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This Halloween watch out for yūrei of all kinds

by Matt Alt

Special To The Japan Times

Urameshiyā! (うらめしやぁ!)

Oops! Didn’t notice you there. Don’t mind me. I was just practicing my Japanese ghost-call. “Urameshiyā!” is pretty much the standard opening line for any self-respecting Japanese ghost. It’s nonetheless a word that is peculiarly tough to translate, but in a nutshell it means something like “Curse it all!”

You may be wondering why — today of all days — anyone in their right mind would want to conjure up a ghost. Truth be told I’m cheating a little here, because Halloween isn’t really spook season in Japan. That distinction would fall to the summer months, particularly the doldrums of late summer, when the festival of Obon (お盆) is upon us. That is when the lid of jigoku (地獄), as the Japanese call the underworld, blows off, and spirits roam the land of the living for a few weeks. One could think of it as a vacation of sorts for the dead.

The Japanese have all sorts of ways of referring to ghosts. The most fundamental of these terms is yūrei (幽霊). Similar to its English counterpart, it refers to spirits of the dead that refuse to shuffle off this mortal coil for whatever reason. It’s a creepy sort of word as it is generally used to refer to ghosts that intend us harm.

Nobody lives a long life, dies peacefully surrounded by family, and comes back as a yūrei. Yūrei represent the souls of people who died badly, to put it euphemistically. Tokyo’s single most famous yūrei story is “The Horror of Yotsuya,” known in Japanese as “Yotsuya Kaidan” (「四谷怪談 」). It stars Oiwa-san (於岩さん), a faithful wife betrayed by her philandering husband and his mistress. They attempted to poison her, but only succeeded in terribly disfiguring half of her face. Oiwa killed herself while proclaiming a curse (noroi, 呪い) on those who had mistreated her. Her spirit still stalks the streets of Tokyo today, raining misfortune on any who encounter her.

Furious phantoms like Oiwa are driven by a powerful mix of hate, grudge, and vengefulness that can be, somewhat tellingly, summed up in a single Japanese word: onnen (怨念). This is the “fuel” that powers an angry ghost.

There’s actually an even more specific word for an angry ghost: onryō (怨霊). Today the words “yūrei” and “onryō” are used virtually interchangeably, but in times of old onryō referred to a very specific type of soul: those who rebelled against the Emperor and lost.

Japan’s single most famous onryō actually dwells in the center of Tokyo today. His name is Taira no Masakado (平将門).

Masakado was a powerful warlord who in 940 C.E. declared himself the new Emperor. As you might expect, this didn’t sit well with the “old” Emperor. After a series of pitched battles, Imperial forces killed Masakado, taking his namakubi (生首, decapitated head) back to Kyoto as a trophy. According to legend, the moment it was put on display, the head took flight, soaring all the way back to Edo (present-day Tokyo) in search of its missing body. The spot where it fell to earth is still treated as holy ground today: Masakado no Kubizuka (将門の首塚, The Hill of Masakado’s Head), which is right in the Marunouchi district of central Tokyo. Although it occupies some of the city’s most expensive real estate, nobody dares move it for fear of being cursed.

So we have creepy and angry ghosts. You may be wondering how the Japanese refer to spirits of a less dangerous variety. Sorei (祖霊) is the word for the souls of departed ancestors. This is the term used to welcome back, say, a beloved grandmother during Obon. (Unless you want to get some very strange looks, never, ever refer to a relative as a yūrei.) A similar term is eirei (英霊), the soul of a solider slain on the battlefield. Tokyo’s Yasukuni Jinja (靖国神社, Yasukuni Shrine) venerates spirits of this sort.

Some other useful ghost terms include jibaku-rei (地縛霊), which refers to souls that have become, for whatever reason, bound to a specific location. Bōrei (亡霊) is pretty much synonymous with yūrei, minus the negative connotations; it literally means “the soul of a dead person.” Hinotama (火の玉), also variously known as hitodama (人魂), oni-bi (鬼火) and kitsune-bi (狐火) are the ghostly fireballs that flit over cemeteries, similar to “will o’ wisps” in European lore. And shinrei shashin (心霊写真) are what Japanese call “spirit photographs” — pictures purporting to show ghosts or other supernatural phenomena.

But one of the most interesting supernatural phenomena in Japanese folklore is the ikiryō (生霊) — a “living ghost.” While this might seem to be a contradiction, ikiryō are not to be trifled with. The most famous hails from the pages of “Genji Monogatari” (「源氏物語」, “The Tale of Genji”). In it, a beautiful noblewoman named Lady Rokujo (六条御息所)is seized by a jealousy so intense that it literally takes form, rising from her sleeping body at night to stalk her rival for Genji’s affections.

Whether you spend Halloween hunting or avoiding ghosts, boning up on the above terms may come in handy. Just don’t blame me if you have to sleep with the lights on for a while.