Ghosts and Demons of Japanese Folklore
Scaring ourselves and interacting with the supernatural differs depending on the culture of origin.
The phantom is an image that refuses to go away: it’s an absence from a place unknown and who isn’t where it ought to be. In the west and in the east, we identify ghosts with the spirits of dead people, especially if the death occurred in a violent or painful context. And despite our religious beliefs, death is also a social construct, and ghosts – in some metaphorical sense – can be understood as fixed ideas of the collective imagination that refuse to leave.
The mythological characters of Japanese folklore have arrived in the west primarily through horror movies (like The Rings) and through manga and anime. But traditional stories can likewise instill fear, and with an air that’s yet utterly terrifying by American standards. This includes some ghosts with noble lineages from the history of Japan, and those who represent a presence inseparable from Japanese historical sites. Although many of these ghostly figures were involved with mortal dangers in their legends of origin, their representations and the humanizing details of their personalities have become humorous, as with the figure of “the Coco” and other figures aimed mostly at scaring children.
Some of the most frequently recurring entities in Japanese folklore and entertainment are:
These are shape-changing demons who often take the form of animals like cats, and who are generally destructive. The word means “changing thing” and has a meaning similar to the word “beast.”
These are demons or ogres with humanoid forms. They can take almost any size and shape but some are described as gigantic, and they have distinctive horns on their heads. The word Oni 「鬼」 in Chinese literally means “ghost” and in the beginning they were invisible, though with time, the meaning of the word has changed.
The “celestial dog” is a type of demon thought to be part bird, part dog and part human. Representations from the 14th century are drawn with beaks and wings, but more recent versions are represented with masks or very long noses. According to some legends these demons were corrupt monks who kept people from Buddhism, and so in some religious festivals offerings are still necessary to keep them at bay.
The “Lady of the Snow” is one of the most famous legends of Japan. She is a tall, beautiful woman who appears only during snowstorms. Some versions of the story have her appearing nude or in others, wearing a long kimono. At times she has legs and sometimes not, but she never leaves traces of her movements across the snow. A glance from her can cripple those who see it, and if you look, she’ll draw the life from you through your mouth.
One of the most famous yurei is Oiwa, the vengeful spirit of a young woman betrayed by her husband. His name was Yotsuya Kaidan and she was married to a ronin (a Samurai free-agent) who wanted to get rid of her to marry a younger wealthier woman. To this end, Yotsuya was given a poisonous cosmetic cream that disfigured her face. Death followed (though some versions portray the death as more accidental), but not before the samurai and the new consort could be cursed. The ghost appeared, everywhere, and eventually everyone who had conspired against her was driven crazy.
The “Lady of the cut mouth” is an urban legend originating in the late 1970s. Reportedly, this yurei appears wearing a mask or a surgeon’s mask and asks children if they think the mask is beautiful. If they answer yes, she removes the mask to reveal an enormous mouth without corners, a gash cut from ear to ear. She may then return to ask again, if you think she’s beautiful. You can escape with a neutral response such as “you look good” or by offering candy. However, if upon seeing the cut mouth, you answer that she looks beautiful, she will cut your own mouth such that you’re now just like her.
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