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Japan’s Beliefs and Superstitions about Ghosts

Ewa Nowogorski

In America some people fear ghosts. The common belief is that ghosts are spirits of the dead that failed to pass on to the next life due to a grudge or an uncompleted task. Ghosts are commonly believed to be violent or harbor ill intentions, so many people fear ghosts. Many people believe in ghosts, but there are some that don’t. Some ghosts are also thought to be unaggressive, and just passively present, moving around the space they used to inhabit as if they don’t know they are dead.

In Japan, beliefs about ghosts are a little different, but heavy influence from the west has slowly changed the way ghosts are perceived in the recent decades. According to traditional Japanese superstition, all humans have a spirit that is separated from them at death. After death, spirits wait in a realm in between life and death for a proper ritual and funeral so that they may join their ancestors.

If a person dies a sudden or violent death, or if they feel strong emotions such as hate or extreme pain or sadness at the time of their death, or if a proper ceremony to help their spirit pass on has not been performed, it will linger in the physical world until its desires have been fulfilled and it can move on to be reincarnated.

Ghosts are usually imagined as being white creatures, and they often appear in tales and movies wearing a white funeral kimono. They sometimes have a hitaikakushi (“forehead cover”), which is a small white triangular piece of cloth tied around the head. Their hair will be long, black, and disheveled if they are aggressive spirits, hanging down around their face.

Within the Japanese world of ghosts, there are certain categories for ghosts depending on their method and time of death. Onryō are vengeful ghosts who stay in the world for a wrong done to them during their lifetime. Ubume are mother ghosts who died in childbirth, or died leaving young children behind. This ghost returns to care for her children, often bringing them sweets. These ghosts were common before World War 2 when childbirth was done outside of hospitals and complications were more common.

Ghosts are spirits that should not co-exist with humans, and they deserve a lot of respect. Japanese people who believe in ghosts take their existence seriously and don’t joke around about them.

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