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In Japanese Buddhism, jikininki (Japanese: 食人鬼, "human-eating ghosts"; pronounced shokujinki in modern Japanese) are the spirits of greedy, selfish or impious individuals who are cursed after death to seek out and eat human corpses. They do this at night, scavenging for newly dead bodies and food offerings left for the dead. They sometimes also loot the corpses they eat for valuables, which they use to bribe local officials to leave them in peace. Nevertheless, jikininki lament their condition and hate their repugnant cravings for dead human flesh.
Often, jikininki are said to look like decomposing cadavers, perhaps with a few inhuman features such as sharp claws or glowing eyes. They are a horrifying sight, and any mortal who views one finds himself or herself frozen in fear. However, several stories give them the ability to magically disguise themselves as normal human beings and even to lead normal "lives" by day.
Jikininki are preta of the 26th class in Japanese Buddhism. They are also sometimes considered a form of rakshasa or gaki ("hungry ghosts"). In the latter case, they may be freed from their deplorable existence through remembrances and offerings or through the prayers of a holy and/or righteous man that has a truly holy spirit and has done nothing to dishonor his or her family.
The legend of the jikininki is told in the old Japanese tale of the Buddhist priest Muso Kokushi. It is said that Muso was traveling alone through the mountains in the Mino prefecture of Japan when he lost his way. It was almost dark when he saw an old anjitsu, the home of solitary priests, at the top of a hill and asked the inhabitant if he could stay the night. The inhabitant was an old priest who harshly refused him lodging, however he told him he could find food and a place to sleep in a hamlet nearby.
Muso found the hamlet where the headman welcomed him and promptly supplied him food and a place to sleep. A little before midnight Muso was awakened by a young man, who informed him that earlier that day, before he had arrived, his father had died. He had not told Muso earlier as so he would not feel embarrassed or obliged to participate in ceremonies. However the entire village was now leaving their homes for a nearby village, as it was custom to leave the corpse alone for the night or bad things would befall the village inhabitants. As a priest, Muso told the young man he would do his duty and perform the burial service and stay the night with the corpse. He was not afraid of the demons or evil spirits the young man spoke of.
When the young man and the other villagers had left, Muso knelt by the corpse and the offerings and began the service. In the deepest part of a night a shapeless being entered while Muso was in meditation. Muso could not speak or move as he watched the shape devour the corpse and the offerings. The next morning when the villagers had returned, Muso told the young man what had happened. He was not surprised.
He then asked the young man why the priest on the nearby hill did not do the ceremony. The young man told him there was no priest who lived nearby and there hadn’t been for many years. When Muso spoke of the anjitsu the young man also denied its existence. Muso then departed from the village with proper directions to continue his journey.
Although before he left, he sought out the anjitsu and old priest on the top of the hill to see if he had been mistaken. He found the hill and anjitsu easily, and the old priest let him inside this time. The old priest then began to apologize for displaying his true form in front of Muso. He was the shapeless figure who had devoured the corpse in front of him. He explained that he was a jikininki. After living a selfish life as a priest, only caring about the food and clothes his services brought him, he was reborn as a jikininki, doomed to feed upon corpses. He pleaded with Muso to perform a segaki-service so he could escape his horrible existence as a jikininki. All of a sudden the old priest disappeared along with the anjitsu. Muso found himself kneeling in the grass on the top of a hill next to a tombstone of a priest.