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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") are things said to be the spirits of living humans that have come out of the body and move around freely.[1][2][3]

As an antonym, there is the word shiryō (lit. "dead ghost").


Phenomena of spirits (or souls) of humans going outside the body is something people have believed in from time immemorial, and many stories of ikiryō have remained in works of literature and documents on legends.[1][2] According to the Kōjien, ikiryō were considered to be curses brought about by the vengeful spiits onryō of those that are living,[4] but there are actually also tales where they possess people for reasons other than resentment, and there can also be seen examples of spirits of humans of those who were about to die becoming ikiryō and move around, and go to meet people they are close with.[2]

Classical literature[edit]

In classical literature, in The Tale of Genji (which came about in the middle of the Heian period), the story where Genji's lover Lady Rokujo became an ikiryō and cursed and killed Aoi no Ue who became pregnant with Genji's lover is well-known. Also, in the Konjaku Monogatarishū (which came about in the closing years of Heian), in volume 27, chapter 20, a woman who stood at an intersection was actually an ikiryō of a housewife of the Ōmi Province who got divorced from her husband.

They are few compared to tales where an ikiryō possess a hated person or a person they want to kill, but there are also tales of ikiryō involving someone they're deeply in love with, and due to the strength of that feeling, became an ikiryō and possessed the one they were in love with. In the middle of the Edo period, in the collection of essays, "Okinagusa" (翁草), volume 56 "Matsutōya Yūrei,"[5] there is a story where in the Kyōhō period, in Kyoto, a woman feel with a certain man in the neighborhood, and the strength of her feelings became and ikiryō and possessed him, and when the feelings were whispered to him, his body would move about violently, and as a result of his terrible torments, he finally became confined to bed due to an illness.[6]

"Onna no Mōnen Mayoiaruku Koto" (女の妄念迷ひ歩く事) from the "Sorori Monogatari" (曾呂利物語)[7]

Also, in the collection of kaidan, the Sorori Monogatari (曾呂利物語) from the Kanbun period, it tells of how a certain woman, while she was sleeping, had her ikiryō become a nukekubi and wandering around, was chased after by a man on the roadside, and when she waked up from her sleep, told of how she "saw a dream of being chased outside by a man," and thus it can be surmised that dreams were once interpreted to be the sights that one sees when people's ikiryō walked and played around outside.[1][7]

Folk beliefs[edit]

Legends where the souls of humans who are about to die become ikiryō can be seen in all parts of Japan. In the Nishitsugaru District, Aomori Prefecture, souls of those right before death that would walk outside and make sounds are called amabito,[2][8] and in Kazuno District Akita Prefecture, the same kind of strange event is called omokage (面影).[8][9] In the Tōno Region, Iwate Prefecture, for only the mind of a person to go towards their faraway home town are called omaku,[2][8] and a statement can be seen about them in the literary work by the folkloricist Kunio Yanagita, the Tōno Monogatari Shūi.[10] On the Noto Peninsula, they are called shininbō (死人坊), and it is said that the souls of those who would soon die several days later would go and visit temples to give thanks.[9] Strange events like can also be seen in other areas, and especially during the time of the war, there can be many legends seen where people who definitely should have been outside Japan in the battlefields, came to visit and greet relatives and friends, where the person died in the battlefield as a casualty.[9]

Also, in Shōwa 15 (1940), according to documents on folk customs in the village of Umedoi, Mie Prefecture (now part of Inabe), like the tale in the aforementioned "Sorori Monogatari," when some men discovered some balls of fire and chased after it, the ball of fire went inside a bar, and since a middle-aged woman who was sleeping inside it woke up and told of how she was "chased by a large crowd of men so she fled here," it is said that it was thus known that that ball of fire was that woman's soul.[1]

Ikiryō as an illness[edit]

Rikonbyō (離魂病) from the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari illustrated by Masasumi Ryūkansaijin. As the ikiryō was interpreted to be a type of illness, an ikiryō appears next to the woman to the left.

In the Edo period, for ikiryō to appear was considered a type of illness, and feared and given names such as "rikonbyō (離魂病, "soul separation illness)," "kage no yamai (影の病, illness of shadow)," and "kagewazarai." There are people who have reported witnessing ikiryō that are not different from themselves by a tiny bit, closely resembling the paranormal phenomenon of the doppelgänger, as well as reports of people who have reported experiencing their consciousness transferring away from their bodies, and seeing their own selves from outside.[11] Also, in the Heian period, for ikiryō to walk about is called "akugaru," and this has been considered by some to be the origin of the word "akogareru" (to admire or yearn for), but this is because for someone to have strong feelings of admiration for someone so much that it's as if their mind was not there, just as if only their spirit has left their body and gone towards the person in their mind, is described by this word "akogareru."[12]

Deeds or phenomena that resemble ikiryō[edit]

The ushi no koku mairi 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.[11] 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."[13][14]

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]


  1. ^ a b c d Ikeda 1959, pp. 186–190
  2. ^ a b c d e Konno 1969, pp. 64–98
  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. ^ Shinmura Izuru ed. (1991). 広辞苑 [Kojien] (4th ed.). 岩波書店. p. 122. ISBN 978-4-00-080101-0. 
  5. ^ 『図説 日本妖怪大鑑』(ISBN 978-4-06-256049-8)などの水木しげるの著書では「幽霊憑(ゆうれいつき)」の名で紹介されている。
  6. ^ 神沢貞幹 (2008) [1791]. "翁草". In 柴田宵曲編. 奇談異聞辞典. ちくま学芸文庫 (in Japanese). Chikuma Shobō. p. 612. ISBN 978-4-480-09162-8. 
  7. ^ a b 高田編 1989, pp. 13–15
  8. ^ a b c Ōtō et al 1955, pp. 46–293
  9. ^ a b c Konno 1969, pp. 100–105
  10. ^ 柳田國男 (2004) [1948]. "遠野物語拾遺". 遠野物語. 角川ソフィア文庫. 角川書店. pp. 146–151. ISBN 978-4-04-308320-6. 
  11. ^ a b Tada 2008, p. 283
  12. ^ 村上健司編著 (2005). 日本妖怪大事典 [The Great Yokai Encyclopedia of Japan]. Kwai books. 角川書店. pp. 24–25. ISBN 978-4-04-883926-6. 
  13. ^ 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.). 弘文堂. p. 41. ISBN 978-4-335-57050-6. 
  14. ^ 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.