A-Yokai-A-Day: Gagoze

Not all the yokai we will look at are common “species” of supernatural creature. Some of them are unique monsters, like the bogeyman or Bloody Mary. Today we’ll look at a unique yokai born from a specific legend at a specific temple.

Gagoze

Gagoze is a horrible-looking ghost who haunts the ancient temple Gango-ji in Nara prefecture. His story dates back to the Asuka period (550-710 CE). He is first depicted in illustration in Toriyama Sekien’s Gazu Hyakki Yakko, and he is said to take the appearance of a demon in monk’s garb.

His story says that during the time of Emperor Bidatsu, in old Owari province (now Nagoya in Aichi prefecture), lightning struck the ground near an farmer’s house. From the lightning emerged a thunder god in the form of a young boy, and the farmer ran outside with a stick to kill the boy. The boy pleaded with the farmer to spare his life, and promised that he would return the deed by giving the farmer and his family a young boy as strong as the thunder god. The farmer agreed, and allowed the thunder god to return to the sky.

Sure enough, the farmer’s wife soon bore a child, and the child was as strong as a thunder god! However, the child was born with a snake wrapped around his head, with the head and tail going down the back like a ponytail. When the boy turned 10, he had grown so strong and proud that he challenged a member of the imperial family to a contest of strength and won.

After this, the boy was apprenticed to Gango-ji temple. Shortly after that, the belltower boys began dying very strange deaths one-by-one, and rumors began to spread that an oni, or demon, was behind the deaths. The boy wanted to solve the mystery, so he said he would catch the oni. He waited all night by the belltower, and towards dawn finally the oni came. The boy grabbed the oni by the hair and dragged him around so hard that he ripped his entire scalp off, and the oni was able to escape. The boy followed the blood trail left by the oni all the way to its end, where he found the grave of a (former) very lazy and bad temple servant. The lazy servant’s ghost had become this terrible ghost-demon, and the boy had defeated it! The boy became famous and grew up to be a priest at the temple, and the oni’s scalp became one of the holy treasures of Gango-ji.

The story doesn’t really tell too much about the yokai itself, but it does at least explain who Gagoze was: a lazy priest-servant-turned-demon-ghost who liked to kill children! How is this not already a Japanese horror story?? I really love how the depiction of the spirit in the 3 different ukiyo-e paintings I was able to find all show him in this creepy, crawling position. These artists were centuries before modern horror stories, but they knew scary, and we can still see ghosts just like Gagoze crawling around in J-horror movies like Ringu and Ju-On today.

Gagoze
Gagoze

4 thoughts on “A-Yokai-A-Day: Gagoze”

  1. I have a question… If the story dates back to the Asuka period (550-710 CE), then Gagoze wouldnt be in the Nara temple but the former Asuka-dera. Which was later moved to Nara in 718 acording to wikipedia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asuka-dera

    Thus Gagoze is not at the Gango-ji in Nara but resides where the temple once stood in Asuka. Correct?

  2. Sorry I made a mistake an didnt realize that Asuka was a village in Nara and got it confused with something else… However, if Gagozes story dates back to the Asuka period (550-710 CE), which predates the building of Gango-ji acording to wikipedia which states:

    “Following the transfer of the capital from Asuka to Heijō-kyō (now Nara city), the buildings of Asuka-dera were also removed from the original site in Asuka to Nara in 718 CE, and developed into a huge temple under the name of Gangō-ji. The original site of the Hōkō-ji was also maintained as a temple which survives into modern times.”

    Dud Gangoze live in live in Asuka dera at first? and if so did he transfer to Gango-ji or is this a misconception or error of dates?

  3. It very well could be that the legend doesn’t line up with history; these are essentially oral tradition and myth passed down over many generations. But Gangou-ji was built in 593, so that puts it right in the middle of the Asuka period.

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