Try terrifying Japanese ghosts for size! If you know all about ghost stories or haunted house movies then there’s a good chance that you might feel like you’ve seen it all. A floating candelabra? Boring. A long-dead governess unjustly killed who yearns for a proper burial? Pass. Focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm? Class-five full-roaming vapor? Go away.
But, jaded ghost enthusiast, there’s literally a whole country full of wild and nasty ghosts, goblins, creeps and spookums waiting for you to discover them! Japan has been developing the art of weird-as-hell ghost stories even before the Americas were even on some random map for colonial Europeans. And in that time they’ve gotten really good at it.
While the Japanese technically break down their spooky beasts into such categories as yurei, yokai and obake, for the sake of simplicity, we’re just going to call them all ghosts. Here are just the tiniest of samplings of the weird, wild world of Japanese ghosts and spirits. Chances are good that you’ll be lucky and find something that will haunt you forever.
What if you’re full of seething hate but not at risk of starving to death or dying in battle? Is it possible that you could also somehow supernaturally enact your hatred upon the living but without having to die first? Could you, in short, be an alive hate ghost?
Great news: yes.
You could be an ikiryoh, whose name means ‘living ghost’. An ikiryoh comes into being in those times when you’re just … just so mad that you totally astral-project. You can relate, can’t you? You’re so mad that your entire soul comes out of your body as a translucent representative of yourself and seeks the revenge your body so richly desires.
An ikiryoh could also occur as a result of other strong emotions or trauma – such as near-death experiences. Or if you faint hard enough. Or if you get cursed. Maybe if you get cursed at? There’s no shortage of reasons why your soul might just slip out of your body like a psychic shart.
And the wildest part is that the owner of the soul almost never knows that they have become part ghost. Makes you think …
At this point, you might be thinking, ‘So there is a wide variety of ghosts and demons that can come from all sorts of origins. I think my only recourse is to stay away from all human life and only surround myself with inanimate objects. They don’t have souls and so there’s no chance at all of them becoming ghosts’.
Not so fast, Robinson Crusoe! There’s a rude awakening waiting for you … and it comes in the form of the tsukumogami, which more or less means ‘tool spirits’.
The idea in Japanese folklore is that any object sufficiently old will become haunted. A tsukumogami can be basically any object that has reached the age of 100 years, at which point it gains consciousness and self-awareness.
Examples of such formerly inanimate objects in folklore include a sandal that grows arms and legs and one giant eye that chants incessantly at night and, behold, a flying roll of cotton cloth that will try to smother you by wrapping up your face.
Generally speaking, tsukumogami are considered to be harmless, if occasionally mischievous pranksters. However, if their owners had been wasteful or neglectful, the now-living tools would team up and take revenge upon their sleeping masters. So, think carefully about how you treat your water jars or umbrellas.
One of the best-known examples of a tsukumogami is the bakechochin or chochin-obake, both of which mean “paper lantern ghost.” Guess what it is. Stumped? It’s a paper lantern that has turned into a ghost.
When your chochin (the classic Japanese paper lantern) hits its 100th birthday, its paper shell will split along one of its wooden ribs, creating a wide and yawning mouth, out of which will pour a long, lascivious tongue. The upper half of the lantern will sprout a giant single eye (though two eyes are known to occur) and sometimes arms and legs.
And then this lantern just goes buck wild. To be fair, if you were a motionless lantern for a century you’d probably also be ready to party as soon as you have the power to grow eyes and a tongue. What more do you need, really?!
For the most part, the chochin-obake is a mostly harmless prankster – like most tsukumogami – and just enjoys popping out and scaring unwitting visitors with its freaky ghost tongue. However, in some versions of the story, the chochin-obake becomes home to the spirit of someone who has died with hate in their heart and is condemned to haunt the Earth forever.
If you happen across one of these lanterns and light it a vengeful ghost might pop out and ghost you to death. Before lighting a lantern in Japan, make sure to ask if it’s the nice tongue kind or the ‘hateful revenant’ kind, just to be safe.
The nurikabe, whose name means ‘painted wall’, is a spook encountered by those traveling late at night, especially in dark streets and alleys. It’s an invisible wall that will block your path no matter which way you try to go. If you juke left, it will stretch left. If you feint right, it will stretch right. It can stretch for infinity miles in every direction, so you don’t really have a chance. You can’t climb over it, and you can’t knock it down. It just can’t be done.
Even though the nurikabe is an invisible wall, artists have somehow managed to develop a traditional way of depicting it: as a gray, two-footed, flat-faced monster that kind of looks like a cross between a saggy fat guy and that one dog you’ve learned to draw in elementary school by drawing six circles first. Yeah …
It turns out that there is a solution to the nurikabe puzzle. If you hit it with a stick near the ground it will vanish and you can go on your way. This solution makes sense if you agree with the theory that nurikabe are just tanuki stretching out their magical scrotums into a giant wall.
At any rate, nurikabe make for a super convenient excuse for being late. ‘Sorry I missed your birthday party. A giant fat dog man or possibly an invisible raccoon scrotum was blocking my way.’
Don’t go in the water … just don’t! There’s something lurking called an “eel princess.” Don’t go in the water.
Japanese folklore has a whole category of ghosts called funayurei, which means ‘ship ghosts’. They are the ghosts of drowned sailors, who, instead of going: ‘Wow, I would never wish this terrible fate on anyone else’ instead say, ‘I wish my friends were here. I will seek them out and drown them’.
The ghost ship of the funayurei will approach an unsuspecting ship cloaked as a misty fog before suddenly materializing as a full ship laden with a vindictive ghost crew. They immediately will get to work, trying to capsize the boat of the living to welcome them to the fold as fellow ghosts.
They might cling to the sides of the ship to try to tip it or drag it down, or worse, sometimes instead of a ship, it will be one giant ghost that will push the boat down, sinking it. And if, by some miracle, you don’t drown you might get eaten by giant flesh-eating mermaids.
Obviously the top of the list of spooky scary things is creaky old skeleton bones such as you might find inside your own body if all your flesh was stripped away and you were condemned to battle eternally against those seeking the Golden Fleece. (Second on the spooky scary list is obviously lycanthropic coming-of-age rituals.)
Well, this was a test, and you failed. There is something scarier than skeletons and it’s a giant skeleton that will eat your head just because it can.
The gashadokuro gets its name from a combination of the word “odokuro” (meaning “giant skeleton”) and the onomatopoeia “gachi gachi,” which is the sound of rattling bones.
A gashadokuro is formed when the bodies of soldiers killed in battle or those who starved to death are left to rot in the fields. They die with hate in their hearts and this anger — this grudge, if you will — fuels them even past death and the decomposition of their flesh. When all that is left is bones and spite, these angry skeletons merge together like a Voltron of Bad Feelings with the intent to expend their malice upon the living.
And so if you’re ever out at night, and hear the rattle of them dry bones, you better hope it’s just a normal-sized alive skeleton after you, and not one 30 stories tall that’s looking to work out its rage issues by grinding you into a paste.