The Grim Reaper is probably the most widely known persona of death in Western cultures. Most typically depicted as a scythe wielding skeleton garbed in black robes, this fearsome figure harvests the souls of the dead, escorting them to the other side to await judgment and their eternal fate. While this symbol of death has deep roots in Western culture, stemming from the 14th century Danse Macabre imagery that became popularized when the Black Death was wreaking its havoc with European society, the Reaper has only come to Japan relatively more recently, in the form of the Shinigami.
Now, I do not purport to be an expert in Japanese folklore (or in anything, really) but as near as I can tell the Shinigami started life in the 18th or 19th century, springing forth from a variety of influences including traditional Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs that merged with Christian influences from abroad. While the Grim Reaper is considered a fearsome creature in the West, Shinigami are more intercessors, functionaries in the grand cosmic bureaucracy whose only function is to escort souls from our world to the next. While the Grim Reaper is singular, Shinigami are depicted as being many, and working together to achieve their goals.
The word “Shinigami” itself means “death god” or “death spirit”. They are believed to be a form of kami, or a spirit not unlike the Western concept of an angel. While their role in folklore has only come about in relatively recent times, the Shinigami’s impact on modern Japanese pop culture has been tremendous. From Bleach to Death Note, Shinigami are often portrayed as alternatively scary, monstrous beings to human-like entities merely fulfilling a function. It seems that, for the time being at least, the Shinigami are here to stay.
An alleged photo of the Hibagon. Dunno about you, but I’m not seeing it…
If locals are to be believed, something strange stalks the hills and mountains of Hiroshima Prefecture. Reports have come in sporadically since the 1970’s of a five foot tall, hairy, gorilla like creature out in the forest. Japanese Boy Scouts have taken casts of ten inch footprints, and multiple witnesses have reported a creature with chocolate brown or black hair, white hands and feet, and a gorilla like face. They also report a strong odor, like decomposing meat. Locals call this monster the Hibagon.
Sound familiar? To my fellow Americans, this is starting to sound suspiciously like that oft sighted but never verified critter, Bigfoot. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Japan would have its own version of Bigfoot though, as reports of hairy wild men are common to all parts of the world. Unlike other parts of the world (say, North America for instance), Japan does have a history of non-human primate populations. Monkeys are native to Japan. However, so far as I am aware the only large ape who has lived on the islands for any length of time are humans. Since there are no fossil data pointing to populations of large bodied primates on Japan, it seems doubtful that one would be living there now.
So what could explain the sightings? The hypotheses seem as varied as the witnesses. Some claim the Hibagon is some sort of wild man, while others claim that Japanese soldiers who still believe WWII is still ongoing are responsible. The next guess steps into sci-fi territory. As you probably well know, Hiroshima is infamous for being the first city to be on the receiving end of a nuclear attack. Some claim that the Hibagon is a person who was mutated by the radiation from that attack. I can say with utter certainty that is not the case. The Hibagon, based on descriptions, differs too much from humans to be a mutated human population. Besides, that isn’t how evolution works. The mutations caused by nuclear radiation have more immediate effects, namely cancer, that manifest in the person’s lifetime. While mutation is an important factor in evolutionary processes, the changes in the genome are gradual and only accumulate over many generations. Even if radiation could effect human evolution in such a way, it wouldn’t do so over such a short period of time.
I seriously doubt that the Hibagon is anything more than folklore. More likely than not it reports are based on mis-identification of a native specie, such as a bear. Or it’s possible that an ape, maybe a chimp or a small gorilla, escaped from a zoo in the 70’s and sparked the legend. Regardless of it’s biological status, the Hibagon has a life all its own in Japanese pop culture. It’s likeness has appeared on snacks, books, anime, and manga. In that way the Hibagon is very real, if only in a cultural sense.
Shinto is the native spiritual system of Japan that we see in various anime and other shows. Also known as kami-no-michi, Shinto is associated with shrines dedicated to various purposes such as war memorials, harvest festivals, love, and others. This article gives a quick overview of Shinto.
Many Japanese practice Shinto rituals and also practice Buddhist ancestor veneration. There isn’t a conflict. In fact, many life events are handled by Shinto and afterlife/death events are handled by Buddhism.
In Shinto, it is said that Izonagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto were asked by the other gods to create a new land. They stirred the water with a spear; the water that dripped from the end created an island. They lived on the island and eventually had 8 children: the 8 islands of the Japanese archipelago.
Shinto teaches that all things have akami, or spirit. Certain places are set apart so people andkamimay interact. These areas are were shrines are built. They house thekami.
This stone lantern is used as a Shinto votive or to light a tea garden.
Shinto also teaches that some actions can make a person impure. A person should want to be cleansed of this impurity to improve their peace of mind and fortune. Purity rites are done daily, weekly, seasonally, annually or lunarly. These rituals are what defines Shinto. Cars, buildings, and more may be blessed and purified.
Water is an important element in purification. Reciting prayers while using water is done daily, and one can always stand beneath a waterfall. The practice is pretty stereotypical to our Western movie eyes.
In Shinto Japanese legends a person goes to yomi, a gloomy underworld where a river separates the living from the dead. Some legends include a heaven-like area. Shinto generally is negative in its view of death and corpses.
The clapping we see in anime and live action when a person enters into a shrine is part of the ritual of praying at a shrine. Anyone can visit a shrine as long as respect is shown.
Shinto amulets and protective items are also common.Protective items include ema, small wooden plaques with wishes written on them. These are left at shrines so the wish may be granted.Ofuda are talismans given out by the shrines. Names of kami are written on them and are used for protection. Omamori are personal protection amulets sold at shrines. Used to ward off bad luck, gain better health, good driving, and other things, these amulets have deep roots in Buddhism. Other Buddhist elements are also a part of modern Shinto.
Kikyo is a Shinto priestess in Inuyasha.
Shinto legends and stories are where most of the monsters and oddities in anime comes from. Shinto is rich in folklore, myths, and legends. Think of Inuyasha, for example. Shinto has a deep respect for nature.
Buddhism is also another branch of legend that anime and entertainment draws from. Shinto and Buddhism have grown together in many regards and adapted myths from each other.
Shinto is thought to be an evolution of Ko-Shinto, the tradition of the hunter-gatherer people that lived in Japan 10,000 years ago.
Japan is home to some very strange spirits, to say the least. Not long ago I did a post about an odd breed of spirit that exclusively haunt Japan’s bathrooms. Last night I was poking around, looking for more Japanese ghouls and goblins when I came across the Gashadokuro (also known as the Odokuro).
While classified as a spirit being, it seems that much like the yurei (and contrary to the West’s notion of ghosts), the Gashadokuro have a physical substance to them rather than being incorporeal. These beings manifest as gigantic skeletons, fifteen times the size of a normal man which would put them at roughly ninety feet tall. They arise from the gathered bones of people who died as a result of starvation or warfare. Due to the terrible deaths that gave them un-life, the Gashadokuro are full of anger and a blood lust that can only be sated by drinking the blood of the living.
They walk the countryside at night, seeking after human quarry. When they find an unwary traveler along the road, the Gashadokuro silently stalk them (although how a ninety foot skeleton can be stealthy is beyond me) and when the moment is right, catch their victim in a skeletal hand and proceed to bite their head off. Then the Gashadokuro sucks the body dry of blood. Imagine it as something like how we humans eat crawdads or lobsters. Pleasant, right? Japanese ghost stories are pretty hardcore.
So, how does a poor traveler avoid becoming a human crawdad? Unfortunately I’ve not come across any ways of combating the Gashadokuro. The only way I’ve seen to avoid becoming a midnight snack is to run like hell the moment you hear a strange ringing in your ears, which is the only warning the Gashadokuro gives prior to striking. Presumably then people like me who have ringing in their ears almost constantly are in a lot of trouble, then.
The Gashadokuro also walk around making a sound something like “gachi-gachi” and grinding their teeth, so presumably you could hear that as well. Plus, you know, a ninety foot skeleton is bound to stick out like a sore thumb no matter how dark it is outside. So if you find yourself broke down in Japan in the middle of the night (because that happens to all of us at one point or another), keep your eyes peeled and your ears open and you might just survive the night.
Japan is a weird, weird place. Anyone who is casually acquainted with Japanese pop culture knows that. But things get even stranger when you delve into the world of their folklore and urban legends. Japanese legend features a stable of ghosts, goblins, monsters, and various other bugaboos that puts the Pokemon roster to shame. Among the strangest that I’ve come across are Japan’s bathroom ghosts. So far as I can see there are six of them, and they are as follows:
We’ll start the list with one of the strangest ghosts I’ve ever come across, not to mention among the grossest. As Japanese ghosts go, the Akaname isn’t very threatening. It can be found in dirty bathrooms, licking up the filth that accumulates between cleanings. It’s said to be monstrous in appearance, with red skin and a pointed tongue, but other than giving you a good scare should you stumble across one, the Akaname is harmless.
With the Noppera-Bo we move from the Akaname’s strangeness to outright creepiness. The Noppera-Bo looks like a person, with one notable exception–its face is completely smooth, with the exception in some cases of of a mouth and teeth. This ghost appears at random in restrooms, often ladies restrooms, with the sole goal of scaring the crap out of any occupants unfortunate enough to be doing business at that moment. Other than giving you a good scare though, the Noppera-Bo is as harmless as the Akaname is, if not as disgusting and a whole lot creepier.
The legend of Hanako reads almost like a Japanese version of Bloody Mary, minus all the eye clawing. Japanese school children sometimes dare one another to knock on an empty stall door and say “Are you there, Hanako-son?” to which the ghost is said to reply affirmatively. Whenever she is sighted, she’s said to wear an old-fashioned bob haircut and a red skirt. The story goes that she was killed during a bomb raid in WWII, although how that led her to spooking around random elementary school bathrooms is beyond me. Like the previous two entries, Hanako does little more than scare random bathroom goers. The next few entries are not quite so benign. Let’s ramp up the horror with…
Imagine sitting in the stall, doing your business, when a disembodied voice asks you if you want a red mantle. Confused, thinking maybe there is a guy in the stall next to you playing a prank, you answer yes just to see what happens. Suddenly your back erupts in pain as an invisible force peels the skin from your back. You’ve just had an encounter with the Aka-Manto, the red mantle, a spirit described as a tall, handsome man dressed in a red cloak and wearing a red mask. This spirit is said to be irresistible to the ladies. As to why he hangs out in bathrooms and rips people’s skin off, I have not the slightest. Everyone needs a hobby I suppose, even lady-killing malevolent spirits.
This ghost is more recent than the others on the list, and in many ways her story is more tragic. It goes that she was brutally attacked and raped (presumably in a bathroom) by a large group of men who left her for dead. She tried to crawl away, only to fall unconcious across a set of rail tracks. When the next train came by, it sheared her legs off. Now she wanders Japan’s public bathrooms in search of her lost legs. When she comes across people, she will ask them a series of questions. If you answer wrong, she twists your legs off. Oh and apparently just knowing about her is enough to solicit a visit from Reiko Kashima. So, it might be a good idea to avoid public bathrooms in Japan after reading this article. You know, just in case.
This one reminds me of The Matrix, when Morpheus asks Neo to chose between the red pill and the blue pill. Except with the Akai-Kami-Aoi-Kami (literally red paper, blue paper) there are no good choices. If you answer red paper, you’ll find yourself flayed alive, while if you answer blue paper you’ll be strangled to death (thus turning the skin blue from lack of air…no one says ghosts aren’t creative). But let’s say you’re a smart ass and you answer any other color. The legends vary a bit on the outcome, but many say that if you answer anything but red or blue you’ll be dragged off to hell. Some say if you answer yellow, you’ll wind up having urine dumped over your head. Unsavory as it is, I think I’d take the latter.
Several months ago, I did a post about Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide capital and a purportedly haunted forest. It is widely believed that the forest is haunted by Yurei, which are essentially Japan’s version of ghosts. These differ from the traditional Western style ghosts. On our side of the ocean, ghosts are ephemeral things that can only interact with the physical world with great difficulty. They knock and creak and moan, but they’re generally harmless; in fact, they’re usually little more than annoying, at least according to the lore. Their goal is usually to attempt some sort of communication with the living, in order to fulfill some sort of unfinished business, after which they can pass on to the other side. Some are more malevolent, intending to scare folks away from their haunts or just to generally be pains in the butt. In general, they’re said to be tied to our world by strong emotions, often negative.
Yurei, on the other hand, are entirely different beasts. There are some similarities, of course: both are tied to the world by strong emotions, and both seek to interact with humans. Other than that though, there are few similarities. For one, Yurei are often depicted the same way: they’re women dressed in white with long black hair. Yurei are predominately believed to be women, because the Japanese believe that women experience deeper, stronger emotions than men and thus are more likely to become Yurei.
The differences don’t end there, but in order to understand the Yurei fully we must understand traditional Japanese beliefs about the afterlife. Shinto doesn’t have heaven or hell the same way the West does. When a person dies, their soul leaves the body and enters a kind of purgatory. When the proper funeral rites are performed, the soul can go to the ancestors and thus become a protective spirit. However, if the proper rites are not performed, or if the person dies by suicide or murder, their soul may become a Yurei.
That isn’t too different from the Western conception of ghosts, nor the conception of ghosts the world over. There is a prevalent belief the world over that if people are not laid to rest properly they will somehow haunt the living. Yurei, however, are more corporeal than their Western counterparts. They are not see through, although in their traditional depiction they are shown hovering over the ground, with only their hands and face visible. Yurei also, possibly due to their corporeal nature, have no problem interacting with the physical world, much to their victim’s dismay.
You see, Yurei can be incredibly dangerous. They are said to seek vengeance against those who wronged them in life, and little can be done to stop them. The Yurei will only disappear when their desire for vengeance is sated, either by the Yurei itself or by its family members. In some cases, the Yurei may haunt a lover until its passion is fulfilled (not sure what that means, but to me that sounds pretty ominous). Sometimes a Shinto or Buddhist priest may be able to exorcise the Yurei, but more often than not the spirits are unstoppable until they fulfill their desires.
It should be noted that not all Yurei are malevolent. Yurei are tied to the Earth by strong emotions, but they do not necessarily have to be negative. Some Yurei are motherly figures, who come back to watch over their children. Others might return to keep a business appointment or some other sort of obligation. While they might be frightening to people who happen to bump into them, these types of Yurei are largely harmless.
The worst kind of Yurei become a curse. Their desire for vengeance is so strong that even destroying the original object of their fury cannot sate it. They will destroy anyone who enters their territory–Yurei are typically, but not always, bound to a specific site–and will do so until exorcised or otherwise removed, a dicey proposition at best.
American has come to know Yurei in recent years through movies. The Grudge, The Ring, and Silent Hill all feature Yurei style ghosts. While these depictions aren’t always accurate in terms of the traditional folklore, they’ve definitely made waves in American horror. Like it or not, it seems the Yurei are here to stay in American horror.
Have you seen The Grudge, The Ring, or Silent Hill? What do you think of the Yurei or ghosts in general (keep it civil, please)?