For my next post on the afterlife, we turn eastward. Well, eastward from where I am, anyway; I guess I don’t know where you are when you’re reading this. The idea of ancestor worship is one that has shown up in cultures all over the world, but I’m sure I’m not the only one whose mind turns to East Asia in particular when hearing about it. Basically, the belief is that the spirits of a family’s ancestors will continue to influence the lives of that family. In order to keep the spirits on their side, the living have a duty to show veneration to the deceased ancestors. As such, these cultures obviously believed in an afterlife, but their ideas about how it operated don’t seem to have been as well-defined as those of Western cultures. Or maybe they were, and it’s just more difficult to find information on them. People in this area who now practice religions like Christianity and Buddhism will still often worship their ancestors, and I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. I mean, the Catholics venerate saints, right?
While ancestor worship is particularly associated with China, elements of it exist in Japan as well. What’s really interesting in terms of Japanese beliefs in the afterlife, however, are the ghost stories. Japanese folklore describes people becoming ghosts, or yurei, in much the same way that other cultures do, which is that they have unfinished business, and hence cannot entirely leave the world of the living. Often, yurei are the result of a body not receiving the proper funerary rites, and hence the spirit being unable to join its ancestors.
They can also come into existence when a person dies in a violent manner, or are otherwise restless. One of the most famous Japanese ghost stories is that of Okiku, a maid in a samurai’s home who broke one of the owner’s ten antique plates. The samurai killed her in a fit of rage, and she began haunting a well, showing up every night and counting to nine until the man went insane.
From what I’ve seen on the Internet, most of the famous yurei are the souls of women, presumably because women are considered more likely to be driven to their emotions than men. It’s a sexist stereotype, of course, but what do you expect from Japanese mythology? Yurei are depicted in painting and theater as people dressed in white with long hair and no legs. This image stems from Edo traditions, as corpses were traditionally dressed in white, and women’s hair was let down. The first known example of this look comes from Maruyama Okyo’s The Ghost of Oyuki, a painting of a ghost who was presumably Okyo’s mistress when she was still alive.
Yurei are known to stick close to where they died, and often haunt a particular person. There are many other kinds of Japanese spirits that don’t follow these same rules, though, and some of them are really bizarre. Not all of these are really ghosts in the traditional sense, but they tend to get lumped under that general umbrella. In fact, some of them actually ARE umbrellas. The general term for these spirits is Obake, which literally means “transforming thing.” I recommend this entry that I recently came across for some of the weirdest Obake, including spirits that eat filth and lamp oil, as well as murderous strips of cloth.
Learning about these mythical beings helps me understand where some of the monsters in video games might have come from. I remember reading somewhere that the Thwomps from the Mario games were actually inspired by some sort of ghostly beings, but I can’t find that reference now. (EDIT: As I mention here, it’s actually the similar Whomps that are based on Nurikabe.) I also think the Rogue Wispers (Lost Souls in the DS remake) from Dragon Quest IV, weird fiery monsters that are always flustered and rarely do anything, are pretty clearly based on the Hitodama.
On the left, a bunch of DQ4 monsters, with the Rogue Wisper/Lost Soul being the one in the upper right corner. On the right, Toriyama Seiken’s illustration of a hitodama. It actually looks more like a word balloon than a flame, but they do appear to be based on the same bit of folklore.