A-Yokai-A-Day: Ikiryō

Wow, the end of the month really just snuck up on me. I can’t believe it is October 30th today and I just have these last two yokai to do until A-Yokai-A-Day ends! Remember: tomorrow will be the last A-Yokai-A-Day of 2013, and also your last chance to join in the awesomest Kickstarter ever! Don’t miss out!

Ikiryō (生霊, いきりょう)

While there are many types of ghosts in Japanese folklore and urban legend, (not to mention demon ghosts and yokai ghosts and all of the yokai that are born from dead people) one that we have not yet looked at on this blog is the living ghost, or ikiryō (or ikiryou).

The ikiryō is pretty straightforward — it is an apparition of a currently living person which appears to someone. Essentially, the soul leaves the body to go and do something else. There are a number of ways ikiryō can appear out of the body: during a near-death-experience, fainting, intense passion or need to see someone, intense hatred, or even to deliver the same sort of grudge-curse that onryō deliver. That’s right, you don’t even have to be dead to become a Japanese ghost!

Ikiryō are a very ancient belief, and go back to some of the oldest superstitions found in Japan. They also make numerous appearances in literature through Japanese history. One very famous example comes from The Tale of Genji: Lady Rokujo’s living ghost haunts and curses a young woman named Aoi no Ue, who is pregnant with Genji’s child. (Part of that story will actually be told in The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, so I won’t go into too much detail here.)

While the scary, nasty ikiryō born out of hatred or a desire to kill someone are the most common kind of ikiryō, there are also a number of stories about ikiryō which form out of burning love and desire for someone. If a person’s love is strong enough, her spirit (it is usually a woman…) can depart her body, even without her knowing it, and visit her lover. Such a thing happened to a young man from Kyoto in the 1700’s. A girl from his neighborhood fell in love with him, and her love was so strong that it formed an ikiryō. Her spirit haunted him so aggressively, whispering her love in his ear, and violent grabbing him and moving him around that he ended up falling ill and became bedridden with sickness.

Ikiryō can also leave from the body during sleep for no apparent reason. A story from the 1600’s tells about a young women whose spirit left her body every night while she slept, without her knowledge. It would roam the streets and scare young men, who thought it was a monster and attacked it. Every morning the woman woke up terrified, having dreamed of being chased by men all night long.

Another very common type of ikiryō is one that appears at the moment just before dying. According to old folk beliefs, just before death, the soul leaves the body and walks around, making noises and doing things outside of the body. This is especially common during wartime, and often the ikiryō of soldiers even in far off lands are said to appear to their friends and loved ones moments before or after their death, in their war uniforms, to give one last goodbye. In olden times, it was said that the souls of the soon-to-die and recently-deceased could be seen visiting nearby temples and praying for the few days surrounding their deaths.

During the Edo period, ikiryō were considered a symptom of certain illnesses, such as the aptly-named rikonbyō, or “detached soul syndrome,” and kage no yamai, or “shadow illness.” These horrifyingly-named diseases were Edo period names for sleepwalking and out-of-body experiences. When the ikiryō left the body, it could sometimes take the person’s consciousness along with it, causing them to experience life from the ikiryō as if they were actually doing it, including meeting their own self (sort of like a Japanese doppelganger).

Finally, one could even purposefully summon his or her own ikiryō by performing a curse-ritual. One is known as ushi no koku mairi. I mentioned this curse briefly in the Hashihime entry, and it will also get its own entry in the book, but the basic idea is that by performing this ritual, you could transform yourself into an oni and send your soul off to do some evil — usually kill someone. Another curse, called ichijama, is from Okinawa, and follows roughly the same idea. What makes these ikiryō interesting is that while most ikiryō are spirits that wander about and do things while their owners are unconscious and unaware of what they are doing, these spirits are fully conscious, intentional uses of an ikiryō, making them more than just a little terrifying…


3 thoughts on “A-Yokai-A-Day: Ikiryō

  1. Pingback: A-Yokai-A-Day: Shiryō | MatthewMeyer.net

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