Aug 29

JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘Yurei: The Japanese Ghost’

“If you like reading about mythology and supernatural horror around the world, or if you enjoy Japan’s unique brand of horror from such films as The Ring and The Grudge, then Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is a must-read.” (Chin Music Press)


By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio is currently working at JTB’s New Jersey office while seeking opportunities with publications in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and board gaming on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.

Do not read this review.

If you are foolish enough to read this review to the end…after seven days, you will be followed by a lingering spirit which will slowly, but unrelentingly, press more and more of its weight upon your shoulders. The weight will build to an unbearable breaking point, leaving you weak and overwhelmed by the scent of rotting flesh, driving your mind to unknowable depths of madness and despair. You can avoid this terrible fate by sharing this book review via the social media outlet of your choice or by purchasing Yurei: the Japanese Ghost, a new and excellent nonfiction effort by JET alum Zack Davisson (Nara-ken, 2001-04; Osaka-shi, 2004-06).

No doubt you’ve seen or heard of such films as The Ring and The Grudge, which have served as ambassadors of Japan’s very rich ghost culture (not to mention Halloween staples), but it is likely that there are aspects of these Japanese movies that you may have not been able to appreciate on some level. This book’s purpose is to fill in those gaps and fascinate you with an expertly catalogued evolution of ghost stories in Japan, and how pervasive they remain in pop culture to this day.

What exactly is a yūrei and why is it different from a Western ghost? What’s with the white face and long black hair? Why water? What drives the yūrei to do what it does? These questions and more are answered in this book. In the author’s words, “The goal of this book: to provide this understanding, to allow a clearer insight not only into the popular products of Japan but also the history and culture from which they sprang.” Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is a guided tour of the yūrei, from their appearance, to the rules they obey, to the traditions behind these characteristics. Davisson achieves this goal through the use of highly enjoyable primary choices and sharing the fruits of much academic research.

Davisson directly quotes, summarizes, or explains the content and contexts of a wealth of sources to conjure up these spirits and illustrate their development. Yūrei focuses on reoccurring characters and stories such as those of the famous ghosts Oiwa, Otsuyu, and Okiku, along with the creators of these stories. Yūrei transcend mediums and appear throughout the ages not only in written form in the popular Japanese spooky and weird tales called kaidan, but also in paintings, wood block prints, noh, kabuki, and of course, in more recent years, film. Some of the sources that you may already be familiar with or can look forward to learning about include The Kojiki, The Tale of Genji, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Yotsuya Kaidan (Oiwa’s Story), The Peony Lantern (Otsuyu’s Story), and Ugetsu Monogatari .

Another strength of Davisson’s book is that not only does he walk you through the evolving form of yūrei throughout the ages, but he also explains the religious and social practices throughout time that shaped how yūrei were perceived and negotiated with. Davisson truly demonstrates a great understanding of history and research to help the reader best understand the impact and significance of yūrei through the lens of history. One little known fascinating custom among aristocrats in the Heian period is the role of zenchishiki. As midwives assisted a successful birth, individuals called zenchishiki would assist a successful death, ensuring a person’s spirit would not be trapped in this world upon the moment of death through various techniques. This is only one form that the preoccupation with dying in such a way as to move into a peaceful afterlife has taken in Japanese history.

Film lovers will also find much to love in Yurei. Japanese horror is a genre that goes back as far as 1912 with an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan, to the 1960s with Japan’s first genuine horror director Nakagawa Nobuo, to the recent films that have become popular overseas. While many of the traits of yurei made famous today in recent films draw on older written and theater sources, yurei are featured prominently in the golden age of Japanese film that Davisson expertly ties into his discussion of their various manifestations. If you are familiar with or curious about Kenji Mizoguchi’s film Ugetsu, then you are in good company.

I loved this book. As a longtime fan of Japanese horror found in the films and literature mentioned above, and especially in video games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, I have always been drawn to the unique traits and characteristics of Japanese horror and ghost stories. So of course, I found the book fascinating and it has put so many things I enjoy into a new light. But not only horror stories, also religious and cultural practices that you still see evidence of today in Japan. Those stone lanterns you see everywhere at shrines and temples are never lit because they are only lit during O-bon, the holiday in Japan when the spirits come to this world to visit their families. There’s more to the little Jizo statues with those red bibs than that they protect the souls of children, which is what I have always been told. They actually play a role in a complex Buddhist view of the afterlife called “The River of Three Crossings” that helps children overcome obstacles to their reincarnation. Because of explanations like these, I think that JETs and others who have lived abroad in Japan for a time might find interesting answers to questions you never realized you had lingering in the back of your mind.

If you like reading about mythology and supernatural horror around the world, or if you enjoy Japan’s unique brand of horror from such films as The Ring and The Grudge, then Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is a must-read. In addition to the sources Davisson draws on,  if you are looking for more Japanese horror and weird tales, I recommend Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo and Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyuki Miyabe (which was also featured in a JQ book review last year).

For more on Zack and his upcoming works, visit You can also read JQ’s exclusive interview with him and reviews of volumes, onetwo, and three of his translations of Shigeru Mizuki’s Harvey Award-nominated manga Showa: A History of Japan.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

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