the online database of Japanese folkore

Yūrei

幽霊
ゆうれい

Translation: faint spirit, ghost
Alternate names: obake, shiryō, bōrei; other names exist for specific variations
Habitat: any; commonly found in graveyards, houses, or near the place of death
Diet: none

Appearance: There are many different types of yūrei. In most cases, how they appear depends on the circumstances on their death. They retain the features and the clothing they wore when they died or were buried, which means they are dressed in white burial kimonos or the uniforms of fallen warriors. Occasionally, they have bloody wounds indicative of the way they died. Their hair is usually long and disheveled, often obstructing their face and adding to their disturbing appearance. Their hands hang limply from their wrists. Yūrei are translucent and only faintly visible. In most cases they are so faint that they appear to have no feet.

Interactions: Yūrei are capable of invoking powerful curses. They do not roam about, but haunt one particular place or person. In the case of a place it is often where they died or are buried. In the case of a person it is often their killer—or sometimes their loved ones. They remain stuck in this world until they can be put to rest. This might require bringing their killers to justice, or finding their lost body, or something as simple as passing on a message to a loved one. Some yūrei are reluctant to accept their own deaths and haunt their living family, bringing misfortune and unhappiness for the rest of their family members’ lives.

Each haunting is as unique as the person it originated from. Only when its purpose for existing is fulfilled—or it is exorcised by a priest—can a yūrei finally rest. But the possibility that salvation exists is a glimmer of hope for those who are affected by a haunting.

Origin: According to traditional Japanese beliefs, when a person dies his soul lives on as a separate entity, passing on to a heavenly afterlife. This transition is accomplished through a number of funeral and post-funeral rites and prayers performed by their loved ones over many years. Through these rites, the soul is reunited with its ancestors and becomes a family guardian spirit. These ancestors are enshrined in the house and continue to be honored as members of the family, particularly during the summer holiday of Obon when they are said to return to the material world to be with their families.

Those who do not receive the proper funeral rites cannot pass on. They remain stuck in a purgatory that is part physical world and part ethereal. Others who die suddenly, tragically, or violently—or with grudge and malice in their hearts—are sometimes unable to pass on even with the proper prayers and rites. These lost souls transform into yūrei.

Alphabetical list of yōkai