Things to Do in Japan When You’re Dead

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.

Other sources I consulted for this post:
Mangajin #40: Japanese Ghosts
Japanese Ghosts and Spirits
About.com: Japanese Ghosts
5 Types of Japanese Ghosts

This entry was posted in Buddhism, Dragon Quest, Japanese, Mario, Mythology, Religion, Shinto, Video Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Things to Do in Japan When You’re Dead

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Oh man, where to start? The other super-famous yurei besides Okiku is Oiwa-san. She’s so dangerous and the superstitions around her are so strong that even hundreds of years after her death, anyone from Japan writing a book or a play or a movie about her has to visit her tomb and make an offering. Otherwise, she’ll cause all sorts of accidents to the theater group or film crew, including deaths. Probably the only superstition stronger than that of Oiwa-san is Tutankhamen’s curse.

    Obake, bakemono, or youkai (the last word is influenced by the Chinese term yaoguai) encompass the yurei, making obake “undead” in the sense that werewolves are usually lumped in with the undead in Western mythology. Obake or bakemono generally refers to the monsters and creatures that shapeshift or have transformed in some way from a more natural form–and that includes the tanuki (“raccoons” from Pocky & Rocky and Mario’s Tanooki Suit) and kitsune (foxes, some of them feral animals and some of them servants of the god Inari). Youkai means basically “supernatural phenomena”, so it even includes things that aren’t actual monsters or ghosts, like the azuki-arai, which is simply the sound of someone washing beans by the river.

    • Nathan says:

      If someone in another country wanted to write about Oiwa-san, would they also have to visit the tomb? That could involve a lot of extra costs for an American.

      • vilajunkie says:

        I think Americans are safe because Oiwa was born before the Japanese knew the US existed. :) Seriously, though, I think there’s some little-mentioned law about yurei that states they can’t leave their place of death/city/country. Oiwa-san seems to be one of the few Japanese supernaturals that can affect a whole country rather than a select area. Okiku never leaves her mansion and the only other major youkai that I know of whose influence affects a whole country was Tamama-no-Mae, a nine-tailed fox spirit who was able to travel through Korea, China, and Japan without breaking her transformation. Most fox spirits can only hold a human form for a short time and might not even get it right, and other nine-tailed foxes, who ARE strong enough to hold a human form, are more interested in Enlightenment than torture and political power.

      • Nathan says:

        It’s fairly common in ghost lore that ghosts are unable to leave the areas where they died (hey, it even featured as a plot point in Beetlejuice), but there always seem to be some exceptions.

        I wonder if there are any nine-tailed foxes in King Dox’s Foxville. Actually, Dragon Quest IV had an area that was called “Foxville” in English translation, and was based on the idea of the fox as a trickster with magic powers.

  2. Pingback: Who Put the Thwomp in the Thwomp-Ba-Domp-Ba-Domp? | VoVatia

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