The yūrei (幽霊) are Japanese ghosts. Like their Western counterparts, they are thought to be spirits removed from a peaceful afterlife due to something that happened to them in life, lack of a proper funeral ceremony, or for committing suicide; thus they wander around as souls in sorrow.

They usually appear between 2:00 a.m. and dawn to frighten and torment those who offended them in life, but without causing physical harm.

Traditionally, they are female, and are dressed in a shroud, a funeral kimono, white and buttoned backwards.

They usually lack legs and feet (in traditional theater this is simulated with a longer-than-normal kimono), and are often accompanied by two fatuous fires (hi-no-tama in Japanese), colored blue, green or purple.

These ghostly flames are separate parts of the ghost rather than independent spirits. The yūrei also often have a triangular piece of paper or cloth-called in Japanese hitaikakushi (額隠)-on their foreheads.

Several are depicted with long black hair. Like many monsters in Japanese folklore, the yūrei can be repelled with ofuda (御札), sanctified Shinto scriptures.

On the other hand, vengeful ghosts, called goryō (御霊), traditionally curse a person or place as an act of revenge for something done to them in life. Thus, saying "I curse you" is a threatening phrase spoken in a moment of anger.

A yūrei may also appear to punish descendants or relatives of the deceased when the appropriate funeral rites, tatari or tataru, have not been performed.

Buddhist monks and ascetics are sometimes hired to perform rituals at those unusual or unfortunate deaths that may lead to the appearance of a vengeful ghost, in a manner similar to an exorcism. Sometimes these ghosts are deified to appease their spirits.

Classifications of Yūrei

While all Japanese ghosts are called yūrei, within that category there are several specific types of ghosts, classified primarily by the way they died or their reason for returning to earth.

  • Onryō - These are vengeful ghosts that return from purgatory for a wrong done to them during their lifetime.
  • Ubume - This is the ghost of a mother who died during childbirth, or died leaving young children. These yūrei usually return to care for their children and often bring them sweets.
  • Goryō - These are vengeful ghosts of the aristocratic class, especially those who were martyred.
  • Funayūrei - These are the ghosts of those who perished at sea.
  • Zashiki-warashi - These are ghosts of children, more mischievous than dangerous.
  • Warrior ghosts - Veterans of the Genpei Wars who fell in battle. They appear almost exclusively in the nō theater.
  • Seductive ghosts - The ghost of a man or woman who after death initiate a romance with a living human.

Haunted places

Some locations famous for allegedly being haunted by yurei are Himeji Castle, haunted by the ghost of Okiku, and Aokigahara, a forest at the bottom of Mount Fuji, which has been a popular location for committing suicide since the late 20th century.

One particularly powerful onryo, Oiwa, is said to be able to bring vengeance upon any actress who plays her in a stage or film adaptation of her story, so to prevent this they usually visit her grave first to pay respect.

Artist Maruyama Ōkyo painted the first graphic example of a traditional yurei in his work entitled "Oyuki's Ghost".

Japanese films

Since the 1990s, films and series have become fashionable in Japan having ghost stories as their central theme.

Early yūrei films were adaptations of the most famous existing kaidan plays in kabuki theater, such as Botan Doro in 1910, and Yotsuya Kaidan in 1912. New versions of these popular kaidan continued to be filmed at one per decade.

The yūrei films adapted to the various trends in Japanese cinema over the years, until there was a new boom in the 1990s that even crossed borders, and thus the popularity of so-called J-Horror took the yūrei image beyond Japan making it known as of 2000 in the popular culture of Western countries.

  • Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Pale Moon; 1953)
  • Throne of Blood (1957)
  • Kwaidan (1965)
  • Dreams (1990)
  • Ringu (1998)
  • Ju-on (The Curse; 1998-2015 saga)
  • Wishing stairs
  • Shikoku (1999)
  • Dark Water (2002)
  • Kwaidan (1965)
  • The Ring (2002, American version of Ringu)
  • Chakushin Ari (2003)
  • The Grudge (2004, US version of Ju-on)
  • Shutter (2004)
  • The Infection (2004)
  • Dark Water (2005, US version of the same title)
  • One Missed Call (2008, US version of Chakushin Ari)
  • Shutter (2008, US version of the same title)
  • Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010)

In the Touhou Project video game saga, Zun, the Mistress of Death, Yuyuko Saigyouji, is a yūrei who has absolute control over all hitodama in the vicinity.

Gallery yūrei at Zenshoan Temple

Zenshoan Temple is a temple in Tokyo, which is mainly known for its collection of yūrei paintings. Containing 50 silk paintings dating mostly from between 150 to 200 years old, they depict a variety of apparitions, from the sad to the horrific.

The scrolls were collected by Sanyu Encho-tei (三游亭円朝), a famous storyteller (rakugo artist) who during the Edo era, studied at Zenshoan. Encho collected the paintings as a source of inspiration for the ghostly tales he liked to tell in the summer.

These galleries are currently open to the public only in August, the traditional time in Japan for ghost stories.

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