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A Japanese painting of a head of a ghost

5 Japanese Horror Stories (Illustrated by Hokusai)


A collection of fascinating, little-known works by one of Japan’s greatest masters.

About to break, a huge wave emerges from a dark sea. In the background, against a metallic sky, stands the legendary Mount Fuji. The obvious next step is to name the work: The Great Wave off Kanagawa by ukiyo- e master, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). The image, which has inspired books and other works of art for nearly two centuries is undoubtedly the artist’s best-known work. (He also authored these drawing lessons.) Though less attention has been paid to most of Hokusai’s other works, a collection of five illustrations created for a book of ghost stories and legends while Hokusai was in his 70s is well worth a look.

The collection of stories, Hyaku Monogatari (One Hundred Ghost Stories), was compiled around 1830. Why Hokusai illustrated but five of them rather than the 100 that’d been planned is unknown. They remain surprising and fascinating because, on this occasion, the artist departed from the Japanese landscape (one of his most recurrent motifs) to illustrate the universe of Japanese ghosts, demons, ghosts and monsters.

This series of stories emerged from a tradition known as Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, a periodic meeting at which attendees told 100 horror stories from both Japanese folklore and from their own experiences. Each of the storytellers carried a candle that went out once the story was finished. Little by little, the darkness grew and when the final candle was extinguished, a spirit was said to appear.

The Dish Mansion at Banchō or The Sarayashiki

A Japanese painting of a snake with human head.

Legend has it that one day a servant, Okiku, accidentally broke a valuable Korean plate from her master’s collection. Furious, the master threw her into a well where the girl died. In 18th-century Japan, such wells were home to a kind of worm covered in thread-like hairs. These were believed to be the incarnation of the young woman, still covered in the remnants of the clothes that had been used to tie her down. They were even called Okiku mushi (Okiku worms).

The Laughing Demoness – Warai-hannya

The Laughing Demoness by Hosukai

A cannibal who laughed, he was born of the union of two monsters: Hannya, whose jealousy transformed her into a horned demon, and Yamanba, a monster who lives in the mountains and feeds on kidnapped children.

The Ghost of Oiwa – Oiwa-san

The Ghost of Oiwa by Hokusai

This story tells of the young Oume who fell in love with Tamiya Iemon, a samurai who was already married. Her friends tried to kill the wife, Oiwa, with a poisoned face cream. Badly disfigured after using the cream, she lost her mind when she was then abandoned by Iemon. In a fit of rage, Oiwa stumbled on a sword causing her death. Before dying, she cursed her husband. Thereafter, she took varying forms (including a paper lamp) to torment her cruel husband.

Kohada Koheiji

Kohada Koheiji by Hokusai

A ghost story based on real events, this one tells of Kohada Koheiji who returns from the dead after suffering his wife’s infidelity and his subsequent murder. He torments her infidel consort and new lover. And in the image, he looks out from behind a net to spy on his murderers asleep in their beds.

Obsession – Shûnen

Obsession by Hokusai

The snake in this image represents excessive jealousy, an emotion which, in Japanese thinking, can survive even death. The animal surrounds a Buddhist tablet usually placed in the house of someone who has died. The bowl of water, here decorated with a swastika, a Buddhist symbol of good auspices, seems to be an offering for good fortune.

Images: Public Domain

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