the online database of Japanese folkore

Kingyo no yūrei

金魚の幽霊
きんぎょのゆうれい

Translation: goldfish ghost
Alternate names: Monohana no onryō (Monohana’s ghost)
Habitat: goldfish bowls

Appearance: Kinyo no yūrei are ghosts of murder victims which have come to inhabit goldfish. They are created when a person is murdered by drowning in a fishbowl, and the enraged soul gets stuck inside of a goldfish instead of moving on. The goldfish’s body takes on some of the features of the soul stuck inside of it, becoming a comically grotesque amalgamation of human and fish. Because they are fueled by vengeance for their murder, they are a kind of onyrō.

Origin: Kingyo no yūrei first appear in Edo Period novelist Santō Kyōden’s story Baika hyōretsu, in which a young woman named Monohana is murdered and her soul becomes stuck in the body of a goldfish. According to Kyōden, Monohana’s ghost is the origin of the ranchu variety of goldfish.

Legends: During the 14th century, there lived a virtuous samurai named Karakoto Uraemon. He lived with his wife Kakehashi in what is now Nagano Prefecture. One day at the market, Uraemon came across a seller of goldfish–a new luxury pet recently imported from China. He bought some, and kept them in a beautiful crystal aquarium. Uraemon found much joy in breeding his fish, creating fish with exquisite patterns of red, white, and gold.

Although Uraemon and Kakehashi were happy, they grieved, because Kakehashi was already in her thirties and they had not yet been able to conceive a child. And so they decided to enlist the help of a mistress. They found a lovely, well bred girl from Kyoto, seventeen years old, named Monohana, and hired her into their household. Monohana got along well with the couple. There were no feelings of jealousy or ill will between her and Kakehashi. And soon, all three were delighted to learn that Monohana was with child.

Sadly, Uraemon was called away to Kamakura for work. He would be gone for months, and miss the birth of his first child. He left the care of his household–and his beloved goldfish–in the care of his wife and his mistress.

Next door to the Karakoto household lived a man named Furutori Sabunta. Sabunta was twenty one years old, and a man of exceptional beauty and charm. Unfortunately, he was also greedy and violent–vices which had left him deep in poverty. He was jealous of the wealth and happiness his neighbors in the Karakoto household, and so he hatched a plan.

One day while Kakehashi was chasing away a cat who had been eyeing her husband’s precious goldfish, Sabunta approached her. He warned her that Uraemon and Monohana’s affair had begun long before he hired her as a mistress, and that Uraemon and Monohana were planning to poison and murder Kakehashi. Kakehashi did not believe Sabunta, but Sabunta insisted he had proof. He told her that the postman had mistakenly delivered a message from Uraemon to his home which proved what he had said. The message was, of course, forged, but it was enough to convince Kakehashi. All of her good will towards Monohana gave way to hatred and jealousy.

Before long, Sabunta and Kakehashi had become close friends. Sabunta toyed with Kakehashi’s heart, and manipulated her into developing a plan to murder Monohana. When Monohana was eight months pregnant, they put their plan into motion. Kakehashi lured the heavily pregnant Monohana up the steep staircase to the second floor of their storehouse. There, she let loose all of her rage, hurling insult after insult at Monohana. Kakehashi stuffed a towel into Monohana’s mouth so she could not scream. Then she stripped the girl naked, bound her with rope, and strung her from the rafters. Then Kakehashi beat Monohana’s face and body mercilessly with a bamboo pole. She beat her until her face swelled up like a balloon. She beat her until her eyeballs popped from their sockets. Monohana was no longer recognizable.

Kakehashi left Monohana strung up in the storehouse for three days. Monohana could not scream with her mouth gagged. Her hair became matted to her face with tears. Her white skin was stained deep red from the rivers of blood running across her naked body. She was weak and delirious from starvation and dehydration. Her starved body contrasted with her swollen belly, causing her to look like a gaki. Finally, after three days, Monohana managed to free herself from her bonds. She crawled down the staircase and, overcome with thirst, made her way to the crystal fish tank where Uraemon’s goldfish were swimming around. Monohana dipped her head into the fishbowl to drink, and after slaking her thirst she inadvertently let out a sob.

Kakehashi and Sabunta heard Monohana’s cry. They burst into the room and furiously began to kick Monohana. They kicked her until her belly split open, and a baby boy spilled out from her body onto the floor. Filled with jealous rage, Kakehashi strangled the baby boy to death right there. This was too much for poor Monohana to handle. She screamed one last violent breath, vomiting a fountain of blood into the fish tank, and died.

As Monohana’s blood swirled around the fish tank, the water began to roil. Her blood soaked into the skin of the goldfish, and they began to mutate. Their multi-colored bodies all became deep red. Their cheeks puffed out and their eyeballs swelled, resembling Monohana’s face. Their abdomens inflated and hung from their bodies like Monohana’s pregnant belly. Their tails fanned out and split, like Monohana’s shredded skin. And they began to swim about erratically in the tank, gulping water and vomiting it out like one confused and delirious.

Suddenly afraid, Sabunta and Kakehashi grabbed the Karakoto house’s valuables and fled into the night.

When he was told what happened, Uraemon returned home to bury Monohana and pray for her soul. His beloved goldfish had mutated from Monohana’s blood, and he could no longer bear to look at them. He released them into the temple pond of Chōsenji, where they remained and multiplied–a living memorial to her suffering.

Alphabetical list of yōkai