The dark corners of Japan don’t easily frighten me. I grew up loving the country’s natural landscape so much that I didn’t mind at all getting lost in the shadows of intersections that were lit only by a distant lantern. I embraced the walks into nightfall simply because it was Japan, and I could always find my way to a new treasure or return home.
But the mere thought of a Japanese ghost story stiffens my nerves and makes me dart for the next sunny day.
Because unlike vampires and werewolves with whom we might have a slightly romantic appeal (Penny Dreadful, anyone?), there is no escape from Yuurei, the spirits that do not fall under the "cute" category. These violent beings are driven by onnen 怨念, a Japanese concept that describes the power of intense, excessive emotions to transcend the grave. Whether they seek revenge or atonement of their worldly affairs, they don’t like to R.I.P. until they’ve achieved it. It is also said that their unrest can be caused from lack of a proper funeral, making final formalities even more critical for the living. Did I mention they aren’t cute?
I’m pretty lucky to not have personally seen one while living in Japan, but the image of my sister in a white cloth, steadily approaching me with her long, raven hair and head tilted to one side, was enough to freak me out! In fact, many of Japan’s ghost stories center around women who perished under ill circumstances. Here are some of our favorite #nastywomen.
The story of Okiku goes back to the 1800s and has become a popular one performed in Japanese Kabuki Theater. There are many versions but an early account tells of Okiku, a beautiful maiden servant who lived in the house of a wealthy samurai. The samurai desired her and plotted to trick her into thinking that she had lost one of his family’s ten cherished plates, a crime punishable by death. Distressed, she counts and recounts the plates but can only find nine, and guiltily turns to the samurai who demands that she become his lover in repayment. When she still refuses, he becomes so enraged that he throws her down into a well to her death.
Image from a 19th Century scroll painting of Okiku, depicted by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Every night the samurai would hear her voice counting from the well, "1...2...3..." all the way to nine, then shrieking at the missing tenth plate. After endless nights, he is driven mad and takes his own life.
Those unfamiliar with the plight of Sadako sleep more soundly at night with their TV on. Her fate is told most popularly through The Ring movie franchise in which a young girl with psychic powers is killed by her doctor and takes vengeance through a cursed video tape. Anyone who watches the video immediately receives a phone call telling them they have just seven days to live. The only way to escape death is by showing the video to someone else, thereby passing the curse… Note: A copy of the video doesn’t work.
The name, Sadako, once popular for Japanese girls but now associated with ghosts, can be translated to Sada (chaste) and -ko (child). Her characterization is quite similar to Okiku, also a maiden when she was killed, and also depicted with long, black hair and a white dress. There is a reason for this. In Ancient Japan, women wore their hair up while they were living, and in death, their locks were let down to flow more freely against the backdrop of the white kimono in which they were ultimately dressed. Even colors have symbolic meanings in Japan, and one should not wear a fully white kimono because it is associated with death.
I’ve been acquainted with two Hanako’s, and thankfully, they both embody traits of their namesake, Hana (flower), rather than that of vicious girl-in-the-toilet Hanako. I’m in true fear of Hanako because she likes to haunt the most uncomfortable, vulnerable place--the girl’s restroom.
It's unclear why anyone would want to see her but some do. She must be summoned: Stand very close to the door of the third stall, knock three times, and ask, “Are you there, Hanako-san?” She will respond in a soft lilting voice, "I'm here." If you choose to enter the stall, the door will immediately slam behind you and a little girl in a red skirt will appear.
Although these ghost stories are meant to spook, they do have origins in truth. Travel to Japan to find them, and include a stop at Okiku’s haunted well at Himeji Castle. Or visit one of the WWII Battleground sites in Okinawa, and you might feel the spirits of those who tragically plunged to their deaths to escape war. But know that your curiosity can disturb and invoke the powerful emotions of these Yuurei, and whatever shape or form they take, no mortal instrument will save you.