Japanese Ghosts -Yuriga and the Paranormal in Japan

By Richard Workman.

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have visited Japan, you will be aware that the spiritual realm is never too far from the physical World. Within a modern and bustling society, there are many shrines dotted all over the landscape honoring the Kami that inhabit this Earth alongside the living.

Japanese Ghosts reflect a similar association with the living, not seen as the separate reflections of lost lives, but entities that simply inhabit the same space in which we live.

A recent documentary piece on Japanese English language broadcaster, NHK,  provides a wonderful insight into the close relationship Japanese people have with the afterlife.

Yurei: Japanese Ghosts, examines the paranormal in Japan through its cultural manifestation, paintings or “yuriga”, which often depict mainly female ghosts.

The tradition of yuriga began during the Edo period, when there was a folk belief that evil drives out evil. By hanging a yuriga in your home, you would be protecting your property from evil spirits. People believed that yuriga held the power to keep evil at bay.

Yūrei by Sawaki Sūshi (1737)

Yuriga are almost exclusively pictures of women. The tradition dates back to a time in Japanese history when there was less social equality. For example in life Women were required to walk three paces behind their husband, they were were regarded as less important than men and were generally treated as second class citizens.

The injustices applied to women in life would supposedly build resentment and when the woman eventually passed away,  inequality would manifest itself in ghost form: the more harshly a woman was treated in life, the more terrifying would be her wrath in the afterlife.

The Yurei would seek revenge, attaching themselves to the living and driving them towards death. Japanese ghosts can hold a terrifying grudge.

Fuyuko Matsui
The contemporary paintings of Fuyuko Matsui use traditional Japanese ideas of the yurei but include more modern imagery.

The supernatural in Japan is mainly differentiated between the yurei and the yōkai or monsters. While there are further classifications of demons and creatures in the Japanese tradition, the yurei will associate themselves with a person while the yōkai are associated with a place such as a mountain, river or lake.

The yuriga generally adapt a formal manner which defines it as a Japanese ghost painting. The figure is usually dressed in white with long black hair. This is important as a woman with her hair let down was only ever seen in intimate circumstances and so the visual imagery plays with the idea of sexuality, sensuality and loss.

The figure is often depicted side on suggesting movement towards the viewer. Also, a yurei is rarely depicted with legs or feet and will often be presented near water. Water such as rivers are regarded are divisions, borders between life and death.

The cultural significance of the Japanese Ghost  may be more familiar to Horror movie fans as the terrifying female figure in the 2002 film Ju-on: The Grudge. Both the original and the 2004 remake, The Grudge, employ a yuriga style figure that uses the traditional aspects of the Japanese Ghost story but extends the idea: a husband murders his wife and the woman’s ghost seeks revenge, attaching itself to anyone that enters the house.

The Grudge.jpg

While The Grudge depicts an angry ghost, this is not a concept that is necessarily associated with the supernatural in Japan.

The Japanese hold a strong belief in the spirits of the ancestors looking after their offspring from the afterlife. The yerei,  do not always seek revenge. Angry spirits are rare as ghosts are more commonly sad figures or simply supernatural advisories on the living, stepping in to correct future generations when necessary.

The painter Fuyuko Matsui  is known for her modern take on the yurei tradition, creating eerily disturbing images that convey sadness and loss. Her work juxtaposes beauty with darker themes creating engaging almost Gothic imagery that communicates from the departed.

Japanese Ghosts continue to inhabit our cultural consciousness as well as sharing our existence. Perhaps our fascination with these entities reflects our own spiritual loss as the yurei seek to attach themselves to the living. The Japanese attitude towards spirituality has influenced western culture where we commonly regard ghosts as evil, disturbed spirits. In the yurei we may be more willing to live alongside the spirits of our ancestors. and accept them as part of our everyday lives.

One thing is for sure, if we are to take anything from Japanese ghost stories its this; men should look after their wives for she may well seek revenge from beyond the grave.

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