Ghosts in the west are generally uniformed spectral figures that appear translucent and either amorphous and smoke-like or as anthropomorphic figures of varying detail. But in Japan, the traditional Yurei ghost comes with very specific characteristics, most commonly today portrayed in theater and film but also in folklore. These figures often are attached to tragic tales of lost love, vengeance, tragedy, and mystery.
To spot a Yurei there are very specific characteristics to look for according to contemporary literature. The figures are most commonly seen wearing pure white flowing gowns or robes. It’s common to see a Yurei wearing a ‘katabira’ or a ‘kyokatabira’ as they wander through the last moments of their lives once again. Katabiras and Kyokatabiras are white flowing gowns with insignias drawn upon them. These are said to symbolize the purity of the spirit and death. Another thing to keep an eye out for with Yurei is signature long eerie hair that betrays some conflict in the past by being unkempt and disheveled. Long tangled knots of hair may indicate the person has died as women traditionally wore their hair up, letting it down for only certain occasions such as sleep or burial. The biggest hint that you’ve encountered a Yurei, however, is most likely the lack of legs and feet. These entities float on an unexplained blanket of air that allows them to traverse slowly, with their gowns flowing in the breeze behind them. When this fact was adapted to the Kabuki theater, the actors and actresses were commonly held aloft by cables that would allow them to float across the stage seemingly by the same magic force that holds up the ghosts of folklore. And then there are the Hitodama, which appear like lightning bugs or floating candle flames and are generally of a greenish color. Interestingly, these green floating lights have been spotted throughout Europe and are often associated with the dead there as well.
So if a traveler in Japanese folklore came across a Yurei, what should he keep in mind? Well, these figures were commonly associated with a number of different archetypes. Their motivations ranged from the Ringu-like ghosts looking to cast their vengeance on a world that wronged them to the Funayurei often whispered of at docks and said to be the ghosts of those who had drowned.
Recently we covered the ghost of Okiku, who was claimed by the vengeance of a scorned lover of hers. Okiku would have fallen into the category of the Onryo, or the vengeful spirits. Unfortunately, dealing with these spirits often requires a person to possess very specific information regarding their manner of death. Of course even in the folklore, these figures are said to sometimes attempt to communicate the cause of their death or what they need in order to once again find peace. Of course in the case of the Onryo, this isn’t always forthcoming. Mystical Ofuda were distributed according to the Shinto tradition, which could banish these spirits or repel them by placing them on the forehead of the Yurei or by placing them around the house – particularly at the entrances.