I’ve long been a fan of Zack Davisson’s Japanese folklore blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (named after the game of 100 Weird Tales), so I was eager to read his new book, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost. It did not disappoint.
Davisson traces the origins of the yurei from their basis in Japan’s belief systems and traditions about the dead, starting with early animistic beliefs and their mixture with beliefs from Shintoism and Buddhism. 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. Your obligations to your ancestors continue past their deaths — and perhaps their interest in your life outlives their deaths, too. Becoming a ghost might be as simple as dying with something pressing on your mind — and moving on as easy as fulfilling the goal that keeps your ghost here.
The book also presents the literary history of the Japanese ghost story or weird tale (kaidan), beginning with the story behind Maruyama Ōkyo’s famous 18th century painting The Ghost of Oyuki. Oyuki is the prototype of the modern image of the yurei: pale, dressed in white, with no feet; she also graces the cover of the book. From there, we follow the weird tale through Japanese art, Japanese literature (and Chinese contributions to Japanese literature), Noh and Kabuki theater, and film. We learn about the three great yurei of Japan: the lovelorn Otsuya, the vengeful Oiwa, and the earth-bound (or maybe well-bound) Okiku. As with the Latino legends of La Llorona, there are many versions of the stories of Otsuya, Oiwa, and Okiku, and Davisson introduces us to several variations. He also shares other classic ghost tales and legends from Japanese and Buddhist mythology.