Photo:Hungry Ghosts Scroll. Artist Unknown.

Yuurei: Japanese Faded Souls

Spirits or souls of the disgruntled deceased, Shiyroo 死霊 are part of a class of macabre spectors collectively known simply as faded souls or Yuurei (幽霊) and (Boorei 幽霊). These mournful spirits cannot or have not crossed the the Sanzu River or Sanzunokawa (三途の川), which separates the worlds of living and the dead, and remain in limbo taking many forms. They often have long disheveled hair and wear white funeral clothing, provided they’d received a funeral. They seldom have legs that can be seen and often appear floating limply before terrified victims of their hauntings. Usually staying in a specific place or with a specific person, they come in many, many shades.

Hokusai Onryo. Photo by Wikipedia.

There are Onryoo (怨霊) types of Yuurei bent on vengeance. Angered by some injustice done to them in life they crave revenge. These ghosts have been known to the living since at least the 8th century and have the power to cause death and destruction in the physical world including earthquakes, floods, droughts, famine, war and pestilence. Another example of these spirits bent on vengeance, known as Goryoo (御霊), arise from the aristocracy and have affected intrigue in politics and clan warfare.

Funayurei. Photo by Wikipedia.

There are Yuurei on the seas around Japan, ghostly ships called Funayurei (船幽霊) and their regional cousins Moojabune (亡者船) and Ayakashi (妖), which are often accompanied by ghostly lights called Umiboozu (海坊主) who are known to capsize ships at sea. Two of the most pathetic of the restless spirits that haunt the living, Ubume (産女) and Kosodate-yuurei (子育て幽霊), are the forlorn spirits of mothers who’ve died in childbirth or soon thereafter. They beseech the living for assistance or to sell them candy and toys they want to give to their live children.

Suuhi Ubume. Photo by Wikipedia.

Hungry Ghosts Scroll. Photo by Wikimedia.

Darker still are souls, or Rekon (霊魂) in Japanese, which are trapped in non-human realms that are neither of hell nor heaven. Buddhists monks who were selfish and greedy in life doomed after death by Karma to endure a ghoulish insatiable desire to gorge on the flesh of human corpses. Shokujinki or Jinkininki (食人鬼) are hungry ghosts that steal into funeral chambers in the middle of the night to devour the dearly departed, leaving only an empty casket for family members in the morning. Then there are even types of wandering spirits known as Ikiryoo (生霊), living ghosts, who leave the body of living beings to haunt those that have enraged them beyond what their spirit can endure, sometimes over great distances. One of the most famous was the Ikiryoo of Lady Rokujo in Tale of Genji.

Hokusai Yuurei. Photo by Wikipedia.

This world or Konoyo (この世), home of the living, and the other world or Anoyo (あの世), which is populated with souls of the dead, coexist harmoniously in Japan. Passing between the two is normal and each summer the souls of the departed return to visit the land of the living just as naturally as families travel between prefectures to visit relatives in their hometowns. Appeasement is the name of the game when dealing with the souls of the dead. Offerings, prayers and rituals usually do the trick keeping the peace between realms, but it is good to remember, when out and on a summer night in Japan, that this is not always the case.

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