Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Samurai Ghosts and Warrior Spirits in Japan

Print by Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841-1899) of a boy showing his mother a samurai ghost. (
Since today is Halloween, I thought I'd make today's post a spooky one (or at least as spooky as possible!) for you guys!

Japan is a country haunted by many ghosts. Ghosts of warriors and shogunates past. Ghosts of soldiers who died far too young in the nation's wars. Ghosts of young lovers whose romances ended tragically. Many of these ghosts have become the subjects of legends and kabuki theatre over the centuries. Many still roam the Japanese countryside today, making their presence known to whole new generations, seeking release from their purgatorial state, or safeguarding the country as they have for centuries.

Some of the most famous ghosts in Japan are the ghosts of samurai warriors. Many of these ghosts are the spirits of some of Japan's most famous warriors who have sworn to protect the nation in life and in death. Others are vengeful spirits out to seek revenge on those who defeated them and/or their clan.

"The Ghost of Taira no Tomomori" by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). (Library of Congress)

One real-life warrior who became a ghost of legend was Taira no Tomomori (1152-1185). Tomomori was one of the Taira clan's commanders at the end of the Genpei War, which was a war waged between the Taira and Minamoto clans during Japan's Heian period (794-1185).

Tomomori fought in a number of battles with the Minamoto clan, including the famous naval battle of Mizushima where Taira forces defeated a Minamoto invasion force by tying their ships together and creating a huge fighting platform which enabled them to fight a land battle in the middle of the ocean!

In 1185, the Taira clan was finally defeated at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, which was the battle that determined which family would rule Japan. Rather than face the humiliation of defeat, Taira no Tomomori and his warriors committed hara-kiri by jumping overboard into the ocean. According to many legends, Tomomori tied a gigantic anchor around himself before hurling himself into the water. To this day many Japanese believe the spirits of the Taira warriors inhabit the Heike crabs that live on the ocean floor in the Shimonoseki Strait (which was the location of the battle) between the islands of Kyushu and Honshu.

In the case of Taira no Tomomori's spirit, his has become the subject of many legends. Some say his ghost rose from the depths of the ocean and wanders the earth, waiting for the chance to take his revenge on the Minamoto clan. Over the centuries, his ghost has been depicted in paintings, manga, and ukiyo-e prints such as the one above by Yoshitoshi. It was a character in various Noh plays such as Ikarikazuchi and  Funa benkei (1885), which was about Tomomori's ghost unleashing his vengeance on the famous warrior monk Benkei, who served the Minamoto clan.

In modern times, Taira no Tomomori has made the occasional appearance (in both ghostly and human form) in anime, in movies such as the 1964 film Kwaidan, and in games such as the 2000 video game Harukanaru Toki No Naka De (Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time). Also, his ghost has been a popular tattoo for members of the Japanese underworld.

Taira no Masakado. (Wikimedia Commons)
One warrior who has become a real-life "warrior spirit" is Tomomori's relative Taira no Masakado (?-940). Masakado's ghost has not only become the subject of legend, but a real-life deity residing in a shrine in the middle of downtown Tokyo's business district!

Masakado was a member of the Taira clan who was a powerful landowner in the Kanto area (the area surrounding modern-day Tokyo). In the the mid-930s, he was involved in a number of disputes with the Minamoto clan, as well as members of his own family. This culminated in a rebellion against the Imperial court in Kyoto. He set up his own kingdom in all eight provinces of eastern Japan and proclaimed himself Emperor. The rebellion lasted throughout 939-940 until Imperial forces retook the region, captured Masakado, and beheaded him.

However, Masakado was not going to disappear from the land of the living so easily. Most legends state that his head, which was on display in Kyoto, flew through the air and landed in the tiny fishing village of Shibasaki, which was located near where the shrine is located in Tokyo's banking district of Otemachi. His head was buried at the site and over time, Masakado became the protector of Tokyo.

A shrine was built to Masakado at the site in 940, but was later moved to another site nearby during the 17th century. Over the centuries, Masakado's spirit has stayed relatively quiet....unless his shrine falls into disrepair or attempts are made to raze it. Plague fell on that part of Edo (Tokyo) when his shrine was neglected in the early 14th century and a Buddhist temple was built next door. After the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, his shrine was nearly forgotten in the midst of the chaos. As a result, some of Tokyo's most well-known corporate presidents mysteriously committed suicide. After World War II, an attempt was made by American occupation forces to raze the shrine and turn it into a motorpool. The bulldozer used for its demolition mysteriously overturned and the driver was killed. There have also been a few other calamities that have fallen on that particular area when Masakado's shrine fell into disrepair. Those calamaties have been enough to convince the public to leave his tomb where it has been for over a thousand years.

However, Masakado has been regarded as a protector of Tokyo. Many people pray and leave offerings at his tomb. The Imperial Palace - and the Tokugawa castle before it - were located near his shrine, no doubt taking advantage of his protection.
If you want to see Masakado's tomb up close, check out this video from YouTube of one Japanese family's visit to the site!

Ghosts and spirits have been a part of Japan throughout its existence, and no doubt will be for the rest of time.

Have a happy Halloween folks and stay safe tonight!   

For more about Taira no Tomomori, Taira no Masakado, and other "bewitching" places in Japan, here are some links for you: (Excellent site about Masakado.) (A very good article about Masakado's shrine and tomb.) (Webpage from Haunted Tours America about haunted places in Japan.)


Wander Woman said...

That's a good Halloween post. Someday when I visit Japan, I will make sure I drop by Masakado's tomb. :)

Josh said...

Glad you enjoyed it Wander Woman! I too plan to make a visit to Masakado's tomb someday and pay homage to one of Japan's most legendary people!

Rhiza Mendoza said...

I'm glad I've found this article and proved that I have really seen a samurai ghost when I was in Japan in 1990. I was 4 in our old apartment i n Osaka.

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