Anyone who has seen the films The Ring and The Grudge and their sequels, or who has spent some time browsing Japanese ghost stories on the internet, will be well aware that some Japanese spooks can be truly terrifying. There are many stories from Japanese folklore which are not for the faint-hearted, even among paranormal enthusiasts. With that in mind, here is a sample of some of the less disturbing of the pantheon of Japanese spirits, for those who prefer their ghost stories to be a little less terrifying.
The zashiki warashi are one such example of less daunting ghosts. The name, which translates roughly as ‘parlor child’, gives a good insight into how this particular ghost appears. Zashiki warashi are ghosts of good fortune, which manifest as children with rosy red cheeks and sleek bobbed hair. These haunts tend to be found in sprawling, well-manicured mansions and are harbingers of luck and success. To attract such ghosts and keep them happy, you must show them the same care and attention which you might show to any child…but be careful not to give it too much attention or the ghost will flee and your home fall into disrepair and hard times.
Zashiki warashi are not only child-like in appearance, they are also childish by nature and will often pull harmless pranks on the residents of the house they inhabit. Objects may move, unexplained music could be heard from an empty room, and they might leave tiny footprints behind them. They may also play with the mortal children residing in the house, and often it is only the home’s inhabitants which can see them.
Another rather touching but mournful Japanese ghost is the Ubume, or ‘birthing woman ghost’. The spirit of a woman who died during childbirth, she appears to passers-by cradling a swaddled baby in her arms and asks them to hold her child for her. At this point she will disappear and the passers-by are left holding a baby, which becomes increasingly heavy until finally they are forced to relinquish the burden and realize they have been holding a boulder, not a child. The Ubume has been well-documented by Japanese artists and authors since the 12thcentury and local women would visit the statue of an Ubume at the Shoshin’in temple, where they would pray for a safe and successful labour, for an abundance of milk, or to conceive a child.
The third example I will give of a less demonic Japanese ghost is the Yuki-onna, or ‘snow woman’. While this spirit can be ruthless and is known for leading travellers astray so that they die in a blizzard, she is also a rather moving and poignant figure. Ethereally beautiful, with pale skin, blue lips and curtains of long black hair, the ghost has been described as wearing a white kimono, while other legends say she appears naked. Rumoured to be the ghost of a woman who perished out in the snows, she drifts across the cold white wastes, often killing those she finds. This may sound terrifying at first, but there are other legends of the Yoki-onna who tell of her sparing some of her victims. Perhaps one of the most famous of these legends is the story of how she once allowed a young boy to live because she was moved by his youth and beauty; she let him go, but made him promise not to speak of her to anyone. Later, she married him, though he did not know it was she, and when he told her the story of the snow woman she revealed herself to him and chided him for his foolishness. However she spared him again, for the sake of the children they had together and she melted away, leaving him and the children to continue with their lives, with the warning that if he ever harmed their children she would return to punish him. He was a kind, loving father and never did so he was left unscathed.
These legends, of the zashiki warashi, the ubume and the yuki-onna, reveal a softer, more bittersweet side to Japanese folklore and although these ghosts may appear unnerving – even frightening, in the case of the snow woman – still they are more thought-provoking than terrifying. So if you ever go to Japan and see the spirit of a young child with rosy cheeks smiling at you, or encounter a melancholy woman who asks you to hold her swaddled child, don’t be afraid… it is just a zashiki warashi wanting to play with you, and an ubume who still mourns for the child – and the life – which she lost, long ago…