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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 Japanese popular belief and fiction, refers to a spirit that leaves the body of a living person and subsequently haunts other people or places, sometimes across great distances.[1][2][3] The term(s) are used in contrast to shiryō, which refers to the spirit of those who are already deceased.


The popular belief that the human spirit (or soul) can escape from the body has been around since early times, with eyewitness accounts and experiences (hauntings, possessions, out-of-body experience) reported in anecdotal and fictional writings. vengeful spirits (怨霊 onryō?) of the living are said to inflict curses (祟り tatari?) upon the subject or subjects of their vengeance by means of transforming into their ikiryō form. It is believed that if a sufficient grudge is held, all or part of the perpetrator's soul leaves the body, appearing in front of the victim to harm or curse them, a concept not so dissimilar from the evil eye. The ikiryō has even made its way into Buddhist scriptures, where they are described as "living spirits" who, if angered, might bring about curses, even just before their death. Possession is another means by which the Ikiryō are commonly believed to be capable of inflicting harm, the possessed person thought to be unaware of this process.[4] However, according to mythology, the ikiryō does not necessarily act out of spite or vengefulness, and stories are told of the ikiryō who bears no grudge, or poses no real threat. In recorded examples, the spirit sometimes takes possession of another person's body for motives other than vengeance, such as love and infatuation (for example the Matsutōya ghost below). A person's ikiryō may also leave the body (often very shortly before death) to manifest its presence around loved ones, friends and/or acquaintances.[2]

Classical literature[edit]

In classical literature, the The Tale of Genji (ca. 1100) describes the "well known" episode of the ikisudama (the archaic form of ikiryō) that emerged from Genji's lover Lady Rokujo, and tormented Genji's pregnant wife Aoi no Ue, resulting in her death after the successful delivery of her son.[5] This spirit is also portrayed in the Noh play adaptation entitled Aoi no Ue. After her death, Lady Rokujo became an onryō and went on to torment those who would later become Genji's consorts, Murasaki and Onna-sannomiya (ja).[5]

In the Heian period, a human soul leaving a body and drifting away is described by the old verb "akugaru" meaning "departure". In the The Tale of Genji, the mentally troubled Kashiwagi fears that his soul may be found wandering (akugaru), and requests that last rites are performed on his body to stop his soul from escaping if this should happen.[6][7] Another example of this term occurs in the verse by the poet Izumi Shikibu which depicts the author's soul as a wandering firefly: "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 at the crossroads, the lady asks directions to the house of a certain Senior Assistant Minister of Popular Affairs (民部大夫 Minbu-no-tayū?) in the capital. Unbeknown to the man, the woman was actually the ikiryō of the wife the official had abandoned, as we find out later in the text. Upon reaching the house, the lady promptly vanishes before the man's eyes, even though the gates are shut. Wailing noises are then heard coming from inside the house. The following morning, the guide learns that the master of the house complained of the presence of his former wife's ikiryō, claiming this to be the cause of his illness, a short prelude to his later death. The main character decides to pay a visit to the house in Ōmi Province where the lady he directed said she lived. He is welcomed by a woman who acknowledges the man's services that day, meeting him through blinds, and showering 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 chronologically parallel story of the "Matsutōya yūrei" that allegedly was based 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 whom two women were in love. The guilt the boy felt for his situation tormented him, the Ikirȳo would on occasion suspended him 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 called upon. The priest successfully exorcises the boy's illness away, but rumors had already 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 arrives at place called Sawaya in Kita-no-shō, Echizen Province (now Fukui City), where he mistakedly thinks he saw a chicken fly from the base of a nearby stone tower on to the road, but it turns out to be (or has transformed into) the animated, severed head of the woman. When the face grinns at him, he attacks with a sword, and chases it to a home in the capital of the province. Inside the house, the housewife transforms from this nightmare being, but is still being chased by the man, who is brandishing a blade, leading to the consequential awakening of 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). The woman later becomes a nun to repent for her sins.[1][16][17]

Folk Law[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. The recipient of the visit experiencing a metaphysical foreshadowing of this person's death, before any tangible news of bereavement arrives.

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

In the tradition of the Nishitsugaru District, Aomori Prefecture, the souls of the person/s on the brink of death are called amabito, and believed to depart from the body and walk around, sometimes making noises like that of the door sliding open.[18][19]

According to Yanagita, tobi-damashi (飛びだまし?) is the equivalent term to the Senboku District, Akita region. Yanagita defines this as the ability of certain persons to traverse the world in their Ikirȳo form. Such individuals are purported to have voluntary control of this ability, in contrast to those who are only temporarily capable of tapping into such a state as a precursor to their death.[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 being a beautiful girl aged 16 or 17, critically ill with a case of "cold damage" (傷寒 shōkan?) (Typhoid fever or a similar disease). She was seen wandering around the construction site of the Kōganji temple rebuild project in Tsujibuchi, Iwate (ja), the days before her death.[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, which was seen passing through on its visits todanna-dera (The family temple, also called bodaiji). The temple was believed to be the soul's final resting grounds, where one finds a place amongst their ancestors .[21][24][25]

Soul flames[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 who is near death is not considered unusual, wity the traditional conception among Japanese being that the soul escapes the body within a short phase (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 deemed 'suitable for discussion' under the topic of ikiryō by a folklorist closely resembled 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 during a dream. The subject worked at the town office of Tōno, Iwate, and one night, he reported seeing an hidama emerge from a stable and into the house's entrance where it was 'flying around'. He claimed to have 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 he made sure to release the fireball from its trapping. He soonlearned that his uncle had only just passed away, but his uncle came back to life again, enough so to accuse the nephew of the of chasing him with a broom and capturing him.[28] Similarly, the folklore archives of Umedoi, Mie Prefecture (now part of Inabe) tells a tale about a band of men who, late in the night, spotted and chased a fireball into a sake warehouse, waking a maid who was asleep inside. The maid later professed to being "pursued by many men and fleeing" to take refuge in the warehouse.[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 a belief that there was 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 of the sufferer. The condition was also known interchangeably as shadow-sickeness (影の病 kage no yamai?), alternately written as 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 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 inhabits theikiryōto see their own lifeless body.[32]

Similar activity or phenomena[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 a rival. Although many ikiryō generally are spirits of humans that leave the body unconsciously and move about, deeds akin to performing magic rituals and intentionally tormenting a target can also be interpreted as ikiryō.[32] In the same way, in the Okinawa Prefecture, performing of a magic ritual with the intention of becoming an ikiryō is termed ichijama (ja).[33][34]

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 ruminates on that person. This etymological metaphor is also used 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. ^ Whilst terms such as tobi-damashi or omokage, Akita, or shininbō are used in the Ishikawa Prefecture in isolated cases, these terms are not frequently used anywhere elsewhere.
  4. ^ The term omaku was unknown to Kizen Sasaki, the local expert and chief source to Yanagita's Tōno monogatari, Kizen Sasaki. Sasaki didn't provide testimony to his witnessing of the girl's ikiryō who appeared at Kōganji temple, because he was just 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. ^ ,the Japanese equivalent to the will-o'-the-wisp (or gernerically "atmospheric ghost lights")


  1. ^ a b c Ikeda 1959, pp. 186–190
  2. ^ a b 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)", example of use from the 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 a 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, "There are also many instances reported, especially when facing death, of men materialising in front of a chosen loved one or associate. In Senhoku-gun such people are called amabitoand individuals who can 'fly anywhere in their dreams' are called tobi-damashi [flying soul], the same term used in Tsugaru,.." 
  19. ^ Konno 1969, pp. 67, 68
  20. ^ a b 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 there are cases of floating balloon-like objects of yellow color (iridescent colored, according to Konno) an omen of death.The locals in the Shimokita District, Aomori refer to the object as tamashi (タマシ?) "souls" the same term in common usage by locals in (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 injuries he sustained falling off a bridge whilst he was double-riding on a bicycle. 30 years earlier, an eyewitness Masao Kashiwadani, was convinced the tamashi he saw was a bedridden relative named Oyasu Takahashi. Coincidentally Oyasu died shortly after.
  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. 


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