the online database of Japanese folkore



Translation: death spirit
Habitat: places connected with death
Diet: none; they exist only to perpetuate death

Appearance: Shinigami is a broad term referring to spirits of the dead which possess and harm the living. In general, they look like humans with a grey, corpse-like pallor and horrifying features. Although their name includes the word kami, their true nature is closer to that of a ghost or an evil spirit than a god.

Behavior: Shinigami are attracted to death. They lurk around the bodies of the recently deceased. They thrive in areas which are have been tainted by evil—especially places where grizzly deaths such as murders or suicides have occurred. They haunt these impure areas looking for humans to haunt.

Interactions: Shinigami are spirits of possession, or tsukimono, which haunt people and alter their behavior. Their victims become obsessed with death and the desire to kill themselves. They obsess over any and every bad thing they may have done, fueling their desire to commit suicide. Shinigami are particularly find of possessing wicked people, however anyone unfortunate enough to see a shinigami is doomed to suffer an unnatural and violent death.

Local areas have many different superstitions regarding shinigami and how to deal with them. For example, in Kumamoto Prefecture it is believed that anyone attending an overnight vigil with a recently deceased body will be followed home by a shinigami. Upon returning home, you must have a cup of tea or a bowl of rice and lie down to sleep, or else the shinigami will possess you.

Origin: Shinigami are related to a common folk belief that evil begets evil. If a murder or a suicide takes place in a certain area, there is sure to be another murder or suicide in that same area soon. Bloodshed and tragedy can repeat over and over again until an area is ritually purified and the souls of any victims appeased. This theme is present in ancient legends such as the Tale of the Heikei, to medieval ghost stories, and even modern urban legends and film. Shinigami are a key part of this cycle; the souls of the wicked dead call to the souls of the wicked living, goading them to commit further atrocities. Unless properly exorcised, this circle of death can continue forever.

Alphabetical list of yōkai