Yurei (Ghosts) (幽霊)

In Japanese folk belief, yurei are faintly visible figures who have remained in Utsushiyo (the land of the living) even after their soul left their body after death, in order to resolve some form of lingering attachment or to seek revenge for a wrong.


Yurei are a phenomenon deriving from Koshinto (a religion practiced prior to the introduction of Confucianism and Buddhism to Japan). According to original Buddhist teaching, there is no such thing as the death of a person, because people experience Rinne Tensho (all things being in flux through the endless circle of birth, death, and rebirth, the circle of transmigration). The existence of souls and gods is not recognized, either. Concepts of this kind were added to the original form of Buddhism, which originated in India, over time and according to region. Esoteric Buddhism is one such example. In Japan, as a result of the syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism, many strands of Buddhism unique to Japan developed. This is a reason why misinterpretations sometimes occur in discussions about the folk beliefs of Japan. Modern Shrine Shinto, which places importance on formality, ceremonies, and "humanized divinity (divine prince)" has also abandoned many old beliefs. Therefore, it is different from the folk beliefs of Japan (Koshinto) in many aspects.

In Koshinto and Shinto, sorei shinko (ancestor worship), one of their fundamental values, is believed to have been practiced in the Jomon Period, together with a concept of souls existing after death. The soul or mitama (the spirit of a deceased person) is an important concept. Mitama are believed to be able to be split. In addition, there are two main kinds of spirits, aramitama (wrathful spirits) and nigimitama (spirits of peace). The former are violent spirits that bring evil and the latter are calm spirits that bring luck. In this worldview, the world is divided into realms; Utsushiyo, the actual world, the world of the living, Tokoyo (the perpetual country), also called Tokkoyo (eternal night), and the sacred world called Kakuriyo (the eternal, forever unchanging, distant land over the sea, or the world of the dead, or heaven). Tokoyo is regarded as heaven or paradise. Some regard Tokkoyo as hell or yominokuni (Hades, or the realm of the dead), yet others regard it merely as the divine world after death called Kakuriyo. There now follow descriptions of yurei and similar concepts which have been passed down through generations as a result of the beliefs outlined above.


A spirit should normally become a shorei (holy spirit) or sorei (ancestral spirit). A spirit may also be called an obake if it is transformed into a visible figure.

Hitodama (Will-o'-the-wisps)
Mitama are believed to be spherical in shape. They are invisible, but those which become faintly visible are called Hitodama. They are believed to be sorei (a holy spirit or shoro) that have returned during the period of the New Year (shorei and sorei are the origin of Toshigami, the god of the incoming year) or Obon (the festival of Buddhist All Souls' Day). Or they are said to be spirits that have just departed the body.

Shiryo (a spirit of a dead person)
This refers to all spirits of the dead that have remained in the Utsushiyo. It is also used as a term meaning the opposite of Ikiryo (vengeful spirits).

Nigimitama (spirits of peace)
The spirits not categorized as akuryo (evil spirits) in Japanese dictionaries such as the Daijirin are here called nigimitama (spirits of peace).

Borei (apparitions)
Borei are spirits that have departed from the body but remained in Utsushiyo, and they appear faintly in the form they had during life. There is no objective view as to the reason borei are formed.

Yurei are spirits that have departed from the body but remain in Utsushiyo as they have a grudge about something that happened before death, and they too appear faintly in the form they had during life. Each grudge has a specific reason. Resolving the grudge can be interpreted as good.

Akuryo are spirits which bring forth calamity.

Onryo (vengeful ghosts)
Onryo are spirits that have departed from the body but remain in Utsushiyo to bring catastrophe, appearing faintly in the form they had during life.

Ikiryo (vengeful spirits)
Ikiryo are spirits who have had part of their soul separated from their body and bring catastrophe, appearing faintly in the form they had during life.


Kakuriyo are spirits which are not classes as obake as they have not changed form.

Shoryo or Shoro
Shoryo are spirits that have departed this world to Tokoyo or Tokkoyo and can not be seen even if they return during the Obon festival. Note: When these Chinese characters are read as "seirei," it refers to divine spirits outside Japan. It is also a general term referring to the soul, spirit, life, and gods or part thereof used in a theory of animism in cultural anthropology.

Shoryo or shoro are also called sorei shoryo, but interpretations of them vary: some regard them as merely shorei spirits having descendants; others believe that spirits are rated or promoted from shoro to sorei, or finally to a god depending on the time after death or the way the descendant holds a memorial service; still others regard sorei as a general term for a shiryo remaining in Utsushiyo or a shorei that has departed to Tokoyo.

Words created for other kinds of spirits without folk legend

Words created to define other spirits, such as natural spirits, guardian spirits, the spirits of animals, floating spirits, and earthbound spirits, are "coined words" created in recent years. The word "earthbound" itself does not exist in Japanese. They are concepts (not particularly regarded as being part of an ideology) of a small group of people whose motivation may be connected to financial profit. They are also often outlandish words not used in the study of the fields of folklore and cultural anthropology, spread through cartoons or hearsay, and subject to the whims of fashion.

Culture and Art

Tales about yurei have been handed down in the form of kaidan (ghost stories) since before the Edo Period. During the Edo Period, ghost stories became very popular and fine pieces of literature, such as Ugetsu Monogatari, The Peony Lantern, and Yotsuya Kaidan, were created. A yurei culture blossomed, as kodan (storytelling), rakugo (traditional comic storytelling), kusazoshi (Japanese picture books), and ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock prints) featured them. This is used today as a subject in genres ranging from the classics to new works, covering comical stories, novels, and dramas, and appears in various media formats.

"Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Tokaido Yotsuya Ghost Stories)" was first performed at a theater called Nakamura-za Theater in Edo on July 26, 1825. July 26 has been made "Yurei Day" to commemorate it.

Shape of Yurei

Yurei are only faintly seen, as they lack physical form or substance. If yurei were visible they would appear as the living person. They could also be seen as people who have come back from the dead.

In Japan, people commonly have an image of a yurei as a woman without legs wearing a tenkan (triangle hood) over her disheveled hair and a white kimono (which samurai wore to commit harakiri in feudal Japan), and this is the most typical figure shown in theaters or haunted houses. This "typical Japanese-style yurei" derives from ukiyoe paintings of the Edo Period. It comes from a kabuki drama entitled "Yotsuya Kaidan," in which a yurei appears without legs for effect, according to "Wataruseken ha "machigai" darake (This World is Full of Errors)" published by Kawade shobo shinsha.

Although an old saying claims that spirits of the war dead do not transform into yurei, many yurei of defeated Heike soldiers fleeing the enemy and yurei of soldiers killed in the two world wars are said to have appeared in the shape of the person at death. In contrast, ghosts outside Japan usually have legs.

Yurei without legs

Some believe that Okyo MARUYAMA first described a yurei without legs, but this is not correct. In fact, a yurei without legs appeared as an illustration in a joruri-bon (book of joruri scripts) titled Kazan-in kisaki arasoi (Quarrel between the Empresses of Retired Emperor Kazan), which was written in 1673, before Okyo was born. The illustration is said to be the oldest existing picture of a yurei without legs. The idea that yurei are spirits without legs seems to have been established in this period. However, the pictures of yurei drawn by Okyo seem to have been popular since the Edo Period and have influenced many subsequent painters.

Words and persons having a yurei in their names
Living things
Yureiika (deep-sea squid): a species of squid
It has a luminous organ that emits quite an intense light.

Yureigumo (daddy long legs spiders); a general term for arthropods which belong to the spider family in the suborder Araneomorphae. It is so named because it likes dark places and has a whitish, thin, slim body.

Yureitake (monotropastrum humile), a kind of mushroom, also known as Ginryosou

Things directly related to or modeled after yurei

Yurei Day: July 26
July 26 is the anniversary of the day on which Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, written by Nanboku TSURUYA, was first performed in 1825.

The name of a slope. There are many opinions regarding the origin of the name but it is believed that yurei have appeared or are likely to appear there.

Kosodate yurei (a ghost caring for her baby)
This expression stems from a folktale handed down in Japan.

Uchi-Benkei Soto-Yurei
Also called Uchi-Benkei no Soto-Yurei, this expression allegorizes the character of a person whose behavior outside the home is quite different from his or her behavior at home.

Yureito (The Ghost Tower)
This is the title of some translated versions of a foreign mystery set in a tower.

Yureisen (ghost ship)
Legends of ships only containing ghosts can be found in Japan and Europe.

It is also known as a haunted house.

Variable Voltage Variable Frequency Control: this is the common name for electric cars, such as the early generation of electric cars having a function which produces sounds similar to the sound of yurei heard in kabuki or period dramas (a name familiar in the railway industry). It has nothing to do with yurei densha (ghost trains).

As a metaphor for things with no substance, deriving from the idea that yurei have no physical form.
Yurei Moji (ghost characters)
Yurei Buin (phantom members)
Yurei Shikisha (phantom conductor)/yurei orchestra (phantom orchestra)
A model train: a common name for model trains having a motor in a car that otherwise would not have had it.

Famous people with the name Yurei