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Dreaded
and Revered:

The terrifying apparitions of
Japanese lore continue to
haunt pop culture
today.

From cursed VHS tapes to wall-crawling terrors, Japanese-inspired horror has had a powerful influence on film and television for decades. But the origins of these frightening tales run much deeper and further than most Western audiences expect.

“Ghosts and Japan are intimately intertwined,” says Zack Davisson, a scholar of Japanese folklore and author of Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost. “Yūrei are a consistent and defining theme throughout the history of Japanese civilization. It is almost impossible to separate Japan from its ghosts.”

That influence continues to find its way to Hollywood as well. The new season of AMC’s chilling historical anthology series, The Terror, takes viewers inside the horrors of an internment camp, where mysterious deaths and malevolent forces besiege a community of Japanese-Americans. “Anywhere you go, it follows you,” warns George Takei’s character, a retired fisherman named Yamato-san, of the supernatural threat.

The paranormal roots of Japanese horror can be traced to kaidan, or traditional ghost stories designed to both entertain and send a moral message. The Japanese have been spinning yarns about ghosts, known as yūrei, from the earliest periods of their history.

To understand this connection between Japan and its ghosts, one must first understand the relationship the Japanese have with their departed. The religious traditions found in Buddhism greatly influenced people’s ideas of the dead and the afterlife, says Fumiko Jōo, an assistant professor of Asian Studies at Mississippi State University. “It gave the Japanese ideas of life and death, reincarnation, salvation and punishment,” she says.

As did the Shinto religion, adds Davisson. “If you trace back Japanese civilization as far as we can go, you see foundational components of ancestor worship that evolved into what we now call the Shinto religion,” he says.

Yūrei are part of a deep foundational belief that humans carry a god inside them, one that is released upon death and “infused with supernatural power.” If properly honored with the right rituals and care, the spirits will watch over and protect people from misfortune. But if not, or if the spirit has any lingering business, that’s when it is said to manifest as a yūrei in the afterlife.

The spirits are considered a subset of the larger category of yōkai, which encompasses all strange and supernatural beings in Japanese folklore. But to define yūrei simply as “ghosts” would be a generalization, scholars stress. The definition of yūrei has changed over time, intrinsically linked to the period and specific stories from which they derive.

As such, “there isn’t even necessarily agreement on what constitutes a yūrei,” says Keller Kimbrough, a professor of Japanese at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Different versions of the same story can present conflicting explanations.”

For instance, in ancient Japan, yūrei were invisible and formless, Davisson says. During Japan’s Heian period (794 - 1185), they were indistinguishable from human beings. “Most of their use in storytelling from the time comes from a living person interacting with a yūrei and having no idea,” says Davisson.

The legend of the lovelorn Otsuyu is one of the most famous examples. In one version of the tale, a man falls madly in love with a young woman only to discover she was a ghost the entire time.

The prevailing image of yūrei today dates back to Japan’s Edo or Tokugawa period (1603-1868), says Davisson. It's a pale-faced spirit with messy black hair, white burial kimono and no feet. Some experts believe Edo-era Japanese artist Maruyama Ōkyo popularized this depiction when he painted a portrait of his dead lover, a young geisha, that came to him in a vision.

Folklore experts agree that a yūrei’s desire tethers it to the land of the living. That purpose can encompass just about anything, and it’s not always as malicious as movies would have us believe. In other words, their reasons for being don’t just include terrorizing new tenants of a creepy old farmhouse. This drive also determines the form of yūrei the spirit takes in these stories.

“The key part of that desire is that it must be what you feel with your last breath,” Davisson says. “When you die, what did you regret? Did you wish to know love? Did you feel rage at the person killing you? Did you forget to feed the cat?”

If a person dies consumed with rage or feelings of revenge, for example, their soul may become an onryō, or vengeful spirit. In folklore, an onryō is the most powerful creature on the planet. In ancient times, natural disasters were explained as an onryō’s wrath.

“They are wielders of fire, flood and earthquake. Their powers are almost limitless,” says Davisson. “Stories are told of lightning striking in the middle of the Imperial Palace. Another story tells of a young girl who was jilted by her lover and died, and then burned down all of Tokyo in her rage. They can go anywhere, do anything.”

A yūrei’s path to pacification depends on its purpose—and if it seeks closure at all. “If they are lonely, then just hang out with them for a little while. If they want to count plates, well… help them count plates,” muses Davisson. “If they are mad at you then best start to say your goodbyes. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The good news is once they have hit their target, they are gone for good.”

The other option? Performing Buddhist and Shinto rituals in an attempt to placate an angry spirit. In the Heian and early-medieval periods, says Kimbrough, the court would sometimes pacify onryō by giving them posthumous promotions, as in the case of the 12th-century Emperor Sutoku.

As the story goes, Emperor Sutoku died full of ire for the Imperial Court having been banished him, and thus was transformed into an onryō in death. It’s said that his onryō brought vengeance upon the capital, Kyoto, delivering plagues and disasters for years until he was enshrined as a kami, or deity. But even these rituals aren’t always a surefire solution.

Even today, visitors to Japan can see just how interwoven the nation’s culture is with its reverence toward the supernatural or unexplainable. This ranges from whimsically animated spirit worlds on film to the eccentric monsters and ghosts that feature prominently in contemporary artwork, to the yōkai woven into the tales of post-modernist writers.

“It’s impossible to overstate the impact yūrei have had on Japan’s art and culture,” says Davisson, noting its prevalence in Noh and kabuki theater, as well as in cinema and literature. “Japan’s art is inherently haunted. The country has a lineage of ghostly tales stretching back for millennia. And they aren’t going anywhere. No matter what future technology emerges, the ghosts of Japan will be lurking somewhere in the dark corners.”

Jōo has another theory as to why the fascination with ghost stories persists, not just in Japan but around the world: “We cannot experience death, so ghost tales tell us what the dead feel like.”

How much
do you know
about Japanese
ghosts?

  • 1 of 5

    Today, the most recognizable depictions of yūrei in Japan feature:

  • 2 of 5

    Which of these are reasons yūrei might manifest in the afterlife?

  • 3 of 5

    To help keep someone’s spirit from becoming a yūrei after death, you should:

  • 4 of 5

    Onryō are typically characterized by:

  • 5 of 5

    One way to try to pacify an onryō is to:

The Terror: Infamy

will premiere on AMC on August 12, 2019.

learn more