What Intrigues Me Most About Japanese Ghost Stories

The Yūrei and other figures possess a special emotional quality

Nancy Bilyeau

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When I was writing my novella The Ghost of Madison Avenue, I wanted to come up with ideas beyond the usual “Boo!” I wondered about creating something besides a story of the undead spirit hiding in the attic.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a classic ghost story like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I have a special place in my heart for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I like both the 1963 version and the much more recent Netflix series.

But I longed for something different. I dug into the research to find out about ghosts in other cultures, and I came upon the Yūrei.

Similar to the ghosts flitting through Western mythology and culture, the Yūrei has special qualities that make it as fascinating — and as frightening–as a supernatural being from anywhere in the world.

But this Japanese ghost has special qualities.

“The worlds of the living and the dead are perhaps nearer to each other in the Japanese conception than they are in Western belief systems,” according to the site Multo. “Your obligations to your ancestors continue past their deaths — and perhaps their interest in your life outlives their deaths, too.”

When a person dies, the Japanese tradition suggests that the person is transformed into a spirit, but not anything that necessarily comes back to haunt the living. So what is a Yūrei? A spirit that becomes stuck in a form of purgatory and haunts the living until released.

The spirit makes its way through the afterlife because of a series of funeral and post-funeral rites and prayers. The Yūrei appears when the person has failed to receive the proper funeral rites, some say. But another belief is that if a person dies suddenly, violently, or with the emotions of malice, jealousy, or sorrow in his heart, he or she cannot pass through this purgatory no matter what rites are performed and is transformed into a Yūrei.

What kind of hauntings take place? It can run the gamut from lights going on and off and strange sounds being heard to terrifying acts of vengeance, such as the story of a Yurei who was a first wife cutting off the head of a second wife because the husband promised never to remarry.

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Nancy Bilyeau

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘The Orchid Hour' www.nancybilyeau.com