Demons and Ghosts



Head of a Demon

Head of a Demon 

Head of a Demon

Clay, H. 30.3 cm. Sengim, Small Stupa, 8th -9th century
Museum fur Indische Kunst (MIK III 8560)

Scenes with demons are common in the art of Central Asia, especially in connection with the attack of Mara, the Buddhist Tempter, and his horde against the Bodhisattva. Yet what we see here is apparendy not so much a fearsome spirit as a comic mask, like the ones still found in the Himalayan lands today.

A broad cap in the form of a helmet comes down low over the head. The protruding eyeballs below the brows, whose delineation is anything but menacing, the broad nose, and the large, expressive mouth give the face a humorous air. The mask effect is heightened by the generous application of paint.

Blue Demon

Blue Demon 

Blue Demon

Clay, H. 21.7 cm. Sengim, 8th- 9th century
Museum fur Indische Kunst (MIK III 8541)

This very expressive demon's face gains its fearsome aspect from the protruding eyeballs, peering to the side from under bushy, twirled eyebrows, the large, vertical, third eye on the forehead, and the fangs in the open mouth.


Head of a Demon

Head of a Demon 

Head of a Demon

Clay, H. 12.3 cm. Shorchuk, Temple in the South of the City, 7th century
Museum fur Indische Kunst (MIK III 7860)

Here the face is marked by very expressive features: below the high forehead the eyes peer out from beneath menacingly raised eyebrows. This is in effect a simple variation on the basic Shorchuk head, dynamically emphasizing the few lines of the face. The demonic expression sought after is intensified by the shorter, flatter nose and the vertical furrows of the brow above it.

Head of a Demon

Head of a Demon 

Head of a Demon

Clay, H. 21.4 cm. Khocho, Temple a, 8th-9th century
Museum fur Indische Kunst (MIK III 4527)

This head, with its pink-primed face, has many features that identify it as that of a demon. The eyes have a green iris and protrude from underneath thick, brownish, high-arched brows. The nose, comparatively short, is flared at the sides; below it is a wavy brown-and- black mustache. The open mouth, with its curling lower lip, reveals four ordinary teeth and two fangs in the corners of the upper jaw. The curious beard is composed of two thick, separate locks of hair. Above the two V-shaped furrows in the forehead is a shock of red hair, combed back in strands.


Dancing Demon

Dancing Demon 

Dancing Demon

Ink on paper, 17.5 x 9 cm. Khocho, 8th -9th century
Museum fur Indische Kunst (MIK III 4951)

This ink drawing with its very curious subject is part of the illumination of a Uighurian manuscript. A partly skeletal demon or entity from hell performs a wild dance beside a bowl. He wears a loincloth round his hips. The head is broad at the top and comes to a point at the chin; on his right temple is a crescent-shaped mane of hair. The artist has managed with fairly coarse strokes to sketch a very lively figure; in the frenzy of the dance the elevated bush of hair seems almost to shake to and fro, and the arms and legs to jerk up and down.

This is the only ink drawing of such outstanding quality that has come down to us from this early period - of history of Central Asia. On the back can be seen a few lines of Uighurian script, which may have been added later.

The fragment appears to come from a rolled manuscript. Scrolls of this kind were formed by pasting large pages of a book together at the edges; the front page was attached to a stick around which the whole manuscript was rolled up and tied with a ribbon. The drawing was executed either with a brush as used in China or, if this was not obtainable, a reed pen, which was more common in the western border regions.

Demon with a Lamp

Demon with a Lamp   Demon with a Lamp

Demon with a Lamp

Wall painting, 64.2 x 25.7 cm. Bezeklik, Temple 9, 9th century
Museum fur Indische Kunst (MIK III 6875)

From the porch of Temple 9 two stuccoed steps led to the cella. The door reveals were once adorned with paintings, but so many had crumbled off at the left-hand pillar that only the remains of a life-size female deity, probably the goddess Hariti, could still be made out. The right-hand pillar bore the outline of a male figure in armor, no doubt meant to represent the god Kubera.
To his right knelt this demon as lamp bearer, holding aloft in both hands a tray with a small vessel that contains two burning wicks. The demon's round, pudgy face has been given a grotesque expression with the help of prominent, wide-open eyes, unnatural eye-brows, and fangs. His hair is styled like a cap, remi- niscent of the Buddha coiffure, but here we find a decorative ribbon with feathers in front. He is ornately dressed over a plain undergarment.




In folklore, a ghost (sometimes known as an apparition, haunt, phantom, poltergeist, shade, specter or spectre, spirit, spook, and wraith) is the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living. Descriptions of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, lifelike visions. The deliberate attempt to contact the spirit of a deceased person is known as necromancy, or in spiritism as a séance.

The belief in the existence of an afterlife, as well as manifestations of the spirits of the dead is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Certain religious practices—funeral rites, exorcisms, and some practices of spiritualism and ritual magic—are specifically designed to rest the spirits of the dead. Ghosts are generally described as solitary, human-like essences that haunt particular locations, objects, or people they were associated with in life, though stories of ghostly armies and the ghosts of animals rather than humans have also been recounted.

Hungry Ghosts

Hungry ghost is a concept in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. The term 餓鬼 èguǐ, literally "hungry ghost", is the Chinese translation of the term preta in Buddhism. "Hungry ghosts" play a role in Chinese Buddhism and Taoism as well as in Chinese folk religion. The term is not to be confused with the generic term for "ghost",鬼 guǐ (i.e. the spirit of a deceased ancestor). The understanding is that all people become such a regular ghost when they die, and would then slowly weaken and eventually die a second time. Hungry ghosts, by contrast, are a much more exceptional case, and would only occur in very unfortunate circumstances, such as if a whole family were killed or when a family no longer venerated their ancestors.


Gaki-Zoushi (餓鬼草紙、平安時代) 

Gaki-Zoushi (餓鬼草紙、平安時代)
A gaki condemned to shit-eating, watches a child, wearing geta, and holding a chūgi, c. 12th century.


Gaki-Zoushi (餓鬼草紙、平安時代) 

Gaki-Zoushi (餓鬼草紙、平安時代)


Hungry Ghosts Scroll (Gaki zoshi)

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし), late 12th century.
The Hungry Ghosts Scroll is located at the Tokyo National Museum. It depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. The whole scroll is a National Treasure of Japan


Hungry Ghosts Scroll

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし), late 12th century. Current location: Kyoto National Museum
First section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll depicting one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seeks water to drink and explaining how those who have been born as such are saved by the offerings of the living.


Hungry Ghosts Scroll

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし), late 12th century. Current location: Kyoto National Museum
Second section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll located at the Kyoto National Museum. The scroll depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. This particular section explains how those who have been born as hungry ghosts are saved by the offerings of the living. It relates the story of one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seek water to drink. The central scene of this section shows people pouring water on a funerary marker for the ullambana festival for the dead. The whole scroll has been designated as National Treasure of Japan in the category paintings. It was possibly part of a set of scrolls depicting the six realms which was kept at Sanjūsangen-dō.


Hungry Ghosts Scroll

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 

Hungry Ghosts Scroll 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし), late 12th century. Current location: Kyoto National Museum
Sixth section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll located at the Kyoto National Museum. The scroll depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. This particular section shows Ananda, a disciple of Shakyamuni, teaching an incantation to achieve salvation to a hungry ghost who continuously belches flames from his mouth. The whole scroll has been designated as National Treasure of Japan in the category paintings. It was possibly part of a set of scrolls depicting the six realms which was kept at Sanjūsangen-dō.


Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts in Burmese representation 1906.

Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts.

Hungry ghosts looking for food.

Hungry ghosts looking for food.

Food and water is left out as an offering for hungry ghosts who have no one to tend to them.

Maudgalyayana (目連) visits the realm of the hungry ghosts

Maudgalyayana (目連) visits the realm of the hungry ghosts

Maudgalyayana (目連) visits the realm of the hungry ghosts



Kaidan 怪談

Kaidan (sometimes transliterated kwaidan) is a Japanese word consisting of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning “strange, mysterious, rare or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning “talk” or “recited narrative.”

In its broadest sense, kaidan refers to any ghost story or horror story, but it has an old-fashioned ring to it that carries the connotation of Edo period Japanese folktales. The term is no longer as widely used in Japanese as it once was: Japanese horror books and films such as Ju-on and Ring would more likely be labeled by the katakana horā (ホラー, "horror") or the standard Japanese kowai hanashi (怖い話, "scary story"). Kaidan is only used if the author/director wishes to specifically bring an old-fashioned air into the story.

Originally based on didactic Buddhist tales, kaidan often involve elements of karma, and especially ghostly vengeance for misdeeds. Japanese vengeful ghosts (Onryō 怨霊) are far more powerful after death than they were in life, and are often people who were particularly powerless in life, such as women and servants.

Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai and Kaidanshu

Kaidan entered the vernacular during the Edo period, when a game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai became popular. This game led to a demand for ghost stories and folktales to be gathered from all parts of Japan and China.
The popularity of the game, as well as the acquisition of a printing press, led to the creation of a literary genre called Kaidanshu.
Kaidanshu were originally based on older Buddhist stories of a didactic nature, although the moral lessons soon gave way to the demand for strange and gruesome stories.

Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai 百物語怪談会

Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会, lit., A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales) was a popular didactic Buddhist-inspired parlour game during the Edo period in Japan.

The game was played as night fell upon the region using three separate rooms. In preparation, participants would light 100 andon in the third room and position a single mirror on the surface of a small table. When the sky was at its darkest, guests gathered in the first of the three rooms, taking turns orating tales of ghoulish encounters and reciting folkloric tales passed on by villagers who claimed to have experienced supernatural encounters. These tales soon became known as kaidan. Upon the end of each kaidan, the story-teller would enter the third room and extinguished one andon, look in the mirror and make their way back to the first room. With each passing tale, the room slowly grew darker and darker as the participants reached the one hundredth tale, creating a safe haven for the evocation of spirits.
However, as the game reached the ninety-ninth tale, many participants would stop, fearful of invoking the spirits they had been summoning.

On a dark night, one puts a light on an andon [paper-covered lamp stand]. The paper for the andon should be pale colored. One hundred wicks are placed in the lamp, and every time a tale is told, one wick is pulled out. Gradually the room becomes darker and darker. The pale- color of the andon flickers in the room, and the atmosphere becomes ghostly. If stories continue to be told, it is claimed that a horrible and/or mysterious thing will happen without fail. (Asai Ryoi d.1691)


Kaidanshu was collection of story ghosts.

Kaidan are tales of the strange and mysterious, supernatural stories often depicting the horrific and gruesome. Many contemporary Japanese regard stories of the kaidan genre as frightening ghost stories. Written stories that fit the kaidan mold have been part of Japanese literature since ancient times, but they were not identified apart from the rest.
It was only during the Edo period that these stories were collected, compiled, and published under the rubric of kaidan as kaidan-shu (collections of kaidan).
In the middle of the eighteenth century, the production of kaidan literature reached one of its peaks. At the same time, the artistry of kaidan attained a zenith in Kintko kaidan (Kaidan Present and Past) and Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain, 1776), a collection of nine short stories of the supernatural written by Ueda Akinari (1734—1809).
By tracing the kaidan-shu from its emergence in the early Edo period up to the appearance of Ugetsu monogatari, this paper will demonstrate how kaidan literature of the Edo period (1600—1867) moves away from the religious and didactic, toward the secular.
(Noriko T. Reider)

Examples of Kaidanshu:
Tonoigusa, called Otogi Monogatari (Nursery Tales) by Ogita Ansei (1660)
Otogi Boko (Handpuppets) by Asai Ryoi (1666)
Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) by Ueda Akinari (1776)

Examples of Kaidan:
Banchō Sarayashiki (The Story of Okiku) by Okamoto Kido
Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost Story of Tōkaidō Yotsuya) by Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755–1829)
Botan Dōrō (The Peony Lantern) by Asai Ryoi
Mimi-nashi Hōichi (Hōichi the Earless)
(Wikipedia: Kaidan)


Yūrei 幽霊

Yūrei are figures in Japanese folklore, analogous to Western legends of ghosts. The name consists of two kanji, 幽 (yū), meaning "faint" or "dim" and 霊 (rei), meaning "soul" or "spirit". Alternative names include 亡霊 (Bōrei), meaning ruined or departed spirit, 死霊 (Shiryō) meaning dead spirit, or the more encompassing 妖怪 (Yōkai) or お化け (Obake).

Japanese afterlife
According to traditional Japanese beliefs, all humans have a spirit or soul called a 霊魂 (reikon). When a person dies, the reikon leaves the body and enters a form of purgatory, where it waits for the proper funeral and post-funeral rites to be performed, so that it may join its ancestors. If this is done correctly, the reikon is believed to be a protector of the living family and to return yearly in August during the Obon Festival to receive thanks.

However, if the person dies in a sudden or violent manner such as murder or suicide, if the proper rites have not been performed, or if they are influenced by powerful emotions such as a desire for revenge, love, jealousy, hatred or sorrow, the reikon is thought to transform into a yūrei, which can then bridge the gap back to the physical world. The emotion or thought need not be particularly strong or driving, and even innocuous thoughts can cause a death to become disturbed. Once a thought enters the mind of a dying person, their Yūrei will come back to complete the action last thought of before returning to the cycle of reincarnation.

The yūrei then exists on Earth until it can be laid to rest, either by performing the missing rituals, or resolving the emotional conflict that still ties it to the physical plane. If the rituals are not completed or the conflict left unresolved, the yūrei will persist in its haunting.

Oftentimes the lower the social rank of the person who died violently, or who was treated harshly during life, the more powerful as a yūrei they would return. This is illustrated in the fate of Oiwa in the story Yotsuya Kaidan, or the servant Okiku in Banchō Sarayashiki.

Physical appearance
Traditionally,[citation needed] onryō and other yūrei (ghosts) had no particular appearance. However, with the rising of popularity of Kabuki during the Edo period, a specific costume was developed.
Highly visual in nature, and with a single actor often assuming various roles within a play, Kabuki developed a system of visual shorthand that allowed the audience to instantly clue in as to which character is on stage, as well as emphasize the emotions and expressions of the actor.
A ghost costume consisted of three main elements:
White burial kimono, shiroshōzoku (白装束) or shinishōzoku (死に装束)
Wild, unkempt long black hair
Face make-up consisting of white foundation (oshiroi) coupled with face paintings (kumadori) of blue shadows (藍隈 aiguma) "indigo fringe", much like villains are depicted in kabuki make-up artistry.

Famous hauntings
Some famous locations that are said to be haunted by yūrei are the well of Himeji Castle, haunted by the ghost of Okiku, and Aokigahara, the forest at the bottom of Mt. Fuji, which is a popular location for suicide. A particularly powerful onryō, Oiwa, is said to be able to bring vengeance on any actress portraying her part in a theater or film adaptation.

Okiku, Oiwa, and the lovesick Otsuya together make up the San O-Yūrei (Japanese: 三大幽霊, "three great Yūrei") of Japanese culture. These are Yūrei whose stories have been passed down and retold throughout the centuries, and whose characteristics along with their circumstances and fates have formed a large part of Japanese art and society. The stories of these three great Yūrei are told in the next sections.

Onryō 怨霊

In traditional beliefs of Japan and in literature, onryō (literally "vengeful spirit", sometimes rendered "wrathful spirit") refers to a ghost (yūrei) believed capable of causing harm in the world of the living, harming or killing enemies, or even causing natural disasters to exact vengeance to redress the wrongs it received while alive then takes their spirits from their dying bodies.

While the origin of onryō is unclear, their existence can be traced back to the 8th century and was based on the idea that powerful and enraged souls of the dead could influence or harm the living people.
Traditionally in Japan, onryō driven by vengeance were thought capable of causing not only their enemy's death, but causing natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, storms, drought, famine and pestilence,.

The Emperor Kammu had accused his brother Sawara of plotting (possibly falsely to remove him as rival to the throne), and the latter who was exiled died by fasting. The reason that the Emperor moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyō thence to Kyoto was an attempt to avoid the wrath of his brother's spirit, according to a number of scholars. This not succeeding entirely, the emperor tried to lift the curse by appeasing his brother's ghost, by performing Buddhist rites to pay respect, and granting Prince Sawara the posthumous title of emperor.

A well-known example of appeasement of the onryō spirit is the case of Sugawara no Michizane, who had been politically disgraced and died in exile. Believed to cause the death of his calumniators in quick succession, as well as catastrophes (especially lightning damage), and the court tried to appease the wrathful spirit by restoring Michizane's old rank and position. Michizane became deified in the cult of the Tenjin, with Tenman-gū shrines erected around him.

Possibly the most famous onryō is Oiwa, from the Yotsuya Kaidan. In this story the husband remains unharmed; however, he is the target of the onryō’s vengeance. Oiwa's vengeance on him isn't physical retribution, but rather psychological torment.

Other examples include:
            How a Man's Wife Became a Vengeful Ghost and How Her Malignity Was Diverted by a Master of Divination
In this tale from the medieval collection, Konjaku Monogatarishū, an abandoned wife is found dead with a full head of hair intact and the bones still attached. The husband, fearing retribution from her spirit, asks a diviner (陰陽師 onmyōji) for aid. The husband must endure while grabbing her hair and riding astride her corpse. She complains of the heavy load and leaves the house to "go looking" (presumably for the husband), but after a day she gives up and returns, after which the diviner is able to complete her exorcism with an incantation.

            Of a Promise Broken
In this tale from the Izumo area recorded by Lafcadio Hearn, a samurai vows to his dying wife never to remarry. He soon breaks the promise, and the ghost comes to first warn, then murder the young bride, ripping her head off. The watchmen who had been put to sleep chase down the apparition, and with a slash of the sword while reciting Buddhist prayer, destroys it.



Banchō Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷 Dish Mansion in Banchō)

The ghost story of Okiku and the Nine Plates.

The Haunted Mansion

“Sarayashiki” (皿屋敷 “Dish Mansion”)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's 'Ogiku'
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's "Ogiku" (1890).
The ghost of Ogiku appearing by the well in which her master, Aoyama Tessan, murdered her.
From Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's Thirty-six Ghosts series. 9.25" x 14.25".
Image source: 
Hokusai's Sarayashiki
Hokusai's Sarayashiki (1831).
A woman ghost appeared from a well.
Okiku was a popular subject matter for ukiyo-e artists. In 1830, Katsushika Hokusai included her as one of the kaidan in his One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari 百物語) series.
Image source: 

A young girl has entered a samurai house as a maid. The girl is commonly known as “Okiku”1. Okiku’s master was bewitched by her beauty even though she continued to turn down his advances. Feeling rejected, the master grew hateful toward Okiku and decided to take vengeance on her with his equally jealous wife. One day, they accused Okiku of breaking one of the ten dishes which, as a set, had been a valuable family heirloom. As a punishment, the couple first gave her a violent beating then tossed her into a well in the garden after slashing her to death. From that day, the ghost of Okiku would rise from the depth of the well at night-time, counting “one dish, two dishes…” before disappearing again while shrieking the words “nine dishes!” The haunting drove the master and his wife to madness, and others to scatter. Eventually, the house became nothing but a deserted ruin.

The essence of this folklore is inarguably embodied by the very scene of a brutally murdered ghost maid who appears nightly from the well to count dishes. Such depiction can be found in many Ukiyo-e (color paintings) from the Edo period, and has since become a conventional way of personifying Japanese ghosts.

The Propagation Pattern of “Sarayashiki”
As evident in “Bancho Sarayashiki” from Tokyo and “Banshu Sarayashiki” from Hyogo, a number of regions in Japan have also conceived their own versions of the “sarayashiki” story.

This nationwide propagation could have been spurred by the word “sarayashiki,” which had originally meant “a brand-new house.” In other words, these ghost stories may have been inspired by the idea of an ominous or cursed house that people created based on the fact that houses built on damp and barren lands do not last long.

1. Apart from “Okiku,” names such as “Kame,” “Omasa,” and “Hana” were also used in other similar stories across Japan. The name “Okiku” had only garnered more recognition after Bunko Baba’s Sarayashiki Bengiroku (1758), which was set in Bancho in Edo, had become famous.



Banchō Sarayashiki

Banchō Sarayashiki or Bancho Sarayashi (番町皿屋敷 The Dish Mansion at Banchō) is a Japanese ghost story (kaidan) of broken trust and broken promises, leading to a dismal fate.
The story of Okiku and the Nine Plates is one of the most famous in Japanese folklore, and continues to resonate with audiences today.

Folk version

Once there was a beautiful servant named Okiku. She worked for the samurai Aoyama Tessan. Okiku often refused his amorous advances, so he tricked her into believing that she had carelessly lost one of the family's ten precious delft plates. Such a crime would normally result in her death. In a frenzy, she counted and recounted the nine plates many times. However, she could not find the tenth and went to Aoyama in guilty tears. The samurai offered to overlook the matter if she finally became his lover, but again she refused. Enraged, Aoyama threw her down a well to her death.

It is said that Okiku became a vengeful spirit (Onryō) who tormented her murderer by counting to nine and then making a terrible shriek to represent the missing tenth plate – or perhaps she had tormented herself and was still trying to find the tenth plate but cried out in agony when she never could. In some versions of the story, this torment continued until an exorcist or neighbor shouted "ten" in a loud voice at the end of her count. Her ghost, finally relieved that someone had found the plate for her, haunted the samurai no more.

Ningyō Jōruri version

Hosokawa Katsumoto, the lord of Himeji Castle, has fallen seriously ill. Katsumoto's heir, Tomonosuke, plans to give a set of 10 precious plates to the Shogun to ensure his succession. However, chief retainer Asayama Tetsuzan plots to take over. Tomonosuke's retainer, Funase Sampei Taketsune is engaged to marry a lady in waiting, Okiku. Tetsuzan plans to force Okiku to help him murder Tomonosuke.

Tetsuzan, through the help of a spy, steals one of the 10 plates and summons Okiku to bring the box containing the plates to his chamber. There, he attempts to seduce Okiku. She refuses due to her love for Taketsune. Rejected, Tetsuzan then has Okiku count the plates to find only nine. He blames her for the theft and offers to lie for her if she will be his mistress. Okiku again refuses and Tetsuzan has her beaten with a wooden sword.

Tetsuzan then has her suspended over a well and, erotically enjoying her torture, has her lowered into the well several times, beating her himself when she is raised. He demands that she become his lover and assist in the murder of Tomonosuke. She refuses again, whereupon Tetsuzan strikes her with his sword, sending her body into the well.

While wiping clean his sword, the sound of a voice counting plates comes from the well. Tetsuzan realizes that it is the ghost of Okiku but is entirely unmoved. The play ends with the ghost of Okiku rising from the well, Tetsuzan staring at her contemptuously.

Okamoto Kido version

In 1655, in Edo, a vassal of the Shogun Aoyama Harima has fallen in love with a young servant girl Okiku. Aoyama has promised to marry her, but has recently received an auspicious marriage proposal from an Aunt. Aoyama promises Okiku that he will honor their love, and refuse the proposal.

Okiku doubts, and tests him by breaking one of the 10 heirloom plates that are the treasure of the Aoyama household. The traditional punishment for breaking one of the plates is death, which is demanded by Aoyama's family.

At first, Aoyama is convinced that Okiku broke the plate by accident, and pardons her, but when Okiku reveals that she broke the plate as a love-test, Aoyama is enraged and kills her. He then throws her body down a well.

From then after, Okiku’s ghost is seen to enter the house and count the plates, one through nine. Encountering her in the garden, Aoyama sees that her ghostly face is not one of vengeance, but beauty and calm. Taking strength from this, he commits seppuku and joins her in death.

The Japanese Ghost Story of Okiku

Kabuki Version
In the kabuki play "Bancho Sarayashiki", Okiku is a maid at the mansion of the Japanese samurai Tessan Aoyama. The samurai wants to seduce the cute girl but she rejects his advances. Aoyama uses a trick. He hides one of ten valuable Dutch plates and threatens Okiku to make public that she had stolen the plate unless she agrees to become his mistress. In her desperation Okiku throws herself into the well and drowns.

Okiku's ghost comes out every night, counting from one to nine and then breaks out into a terrible howling and sobbing. Finally Aoyama goes insane by the daily apparitions at night.

The Himeji Castle Version
One of the tourist attractions on Himeji Castle is Okiku's well. In the Himeji version, Okiku was a servant of Aoyama, a retainer who planned a plot against his lord. Okiku overheard the plot and reported it to her lover, a loyal warrior. The plot was averted.

When Aoyama found out that Okiku had been the cause for his failure, he decided to kill her. So he accused her of having stolen one of ten valuable dishes. She was tortured to death and thrown into the well.

Okiku's well on Himeji Castle is in competition with another location of the well, the garden of the Canadian embassy in Tokyo - established on land bought from the Aoyama family. Looks like there are at least as many locations of the well of the poor girl as there are different versions of her story.

Himeji Castle, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan   Okiku's Well (お菊井)

Left: Himeji Castle, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
Himeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and it was registered in 1993 as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country.
Right: Okiku's Well (お菊井)
Himeji Castle is associated with a number of local legends. The well-known kaidan (or Japanese ghost story) of Banchō Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷 "The Dish Mansion at Banchō") is set in Edo (Tokyo), but a variant called Banshū Sarayashiki (播州皿屋敷 "The Dish mansion in Harima Province") is set in Himeji Castle. There is a disputed claim that the castle is the bona fide location of the entire legend, and the alleged Okiku's Well remains in the castle to this day. According to the legend, Okiku was falsely accused of losing dishes that were valuable family treasures, and then killed and thrown into the well. Her ghost remained to haunt the well at night, counting dishes in a despondent tone.

A Doubtful Record of the Plate Mansion

The Yoshida Mansion sits in the 5th ward of Ushigome-Gomon. The lot on which it was built was once the home to the palace of Lady Sen before she made her journey to Akasaka in Edo in 1626. After that, another building once stood in that lot which was burned down to the ground—the home of the minor lord Aoyama Harima.

In the house of Aoyama a young girl named Okiku worked as a maidservant. On the second day of the second year of Jōō (Jan 2nd, 1653), Okiku accidently broke one of the ten precious plates that were the heirloom of the Aoyama clan. Harima’s wife was furious, and said that since Okiku had broken one of the ten plates it was fair to cut off one of Okiku’s ten fingers in return. The middle finger on her right hand was chosen, and Okiku was confined to a cell until the punishment could be carried out.

During the night, Okiku managed to slip her bonds and escape from her cell. She ran outside and threw herself into an unused well, drowning at the bottom.

The next night, from the bottom of the well came a woman’s voice. “1 … 2 … “. Soon, the sound of her voice could be heard echoing throughout the mansion, counting the plates. Everyone was so terrified their hair stood up all over their bodies.

Harima’s wife was pregnant, and when she gave birth her child was missing the middle finger on its right hand. News of this made it back to the Imperial Court, and the cursed Aoyama family were forced to forfeit their territories and holdings.

The sound of the counting of the plates continued. The Imperial Court held special ceremonies to calm Okiku’s spirit, but all in vain. At last, they sent a holy man to the cleanse the spirit. That night, the holy man waited inside the house. He waited patiently as voice counted “ 8 … 9 …” and then he suddenly shouted “10”.

Okiku’s yūrei was heard to whisper “Oh, how glad I am” before she disappeared.



Botan Dōrō (The Peony Lantern)

Botan Dōrō (ぼたん どうろう 牡丹燈籠) is a Japanese ghost story (kaidan) that is both romantic and horrific; it is one of the most famous kaidan in Japan. The plot involves sex with the dead and the consequences of loving a ghost.
It is also known as Kaidan Botan Dōrō (怪談牡丹灯籠 Tales of the Peony Lantern).

Otsuyu and the Peony Lantern
Otsuyu and the Peony Lantern from Botan Doro.
Image source: Wikipedia 
Yoshitoshi's Botandōrō ほたむとうろう
A lover heading for an assignation escorted by a maid holding a peony lantern. By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年).
“Botandōrō ほたむとうろう” (1889-1892) from the series Shinkei Sanjūrokkaisen 新形三十六怪撰.
Image source:  Multiple sources 

Botan Dōrō entered Japanese literary culture in the 17th century, through a translation of a book of Chinese ghost stories called Jiandeng Xinhua (“New Tales Under the Lamplight”) by Qu You. The collection was didactic in nature, containing Buddhist moral lessons on karma.

In 1666, author Asai Ryoi (浅井了意) responded to the Edo period craze for kaidan, spawned largely by the popular game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, by adapting the more spectacular tales from Jiandeng Xinhua into his own book Otogi Boko (伽婢子 “Talisman Dolls”). At the time, Japan was a closed society, and very little was known outside of its own borders, so China was viewed as a mysterious and exotic nation. Asai removed the Buddhist moral lessons and gave the stories a Japanese setting, placing Botan Dōrō in the Nezu district of Tokyo.

Otogi Boko version
On the first night of Obon, a beautiful woman and a young girl holding a peony lantern stroll by the house of the widowed samurai Ogiwara Shinnojo. Ogiwara is instantly smitten with the woman, named Otsuyu, and vows an eternal relationship. From that night onward, the woman and the girl visit at dusk, always leaving before dawn. An elderly neighbor, suspicious of the girl, peeks into his home and finds Ogiwara in bed with a skeleton. Consulting a Buddhist priest, Ogiwara finds that he is in danger unless he can resist the woman, and he places a protection charm on his house. The woman is then unable to enter his house, but calls him from outside. Finally, unable to resist, Ogiwara goes out to greet her, and is led back to her house, a grave in a temple. In the morning, Ogiwara's dead body is found entwined with the woman's skeleton.

Otogi Boko was immensely popular, spawning multiple imitative works and is considered the forerunner of the literary kaidan movement that resulted in the classic Ugetsu Monogatari.

In 1884, Botan Dōrō was adapted by famous storyteller Encho Sanyutei into a rakugo, which increased the popularity of the tale. In order to achieve a greater length, the story was fleshed out considerably, adding background information on several characters as well as additional subplots. It was then adapted to the kabuki stage in July 1892, and staged at the Kabukiza under the title Kaidan Botan Dōrō.

Botan doro 牡丹灯籠(Peony Lantern, 1666)

The Peony Lantern, Illustrated by Warwick Goble
The Peony Lantern, Illustrated by Warwick Goble, 1910
From "Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales", by Grace James, 1910.
Image source: 

The kaidan story entitled Botan doro 牡丹灯籠(Peony Lantern, 1666) can function as a prototype of the kaidan genre, which has been immensely influential not only as prose fiction but also in various genres such as plays, storytelling, and, in modern times, motion pictures and television. The short story Botan doro was originally adapted to Japanese by Asai Ryoi 浅井了意(?—1691) from a Chinese story entitled Mudan dengji 牡丹燈記 (Tale of Peony Lantern) in Jian deng xin hua 剪燈新話 (New Tales Under the Lamplight).
Asai Ryoi’s Botan doro opens on the night of the Festival of Souls (obon) in summer. A beautiful woman accompanied by a young girl holding a peony lantern, strolls by the house of Ugiwara Shinnojo, a young samurai who has just lost his beloved wife. Enchanted by her beauty, Shinnojo invites her into his house. He learns that she is from a celebrated family now in decline, and is told that she lives near a temple. On that very night, they swear an eternal relationship. From then on, the beautiful woman visits him every night, only to depart at dawn. An elderly neighbor, suspicious of the young woman’s voice coming nightly from Shinnojo’s house, peeks into his house at night and, to his horror, finds Shinnojo having an intimate talk with a skeleton.
On the following day, the old neighbor tells Shinnojo what he saw and warns him that he will lose his life if he continues to associate with the deceased. Terrified, Shinnojo goes to the temple where the woman said she lived to discover her true identity. There, instead of her house, he finds an ancestral shrine containing the woman’s coffin.
Deciding that he needed an exorcist, shinnojo treks to a famous Buddhist priest, who confirms that his life is indeed in grave danger. Shinnojo receives a charm from the priest, which he affixes to the gate of his house to prevent the entity from entering at night. This results in the immediate cessation of the woman’s nightly visits to him.
Some time later, however, Shinnojo, intoxicated, carelessly wanders near the temple gate. The woman appears suddenly and takes him inside the temple. He is later found dead in the temple, inside the woman’s coffin—— his body strewn atop of the woman’s skeleton. The Ogiwara family, which grieves over the misfortune the apparitions cause to others, employs a priest to invoke the Lotus Sutra to release the spirits. Thereafter, the ghosts of Shinnojo, his lover, and the small girl with the peony lantern never reappear.


Kaidan Botan Dōrō (Rakugo version)

Kaidan Botan Dōrō (怪談牡丹燈籠) (Peony lantern kaidan) is a story inspired by the Chinese influenced kaidan Botan Dōrō. Published (1886) as a stenography narrated and created by the rakugo artist San'yūtei Enchō (三遊亭圓朝). The book was first serialised in a newspaper and published every Sunday.

The book tells a story abouut a young man falling in love with the spirit of a beautiful young woman. Nevertheless, it also includes a story of a young shoeman, Kōsuke, and his quest to avenge his deceased master.
The book can be divided into three main parts: the Tale of Kōsuke and his master Iijima (旗本飯島平左衛門), Shinzaburō (萩原新三郎) and his ghost lover O-Tsuyu (お露), and Kōsuke's revenge. The two first parts take place during the sixteen first chapters. Chapters seventeen through twenty-one tell the story of Kōsuke's revenge.

The sixteen first chapters are divided between two groups: odd chapters (Kōsuke and Iijima) and even chapters (Shinzaburō and O-Tsuyu). Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15 explain how Iijima Heizaemon, a notable hatamoto, killed a drunken samurai and how eighteen years later, the latter's son, Kōsuke, became Iijima's servant. Iijima is fooled by his wife, O-Kuni, who cheats on him with Iijima's nephew Genjirō and the adulterers plan to kill the master. However, the hatamoto is killed in an accident and Kōsuke swears revenge. O-Kuni and her lover eventually flee the house of Iijima. Chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 explain how Shinzaburō, a charming young man, meets Iijima's only daughter O-Tsuyu. They fall in love with each other but social class prevents them from being together. O-Tsuyu dies longing for the young man and returns during the Festival of spirits (O-Bon), to visit her lover. Shinzaburō's neighbours and servants, Tomozō (關口屋伴藏) and his wife O-Mine, learn of the young man's misfortune but in the end help the spirit consume Shinzaburō's soul in exchange for money. Tomozō and his wife then flee the neighbourhood.

All chapters after 17 explain how in a twist of events, Tomozō meets O-Kuni and both start a love affair resulting in the murder of Tomozō's wife. O-Kuni is finally faced with Kōsuke and Tomozō is arrested for his wife's murder. In the final chapters Kōsuke meets his mother who left him alone as a child.

Kabuki version

A young student named Saburo falls in love with a beautiful woman named Otsuyu, the daughter of his father's best friend. They meet secretly, and promise to be married. But Saburo falls ill, and is unable to see Otsuyu for a long time.

Later, when Saburo recovers and goes to see his love, he is told that Otsuyu has died. He prays for her spirit during the Obon festival, and is surprised to hear the approaching footsteps of two women. When he sees them, they look remarkably like Otsuyu and her maid. It is revealed that her aunt, who opposed the marriage, spread the rumor that Otsuyu had died and told Otsuyu in turn that Saburo had died.

The two lovers, reunited, begin their relationship again in secret. Each night Otsuyu, accompanied by her maid who carries a peony lantern, spends the night with Saburo.

This continues blissfully until one night a servant peeks through a hole in the wall in Saburo's bedroom, and sees him having sex with a decaying skeleton, while another skeleton sits in the doorway holding a peony lantern. He reports this to the local Buddhist priest, who locates the graves of Otsuyu and her maid. Taking Saburo there, he convinces him of the truth, and agrees to help Saburo guard his house against the spirits. The priest places ofuda around the house, and prays the nenbutsu every night.

The plan works, and Otsuyu and her maid are unable to enter, although they come every night and call out their love to Saburo. Pining for his sweetheart, Saburo's health begins to deteriorate. Saburo's servants, afraid that he will die from heartbreak leaving them without work, remove the ofuda from the house. Otsuyu enters, and again has sex with Saburo.

In the morning, the servants find Saburo dead, his body entwined with Otsuyu's skeleton. His face is radiant and blissful.


Peony Lantern (Mudan Dengji 牡丹燈記)

Original Chinese version of Botan Dōrō by Qu You (瞿佑),
as one of stories from his New stories told while trimming the wick (Jian deng xin hua 剪燈新話).

Peony Lantern (Mudan Dengji)   Peony Lantern (Mudan Dengji)   Peony Lantern (Mudan Dengji)   Peony Lantern (Mudan Dengji)  


明代瞿佑的作品: "剪燈新話"
























  喬生招供說:   俯念我喪妻鰥居,倚門獨站,違犯了色戒,觸動了欲心。不能仿戰國時,楚國的孫叔敖,見兩頭蛇就殺,以致像唐代傳奇小說《任氏傳》中的鄭六,遇見九尾狐而愛。事情已出,追悔莫及!

  符麗卿招供說:   俯念我年輕去世,白晝無鄰,六魄離身,精靈未滅。燈前月下,遇五百年歡喜冤家;世上人間,作千萬人風流話柄。迷途不返,罪怎可逃!

  金蓮招供說:   俯念我制竹作骨,染娟在坯,墳墓埋藏,是誰開始作俑?面目機關製動,比人具體而微。既有名字稱呼,豈少精靈之怪!因而得計,那敢作妖!







Oiwa and her son, from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's The Yotsuya Ghost Story
The print (9.25" x 14.25") depicts the beautiful Oiwa resting, arm around her son.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's "The Yotsuya Ghost Story", 1892. From the Thirty-six Ghosts series. (月岡芳年"新形三十六怪撰")
Image source: 

Yotsuya kaidan
"Yotsuya kaidan"
Oiwa's husband poisoned her, nailed her to a door board and floated her down river.
Image source: 

Oiwa’s ghost emerged from a lantern.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi's portrait of Oiwa.
Oiwa’s ghost emerging from lantern, holding her dead son, looking for lemon.
Image source: Multiple sources 
The poison disfigures Oiwa
The poison disfigures Oiwa, causing her hair to fall out in bloody clumps and her left eye to droop.
Image source: multiple sources 

Yotsuya kaidan
"Yotsuya kaidan"
Oiwa's husband poisoned her, nailed her to a door board and floated her down river.
Image source: multiple sources 

Oiwa’s ghost emerged from a lantern.
Oiwa’s ghost emerged from a lantern.
Image source: 

Oiwa’s ghost emerged from a lantern, confronting her husband Iemon.
"The Ghost in the Lantern".
The print depicts a Kamiya Iantern (Tamiya Iemon) haunted by the ghost of O-Iwa, emerged from a lantern. By Kuniyoshi Utagawa (歌川国芳)
Image source: 

Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談)

Yotsuya Kaidan, the story of Oiwa and Tamiya Iemon, is a tale of betrayal, murder and ghostly revenge. Arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, it has been adapted for film over 30 times, and continues to be an influence on Japanese horror today.

Written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV as a kabuki play, the original title was Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (東海道四谷怪談). It is now generally shortened, and loosely translates as Ghost Story of Yotsuya.

The story opens with a murder. Tamiya Iemon, an unemployed ronin married to Oiwa, killed his father-in-law because he was aware of Iemon's evil past deeds. Penniless, Iemon has been forced to make his living as an oilpaper umbrella maker in order to support his delicate wife and new child. This situation has led him to resent Oiwa.

Iemon is lured into a scheme to marry the beautiful granddaughter of a well-to-do neighbor, who is in love with him. In order to clear the path for the new marriage, Iemon and the neighbour plot to murder Oiwa. Iemon gives Oiwa poison disguised as "blood-road medicine," intended to bring back her strength. The poison does not kill her, but instead disfigures her, causing her hair to fall out and her eye to droop. When a mirror is held in front of her, her despair at her disfigurement and the knowledge of her husband's betrayal causes her to die.

When a faithful servant, Kobote Kohei, becomes aware of the murder, Iemon accuses him of theft and has him killed. He then has Kohei and Oiwa's bodies crucified on two sides of a wooden door, which is then flung into a nearby river.

Thinking his troubles are over, Iemon plans his new marriage. On his wedding day to his new bride, Iemon lifts her veil to see Oiwa’s ruined face. He instantly beheads her, only to discover he has killed his new bride. Horrified, he flees to the neighbor's house to confess, where he is confronted by Kohei's ghost. Slashing at the ghost, Iemon finds he has killed his neighbour, his new father-in-law.

From there the haunting continues, with the vengeful spirit of Oiwa pursuing Iemon. Everywhere he goes, he sees her ruined face, even projecting from an overhead lantern. Seeking escape, he retreats to the mountains and goes fishing. Instead of fish, he hooks the board with the corpses of Oiwa and Kohei. He then flees to a cabin in Hebiyama, where the ropes and vines of the cabin transform into snakes and the smoke from the fire transform into Oiwa's hair. Fleeing the cabin, he runs into his brother-in-law, who kills Iemon and avenges all of the murders.

There was a masterless samurai (Iemon)who had fallen on hard times, forced to make his living as an umbrella maker (historically true during the Edo period, when many samurai lost their livelihood due to the widespread peace created by unifying the country under Tokugawa Ieyasu.) Oiwa was frail and weak after giving birth to her son, and was unable to help Iemon with the household; nevertheless, she did what any proper wife could do, she looked after their son and made sure that she was beautiful whenever Iemon came home, brushing her long silken black hair and being as dutiful a wife as she could be under the circumstances. However, because of Iemon’s failure, Oiwa’s father approaches him, and suggests that he dissolve the marriage bonds and allow Oiwa to return to her own family. Enraged, Iemon murders Oiwa’s father. There is more to this, a second story, wherein another man, Takuetsu, accidentally murders his former master (in a tragic case of mistaken identity), and he and Iemon conspire to make it look like the second murdered man was the one who killed Oiwa’s father, and thus Iemon has succeeded in avenging that death and can continue to live as an honourable man, instead of the failure he has become.

Now, Iemon was a handsome fellow, and in his journeys he had caught the eye of a local lady of means, Oume, the grand-daughter of a prominent and successful man. In a scheme to separate Iemon from the more beautiful Oiwa, this woman and her family conspire to destroy Oiwa’s beauty; they do so by sending her poison disguised a facial cream, which immediately scars Oiwa’s beautiful face and causes her beautiful hair to come out in bloody clumps. As a result Iemon, seeing his wife’s disfigurement, conspires to invalidate the marriage by having Takuetsu rape Oiwa. In a strange break from his previously dishonourable behaviour, Takuetsu cannot bring himself to commit the act; instead, he forces Oiwa to look at her own reflection. Seeing what she has become, she grabs Iemon’s rusty and disused katana and tries to leave the home in order to avenge the wrong that has been committed against her, only to accidentally slit her own throat in the struggle. As a result, she dies cursing Iemon and those who conspired against her with her last breath. Coming home, Iemon wants to cover the death of his wife and hide the crimes committed against her, tries to hide it. Some versions of the story go on to say that the baby is also killed, and to cover his ‘new wife’, Iemon nails Oiwa and a servant to a door and tosses them in a river, declaiming them for having an affair.

With Oiwa out of the way, Iemon and Oume get hitched and plan to live happily ever after, or as happily as two despicable murdering individuals can plan to live. What all stories agree upon is that, after her death, Oiwa’s ghost returns to haunt Iemon, causing him to have horrible visions and resulting in him murdering Ouma and her grandfather. Did I mention that Iemon’s happy new union did not even manage to survive its first night? No matter how Iemon tries to escape, Oiwa always finds him, emerging from lanterns, long black hair matted, one side of her face horribly disfigured, and carrying their dead child. Eventually Iemon winds up at a monastery in an attempt to escape her vengeance, but even there Oiwa cannot be stopped, and eventually drives Iemon to madness and his death.



Oiwa’s ghost emerging from lantern, confronting her husband Iemon.

Oiwa’s ghost emerging from lantern, holding her dead son, confronting her husband Iemon.

Oiwa’s ghost emerging from lantern, confronting her husband Iemon.

Oiwa’s ghost emerging from lantern, confronting her husband Iemon.


Oiwa - The Lantern Ghost

Image of Oiwa emerging from the Lantern

The ghost of Oiwa emerging from the Lantern, confronting her husband Iemon.
Book cover image of "Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural" (2005) by Stephen Addiss.

Hokusai's "Lantern ghost" (提灯お化け)

Hokusai's 'Lantern ghost'

"Lantern ghost"
One of the kaidan in Hokusai's One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari 百物語) series.

Yotsuya kaidan

Oiwa the lantern ghost

"Oiwa the lantern ghost" (1847-8)
By Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳 1798-1861)  

Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (東海道四谷怪談)

Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (東海道四谷怪談)

Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido) This is a 1959 Japanese horror film, directed by Nobuo Nakagawa and based on the 19th century Japanese kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya titled Yotsuya Kaidan. It is also known as The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959) in film reference sources.