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"Ikiryō" (生霊) from the "Gazu Hyakki Yagyō" by Sekien Toriyama

Ikiryō, or shōryō, seirei, ikisudama (生霊, lit. "living ghost," "eidolon"), in popular belief or in fictional works, refers to the spirit that leaves the body of a person still alive, which can haunt other people or places, sometimes even a great distance away.[1][2][3] The term(s) are used in contrast to shiryō, which refers to the spirit of the dead.


Popular belief that the human spirit (or soul) can escape loose from the body has been around since time memorial, with eyewitness accounts or experiences (hauntings, possessions, out-of-body experience) being reported in writing, both anecdotal and fictional.[1][2] The Kōjien dictionary defines ikiryō as "the vengeful spirits (怨霊 onryō?) of the living, said to inflict curses (祟り tatari?) [upon the subjects of their vengeance]."[4] However, the spirit does not necessarily act out of spite or vengefulness, and stories are told of ikiryō who bears no grudge, or poses no real threat. In recorded examples, the spirit may take possession of another person's body for motives other than vengeance, such as love and infatuation (e.g. the Matsutōya ghost below). A person's ikiryō may also leave the body (often very shortly before death) to manifest their presence around their dear ones and acquaintances.[2]

Classical literature[edit]

In classical literature, the The Tale of Genji (ca. 1100) contains the "all too famous" episode of the ikisudama (antiquated form of ikiryō) that emerged from Genji's lover Lady Rokujo, and tormented Genji's pregnant wife Aoi no Ue, culminating in her death after successful delivery of a son.[5] This spirit is also portrayed in the Noh play adaptation entitled Aoi no Ue. After death, Lady Rokujo became an onryō and went oun to torment Genji's later consorts, Murasaki and Onna-sannomiya (ja).[5]

In the Heian period, a human soul leaving its body and drifting off is described by the old verb "akugaru" meaning "departure". In the The Tale of Genji, the mentally anguished Kashiwagi fears that his soul may be found wandering off (akugaru), and if that should happen, requests that rites be performed to keep the soul tied down to him.[6][7] Another example of this term occurs in the verse by Izumi Shikibu which imagines that the firefly might be her wayward soul: "While I am rapt in thought, / The fireflies of the marsh would seem to be / My soul, caught up and wandering / Forth out off me." (Goshūi Wakashū XX).[8][9][10][a]

In the medieval collection Konjaku Monogatarishū is the tale of "How the Ikiryo Spirit of Omi Province Came and Killed a Man of the Capital." A man of humble origins traveling out of Kyoto meets a woman in the crossroad, seeking to be guided to the house of a certain Senior Assistant Minister of Popular Affairs (民部大夫 Minbu-no-tayū?) back in the capital. She was the ikiryō of the abandoned wife of this official, as this man was later to learn. Upon reaching the house, she promptly vanished before his eyes, even though the gates were shut, then wailing noises were heard inside. In the morning, the guide learned that the master of the house had made the terrified declaration that the ikiryō of his wife causing his illness was now in his presence, and died shortly after. The man decided to pay a visit to the house in Ōmi Province where the lady he guided said she resided, and was received by a woman who acknowledged the man's service that day, met him through blinds, and showered him with gifts of silk cloths and such.[12][13][14]

The ikiryō can also possess the object of its infatuation, rather than its love-rival. The essay collection "Okinagusa" (翁草) records a contemporaneous story of the "Matsutōya yūrei" that allegedly took place in Kyōhō 14 or 15 (1729–30), whereby a Kyoto merchant named Matsutōya Tokubei (松任屋徳兵衛?) had a teenaged son named Matsunosuke possessed by the spirit of two girls in love with him. The boy would be tormented as if by guilt, be suspended in air, and engage in conversation as if the girls were present before his eyes, though the girls were nowhere visible, and the spirits' words were spoken through the boy's lips. Finally a renowned priest named Zōkai (象海慧湛 1682-1733?) was summoned, and the exorcism led to the boy's successful recovery from illness, but unwanted rumors had spread regarding the incident.[15][b]

"Onna no Mōnen Mayoiaruku Koto" (女の妄念迷ひ歩く事) from the "Sorori Monogatari" (曾呂利物語)[16]

The horror story (kaidan) collection entitled Sorori Monogatari (曾呂利物語?) (published Kanbun 3, or 1663) includes a tale of a woman whose ikiryō assumed the shape of her severed head (cf. the yōkai monster known as nukekubi). One night, a man traveling towards Kyoto came to a place called Sawaya in Kita-no-shō, Echizen Province (now Fukui City), where he thought he saw a chicken fly from the base of a stone tower onto the road, but it turned out to be (or transformed into) a live severed head of a woman. When the head grinned at him, the traveler attacked with a sword, and chased it to a home in the capital of the province. Inside the house, the housewife rose from a nightmare being chased by a man brandishing a blade, and awoke her husband. The wandering head was, according to the title, the woman's monen (?), or her wayward thoughts or obsession (that strays from the tenets of Buddhism). And the woman afterwards became a nun to repent her sins.[1][16][17]

Folk beliefs[edit]

Regional near-death spirits[edit]

Sightings of ikiryō belonging to those whose deaths are imminent have been recorded from all over Japan. Stories abound of spirits that materialize (or otherwise manifest their presence) to someone dear to them,[18] such as immediate family, and the recipient of the visit experiences a metaphysical foreshadowing of this person's death, before any tangible news of bereavement arrives.

Many of the local terms for the ikiryō was collected by Kunio Yanagita and his school of folklorists:[c]

In the tradition of the Nishitsugaru District, Aomori Prefecture, the souls of persons on the brink of death are called amabito, believed to depart from the body and walk around, sometimes creating noises like that of the door slinding open.[18][19][20]

According to Yanagita, tobi-damashi (飛びだまし?) is the equivalent term in the Senboku District, Akita region. Yanagita describes this as an ability that presents in certain persons with that gift (who is able to see in a dream whatever the soul he releases into the world experiences), rather than an uncontrolled phenomenon visited upon the dying.[18]

In the Kazuno District in Akita Prefecture, a soul that pays visit to acquaintances is called an omokage (面影〔オモカゲ〕?) "reminescence, lingering shadow", and assumes the form of a living human, that is to say, it has feet and make pitter-patter noises, unlike the stereotypical Japanese ghost that have no legs or feet.[20][21]

Yanagita in Tōno monogatari shūi reported that in the Tōno Region, Iwate Prefecture, "the thoughts of the dead or the living coalesce into a walking shape, and appear to the human eye as an illusion is termed an omaku in this region." An example was a beautiful girl aged 16 or 17, critically ill with a case of "cold damage" (傷寒 shōkan?) (Typhoid fever or similar disease), but was seen wandering around the construction site for rebuilding the temple Kōganji in Tsujibuchi, Iwate (ja), the day before she died.[20][22][23][d]

In Kashima District, Ishikawa on the Noto Peninsula, a folklorist recorded belief in the shininbō (死人坊?), said to appear 2 or 3 days before someone's death, and can be seen passing through on its way to pay visit to its danna-dera (family temple, also called bodaiji), that is to say, the place anticipated to be the soul's final resting grounds, alongside his ancestors.[21][24][25]

Soul flame-type[edit]

For more details on this topic, see hitodama and hidama.

There are cases where the wandering ikiryō appear as a floating "soul flame", known in Japan as the hitodama or hidama.[e] However, a "soul flame" from a person not quite dead is not considered unusual, given the general traditional conception among Japanese that the soul escapes the body within a short span (several days) either before or after death.[26] Therefore, pre-death soul flames may not be treated as cases of ikiryō in works on the subject of ghosts, but filed under chapters on the hitodama phenomenon.[27]

One case of a near-death hitodama that a folklorist deemed suitable to discuss under the topic of ikiryō had the additional feature in common with the aforementioned tale of the woman's head in the "Sorori Monogatari", namely, that the subject who witnessed the soul's apparition pursued it ruthlessly, until he discovered the owner of the soul, who claimed to have seen the entire experience of being chased while dreaming. The subject worked at the town office of Tōno, Iwate, and one night, he watched as a hidama emerged from the stable into the house entrance and fly around. He chased it with a broom, and trapped it beneath a washbasin. A while after, he was rushed out to see his sick uncle on the brink of death, but before leaving released the fireball from capture. He learned that uncle had only just passed away, but breathed back to life again, able enough to accuse the nephew of the whole ordeal of chasing him with a broom and capturing him.[28] Similarly, the folklore archives of Umedoi, Mie Prefecture (now part of Inabe) preserves a tale about a band of men who late in the night spotted and chased a fireball into a sake warehouse, awaking a maid sleeping inside who professed to being "pursued by a many men and fleeing here," thereby revealing the identity of the fireball.[1]

Ikiryō as an illness[edit]

Rikonbyō (離魂病) from the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari illustrated by Masasumi Ryūkansaijin. The woman on the left is afflicted by the "soul separation illness", and her ikiryō appears next to her.

During the Edo period, there was belief in a condition called rikonbyō (離魂病?) "soul separation illness", whereby the soul would not just separate from the body, but assume the shape and appearance identical to the sufferer. The condition was also known interchangeably as shadow-sickeness (影の病 kage no yamai?), alternately written kagewazarai (カゲノワズライ?).[29][30]

This affliction is treated as an instance of ikiryō by folklorist Ensuke Konno in his chapter on the topic.[29] The case study example is that of one Yūji Kita, doomed by the kage no yamai for three generations in succession, recorded in the Ōshu banashi (奥州波奈志?, "Far North Tales") by Tadano Makuzu (d. 1825).

The identical double might be seen by the sufferer or be witnessed by others, and can be classed as a doppelgänger phenomenon.[31] Others have reported a sort of out-of-body experience, whereby their consciousness inhabit the ikiryō, looking at one's corporeal self from beyond.[32]

Deeds or phenomena that resemble ikiryō[edit]

The ushi no koku mairi (丑の刻参り?) is, when one, in the hour of the ox (1AM to 3AM), strikes a nail in a sacred tree, and thus becomes an oni while alive, and using these oni powers, would inflict curses and calamity upon someone hated. Although many ikiryō generally are spirits of humans that leave the body unconsciously and move about, deeds like performing these magic rituals and intentionally tormenting a target can also be interpreted as ikiryō.[32] In the same way, in the Okinawa Prefecture, performing a magic ritual for intentionally becoming an ikiryō, possessing other people or animals, and inflicting harm on them is called ichijama (ja).[33][34]

Also, as something that resembles this, some people who have testified witnessing a near-death experience speak of experiencing something as if their physical bodies and their consciousness have become separated. Also, there is also the example of out-of-body experiences (where the soul, as the consciousness, leaves the body, and as a spectator, is able to see one's own body).

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ From the old verb akugaru derives the modern akogareru (憧れる?) meaning "to yearn for, have a romantic notion of" (Kojien[4]), since when one adores something or someone, the mind takes flight to that place. This etymology is also addressed by Yasaburo Ikeda (ja)[11] and by Murakami[10]
  2. ^ The anecdote is mentioned as a tale of yūreitsuki (幽霊憑?) in the writings of Shigeru Mizuki, e.g. his Zusetsu nihon yōkai taikan (『図説 日本妖怪大鑑』?) (ISBN 978-4-06-256049-8).
  3. ^ However, while the terms such as tobi-damashi or omokage of Akita, or shininbō of Ishikawa Prefecture are given in isolated instances, these terms are not well-attested independently elsewhere.
  4. ^ The term omaku was unknown to Kizen Sasaki, the local expert and chief source to Yanagita's Tōno monogatari, Kizen Sasaki. Sasaki was not the one who provided testimony to the girl's ikiryō who appeared at Kōganji temple, being a boy at the time. Later, Sasaki remarked he did not know the term "omaku", though he was familiar with a similar phrase "omoi omaku", in response to Tōzō Suzuki (ja)'s inquiry. 今野 1969, pp. 101–102, citing 鈴木, 棠三 (Suzuki, Tōzō) (1059), "怪異を訪ねて", 大法輪 26 (6) 
  5. ^ It is the Japanese equivalent of the will-o'-the-wisp (or gernerically "atmospheric ghost lights")


  1. ^ a b c d Ikeda 1959, pp. 186–190
  2. ^ a b c Konno 1969, Chapter 3 (Ikiryō no yūri), pp. 63–98
  3. ^ Clarke, Peter Bernard (2000), Japanese new religions: in global perspective, Volume 1999 (annotated ed.), Routledge, p. 247, ISBN 978-0-7007-1185-7 
  4. ^ a b c Shinmura, Izuru, ed. (1991). 広辞苑 [Kojien] (4th ed.). 岩波書店. p. 122. ISBN 978-4-00-080101-0. 
  5. ^ a b Konno 1969, p. 69 "『源氏物語』の六条御息所が.. あまりにも有名であり"
  6. ^ Bargen, Doris G. (1997). A Woman's Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji. University of Hawaii Press. p. 166. ISBN 082481858X. 
  7. ^ Kojien,[4] akugaru, sense 2 "the soul leaving the body (lured by something)", usage example from Tale of Genji, Book 36 (Kashiwagi).
  8. ^ Miyamori, Asatarō (ed. tr.) (1956). Masterpieces of Japanese Poetry: Ancient and Modern 1. Taiseido Shobo Company. 
  9. ^ Given as an example in Konno 1969, pp. 66–67
  10. ^ a b 村上, 健司 (Murakami, Kenji) (2005), 日本妖怪大事典 (Nihon yōkai daijiten) [The Great Yokai Encyclopedia of Japan], Kwai books, 角川書店, pp. 24–25, ISBN 978-4-04-883926-6 
  11. ^ Konno 1969, pp. 66–67
  12. ^ Dykstra, Yoshiko Kurata (tr.), ed. (2003), "Book 27, Chapter 20: How the Ikiryo Spirit of Omi Province Came and Killed a Man of the Capital", The Konjaku Tales: From a Medieval Japanese Collection. Japanese section (Intercultural Research Institute, Kansai Gaidai University Publication) 3: 95-, ISBN 4873350263 
  13. ^ Haga, Yaichi (芳賀矢一), ed. (1921), "卷第廿七/第20: 近江國生靈來京煞人語", 攷証今昔物語集 (Kōshō konjaku monogatari shū), 3 (下): 367– .
  14. ^ Included, in modern translation, in Konno 1969, pp. 93–96 under the altered title (夫を取り殺した青衣の女?) "A woman in blue garment who possessed and killed her husband", in his chapter on the ikiryō
  15. ^ 神沢貞幹/神沢杜口 (Kanzawa, Teikan/Tokō 1710-1795), ed. (1906). "Book 56 (Chapter 松任屋幽霊)". 翁草 6. 池辺義象 (revised). 五車楼書店. pp. 66–7. . The wording is "the spirit of the two possessed Matsunosuke" (「二人が霊、松之助につきて」?). Modern translations by Iwaya Sazanami, in Dai goen (第語園?) (1935), Vol. 8, p.90.
  16. ^ a b 高田編 1989, pp. 13–15
  17. ^ 湯浅, 佳子 (Yuasa, Yoshiko) (2009). "『曾呂里物語』の類話" [A Study of the Similar Story of "SORORI-MONOGATARI"]. 東京学芸大学紀要. 人文社会科学系 I 60: 307–309. ISSN 1880-4314. . Summarized, with the title transcribed as 女のまうねんまよひありく事 (onna no maunen mayohi ariku koto?)
  18. ^ a b c Yanagita, Kunio (1970), "Chapter 77", About Our Ancestors: The Japanese Family System, Fanny Hagin Mayer (tr.), Greenwood Press, p. 171, "and there are many stories, especially about when faced with death, how a man can go to the one he wants to see. In Senhoku-gun people who can fly anywhere in dreams are called tobi-damashi [flying soul], and those who come just before death to see somebody are called amabito in Tsugaru,.." 
  19. ^ Konno 1969, pp. 67, 68 narrows the locality as "Nishitsugaru", and mentions the soul walking and making door noises.
  20. ^ a b c Ōtō et al 1955, pp. 46–293
  21. ^ a b Konno 1969, Chapter 4, pp.100–105
  22. ^ 柳田, 國男 (Yanagita, Kunio) (2004) [1948]. "遠野物語拾遺160話". 遠野物語. [[ja:角川ソフィア文庫|]]. 角川書店. pp. 146–151. ISBN 978-4-04-308320-6. "生者や死者の思いが凝って出歩く姿が、幻になって人の目に見える" 
  23. ^ Konno 1969, pp. 81, 82, citing Kunio Yanagita, Tōno Monogatari
  24. ^ 中村, 浩 (Nakamura, Hiroshi) (1929). "能登島採訪録". 民俗学会 (Minzokugaku) (民俗学会) 1 (2): 42–44. , cited by Konno 1969
  25. ^ International Research Center for Japanese Studies (2002). "シニンボウ". 怪異・妖怪伝承データベース. 
  26. ^ Konno 1969, Chapter 2 Hitodama kō, p.38
  27. ^ Konno 1969, Chapter 2 Hitodama kō, pp.37–62. On pp.44–46 are cases of floating balloon-like objects of yellow color (iridescent colored, according to Konno) which presage death.The objects are called tamashi (タマシ?) "souls" by locals in Shimokita District, Aomori (specifically Komena hamlet, in the town of Ōhata). On the day after a sighting of one heading towards the mountains (Mount Osore) on April 2, 1963, a boy died in the hospital from a fall off a bridge while dobule-riding a bicycle. 30 years earlier, an eyewitness Masao Kashiwadani was convinced the tamashi he saw was a bedridden relative named Oyasu Takahashi, and sure enough she died.
  28. ^ Konno 1969, p. 75, citing Tōno monogatari
  29. ^ a b Konno 1969, pp. 12, 64–66
  30. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio (1905), The Romance of the Milky Way: And Other Studies & Stories, Houghton, Mifflin, pp. 60 –64 
  31. ^ Hearn 1905, p. 61
  32. ^ a b Tada 2008, p. 283
  33. ^ 上江洲均 (1994) [1972]. 大塚民俗学会編, ed. 日本民俗事典 (Nihon minzokushi taikei) [Japanese folk encyclopedia] (Pocket ed.). [[ja:弘文堂|]]. p. 41. ISBN 978-4-335-57050-6. 
  34. ^ 島袋源七 (1974) [1929]. "山原の土俗". In 池田彌三郎 (Ikeda, Yasusaburō) et al. 日本民俗誌大系 1. 角川書店. p. 373. ISBN 978-4-04-530301-2.