Weird Wednesdays: A look at Japanese ghosts

You want a scary ghost for once? Try these Japanese ghosts. Welcome to Weird Wednesdays. (Pedro Szekely/Flickr, Creative Commons)

If you ask me, I think American ghosts are pretty lame.

“Ooo, creepy doll. I’m so scared. Goodness me, it’s a weird old man dressed in an ironically blood-stained rabbit onesie. Saints preserve us.”

Now if you really want to get into some creepy territory, take a leaf from Japan’s book. From grime lickers to grinning ghouls, Japan takes the cake with its awesomely-weird spooks.

Let’s start with some culture, though Japan has several official religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, the Shinto belief system is still predominant in several regions and families.

In Shinto, many of the kami (gods) are based in nature. Trees might have a shrine beneath them in order to appease the spirit within. A small village might give a yearly tribute to the local river god. Like the ancient Greeks, the Japanese believed that anything that could have divine energy—a mountain, a plant, a forest or an animal—may contain, or even be, a god.

Even in the modern day, Shinto is still practiced. Towns will often have a shrine, which is tended to by Shinto priests, priestesses and shrine-maidens (who, if you are to believe anime, are universally short, squeaky and caught up in wacky after-school hijinks.)

Which brings us back to the ghosts. In Shinto, when a person dies, their spirit goes to the land of the dead Yomi-no-kuni, which is presided over by the lord of the dead, Susanoo-no-o, the god of seas and storms. However, if a person died a violent death—such as being murdered, betrayed, unjustly executed, suicide, childbirth or stepping on a Lego— the spirit would come back and make life miserable for the people in the living world as a ghost, called yōkai.

You can encounter several types of yōkai in Japanese lore, depending on the region, what the ghost died of, and even the time of year that you happen to be caught in a dark alleyway at night.

They’re often tied to revenge. One story tells of a dead wife’s spirit who, seething with rage after seeing her husband remarry, appears on the wedding night to tear off the head of the bride.

Another yōkai story, which began to circulate in the late 1970’s, tells of a ghost-woman who has been mutilated by her husband, her mouth slit on each side in a ghastly smile. It’s said her ghost will approach young men, and ask:

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

If he answers yes, the ghost will supposedly slash the victim’s face, cackling, “Now you’re pretty too!” If he answers no, then she’ll just plain ol’ stab him to death.

The solution? Either throw money or candy at her, which will buy you time to run, or say you’re running late for an appointment. Supposedly, she’ll apologize and send you on your way. How considerate!

Vengeful yōkai will often have a similar appearance: a white kimono or dress, stringy black hair and a noticeable lack of feet. Sound familiar? This stereotype was carried over into two horror films based on Japanese ghosts: “The Ring” and “The Grudge.”

Now, if Glasgow smiles and creepy little girls crawling out of your TV don’t scare you, the Akaname might—if you’re a clean-freak.

This yōkai supposedly came at night, while the household was asleep. With long, terrible claws, it would creep in through the window, stalk through the house, open her gaping maw and…

Lick the filth off the bathroom walls. It wouldn’t do anything else, like eat babies or whatever, it just… licked the walls. Of course, this is gross, so people would clean their bathrooms and put up charms to keep the ghost away. All in all, it was pretty innocuous.

My personal favorite, though, has to be the gashadokuro, which is pretty much a big-ass skeleton.

Made up of the bones of those who died of starvation, in battle or were simply never buried, these yōkai would wander around in the dead of night, snatching up lonely travelers out on the roads and chomping off their heads like gummi bears to drink their blood. A way to detect the skeleton would be to listen for its rattling bones and run, before you were forcibly exsanguinated.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on for days about the spirits of Japan, but I’ll just leave you with some advice: Always carry cash, clean your bathroom and, if you hear rattling while you’re walking down Fairfield Way at 1 a.m, catch the bus home. See you next week!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.