The terms ikiryō, or shōryō, seirei, ikisudama (生霊, "living ghost", "eidolon"), in Japanese folk beliefs and fiction, refer to a spirit that leaves the body of a living person and goes to haunt other people or places, sometimes at great distances.

The terms are used in contrast to shiryō, which refers instead to the spirit of a deceased person.

Description of Ikiryō

The popular belief that the human spirit (or soul) can depart from the body has ancient origins, with direct accounts and experiences (hauntings, possessions, out-of-body experiences) reported in anecdotal and fictional texts.

It is said that the vengeful spirits (怨霊 onryō) of the living can inflict curses (祟り tatari) on the object of their vengeful wrath by turning into ikiryō.

It is believed that in the event that the perpetrator feels a sufficient grudge, his soul (or part of it) leaves the body, appearing to the victim to curse or harm him, a concept not so dissimilar to the evil eye.

There are also reports of ikiryō in Buddhist scriptures, where they are described as "living spirits" who, if made to rage, can cast curses, even shortly before their death. Possession is also believed to be another means by which ikiryō can do harm, with the possessed person unaware of the process.

However, according to mythology, ikiryō do not necessarily act out of rancor or revenge; indeed, there are accounts of ikiryō holding no grudge or posing no real threat.

Among the attested examples, sometimes the spirit may leave the body (often right before death) to manifest its presence to loved ones, friends, and/or acquaintances.

History of Ikiryō 

The ikiryō, in this case referred to as ikimitama, makes its appearance in a diary from the Muromachi period, the Chikanaga kyōki (親長卿記), written by Fujiwara no Chikanaga (1419-1497) after his return to the capital in 1470.

The text tells of a Shinto holiday called ikimitama no matsuri, dedicated to the veneration of living spirits. The ceremony, according to the diary, is performed by one of the Emperor's sons on the twenty-first day of the seventh month of 1476, the eighth year of the Bunmei era (1469-1487).

In his 1702 work Nenzan kibun (年山紀聞) Andō Tameaki refers to this diary passage, writing that it must be a ceremony dedicated to the veneration of the ikimitama of the Emperor's son's parents, older brothers, and older sisters, all of whom were living.

He also writes that the ceremony has origins older than the Bunmei era, and is rooted in the veneration of the spirits of the deceased, the same ones venerated in occurrence of the Obon.

He also writes that the ceremony has roots in the veneration of the spirits of the deceased.

Also referring to the same ceremony, Washio Takayasu recounts in his journal Nisuiki (二水記) that a celebration was held by Imperial princes and court dignitaries in 1517, the fourteenth year of the Eishō era (1504-1520), choosing an auspicious day from the eighth to the thirteenth of the seventh month.

Tanikawa Kotosuga (1706-1796) in a passage of his work Wakun no shiori (和詩栞) indicates as a further reference the Shiki monogatari (四季物語, "Tales of the Four Seasons"), written in the twelfth century by the famous Kamo Chōmei,

in which the same ceremony is mentioned in the seventh month, describing it as one of the most important holidays dedicated to the spirits and offerings to them (tamamatsuri), even more important than those at the end of the year.

Tanikawa also adds that the ikimitama-e holiday of his own period (the eighteenth century) derives directly from that described by Kamo Chōmei, and that originally the food given as an offering to the souls of one's living parents was called ikimitama. 

Interestingly, the only difference between the name of the holiday and the name of the food offered is in the writing, composed of different kanji (the Japanese ideograms), 生霊 and 生見玉 or 生身玉 respectively.

In the Kokushi daijiten (國史大辭典), an encyclopedia of Japanese history written in 1908, these three spellings plus a fourth (生御靈) are mentioned.

The author of the entry also writes that the ritual is based on the scriptures of the Buddhist sūtra Avalambana or Ullambana, has uncertain origins but dates back to earlier times when it was celebrated by the people, and only later by the court.

In the fifteenth-century diary Chikamoto nikki (親元日記) first appears as a festival of the military class in the seventh month of the years 1465, 1473, and 1481, while we find it at court first in 1476 thanks to the diary Chikanaga kyōki mentioned earlier, then in 1495, again mentioned in a diary.

The rite, initially performed by the people who visited the place where it was celebrated, is later transformed into a reception by invitation.

In the designated day, ladies dressed in thin silk receive a cup of wine, and subsequently men are called to perform the ceremony with six or seven cups of wine.

Other evidence suggests that the ceremony varied according to the courts and palaces in which it was performed, and that it usually included a banquet and various gifts.

In the Buddhist sūtra Avalambana are found the roots of the ceremony: in fact it is written how Buddha orders that in the seventh month food and beverages should be offered by children for the sake of their parents, in order to assure them rebirth in a paradise of perfect happiness.

Passing through ancestor worship, which is very strong in Japan, this scripture has since been reinterpreted as an offering to the spirits of the parents themselves who are still alive, and explains the gifts and banquet present in the rite.

Ikiryō in Classical literature

In classical literature, Genji monogatari (ca. 1000-1010) recounts a well-known incident of ikisudama (the most archaic reading of the term ikiryō) emerging from Genji's mistress, Dame Rokujō, and tormenting Genji's pregnant wife Aoi no Ue, causing her to die in childbirth.

This spirit is also portrayed in Aoi no Ue, the Nō play that tells the same plot. After her death, Lady Rokujō became an onryō and continued to torment Genji's subsequent consorts, Murasaki and Onna-sannomiya.

In the Heian period, a human soul leaving a body and moving away from it is described by the classical verb akugaru, meaning to move away.

In the Genji monogatari, the troubled Kashiwagi fears that his soul may wander (akugaru), and requires that certain rituals be performed on his body to stop this process should it occur.

It is speculated that the first appearance of the ikisudama of the Rokujō lady is in the chapter entitled Yūgao, Prince Genji's flame who attracts the resentment of his other lady lover.

During the one night that Yūgao and Genji spend together, the woman begins to feel ill and dies almost immediately afterwards for no apparent reason, triggering anxiety in Genji that she has been possessed by an evil spirit. The dame Rokujō is a woman who has been possessed by an evil spirit.

Later, the lady Rokujō, continually neglected by Genji, is publicly humiliated during a parade by the servants of another lady, Genji's bride Aoi, for whom the chapter is named.

This event again unleashes her ikiryō (against her own will), which will torment and kill Aoi during childbirth. The attacks from which Aoi suffers are recognized as the work of a living spirit belonging to Rokujō after she speaks through Aoi, expressing herself in a voice that does not belong to her.

Rokujō meanwhile dreams of beating a woman and realizes with horror the crime he has committed.

The medieval anthology Konjaku monogatarishū contains the short story of "Tale of an ikisudama from Afumi Province, who came to the capital and killed a man."

In the episode, an ordinary citizen meets a noblewoman and guides her to the house of a Vice Minister of Public Affairs (民部大夫 Minbu-no-taifū) in the capital. The guide is unaware that he is leading a woman's ikiryō to her husband who has neglected her.

Upon arriving at the house, the lady disappears, although the gates are closed. From inside the mansion come screams and moans. The next morning the guide learns that the master of the house had complained that his wife's ikiryō was present and causing him illness, and he died shortly thereafter.

The guide later goes in search of the lady's house in Afumi province, also called Ōmi.

There, the woman speaks to the protagonist through a screen, acknowledging his services from the day before and giving him large amounts of silk as a gift. The ikiryō can be found in the house.

The ikiryō may also possess the object of his infatuation, thus not a rival or enemy of his.

In "The Matsutōya Spirit", a tale that is reported to be drawn from actual events during year 14 or 15 of the Kyōhō era (1729-1730), a Kyōto merchant named Matsutōya Tokubei (松任屋徳兵衛) has a teenage son named Matsunosuke possessed by the spirits of two women who love him, and who haunt his conscience.

He is sometimes found suspended in mid-air, conversing as if the two girls were there present, the words of the two ikiryō spoken by himself.

Eventually, the family seeks help from Zōkai, a renowned priest. The priest later succeeds in the exorcism and cures the boy's condition, but by now rumors about it have spread.

The horror short story collection kaidan Sorori Monogatari (曾呂利物語) (published in the third year of the Kanbun era, or 1663) includes the story of a woman whose ikiryō takes the form of her own severed head, a type of yōkai also known as nukekubi.

One night, a man traveling to Kyōto arrives at a place named Sawaya in Kita-no-shō in Echizen (now Fukui) province, where he mistakenly thinks he has seen a hen flying from the base of a nearby stone tower to the road.

The imagined hen is actually (or has turned into) a lively severed woman's head. When the head smiles at him, he attacks it with a sword, and chases it to a mansion in the provincial capital.

Inside the house, the housewife wakes up from a nightmare in which she was being chased by a man wielding a sword. The wandering head represents, according to the title of the story, the woman's mōnen (妄念), or rebellious thoughts and obsessions.

The woman later becomes a nun to serve out her sins. The title of the story is "Story of a woman's mōnen that are lost and wandering" (女のまうねんまよひありく事).

Ikiryō in Folklore legends

Regional spirits of people nearing death

Sightings of ikiryō belonging to those whose death is imminent are attested throughout Japan. There are many stories of spirits materializing (or manifesting their presence in other ways) to loved ones, such as close family members.

Those who receive the visitation have a metaphysical premonition of the person's death before concrete news of his or her demise arrives.

Many of the local terms for defining ikiryō were collected by Kunio Yanagita and his school of folklore.

Among them, the terms tobi-damashi or omokage, shininbō are used in Ishikawa Prefecture in isolated cases, but are not used frequently in other areas.

In the tradition of the Nishitsugaru District of Aomori Prefecture, the souls of people nearing death are called amabito, and are believed to depart from the body and wander, sometimes producing a sound similar to a door opening.

According to Yanagita, tobi-damashi (飛びだまし) is the equivalent term used in Senboku District, Akita Prefecture.

Yanagita defines the term as the ability possessed by certain individuals to traverse the world in the form of ikiryō. Such individuals are said to have voluntary control over this ability of theirs, unlike those who are only able to take this form near death.

In Kazuno District in Akita Prefecture, a soul who visits one's acquaintances is called an omokage (面影), or "reminiscence, trace", and takes the form of a living human being, in the sense that it has feet and makes a sound of footsteps, unlike the traditional image of the ghost in Japan, which is legless and footless.

Yanagita in Tōno monogatari shūi writes that in the Tōno region of Iwate Prefecture, "the thoughts of the dead or living merge into a walking form, and it appears to the human eye as an illusion which is called omaku in this region."

An example of this belief tells of an attractive 16- or 17-year-old girl who is seriously ill with "cold sickness" (傷寒 shōkan, probably typhoid fever).

The girl is seen wandering the reconstruction site of Kōganji Temple in Tsujibuchi in the days before her death.

In the Kashima District in Ishikawa on the Noto Peninsula, a folklorist attested to the belief in shininbō (死人坊), which is said to appear two or three days before someone's death, who is spotted going to visit the danna-dera (the family temple, also known as bodaiji).

The temple is believed to be the final resting place of the spirit, which finds its place among the ancestors there.

Souls in the form of flames

There are instances in which the ikiryō appears as a soul in the form of a floating flame, a kind of fatuous fire (or phantom atmospheric light) known in Japan as hitodama or hidama.

However, it is not unusual to associate this type of flame with the soul of a person close to death, given the traditional notion that the soul departs from the body for a short period (usually a few days) before or after death.

Consequently, pre-death flames in works dealing with ghosts might not be classified as instances of ikiryō , but associated with the hitodama phenomenon.

Folklore scholar Ensuke Konno describes instances of iridescent yellowish balloon-like objects floating by, presenting them as omens of death. Residents of Aomori in Shimokita District call these phenomena tamashi (タマシ), "souls," the same term in common use by locals in the hamlet of Komena, in the municipality of Ōhata.

A child is said to have died in the hospital from injuries sustained in a fall from a bicycle bridge on April 2, 1963 after seeing one of these lights on his way to Mount Osore.

A case of hitodama considered by a folklorist as belonging to the discourse on ikiryō is found in the Tōno monogatari and closely resembles the tale of the woman's head from the Sorori monogatari mentioned earlier,

in that the individual who witnessed the appearance of the soul followed it relentlessly until he found the owner of the soul, who then claimed to have experienced the entire event in a dream.

The individual worked at the municipal office in Tōno, and one night reported seeing a hidama emerge from a barn and "flutter" inside the entrance to the building.

He stated that he chased it with a broom, and trapped it under a sink. Shortly thereafter he was hastily summoned to visit his dying uncle, but made sure to release the fireball first.

He soon learned that his uncle had just died, but it came back to life briefly to accuse him of chasing it with a broom and capturing it.Similarly, the folk archives of Umedoi, Mie Prefecture (now part of Inabe), record the incident of a group of men who, late at night, saw and chased a fireball to a sake warehouse, waking up a maid who was sleeping inside.

The latter later stated that she "was chased by many men and fled" to find shelter in the warehouse.

Ikiryō as a disease


During the Edo period there was a belief in a condition called rikonbyō (離魂病), "soul separation disease," whereby the soul not only separates from the body, but takes on the form and appearance of the sufferer.

The condition was also known as "shadow disease" (影の病, kage no yamai, also written カゲノワズライ, kage-no-wazurai).

This disease is treated as a case of ikiryō by Konno in his chapter on the subject.

The example is that of Yūji Kita, persecuted by kage no yamai for three generations in succession, an episode reported in the Ōshu banashi (奥州波奈志, Stories of the Far North) by Tadano Makuzu.

The identical doppelgänger could be seen by sufferers of the disease or others, and be classified as a doppelgänger phenomenon.

Others have reported out-of-body experiences in which their consciousness inhabits the ikiryō so that they see their own lifeless body.

Ikiryō's Similar activities or phenomena

The ushi no koku mairi (丑の刻参り) or "visitation at the time of the ox" is a ritual whereby one who drives a nail into a sacred tree at the time of the ox (1:00 to 3:00 a.m.) becomes an oni, and with the powers gained casts curses and misfortune on one's rival.

Although ikiryō are generally spirits of humans who leave the body unconsciously, actions such as performing magical rituals and intentionally tormenting a target can also be interpreted as forms of ikiryō.

Similarly, in Okinawa Prefecture, performing a magical ritual with the intention of becoming ikiryō is referred to as ichijama.

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