the online database of Japanese folkore

Itsuki

縊鬼
いつき

Translation: strangling ghost
Alternate names: iki, kubire oni, chōsatsuki, chōshiki (“hanging ghost”)
Habitat: the underworld
Diet: none

Appearance: Itsuki are the ghosts of humans who committed suicide by hanging. They haunt the living by confusing people and coercing them to hang themselves.

Behavior: Itsuki inhabit Meikai, the shadowy underworld where the spirits of the dead dwell. This underworld has a fixed population. In order to maintain equilibrium, a soul may leave to be reborn in the living world only when a new soul arrives to replace them. For this reason, the spirits trapped in hell eagerly await the deaths of the living. Who gets reincarnated is determined by the circumstances in which a person dies. If nobody dies in the same manner, a ghost may have to wait a long time before it can leave the underworld. Itsuki are one such type of ghost.

Interactions: Itsuki grow weary of waiting for people to hang themselves and take their place in hell. So they take matters into their own hands. They haunt the living to drive them to suicide, and take their place in hell. They lurk in the shadows and call out to people when they are alone, commanding them to kill themselves. The impulse which an itsuki implants in its victim is so overpowering that even a happy person with no troubles or worries whatsoever finds themself overcome with the desire to die.

Origin: Itsuki is a very old superstition, with origins stretching all the way back to the folklore of ancient China. The belief that evil spirits call out to the living to coerce them into suicide remains popular in Japan even today. Urban legends describe people receiving a message from a friend joking that they’re going to go hang themself—only to find out a day later that they actually did it. Suicide notes occasionally mention that the victim heard a ghost calling out to them, telling them to do it. Friends and loved ones lament that there were no warning signs or indications at all that the person was suicidal. And stories about strings of suicides sometimes appear in the news, where one person after another kills themself in a similar manner, with seemingly no connection to the other victims. Such stories are often attributed to evil spirits like itsuki.

Legends: Most itsuki stories follow a similar pattern. A young traveler stopped at an inn overnight. That night, he heard the voice of a young woman muttering something in the adjoining room. Peeking into the room, the traveler saw a woman holding a noose and wrapping it around her neck. In the rafters where the rope was tied, a dark, shadowy figure was perched, cajoling the woman to kill herself. The traveler burst into the room and cut the rope down before she could kill herself. The spirit vanished, and the girl was saved. Afterwards she had no recollection of what she was doing or why she was doing it.

Afamous story comes from Kōjimachi, in old Edo. One evening a rich man held a banquet at his estate. His friend who was supposed to help out with the banquet did not show up. The man waited, and eventually his friend finally appeared, much later than expected. “I’m sorry, but something came up. I just stopped by to tell you I can’t make it tonight.” He turned to leave, but the man stopped him and demanded to know what was so important that he couldn’t help out. “I promised to hang myself from Kuichigai gate,” he replied, and once again turned to leave. The banquet guests thought that the friend had gone mad. They refused to let him leave. Despite his struggles, they held him back, and forced him to drink with them. Eventually, he calmed down and stopped resisting.

Late into the night, a messenger arrived with news that a man had just hanged himself at Kuichigai gate. The guests were shocked. The host became convinced that an itsuki had possessed his friend. The ghost must have grown tired of waiting for him to return from the party, and convinced a different man to kill himself instead.

He demanded that his friend explain what happened before he arrived. His friend confessed that the night was like a dream, and he could not remember much. He had made his way to Kuichigai gate. A stranger approached him. He heard a voice say: “Hang yourself here and die!” He was unable to resist, but he explained to the stranger that he had a prior engagement. He begged the voice to let him excuse himself from the banquet first. It told him to do so, then quickly return and kill himself. For some reason, he could not refuse. He promised to do as he was commanded, and then came to the party.

The host’s suspicion was confirmed. He asked his friend if he still wished to kill himself. His friend looked off into the distance and shook with fear. He mimed the motion of wrapping a rope around his own neck and mumbled, “How scary! How scary!”

Alphabetical list of yōkai