Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
A Japanese illustration of the inside of a home being visited by spirits

Goryo Shinko, Japan's religion of Ghosts


In response to the disturbances caused by ghosts, Japanese culture emerged with its own religion.

In that empire of symbols that is Japan there was once a religion called Goryo Shinko: the belief that the spirits of those who suffered a violent death caused illnesses and all kinds of disasters. This idea, obviously, indicates that the mental state at the time of death was crucial to determining the fate that the spirit would have: the terrible possibility of becoming a goryo (a vengeful ghost) depended on the mental peace that one enjoyed at the moment of death. The number of political and natural disasters, in fact, was a barometer showing that the majority of the population was vengeful ghosts.

An Illustration of a giant skeleton looking down upon samurai warriors

From the mid-Heain period (794-1185) until its end, when there were famine, plagues, civil wars and any other kind of social instability, the misery was entirely attributed to the goryo and as a result the so-called “religion of ghosts” (goryo shinko) was created in an attempt to placate them. The political powers deemed it fundamental to resolve these issues through what we might call “inter-dimensional diplomacy,” which led to shamanic rituals and for the imperial court to grant noble titles to some of the goryos. In this way it was hoped that the rancorous ghosts would transform into protective spirits that would delimit certain territories or support certain causes. Introducing them into the law, even under the protocol of flattery, was a way of civilizing them.

Painting of ghosts visiting the people of Japan

Those high ranking in power built temples for the most powerful goryo (warriors and nobles of the court) and their rites of placation included offerings or chants of the “sutra of the heart,” which attempted to transform their angry state into one of peace. Consecrated temples still exist to some of those, such as Shimogoryo and Kamigoryo, both in Kyoto. Although the religion of ghosts fell into decline with the arrival of Buddhism, vestiges of this fascinating belief system are still present in modern Japanese culture.

A traditional shinto ritual in a graveyard


Related Articles