel The Tale of Genji.

Yurei Japanese Ghost Tales

Goryō, the Noble Dead

These were the vengeful ghosts of the aristocratic class, especially those who were martyred. The literal translation of the word is honorable spirit and is believed to be “the spirits of powerful lords, who have been wronged, that were capable of catastrophic vengeance”.

One such tale is of Sugiwara no Michizane, a high-ranking official of the country in the 9th century. Through plotting and planning, he was demoted, exiled, and finally murdered by the Fujiwara clan.

Soon there were fires, thunder, and heavy rains that followed and destroyed the residences of the Fujiwara clan and even the Emperor’s son passed on which led to the court of the Emperor to believe it was Michizane’s vengeful spirit and that he was here for revenge.

To quell his spirit the Emperor burned the official order of his exile and restored his office and ordered that he be worshipped under the name Tenjin, which means sky deity. A shrine was also placed in his honor.

The Rage of the Onryō

These types of ghosts are said to be vengeful spirits having died full of resentment to someone or something.

They are malicious and only return from purgatory to scare the living to death and claim their souls. Two such examples would be the ghosts from the famous movies The Grudge and The Ring, where women were abused and killed and they return as an Onryō.

Once a spirit such as this one decides to manifest itself it appears to its victims as headaches, nausea, and chest pains.

While passing by it could appear as a collapsed woman crying and as you approach her she levitates and reaches for you and grabs you. Then her hair surrounds you and you start feeling an intense pain due to Onryō’s heavy and intense aura that leads to death.

You can watch the movie inspired by this Yurei Japanese ghost tales on Amazon.com

The Burden of the Ubume

This is a tragic ghost who has either died during childbirth or has died leaving behind her children. She returns to take care of her children often bringing sweets along with her.

They are often depicted as a woman carrying a child in her arms or as a dreadful woman covered in blood carrying an underdeveloped fetus.

If a passerby gives her a look she then gives up the baby to them. Upon further looking it turns out that the baby was nothing more than a big rock or a bundle of leaves.

They even buy things from shops for their children and give money to the vendors which turn into a pile of leaves after the spirit has disappeared.

They also can lead you to the location of their child so that they may be buried or adopted.

Written by Japanese author, Natsuhiko Kyogoku, The Summer of the Ubume is inspired by this particular Yurei Japanese ghost tales.

The book was also adapted into a live action feature film!

Shiryō, Deader than Dead

This type of ghost usually comes up right after they have left this world and have come to say one last goodbye to their loved ones.

However, they can be dangerous as they may not stop at just goodbye and might want to take their loved ones with them too, dragging them to the world of the dead.

One such story is of a girl whose father died abruptly. A few days later her father’s spirit came to see her but not to say just goodbye. The father’s spirit wanted to take her with him.

Even though her friends and family stayed overnight her father kept appearing for her, disturbing and frightening the people around her. Over time, his visits stopped as suddenly as they had started.

Funayūrei, the Ship Ghosts

These are the ghosts of people who died at sea and are now vengeful and often cause storms and damaged ships.

They are often depicted as fish-scaled humanoids and can be seen when there is a new or full moon, particularly on stormy or foggy nights. Especially during Obon.

The Funayurei are always looking to expand their crew. They appear as an eerie luminescent mist at first which comes closer and then appears as a ship with its ghostly crew.

It is said that once they see a ship they follow them and scare them to make a wrong turn to destroy their ships by making them crash in rocks or overturn their ships so that they join them.

It is also said that if you throw water they may get distracted enough to leave you alone and follow the food.

Don’t Trust Fudakaeshi

These Japanese ghosts are a cunning and sly type of ghost that convinces people to take off their protection charms and let vengeful spirits come inside.

They cannot themselves touch these charms but they manipulate people with bribe to remove these charms.

They are usually depicted as a semi-transparent woman with long dark hair in a kimono.

One such story is of a Fudakaeshi who fell in love with a human and starts begging him to remove the charms and talismans from his home so that she can enter and be with him.

Moved by her pleading and her feelings the man removes the talismans so that she can enter his home and sleep with him but in doing so she drains his life away and the man dies.

Suppon No Yurēi, a Ghost on your Plate

For those of you who don’t know, Suppon is a soft-shelled turtle and is eaten as a delicacy in Japan.

It is said to be a powerful food that is said to give strength to the infirm, potency to men, and extraordinary pleasure to the palate.

But don’t just get ready to eat them yet as they might just come back to haunt you from your plate.

Legend says that a man who used to make his living catching and selling Suppon was visited night upon night by legless ghosts with prominent lips.

Later he discovered that his own newborn son started to resemble a Suppon, disfigured, prominent lips, narrow eyes, and webbed extremities.

And as if that wasn’t enough, he could only eat worms as a source of food.

What type of ghost is a yurei?

A Yurei often has a human shape, but without the feet. The Yurei floats in the air. Along with these features, a Yurei also has long flowing black hair and wear a white kimono, which are used during funerals. There can also be some deformity in the Yurei since they take the shape that they were in right before they died.

There are different types of Yurei. These can be classified as per their earthly agony. For instance, there are the vengeful ghosts called onryo, who died with some kind of resentment. Then there are kosodate yurei, which is the spirit of a mother who died during childbirth and who has returned to the land of the living to take care of her child. The most fearsome is the jibakurei, who has a curse that can trap those around them.

Ghost tales to chill your bones!

I hope you found this list of the bone-chilling intriguing. These are absolutely fantastic and will surely keep you up all night. If you are like me, I am sure you will be fascinated by these tales. I still remember the first time I came across these I couldn’t stop reading and watching them. Check out all these excellent Japanese Ghost tales and you can thank me later.


First staged in July 1825, Yotsuya Kaidan appeared at the Nakamuraza Theater in Edo (the former name of present-day Tokyo) as a double-feature with the immensely popular Kanadehon Chushingura. Normally, with a Kabuki double-feature, the first play is staged in its entirety, followed by the second play. However, in the case of Yotsuya Kaidan it was decided to interweave the two dramas, with a full staging on two days: the first day started with Kanadehon Chushingura from Act I to Act VI, followed by Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan from Act I to Act III. The following day started with the Onbo canal scene, followed by Kanadehon Chushingura from Act VII to Act XI, then came Act IV and Act V of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan to conclude the program. [2]

The play was incredibly successful, and forced the producers to schedule extra out-of-season performances to meet demand. The story tapped into people’s fears by bringing the ghosts of Japan out of the temples and aristocrats' mansions and into the home of common people, the exact type of people who were the audience of his theater.

As the most-adapted Japanese ghost story, the details of Yotsuya Kaidan have been altered over time, often bearing little resemblance to the original kabuki play, and sometimes removing the ghostly element altogether. However, the base story usually remains the same and recognizable.

(Note: the following summary is of the original 1825 Nakamuraza production. As such, it does not detail the numerous subplots and characters added to the story over the intervening years.)

Act 1 Edit

Tamiya Iemon, a rōnin, is having a heated exchange with his father-in-law, Yotsuya Samon, concerning Samon's daughter Oiwa. After it is suggested by Samon that Iemon and his daughter should separate, the ronin becomes enraged and murders Samon. The next scene focuses on the character Naosuke who is sexually obsessed with Oiwa's sister, the prostitute Osode, despite her being already married to another man, Satô Yomoshichi. As this scene begins, Naosuke is at the local brothel making romantic advances toward Osode when Yomoshichi and the brothel's owner, Takuetsu, enter. Unable to pay a fee demanded by Takuetsu, he is mocked by both Yomoshichi and Osode and forcibly removed. Shortly afterwards he kills his former master, whom he mistakes for Yomoshichi, at the precise time of the slaying of Samon. It is at this point that Iemon and Naosuke unite and conspire to mislead Oiwa and Osode into believing that they will exact revenge on the people responsible for their father's death. In return Osode agrees to marry Naosuke.

Act 2 Edit

Oume, the granddaughter of Itô Kihei, has fallen in love with Iemon. However, believing herself to be less attractive than Oiwa, she doesn't think Iemon will ever want to become her husband. Sympathizing with Oume's plight, the Itôs scheme to have Oiwa disfigured by sending her a topical poison disguised as a facial cream. Oiwa, unbeknownst to her at the time, is instantly scarred by the cream when she applies it. Upon seeing his wife's ghastly new countenance, Iemon decides he can no longer remain with her. He asks Takuetsu to rape Oiwa so that he will have an honorable basis for divorce. Takuetsu cannot bring himself to do this so, instead, he simply shows Oiwa her reflection in a mirror. Realizing that she has been deceived, Oiwa becomes hysterical and, picking up a sword, runs towards the door. Takuetsu moves to grab her but Oiwa, attempting to evade him, accidentally punctures her own throat with the sword's tip. As she lies bleeding to death before a stunned Takuetsu, she curses Iemon's name. Not long after, Iemon becomes engaged to Oume. Act 2 closes with Iemon being tricked by Oiwa's ghost into slaying both Oume and her grandfather on the night of the wedding.

Act 3 Edit

The remaining members of the Itô household are annihilated. Iemon kicks Oyumi, the mother of Oume, into the Onbô Canal and Omaki, the servant of Oyumi, drowns by accident. Naosuke arrives in disguise as Gonbei, an eel vendor, and blackmails Iemon into handing over a valuable document. Iemon contemplates his prospects while fishing at the Onbô canal. On the embankment above the canal Iemon, Yomoshichi, who is not dead (Naosuke killed another man mistakenly in his place), and Naosuke appear to fumble as they struggle for possession of a note which passes from hand to hand in the darkness.

Act 4 Edit

At the opening Naosuke is pressuring Osode to consummate their marriage, to which she seems oddly averse. Yomoshichi appears and accuses Osode of adultery. Osode resigns herself to death in atonement and convinces Naosuke and Yomoshichi that they should kill her. She leaves a farewell note from which Naosuke learns that Osode was his younger sister. For the shame of this, as well as for the killing of his former master, he commits suicide.

Act 5 Edit

Iemon, still haunted by the ghost of Oiwa, flees to an isolated mountain retreat. There he rapidly descends into madness as his dreams and reality begin to merge and Oiwa's haunting intensifies. The act closes with Yomoshichi slaying Iemon out of both vengeance and compassion.

Nanboku incorporated two sensational and real-life murders into Yotsuya Kaidan, combining fact and fiction in a manner that resonated with audiences. The first involved two servants who had murdered their respective masters. They were caught and executed on the same day. The second murder was from a samurai who discovered his concubine was having an affair with a servant. The samurai had the faithless concubine and servant nailed to a wooden board and thrown into the Kanda River.

Yotsuya Kaidan's popularity is often accounted for by the way it fit the mood of its time, [1] as well as its use of universal themes. The Bunsei era was a time of social unrest, and the repressed position of women in society was severe. The 100 exchange of power for powerlessness was something audiences could relate to. Oiwa went from a delicate victim to a powerful avenger, while Iemon transforms from tormentor to tormented.

Also, Oiwa is much more direct in her vengeance than Okiku, another popular kabuki ghost, and she is much more brutal. This added level of violence thrilled audiences, who were seeking more and more violent forms of entertainment.

In addition, the performance of Yotsuya Kaidan was filled with fantastic special effects, with her ruined face projecting magnificently from an onstage lantern, and her hair falling out in impossible amounts.

Yotsuya Kaidan paired the conventions of kizewamono "raw life play", which looked at the lives of non-nobles, and kaidanmono "ghost play". [1]

Oiwa is an onryō, a ghost who seeks vengeance. Her strong passion for revenge allows her to bridge the gap back to Earth. She shares most of the common traits of this style of Japanese ghost, including the white dress representing the burial kimono she would have worn, the long, ragged hair and white/indigo face that marks a ghost in kabuki theater.

There are specific traits to Oiwa that set her apart physically from other onryou. Most famous is her left eye, which droops down her face due to poison given her by Iemon. This feature is exaggerated in kabuki performances to give Oiwa a distinct appearance. She is often shown as partially bald, another effect of the poison. In a spectacular scene in the kabuki play, the living Oiwa sits before a mirror and combs her hair, which comes falling out due to the poison. This scene is a subversion of erotically-charged hair combing scenes in kabuki love plays. [3] The hair piles up to tremendous heights, achieved by a stage hand who sits under the stage and pushes more and more hair up through the floor while Oiwa is combing.

Oiwa is supposedly buried at a temple, Myogyo-ji, in Sugamo, a neighborhood of Tokyo. The date of her death is listed as February 22, 1636. [4] Several productions of Yotsuya Kaidan, including television and movie adaptations, have reported mysterious accidents, injuries and even deaths. [ citation needed ] Prior to staging an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan it is now a tradition for the principal actors and the director to make a pilgrimage to Oiwa's grave and ask her permission and blessing for their production. [5] This is considered especially important of the actor assuming the role of Oiwa.

Sadako Yamamura from the film Ring is a clear homage to Oiwa. Her final appearance is a direct adaptation of Oiwa, including the cascading hair and drooping, malformed eye. [6] Also in Ju-on when Hitomi is watching the television, the television presenter is morphed into a woman with one small eye and one large eye- possibly a reference to Oiwa. [ citation needed ]

Being a popular Kabuki play, Yotsuya Kaidan soon became a popular subject for ukiyo-e artists as well. [6] In 1826, the same year the play opened at Sumiza Theater in Osaka, Shunkosai Hokushu produced The Ghost of Oiwa. She is recognizable by her drooping eyes and partial baldness.

An unusual image featuring a still-living Oiwa was depicted as one of the New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

Katsushika Hokusai created perhaps the most iconic image of Oiwa, in his series One Hundred Ghost Stories, in which he drew the face of her angry spirit merged with a temple lantern. Shunkosai Hokuei made a visual quotation of Hokusai's design in the illustration above, including Iemon as he turns to meet the apparition, drawing his sword. [6] The lantern scene is a favorite, also being carved into netsuke. [7] This image of Oiwa appears to give Akari Ichijou a cup of tea in her victory pose in the arcade game The Last Blade.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi illustrated the scene at Hebiyama, showing a still-lantern-headed Oiwa coming for Iemon, surrounded by snakes and smoke.

The first film adaptation was made in 1912, and it was filmed some 18 times between 1913 and 1937. A notable adaptation was Shimpan Yotsuya Kaidan by Itō Daisuke, one of the foremost Japanese directors of his time.

A 1949 adaptation, The New Version of the Ghost of Yotsuya (Shinshaku Yotsuya kaidan), [8] by Kinoshita Keisuke removed the ghostly elements and presented Oiwa as an apparition of her husband's guilty psyche. [9] It was also known as The Phantom of Yotsuya.

The Shintoho studio produced Nobuo Nakagawa's 1959 Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan), [10] which is often considered by critics to be the finest screen adaptation of the story. Toho produced a version of Ghost of Yotsuya in 1965 directed by Shirō Toyoda and starring Tatsuya Nakadai that was released as Illusion of Blood abroad. [11] In 1994, Kinji Fukasaku returned to the Kabuki roots and combined the stories of Chūshingura and Yotsuya Kaidan into the single Crest of Betrayal. [9]

There have also been adaptations on television. Story 1 of the Japanese television drama Kaidan Hyaku Shosetsu was a version of Yotsuya Kaidan, [12] and episodes 1–4 of Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, a 2006 anime television series, were also a retelling of the story.

By tradition, production crews adapting the story for film or stage visit Oiwa's gravesite in Myogyoji Temple in Sugamo, Toshima-ku, Tokyo to pay their respects, as an urban legend states that injuries and fatalities will befall the cast if they do not. [ citation needed ]

Some critics have identified loose connections between the story of Oiwa and the plot of the Ju-On films. [13]

5. The Rattling Bridge

It’s hard to sleep when your house is on the path of the road to hell. A man and his family see a nightly parade of ghosts making their final journey.

In the village of Ozaka in the province of Hida (Modern day Gifu prefecture) there lived a man named Kane’emon. In front of his house was an old wooden suspension bridge that lead across a mountain valley to the neighboring village.

One night, while Kane’emon was in his house, he heard the distinct rattling sound of someone crossing the bridge, accompanied by whispering voices. Making the crossing was far too dangerous at night, so Kane’emon rushed out of his house to warn the travelers whoever they might be. He saw nothing.

This continued for night after night, always the rattling of the bridge and the whispering. On some nights he even heard cries of sorrow and people weeping.

Unsure of what to do, Kane’emon consulted a fortune teller who told him that what he was hearing was a parade of the dead on their way to Tachiyama (Modern day Toyama prefecture). It was known that there were several entrances to Hell located in Tachiyama and that the mojya (亡者 dead people) must have recently discovered his bridge as an expedient path.

Hearing that, Kane’emon resolved to move his entire household as far away from the bridge as possible, and also arranged to have a memorial service held at the bridge, praying to ease the sentence of those poor spirits cast into Hell. He had a permanent memorial posted at the bridge, and from that time no more strange sounds were heard. However, that bridge is still known to this day by the name of Gatagata Bashi, meaning Rattling Bridge.

Translator’s Note:

Another short yurei tale for Halloween. This story of the Gatagata Bashi comes from Masasumi Ryūsaikanjin’s 1853 kaidanshu Kyoka Hyakumonogatari (狂歌百物語 100 Tales of Kyoka Poetry), where it appeared under the much longer name of “The Sound of the Dead Traveling to Tachiyama Hell as They Crossed the Suspension Bridge.” (立山地獄へ向かう亡者たちが境に架けられた橋の上をわたる音) It has been collected in several kaidanshu and yurei books over the years. Although it refers to小坂, there are old bridges across Japan colloquially called Gatagata Bashi with “gatagata” being an onomonopia for the sound of rattling wooden boards.

Many of these Gatagata Bashi have legends attached. Bridges—being a method of spanning boundaries—are often found in yokai and yurei tales. In many of these cases the nickname of “gatagata bashi” was applied first, and then an appropriate legend dreamed up to add some romance to the name. This one with the parade of the dead making their way to Hell is one of the best.

The Cursed Ghost Head of the Samurai

Tokyo, Japan, is a thrumming Megapolis known throughout the world for its high tech veneer, neon streetscapes full of high rise buildings, and throngs of people tirelessly swarming about the never sleeping streets. With such a modern and well developed visage, it may seem hard to believe that this vibrant metropolis could be home to spooky old ghost stories, yet one bustling area of the city has long been purportedly home to the spirit of a vengeful samurai warrior whose head refused to die and whose spirit wrought destruction and misfortune upon all who had wronged him.

To fully understand how a samurai ghost could find its way into one of the most metropolitan and technologically advanced cities in the world it is important to remember that Tokyo was not always the city it is today. It was long the site of vicious feudal conflict and bloodshed and the city’s history is soaked with the blood of warriors. It was during one such tumultuous period of Tokyo’s violent early history in the 10th century Heian period that a powerful and rebellious samurai by the name of Taira no Masakado rose up to try and make a name for himself. It would be a legacy that would lead to one of the creepiest haunting cases the Tokyo region had ever seen.

Masakado was born into the Kanmu Heishi, the clan of Taira which was descended from Emperor Kanmu, sometime between 800 and 900 AD. Born into privilege, Masakado was nevertheless rebellious, headstrong, and abrasive to those around him. His troubles began with family disputes, when Masakado’s uncles tried to steal portions of his land upon the death of his father. Since inheritance laws were not firmly established at the time, it mostly turned into a free for all, with the uncles gathering a force of warriors to ambush and kill Masakado. Unfortunately for them, Masakado proved to be truly formidable in battle, single handedly defeating the ambush to send them scurrying back to where they’d come. Masakado’s revenge was furious and merciless. He subsequently descended upon his relative’s lands, burning and demolishing everything in his path as well as brutally killing thousands.

The dispute was brought to the emporor, but Masakado was able to avoid persecution by invoking laws at the time which he argued he had not broken. When the court found that he had remained within the law and had offered good reasons for his decidedly harsh actions, he was subsequently pardoned and given amnesty by the emperor Suzaku. This would not be the end of Masakado’s familial conflicts. Other relatives, including his own father-in-law and cousin, attacked him and were once again driven back by his battle prowess. Howling for revenge, Masakado raised a fighting force to invade their lands in Hitachi province. In the end, Masakado eventually forcefully acquired eight different provinces, all the while arguing that his military actions were all within his legal rights that he had been granted.

Although the nobles of the time condemned his actions, there was not much they could realistically do. Further complicating matters was the fact that the peasants of his conquered lands adored Masakado. Whereas they had been previously treated with disdain and abuse by their rulers, the peasants were treated justly under the reign of Masakado, which caused them to see him as somewhat of a savior. He had also gained legendary status as a fierce and skilled warrior who could not be defeated in battle, which caused all those who would oppose him to fear and avoid conflict with Masakado. The government, which was at the time based in Kyoto, grew increasingly concerned by this powerful, headstrong loose cannon with his new kingdom and masses of loyal peasant followers. It was widely believed that Masakado meant to expand his domain or even proclaim himself the new emperor of Japan. They were right to be worried, because soon the new unruly ruler was soon doing exactly that making bold claims to being the new emperor of all of Japan.

The emperor in Kyoto did not take kindly to the rumors he was hearing of an uprising to the north. Masakado was deemed a rebel and a traitor, and a hefty bounty was placed on his head. A formidable force, including some of Masakado’s own relatives and one of his closest allies, Fujiwara no Hidesato, mobilized to march forth to the Kanto region and bring back the head of the rogue samurai. In 940 AD, they caught up to the rebels in the province of Shimosa and mercilessly mounted a night raid. Masakado’s well trained army fought valiantly but in the end they were outnumbered almost 10 to 1, and fell before the onslaught. Masakado himself was killed by an arrow through the head, after which his head was removed and sent to Kyoto where it was to be displayed as a warning to anyone who would similarly oppose the emperor.

This is around the time the spookier and more paranormal elements of the story come into play where things become truly bizarre. The decapitated head of Masakado was indeed brought to Kyoto, but it was quickly noticed that it did not decompose as usual and did not draw any flies. It remained supple and much as it had been in life, and possessed eyes that seemed to be not the gaze of a dead man, but almost thoughtful and contemplative. Even months after being kept on display, the head was said to have not decomposed at all, still looking the same as the day it had been removed. Indeed, the head purportedly went through gradual changes, such as developing a snarled countenance and eyes that looked fiercer by the day.

It was around this time that Masakado’s head was said to have started speaking. Every night, the disembodied head would call out into the darkness, screaming for someone to bring it its body so that it could continue to fight. One night, the head became tired of merely imploring anyone within earshot for its body. It is reported to have begun glowing with an eerie light before floating up into the air, after which the head went shooting into the night. The flying, screeching head eventually fell to earth in a fishing village called Shibazaki, where it landed in an area that to this day is known as Masakado no Kubizuka, or ‘The Hill of Masakado’s Head.’ The head was found by wary locals who cleaned it off and buried it. A shrine was subsequently built over the burial site. This shrine was to become ground zero for various ghostly phenomena.

Not long after Masakado’s decapitated, flying head was buried, the burial site began to experience disturbances such as violent tremors and inexplicable glowing lights. In addition, the ghost of a faceless samurai was alleged to wander about the nearby town frightening locals. The concerned villagers prayed to put the spirit at rest, and a stone monument and headstaone was erected in honor of the fallen samurai. For a time the disturbances and sightings of the apparition seemed to abate for awhile until a temple was built nearby by the Tendai Buddhist sect. This apparently upset the dormant Masakado, and a string of natural disasters, disease, and accidents is said to have befallen the area shortly after the new temple was erected.

In the early 1300s, a terrible plague befell Edo and there was a great amount of death, all of which was attributed to the vengeful spirit of Masakado. To appease the angered spirit, a ritual was enacted to move him to Kanda Myojin shrine, a more prestigious shrine where it was hoped that making the dead samurai into a major deity would calm him down and put an end to the suffering. It seemed to work, and the plague subsided for awhile. When emperor Meiji visited the shrine in 1874, however, it was deemed to be unacceptable that an enemy of the Imperial family should be revered so much and Masakado’s deity status was revoked, whereupon he was once again moved to a smaller, less prestigious shrine. The stone monument that had been initially erected to appease the dead samurai remained where it was.

Disaster struck again in 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, laying waste to the region with tremors and ensuing, widespread fires. The Ministry of Finance building, which had been erected near Masakado’s resting area, was razed to the ground. The ministry went about searching the mound where the samurai’s head was said to be buried, but nothing was found. The hill where the head had been interred was leveled and a temporary Finance Ministry building was built on the site. It was to prove to be an unfortunate decision. Many employees, as many as 14, met untimely demises under suspicious circumstances, including the Finance Minister himself at the time, Seiji Hayami. Other employees of the new building fell mysteriously ill or had freak accidents at their workplace over the years, with the most common type of injury oddly happening to the feet and the legs of the unfortunate victims. The building quickly accrued a reputation as being cursed by the spiteful spirit of Taira no Masakado. The ministry ended up removing the building from the premises and from 1928 began holding annual purification rituals in an attempt to somehow calm down the furious ghost of the samurai.

When World War II began, the government became too tied up in other matters to be concerned about putting long dead spirits of samurai at ease. However, Masakado’s distaste at being ignored apparently reared up when in 1940, precisely 1,000 years after the samurai’s death, a freak lightning bolt struck the new Ministry of Finance building that had been erected nearby and led to a fire that engulfed and destroyed the building as well as several other government structures. Subsequently, a stone monument was once again put up among great fanfare in honor of the fallen samurai Taira no Masakado, and the ministry changed the location of its offices. This new monument stands in Tokyo’s Otemachi district to this day.

Masakado’s angry spirit continued to loom over the area well after World War II. Following the war, in 1945, American occupying forces took control of the land where the fallen samurai’s spirit was held and went about leveling the land in order to make space for parking military vehicles. Almost immediately, the project was beset by a string of weird accidents and setbacks. The bizarre accidents culminated in a bulldozer inexplicably flipping over as it prepared to raze Masakado’s stone monument, killing the driver. Local officials went through great efforts to explain the historical significance of the site and made pleas to the military to halt construction on the sacred site. The US military left part of the parking lot unfinished and eventually cancelled the construction project. The land was turned over to the Japanese government in 1961. This seemed to put the samurai spirit at rest once again until the area underwent development in the late 60s, which perhaps by this time unsurprisingly led to the specter of freak accidents and illnesses befalling workers, as well as various reports of a mysterious shadowy figure appearing in photographs taken near the site. Locals began twice monthly purification rituals in order to restrain the restless spirit. In 1984, Taira no Masakado’s spirit was officially reinstated to deity status.

The ancient curse continued to haunt the city well into the 20th century, with various disasters being blamed on the samurai’s fury. One of the more bizarre incidents to be attributed to the ghost of Taira no Masakado was a curse said to hang heavy over production of a fantasy film called Teito Monogatari, which tells the story of a villain seeking to destroy Tokyo by conjuring up Masakado’s spirit. The production met serious setbacks with various accidents and illnesses striking down crew and actors. The cursed production became so infamous that to this day it has become customary for anyone who attempts to bring the character of Taira no Masakado to the small or big screen to first conduct purifications rituals and pay respects at the dead samurai’s grave in order to appease the spirit.

Taira no Masakado’s monument in Otemachi, Tokyo

To this day, the sinister curse of Taira no Masakado is well known and feared by locals. The area where the grave and monument are held have come a long way since their humble beginnings. Otemachi, where the shrine housing the samurai’s spirit currently lies, has transformed into a bustling financial district of high rise buildings and soaring skyscrapers. Among some of the most prime real estate in Tokyo, and just a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace, the unassuming Kanda-Myojin shrine and plot of land where Masakado’s head is said to be buried has remained untouched, and is maintained by an organization of businesses and volunteers who seek to preserve it. Even in this modern megapolis of burgeoning technology and science, local businesses and workers remain wary of the vengeful samurai. Nearby businesses continue to hold purification rituals to calm Masakado’s spirit, a festival is held every May in the samurai’s honor, and it is widely believed to be bad luck to turn one’s back on the shrine or to face it head on.

Tokyo is one of the largest, most advanced cities in the world, yet even in this concrete jungle of glittering skyscrapers and neon, dark, ancient curses from the past can dwell. Whether the curse of Taira no Masakado is real or merely superstition and menacing folklore, it is testament to the curious fact that even a modern metropolis that prides itself on being a frontier of science and technology can be held under the shadow of supernatural evil from the past.

Kwaidan was the last short story collection published during Hearn’s lifetime, and is arguably his horror opus. He characterized “kwaidan” as “stories and studies of strange things” an epithet that functions as the book’s subtitle and a pithy synopsis of his 14-year life in Japan.

Kwaidan was Hearn’s “ghostly sketches” (as he often referred to them) at their most sophisticated: melding specters and spirits with the subtlety of Japanese aesthetics and the groundbreaking science of the Western world at the turn of the 20th century. The tales are also penned in direct and concise prose, shedding the purple language, which colored his earlier work.


“Mujina” – an old word referring to Japanese badgers or raccoon dogs, and occasionally to shapeshifting ghosts – is short, sharp and spooky, typifying Kwaidan’s style. It takes place on a bank by the old Akasaka Road in Tokyo, where a merchant happens across a form of yokai recurring in Japanese folklore, the Noppera-bo (faceless ghost).

“Then that O-jochu [honorable damsel] turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand—and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,” writes Hearn, conjuring up the kind of creepy surrealism we’d now associate with Studio Ghibli.

A Dead Secret

In “A Dead Secret” we see another theme recurring in Japanese horror stories and particularly in Hearn’s writings: a mother who dies, only to return in the form of an apparition. Hearn was said to be haunted for life by his mother’s abandonment, and much of his later work shows a futile longing she’d one day return.

The story also speaks of love affairs and hidden truths factors which equally shadowed Hearn’s childhood. “The letter was burned,” he writes. “It was a love-letter written to O-Sono in the time of her studies at Kyoto. But the priest alone knew what was in it and the secret died with him.”

The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi

Like all supernaturalists, Hearn believed entire places and regions were haunted, such as the Straits of Shimonoseki, where the old Heike clan’s ghosts were said to roam. The tale of the blind bard Hoichi takes place here, seven hundred years prior to Hearn’s arrival in Japan.

The titular bard is lured into playing his biwa for fallen Heike warriors in the temple cemetery each night, before some monastic meddling and sword-cleaving revenge earn a new nickname for the ill-fated protagonist: Mimi-nashi-Hoichi (“Hoichi the Earless”). It’s a classic tale of Japanese history colliding with myth, which is both Hearn and his Kwaidan in their elements.

For those wishing to learn more about Lafcadio Hearn and his contribution to Japan, a visit to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Shimane Prefecture is highly recommended. For further reading, we also recommend Donald Richie’s “Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan” and Paul Murray’s “ A Fantastic Journey: the Life and Literature of Lafcadio Hearn.”

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