O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).

O-KAME, daughter of the rich Gonyemon of Nagoshi, in the province of Tosa, was very fond of her husband, Hachiyemon. She was twenty-two, and Hachiyemon twenty-five. She was so fond of him that people imagined her to be jealous. But he never gave her the least cause for jealousy; and it is certain that no single unkind word was ever spoken between them.

Unfortunately the health of O-Kame was feeble. Within less than two years after her marriage she was attacked by a disease, then prevalent in Tosa, and the best doctors were not able to cure her. Persons seized by this malady could not eat or drink; they remained constantly drowsy and languid, and troubled by strange fancies. And, in spite of constant care, O-Kame grew weaker and weaker, day by day, until it became evident, even to herself, that she was going to die.

Then she called her husband, and said to him:

“I cannot tell you how good you have been to me during this miserable sickness of mine. Surely no one could have been more kind. But that only makes it all the harder for me to leave you now… . Think! I am not yet even twenty-five, and I have the best husband in all this world, and yet I must die! … Oh, no, no! it is useless to talk to me about hope; the best Chinese doctors could do nothing for me. I did think to live a few months longer; but when I saw my face this morning in the mirror, I knew that I must die to-day — yes, this very day. And there is something that I want to beg you to do for me if you wish me to die quite happy.”

“Only tell me what it is”, Hachiyemon answered; “and if it be in my power to do, I shall be more than glad to do it.”

“No, no you will not be glad to do it,” she returned: “you are still so young! It is difficult very, very difficult even to ask you to do such a thing; yet the wish for it is like a fire burning in my breast. I must speak it before I die…. My dear, you know that sooner or later, after I am dead, they will want you to take another wife. Will you promise me not to marry again?…”

“Only that!” Hachiyemon exclaimed. “Why, if that be all that you wanted to ask for, your wish is very easily granted. With all my heart I promise you that no one shall ever take your place.”

Aa! Ureshiya!” cried O-Kame, half-rising from her couch; “oh, how happy you have made me!”

And she fell back dead.

Oyuki crop
Detail from The Ghost of Oyuki, Maruyama Ôkyo

Now the health of Hachiyemon appeared to fail after the death of O-Kame. At first the change in his aspect was attributed to natural grief, and the villagers only said, “How fond of her he must have been!” But, as the months went by, he grew paler and weaker, until at last he became so thin and wan that he looked more like a ghost than a man. Then people began to suspect that sorrow alone could not explain this sudden decline of a man so young. The doctors said that Hachiyemon was not suffering from any known form of disease: they could not account for his condition; but they suggested that it might have been caused by some very unusual trouble of mind. Hachiyemon’s parents questioned him in vain; he had no cause for sorrow, he said, other than what they already knew. They counselled him to remarry; but he protested that nothing could ever induce him to break his promise to the dead.

Thereafter Hachiyemon continued to grow visibly weaker, day by day; and his family despaired of his life. But one day his mother, who felt sure that he had been concealing something from her, adjured him so earnestly to tell her the real cause of his decline, and wept so bitterly before him, that he was not able to resist her entreaties.

“Mother,” he said, “it is very difficult to speak about this matter, either to you or to any one; and, perhaps, when I have told you everything, you will not be able to believe me. But the truth is that O-Kame can find no rest in the other world, and that the Buddhist services repeated for her have been said in vain. Perhaps she will never be able to rest unless I go with her on the long black journey. For every night she returns, and lies down by my side. Every night, since the day of her funeral, she has come back. And some times I doubt if she be really dead; for she looks and acts just as when she lived, except that she talks to me only in whispers. And she always bids me tell no one that she comes. It may be that she wants me to die; and I should not care to live for my own sake only. But it is true, as you have said, that my body really belongs to my parents, and that I owe to them the first duty. So now, mother, I tell you the whole truth…. Yes: every night she comes, just as I am about to sleep; and she remains until dawn. As soon as she hears the temple-bell, she goes away.”

When the mother of Hachiyemon had heard these things, she was greatly alarmed; and, hastening at once to the parish-temple, she told the priest all that her son had confessed, and begged for ghostly help. The priest, who was a man of great age and experience, listened without surprise to the recital, and then said to her:

“It is not the first time that I have known such a thing to happen; and I think that I shall be able to save your son. But he is really in great danger. I have seen the shadow of death upon his face; and, if O-Kame returns but once again, he will never behold another sunrise. Whatever can be done for him must be done quickly. Say nothing of the matter to your son; but assemble the members of both families as soon as possible, and tell them to come to the temple without delay. For your son’s sake it will be necessary to open the grave of O-Kame.”

800px Hungry Ghosts Scroll Kyoto 2
Section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll, late 12th century. Kyoto National Museum

So the relatives assembled at the temple; and when the priest had obtained their consent to the opening of the sepulchre, he led the way to the cemetery. Then, under his direction, the tombstone of O-Kame was shifted, the grave opened, and the coffin raised. And when the coffin-lid had been removed, all present were startled; for O-Kame sat before them with a smile upon her face, seeming as comely as before the time of her sickness; and there was not any sign of death upon her. But when the priest told his assistants to lift the dead woman out of the coffin, the astonishment changed to fear; for the corpse was blood-warm to the touch, and still flexible as in life, notwithstanding the squatting posture in which it had remained so long. [1]

It was borne to the mortuary chapel; and there the priest, with a writing-brush, traced upon the brow and breast and limbs of the body the Sanscrit characters (Bonji) of certain holy talismanic words. And he performed a Segaki-service [2] for the spirit of O-Kame, before suffering her corpse to be restored to the ground.

She never again visited her husband; and Hachiyemon gradually recovered his health and strength. But whether he always kept his promise, the Japanese story-teller does not say.

[1] The Japanese dead are placed in a sitting posture in the coffin, which is almost square in form.

[2] From Wikipedia: “The segaki (“feeding the hungry ghosts”) is a ritual of Japanese Buddhism, traditionally performed to stop the suffering of the gaki, ghosts tormented by insatiable hunger. Alternatively, the ritual forces the gaki to return to their portion of hell or keeps the spirits of the dead from falling into the realm of the gaki. Today, the ceremony also gives participants an opportunity to remember those who have died and to symbolically sever ties with past sins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.