Jigoku: Japanese Hell

Last week I wrote about about Meido, the Japanese Underworld, and how it has roots in Indian Buddhism and Chinese Buddhist-Taoist concepts. Today I’ll write a little bit about where some unlucky souls go after Meido: to Jigoku, or Japanese Hell.

Jigoku, like Meido, is a complicated topic. As with Meido, just about every tradition has a slightly different concept of Jigoku, with minor tweaks and variations on very similar themes. Jigoku is pretty similar to the traditional Buddhist concept of hell (usually called naraka), and very similar to the Chinese concept of diyu. Folks who know about Buddhist cosmology will probably find a lot of familiar concepts here, though there are some differences, such as the ranking of human realm above the asura realm.

Another interesting thing is that some traditional Shinto-based Japanese concepts do not seem to have been incorporated into Japanese Buddhism. For example, while many local kami were made into Buddhist figures by the theory of honji suijaku, yokai never really became a big part of Buddhism. The Shinto underworld, Yomi, doesn’t really get much treatment at all in Buddhism. Monsters like tengu, while traditionally depicted as being the great enemy of Buddhism, remain separate from Buddhist cosmology, and exist outside of the circle of reincarnation. But that starts to diverge from today’s topic — Jigoku — so let’s take a closer look at what Hell is like in Japan, continuing from where we left off last week with Meido

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Those who have died and are deemed unworthy of rebirth in the five upper Buddhist realms find themselves in the worst afterlife of all: Jigoku, or Buddhist hell. Because Jigoku is so terrible and the buddhas so merciful, the tortured souls in Jigoku are allowed three more trials like the ones they received in Meido to see whether they can be released from Hell or not. On those days, special memorial services are held by the deceased’s surviving relatives. While the specifics vary between different Buddhist traditions, this is one explanation of the trials:

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100 days after death marks the first of these trials in Hell. The soul is brought before King Byoudou (whose true form is Kannon Bosatsu, also known as Guanyin or Avalokitesvara in English).

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On the 1 year anniversary of the death, the soul is once again brought to trial. This time the judge is King Toshi (whose true form is Seishi Bosatsu, or Mahasthamaprapta).

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On the 2nd year anniversary, the soul is granted another chance for salvation by trial. King Godou-tenrin (whose true form is Amida Nyourai, or Amitabha) presides over this judgment. In Chinese Buddhism, this trial is the last one; however, in some Japanese Buddhist traditions there are still three more chances for salvation.

The next trial occurs 6 years after death, and is presided over by King Renge (whose true form is Ashuku Nyourai, or Akshobhya).

Another trial occurs 12 years after death, and is presided over by King Gion (whose true form is Dainichi Nyourai, or Vairocana).

The 13th and final trial occurs 32 years after death. This last trial is presided over by King Houkai (whose true form is Kokuuzou Bosatsu, or Akasagarbha). Those who fail all three of these final tests, either through their own faults or from lack of prayers by their living relatives, are damned to remain in Hell for a very long time before they can be reborn into one of the five other realms.

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Though it is one realm, Jigoku is not only one place; there are sixteen different hells, which are usually separated into eight “hot hells” and eight “cold hells.” These are further divided into many other planes and demiplanes — more than 64,000 according to some counts — and each one has a uniquely specialized form of punishment and length of stay. While there are many different levels of Jigoku, the term hell in Japanese Buddhism generally refers to the “eight great hells,” also known as the eight hot hells. The eight great hells are as follows:

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Toukatsu Jigoku, the reviving hell, is the plane of hell reserved for those who commit the sin of killing. Those who kill without remorse go to this hell. Even the killing of “lesser” creatures such as mosquitoes, flies, or ants, unless repented, will cause a soul to go to this hell. In addition, people who were particularly pugilistic in life, and those who died in mutiny or uprisings will also fall into this hell. Here, the ground is ever hot and burning. Denizens of this hell must fight each other with iron claws, tearing each other to pieces. Terrible oni roam the land, smashing and pulverizing souls with their iron clubs. As soon as a soul dies, a cool breeze blows and it is instantly revived, and must fight to the death again. Souls here experience the pain of being killed countless times, for the lifespan in the reviving hell lasts 500 years. However, time in Hell is measured differently than in the world of the living: one day in this hell is equivalent to 500 years in the realm of the Four Heavenly Kings, while one day there is equivalent to 50 years on Earth. Therefore, a soul in Toukatsu Jigoku must continue this punishment for over 1.6 trillion Earth-years.

Kokujou Jigoku, the hell of black threads, is reserved for those who have not only killed but also committed the sin of theft. Here, oni knock the souls onto the hot ground and mark lines on their body with black threads. Then, using axes and saws, the bodies are hacked to pieces along the markings made by the threads. Others are made to carry heavy piles of hot iron across a tightrope suspended over a giant frying pan. When the victims fall, they are boiled and hacked to pieces in the pan. One life span here lasts a thousand years; however, a day in this hell is equivalent to 1000 years in the realm of Touri-ten, while one day in Touri-ten is equivalent to 100 years in the human realm. This works out to about 13.3 trillion Earth-years.

Shugou Jigoku, the crushing hell, is reserved for sinners who have killed, stolen, and also committed the sin of lewdness. The suffering here is ten times greater than that of Kokujou Jigoku. Denizens here are crushed repeatedly between mountains of iron, being pulverized into a bloody jelly. When the mountains separate, life is restored and the process begins again. Trees with razor-like leaves dot the landscape, and beautiful men and women beckon to the souls from the tree tops. The lustful inhabitants climb the trees, slicing their bodies up in the process, and when they reach the treetops the beautiful men and women reappear at the bottoms of the trees, beckoning them back down. As blood and severed organs spout from the bodies, giant demons and beasts rush in to gobble of their entrails and pound the souls into a bloody mush. Fellators have their tongues stretched out and nailed to their ears. Pedophiles have molten copper pumped into their anuses until it pours out of their mouths. Homosexuals see their lovers covered in flames, and are forced to embrace them, only to be burned and torn into pieces themselves. Souls live here for 2000 years; however, one day here lasts 2000 years in the realm of Yama-ten, and one day in Yama-ten lasts 200 human years. Thus, a lifetime here is equivalent to over 106 trillion human years.

Kyoukan Jigoku, the screaming hell, is for murders, thieves, lechers, and alcoholics. The suffering here is ten times stronger than in the previous hell. Here, sinners are thrown into boiling pots or locked up in iron chambers and roasted by oni. Those who commited crimes while drunk have their mouths wrenched open and molten iron is poured into their bellies. The cries of anguish of the denizens only serve to anger the oni further, and they fire arrows at the souls or bash them with iron clubs to make them stop, at which point they only revive and resume their suffering. One lifetime here lasts 4000 years, of which one day is equal to 4000 years in Tosotsu-ten, of which one day is equal to 400 years on Earth. Thus, a condemned soul will spend over 852 trillion years in Kyoukan Jigoku.

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Dai-kyoukan Jigoku, the hell of great screaming, contains murderers, thieves, debauchers, drunks, and liars. The suffering inflicted here is ten times worse than in the previous hell. Here, the tongues of the damned are pierced with iron nails and stretched and torn from their bodies, after which they grow back and are immediately pierced and torn again. This continues for 8000 years, one day of which equals 8000 years in Keraku-ten, where one day is equivalent to 800 years on Earth. The damned in Dai-kyoukan Jigoku suffer for an equivalent of roughly 6.8 quadrillion years.

Jounetsu Jigoku, the burning hell, contains killers, robbers, perverts, drunkards, liars, and those who have held thoughts or beliefs contrary to Buddhist teachings. Here, the tortured souls are beaten with red-hot iron clubs. They have hot skewers thrust through their mouths and out their anuses, and are broiled over a great sea of fire. A lifespan in this hell lasts 16,000 years, one day of which equals 16,000 years in Takejizai-ten, where one day is equivalent to 1,600 years on Earth. A damned soul here spends the equivalent of 54.5 quadrillion Earth-years.

Dai-jounetsu Jigoku, the hell of great burning, is much the same as Jounetsu Jigoku, only much hotter. The suffering here is equivalent to ten times more than all of the higher hells combined. This plane of hell is reserved for sinners who have committed all of the crimes listed previously in addition to physical crimes against Buddhist clergy — for example, raping a nun. The screams of the tortured souls here are so terrible that they can be heard up to 24,000 miles away. The power of this hell is so great that those who are to be sentenced here begin to feel their suffering up to three days before they actually die. The punishment on this level of hell lasts one half of an antarakalpa — a unit of time in Indian cosmology that is so unfathomably long that it defies mathematical description.

Mugen Jigoku, the hell of uninterrupted suffering, is the eighth and deepest circle of hell. It is reserved for the worst of the worst — murders of their own parents; killers of saints; those who have betrayed every single Buddhist precept. The souls down here are so hungry and thirsty that they tear apart their own bodies and drink their own blood in a useless attempt to ease their suffering. Words literally cannot describe how awful this hell is; if Mugen Jigoku were ever accurately described, both the reader and the writer would die from the sheer horror of it. It is so deep that it takes 2000 years of falling, nonstop, at terminal velocity, for a soul to descend all the way into this hell. Some say that those who are sent here never come back, while others say that the term of punishment here lasts one full antarakalpa, after which the soul may reincarnate again; although, even after a soul is finally released from this hell, its punishment is said to continue on into its next lives.

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(The pictures in this post are from Chougetsu-ji in Aichi prefecture and Saifuku-ji in Kyoto.)

30 thoughts on “Jigoku: Japanese Hell

  1. Check your local library, you may be able to find something. There aren’t too many books on the subject, which is partially why I am writing about them.

    My next book, The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, will be available in April, and will have a chapter dedicated to Jigoku, Meido, and the underworld.

  2. I disagree with Gas.

    Chistan hell really is HELL compared to these ones, since in christian hell God will torture you for all eternity, while in the worst possible scenario only in the 8th jigoku you are stuck for all time (and even that is not agreed upon)

  3. Both names are correct. They are just in different languages. Remember that this is a character who appears across a number of different cultures in different time periods, so there are a lot of different interpretations!

  4. I am writing a thesis this autumn about how mythology could be used in developing tourism services. Could I use some of the material from this blog as sources or reference to this blog?

  5. Of course you are free to use the same sources that I used. Make sure you check with your professors about whether or not they will accept citations from a blog. This is, of course, not a published academic work or anything!

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  7. Very interesting. I hope you do write more about the Cold Hells; the page your link goes to, doesn’t really tell the Reasons for the punishments; what crimes.

  8. Well, your response didn’t really explain what determines if a person is send to one of the cold hells instead of one of the hot hells.

  9. I’m assuming that the Cold Hells are for more minor offenses since, at least in the wikipedia article Naraka (Buddhism), it’s stated that a lifetime in each of the cold hells is only twenty times the one before it. In other words, the time the denizens of the Cold Hells have to spend there, if that information is true, is only a fraction of the time they would have to endure in the highest of the hot hells, Toukatsu Jigoku, according to your blog post here.

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  12. What is the exact polar opposite of a Kami in Japanese Mythology? Is it oni? Or is there some other yokai or being that is a better polar opposite to a god?
    I disagree with ja on he/she said about Christian Hell. Christian Hell is far less imaginative than Japanese Hells and therefore is not as effective a deterrent as Mugen Jigoku.

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  14. Hello Matt!

    I’ve been reading up a lot lately on different yokai legends, and your work has been truly invaluable, so first of all; thank you!

    Now, I am curious about something, something i hope you could clarify to me.
    The Wa nyūdō supposedly drags its victim’s soul to “Hell”, right? Does this mean it drags them all the way to Jigoku, that you mention in this post, no matter how good the person has been in his or her life? Or do you still get judged accordingly (Tengoku, meido, Jigoku) even if you get taken by the Wa nyūdō?

  15. Well, that’s a good question. Folktales aren’t really that specific on the details, so I can’t say for sure. If I had to wager a guess, I would say that if a Wa nyudo took you, you were going to be judged poorly anyway, so he would just take you straight to the torturing pits. Buddhism is interesting in that it’s easy to interpret judgment as “everyone is damned, just how damned are you?” So no matter how good you tried to be, you did step on an ant, or swat a fly, or did something evil that warrants a long amount of suffering.

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  17. (Terribly sorry for never responding, I really appreciated this answer)

    Thank you, that’s very interesting to hear, especially the part with the damnation… I’ve actually been curious as to whether you get judged accordingly even if you, simply by accident, kill some insect during your lifetime.
    This whole thing really makes my research-nerve tingle.

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