Ancient Ghost Stories- Eastern Style

The Hungry Ghost Festival Photo Credit- Original image by Mister Bijou. Uploaded by Karen Barrett-Wilt, published on 30 October 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs.
The Hungry Ghost Festival Photo Credit- Original image by Mister Bijou. Uploaded by Karen Barrett-Wilt, published on 30 October 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs.

We have discussed the similarities of how the afterlife and ghosts are viewed in the Western World in our previous post. There are also similarities that run through how these subjects are addressed in Eastern cultures, however, there are a few twists that mark them out as different.

As in the West, the ghosts of ancestors could appear to their descendants to give warnings or advice. However, in China this was taken to another level as ancestor worship was widely practiced. The Chinese afterlife was a journey for the soul to cross a bridge over an abyss. There the soul was judged and if it was found worthy, it drank something called Mengpo Soup, which caused it to forget its former life. Some traditions said the soul then went to heaven, others said the soul was then reincarnated. If the soul was judged unworthy, it went to Hell and was not expected to return except on the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Hungry Ghost Festival is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year. It is thought the veil between the world of the living and the dead is the thinnest at this time and the dead can easily cross over. People leave food and gifts for the ghosts so they will return to their own realm and not trouble the living. Unless the ghost was the spirit of an ancestor appearing in a dream, the Chinese believed some evil force must be involved.

There are generally considered to be five types Chinese ghosts and they are directly related to how the person lived and how they died.

Ba Jioa Gui are the spirits of those connected somehow to gambling debts, either through suicide or murder. These spirits appear under a banana tree and are wailing and sometimes carrying a baby. There is a tradition of tying a red string around a banana tree trunk to ask for lottery numbers, but if they get them and do not fulfill the promise to the ghost they will die a horrible death.

If a person committed a sin of killing, theft, and sexual-misconduct, they become an E Gui or hungry ghost. This ghost is condemned to a perpetual state of hunger, but its mouth is too small to ingest food. It’s skin is green or gray. It is also said that if people forgot their duties of respect for a spirit or the victims of murders who had not been caught, those spirits also became E Gui. They could torment the mind of the living or generally behave like a poltergeist.

Nu Gui are female ghosts, and are most represented in modern day Japanese and Hong Kong movies. This is the ghost of a vengeful and angry woman, who has committed suicide or been raped. She returns to take her revenge on the living and appears as a beautiful girl to seduce her victims like a succubus.

Yuan Gui are also ghosts who have been wronged, usually through wrongful death, but they do not have the drive for revenge of the Nu Gui. They are troubled souls who cannot pass onto the next life, but roam the world of the living in constant depression and restlessness. If they are able to communicate with one of the living, and that person can clear their honor then the Yuan Gui can move on.

The Japanese add a few more specific types of ghosts. One is the Shui Gui, or spirits of the drowned. Since their bodies cannot be found and they cannot receive funeral rites, they are unable to find peace. They live at the bottom of lakes or rivers and drag swimmers down to their doom. There is also the Wu Tou Gui or ghosts of those who received the sentence of being beheaded, and Ying Ling, the ghosts of unborn children who died. Stories also tell of the Ri Ben Gui Bing, who are the spirits of Japanese soldiers who invaded China during the World Wars. They are in uniform and carry guns or katanas.

Ghosts in India most closely resemble the E Gui or hungry ghosts of China. They were known as Bhoots and appeared as shapeshifters who appeared with backward feet. The feet are thought to appear backward to show that something has gone wrong. Bhoots appear when a person dies before their appointed time on earth, and because they were cheated of their allotted time try to possess another body. A woman who died in childbirth became a bhoot called a churail. This ghost inhabited the crossroads, much like the Roman Hecate, and tried to either steal children, possess the body of a woman or seduce and kill a man. Once the bhoot reached their allotted time on earth, they had to leave and become reincarnated.


Sources available on request

Yonaguni Monument- Japan’s Atlantis or Myth

Yonaguni Monument Photo Credit- National Geographic
Yonaguni Monument Photo Credit- National Geographic

Yonaguni Jima is an island that lies near the southern tip of Japan’s Ryukyu archipelago, about 75 miles off the eastern coast of Taiwan. It is a popular place to dive as it is home to a large population of hammerhead sharks during the winter. During a dive in 1987, Dive Tour operator Kihachiro Aratake found a series of strange rock formations on the seabed, which resembled man-made buildings. He reported his find, and a group of scientists directed by Masaaki Kimura of the University of the Ryukyus began surveying the area. What they found was a series of ten structures, which resemble a castle, temples and a huge stadium. All of these structures are connected by roads and water lines. Kimura described the most spectacular find as “The largest structure (Yonaguni monument) looks like a complicated, monolithic, stepped pyramid that rises from a depth of 25 meters [82 feet]”.

However, this discovery has not been without controversy. Kimura is convinced this is the remnants of man-made stepped monoliths belonging to a 5,000 year old city. However, other scientists including Robert Schoch of Boston University, believe these are natural formations, which were at most possibly used and modified by humans. Kimura’s argument is the square corners and flat parallel faces of the buildings indicate human creation. Schloch and others believe these are the result of sea currents and natural erosion. Kimaura also points to what he believes are drawings of people and animals, including that of a horse which resembles a character from the Kaida script. He has also found what he believes are quarry marks. Unfortunately, we have no other evidence around the stone structures of Yonaguni. “Pottery and wood do not last on the bottom of the ocean, but we are interested in further research on a relief at the site that is apparently painted and resembles a cow,” Kimura said.

Kimura believes that the city sank into the ocean during one of the huge seismic events that are common in the Pacific Rim. A tsunami struck Yonaguni Jima in April 1771 with an estimated height of more than 131 feet. A similar occurrence would have been enough to send the city to the ocean floor. Kimura and others believe this is the ruins of the ancient continent of Mu, which in legend disappeared beneath the waves. However, evidence of the existence of Mu past rumors and myth is hard to come by. First suggested in the works of Augustus Le Plongeon in the 19th century, and further popularized by the works of James Churchward. Most scientists dismiss the existence of Mu due to lack of evidence.

A natural cliff face on Japan's Yonaguni Jima resembles the "steps" of the mysterious stone structures that lie off the island's coast. Photo Credit- National Geographic
A natural cliff face on Japan’s Yonaguni Jima resembles the “steps” of the mysterious stone structures that lie off the island’s coast. Photo Credit- National Geographic

Other scientists dispute Kimura’s evidence for human creation of Yonaguni as natural phenomena. Notably, Robert Schoch, suggests the holes in the rock, which Kimura believes were quarry marks, were made by underwater eddies. He also believes what Kimura calls drawings are natural scratches in the rock. There are human settlements on the nearby coast which have been dated to 2500 BCE. However, these were small communities, and archaeologist Richard J. Person has said, “They are not likely to have had extra energy for building stone monuments.”

In recent years, Yonaguni has been the focus of alternative historians and has even been featured on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. (Side note: If you have not seen this show, go now as the main guy’s hair is worth the price of admission. It’s the best unintentional comedy out there.)

Without further study and additional evidence, we cannot definitively say what these structures are. However, at this time neither the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs nor the government of Okinawa Prefecture recognize the remains off Yonaguni as an important cultural property, said agency spokesperson Emiko Ishida.


Sources available on request

Yu Gwan Sun-  Korea’s Joan of Arc

Yu Kwan Sun

In 1904, Korea allied with Japan during the first Russo-Japanese war and lent its territory for Japan’s military operations.  This was only a stepping stone to the Japanese occupation of Korea.  They came and never left.  This was the government’s plan to make Japan a world power.  Tough luck for anyone in Korea that wasn’t fine with this plan.

On March 1, 1919, the Korean independence movement began.  The so called March 1st Movement started with demonstrations mainly made up of students and Christians as all other political groups had been disbanded by the Japanese government.  The rebels created a Declaration of Independence, which was signed by thirty-three representatives.  Then they shouted out the Declaration of Independence then “Long live Korean Independence”.  This went over about as well as can be expected.

One of the protesters was a young girl named Yu Gwan Sun.  She was born in 1904 in little village near Ch’onan, in South Ch’ungch’ong.  Not much is known about her early life, but she was sent to the Ewha Women’s University in Seoul as recommended by one of her teachers, Alice Sharp.  Sharp was a western missionary and saw potential in Yu.  Her father agreed to take the chance and sent Yu to school in 1916.  She did well in her studies and contemporary accounts say she used her summer vacations to teach the local villagers what she was learning.

1919 was a turbulent year in Korea.  On January 22, King Kojong, who had abdicated his throne in 1907 in favor of Japanese rule, died.  Despite his abdication, the king was still quite popular and rumors went round that he had been poisoned by the Japanese.  The mourning for the king fed into the Korean independence movement and helped fuel the March 1st Movement.  Yu and other students joined the mass demonstrations in Pagoda Park in downtown Seoul.  The authorities broke up the demonstrations and many students and teachers were arrested.  Ewha University was temporarily closed by order of the Governor-General of Korea and Yu went home, but that did not end her career as a rebel.

Once home, she helped organize more protests working often until 3 or 4am.  She handed out Korean flags to the villagers.  The protest in the Awunae Marketplace grew to 2,000 demonstrators from four neighboring towns.  They were all chanting “Long live Korean Independence” and holding up their hands crying “Mansei”.  The police arrived and one thing led to another shots were fired.  When the smoke cleared, Yu’s parents were killed along with several others demonstrators.  Yu was arrested and taken to the detention center at the Japanese Military Police Station at Ch’onan.  She was offered a lighter sentence because of her youth if she would admit guilt and cooperate with the police.  Yu refused.  The police went for more “persuasive” methods, and subjected the young girl to torture to give up the names of collaborators or safe houses.  Yu held firm.  She was transferred to Gongju police station and stood trial for sedition and security law violations.  At the trial, she protested its unjustness saying, “Your country has invaded another country. You have no rights to judge our guilts.”  She was convicted and sentenced to five years at Seodaemun Prison.

Replica of the women’s jail (underground cells) built during the Japanese Occupation to imprison and torture women prisoners Photo Credit-

At Seodaemun Prison, she was one of the many women who had been imprisoned in the independence movement.  Women were dragged away by soldiers knowing they would be stripped and tortured to death, but still they screamed for independence.  Special cells were built to torture them, each approximately 3.3 meters square and too low to stand up in.  These were given the name “Yu Guan Sun’s Cave”, in dubious honor of their most famous occupant.  Records discovered in November 2011 found that of the 45,000 who were arrested at protests during this time, 7,500 of them died at the hands of the Japanese.

Sadly, Yu was one of the fatalities.  Still advocating for Korean independence, she was brutally tortured and beaten at the hands of the Japanese.  She died in prison on September 28, 1920 only one year into her sentence.  Her last words were supposedly “Japan shall fall.”  She was only sixteen years old.  Even in death, she was not allowed dignity.  The Japanese prison officials originally refused to release her body for burial, but were forced by the threats from the western principals of the Ewha Women’s University.  Her body was released to the school in a Saucony Vacuum Company oil crate.  Jeannette Walter, one of the principals of the Ewha Women’s University, is said to have described her funeral as follows, “Yu Gwan Sun died in prison at the young age of 16.  We brought her body to our school.  Students prepared her shroud with cotton cloth.  However, we decided that she is our true hero and remade her shroud with silk.  Japan only allowed her funeral in church quietly with only her class friends attending.  The students demanded to go to her burial place also, but it was never permitted.  The teachers consoled them.  I, a student representative, and a homeroom teacher went to her burial place instead, but Yu Gwan Sun was never forgotten.”

Her grave was in Itaewon cemetery, which was destroyed at a later date.  A shrine was built after Korean independence and many statues of her exist at universities and schools.  Legend says on March 1, the statues of Yu Gwan Sun will march around screaming “Long Live Korean Independence” and if you say her name to one of the statues, the head will turn and she will look into your eyes.


Sources available on request

João Rodrigues-  The Interpreter

rodrigues2Japan was a land of mystery for westerners for many years.  Marco Polo had written about it, but never been there.  It was one of the destinations of Christopher Columbus as he sailed West in 1492.  However, it was still very much an unknown in the 16th century, when Portuguese merchants and missionaries arrived on the coast of Japan in 1577.  They had traveled to India in 1574 when Rodrigues was only 14 and served as a cabin boy.  No one is exactly sure why this young man made the dangerous trip from Lisbon to the East via the Cape of Good Hope.  He could have been filled with religious piety to convert the heathen or he could have simply been seeking his fortune.  Whatever the reason, the sixteen year old Rodrigues was with the missionaries when they arrived in Nagasaki.  There he joined the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits.  As a novitiate, Rodrigues devoted himself to learning the Japanese language to facilitate the spread of the gospel.  He became so fluent in the language, the Japanese called him Tçuzzu, or Interpreter.  He said in his later writings, “Tsukku-san’s my nickname as Japanese cannot pronounce my name … Tsukku’s a pun on the Japanese word tsuyaku – to interpret.”

His role as interpreter allowed Rodrigues access to the highest levels of Japanese society.  The Japanese were fascinated by the foreigners, but at the same time highly suspicious of them.  They were fascinated by the guns the westerners brought and their strange looks- thick beards, fair hair and long noses.  They called them “Southern Barbarians.”  Watching the Europeans eat with only a knife and their fingers were unbelievable to the Japanese.  As well as the fact that they only bathed every month or so, instead of every day like the Japanese.

The westerners, in turn, were fascinated by the Japanese.  Without the tenets of Christianity, they had set up a society “cultured and prudent people” yet completely opposite from Europeans.  Rodrigues describes even the smallest differences, such as the use of fans by all levels of people.  They wrote notes on the fans and would not be caught in public without them.  Rodrigues also gives one of the first accounts by a westerner of the tea ceremony or chanoyu.  He writes of this in his book, Arte del Cha, and details both the annual harvest from Uji as well as the Zen meanings of the ceremony.  His writings reveal an open mind about the culture of Japan, including praise of the holiness of the Buddhist monks.

The missionaries spread the word of the gospel, and some people were receptive of their message.  Over 200 Catholic churches were established, primarily in southern Japan, and converted over a quarter million Japanese.  These included some the warlords in charge, which would then put pressure on their people.  These conversions were possibly less than spiritual in nature as merchants generally followed where the missionaries were, and the merchants brought lucrative trade.  Religion and trade were closely intertwined and where one went the other followed.  Other warlords did not like the new influence of Christianity, and opposed its spread and the conversion of the people and their new found wealth.  Finally, the missionaries were expelled from Japan in 1587 and Rodrigues left and stayed in Macao.

The tide changed again and the Europeans were invited back in 1591 and Rodrigues returned with the new ambassador, Alessandro Valignano.  Rodrigues describes the procession of the European delegation through the streets of Kyoto, where spectators lined the streets to see the many gifts being given to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Japanese ruler.  These included “a fine Arab stallion, resplendent with silver harness, golden stirrups and black velvet drapes.”  Once there, the new ambassador and the Kampaku, or chief adviser of the emperor, sipping sake from the same cup in the sakazui ceremony.  Then gifts were exchanged.  Through it all Rodrigues was the prime interpreter.

Rodrigues was one of the few men to speak both Portuguese and fluent Japanese as well as be familiar with Japanese customs and etiquette.  His skills were called on for many diplomatic missions including the San Felipe affair in 1597.  The San Felipe was a Spanish ship, which wrecked off the coast of Japan.  Hideyoshi claimed the ship and the cargo, and the Spanish captain of the ship protested.  He demanded compensation for his lost ship and cargo, and alleged the missionaries were the vanguard of military conquerors.  This incident soured Hideyoshi on the Christians and rekindled a fear of the religion’s popularity in Japan.  This led to the crucifixion of the Twenty-Six martyrs of Japan in February 1597, which included six European Franciscans, three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese Christian laymen.

Rodrigues stayed in Japan becoming the emperor’s commercial agent in Nagasaki until 1610.  There was another trade dispute over the Madre de Deus.  The ship had been involved in a fight in Macau the previous year and Japanese sailors had been killed.  When it returned to Nagasaki, Japanese officials boarded and tried to arrest the captain.  That did not go over well at all and in the ensuing fight the ship was burned and sank.  To smooth this over, the Governor of Nagasaki made a truce with the Portuguese merchants conditional on Rodrigues’ exile.  He was sent by the Jesuits back to Macao where he revised and published Arte da Lingoa de Iapam, the first ever grammar of the Japanese language.  He also began História da Igreja do Japão, the History of Japan, but it was never finished.  There are 18th century copies of the first two sections which include his own experiences in Japan.  The rest of the Jesuits soon followed Rodrigues as all priests were expelled from Japan in 1614.

Rodrigues died in Macau in 1633 or 1634.  His writings inspired the character of Martin Alvito in the book Shogun by James Clavell.


Sources available on request

Kamikaze and the Aborted Mongol Invasions of Japan

Legend holds that the kamikaze, or "divine wind," prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada.
Legend holds that the kamikaze, or “divine wind,” prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada.

In Simon Schama’s History of Britain, he makes the comment that the weather bats for England.  Apparently the weather has that same deal with Japan.  The word “kamikaze” brings visions of suicide pilots from World War II, but the word actually means “divine wind”.  In this case, the kamikaze defended the Japanese islands from invasion fleets.

In the 13th century, the Mongols had swept through Asia and had finished bringing Goryeo, or Korea, into the empire.  Kublai Khan had become the first emperor of the Yuan (or Mongol) dynasty of China.  Now he cast his hungry eyes towards Japan.  At this time, Japan was ruled by the Shogunate Regents of Hōjō clan.  In 1266, Kublai Khan sent emissaries to Japan offering to make Japan a vasal state of the Mongol empire….or else.  This threat did not go over the first time it was made or the second in 1268 and the emissaries went home empty handed.  Later emissaries sent between 1269 and 1272 were not allowed to even land.  These slights to the the great Khagan could not go unanswered.

A mass construction began on the Korean coast, and a fleet of 300 large vessels and 400-500 smaller crafts set sail for Japan.  On the ships were 15,000 mongol and Chinese soldiers and 8,000 Korean soldiers.  In the autumn of 1274, this fleet set sail and lay at anchor in Hakata Bay, Kyushu Japan.  This was only a short distance from Dazaifu, the capital of Kyushu province.  All of North Kyushu had been mobilized, but the Japanese commanders were having difficulty controlling such a large group of troops as even pitched battles were often decided by single combat.  The Mongols were very experienced with moving a strategically moving a large force.  They also had superior weapons such as the short composite bows that the Mongols were famous for, with poisoned arrows, fire arrows, bow-launched arrows with small rocket engines attached and gunpowder-packed exploding arrows and grenades with ceramic shells thrown by slings to terrify the enemy’s horses.  It looked to be easy pickings for the Mongols.  However, around nightfall a typhoon hit Hakata Bay.  The storm was so fierce the Mongol captains suggested the troops who landed reboard the ships to avoid being stuck on Japanese soil.  By daybreak, the ships that had not gone out to sea had been destroyed.  Some estimates put this figure at close to 200 ships.  It is estimated that 13,000 troops drowned.  The remaining Mongol soldiers were dispatched by Japanese soldiers who boarded the ships left afloat in the cover of darkness.  The remaining fleet limped home to Korea.

The Mongols were not ones to give up easily.  Just because the first invasion failed, that did not mean a second one would.  They began rebuilding and an even larger fleet of 900 ships containing 40,000 troops set sail in the spring of 1281.  In coordination with the 900 ships from Korea, the Yuans in China were sending 100,000 troops in 3,500 ships from southern China.  The two massive fleets were to converge on the same place as before-  Hakata Bay, Kyushu Japan.  This time, the Japanese were ready for them and had built two meter high walls around all of the beaches.  The Mongol fleet stayed afloat for months trying to find a place they could land, when finally they were prepared to fight on August 15, 1281.  And in what must have been a cosmic joke, another typhoon hit Hakata Bay for two straight days wrecking the Mongol fleet.  Many of the ships from China were flat bottomed river going vessels, which were difficult to sail on the high seas let alone in a typhoon.  They capsized at a high rate.  Contemporary Japanese accounts say over 4,000 ships were sunk and 80% of the troops were either drowned or killed by samurai patrolling the beaches.  After this, the Mongols seemed to learn their lesson and did not try to attack Japan again.

There were lasting effects to these two attempts, however.  One was the development of the Japanese katana in the 13th and 14th century.  Prior to the invasion, Japanese swords were long and thin.  When attacking the Mongols, these types of swords got stuck in the thick leather armor worn by the troops and broke off.  Blacksmiths reevaluated this design and made the new katana’s shorter and thicker.  This also reinforced the myth of a “kamakaze” to defend the Japanese nation.  Japanese legend attributed the Kamikaze to Raijin, the god of lightning, thunder and storms.  Some legends say the Emperor had the ability to call up the Kamakaze.  This legend was invoked in World War II to refer to the suicide pilots who deliberately crashed their planes into enemy targets.  

These were considered legends, but in 2011 divers found remains of a ship the sunken Mongol fleet off coast of Japan near Nagasaki.  Ultrasound equipment located the well-preserved wreck 3 feet below the seabed.  It is the first ship from this period found with an intact hull.


Sources available on request