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In Bad Spirits

Posted on 5/4/2021 12:00:00 AM in Travel Trivia

The small memorial to Masakado is adorned with flowers and well-maintained out of fear of what will happen if it’s not.

Question: In Tokyo, a 10th-century shrine has remained unchanged because locals are scared of what?

Answer: The shrine’s malevolent spirit

In the heart of the bustling and modern Tokyo, there is a small and unassuming temple between high rise office buildings. As one of the most densely populated and expensive areas in the world, space is scarce, yet this spot remains a quaint and quiet shrine—why? According to legend, 1,000 years ago, the flying head of a samurai crashed down on that very spot and continues to seek deadly revenge on anyone who tries to move his final resting place.

Way back in 10th-century Japan, there was a famous samurai and powerful leader named Taira no Masakado who was responsible for leading the earliest recorded uprising against Japan’s government. He captured eight provinces, and in these newly acquired domains, he was warmly welcomed by peasants. However, the emperor in Kyoto feared Masakado would overthrow the government and declare himself as Japan’s new leader. Condemned as a rebel and traitor, the government sent out orders to take his head (literally). He was killed and his head was put on display for all of Kyoto to see.

However, that was not the end of him. As the story goes, his head was so furious and powerful that it took flight on its own and flew back to his home in Tokyo. His head frantically searched for his body, but when he could not find it, he crashed down to the spot of the shrine today. Villagers stumbled upon him, erected a shrine in his honor, and held yearly Shinto rituals to appease him. The shrine remained untouched for nearly a thousand years, even as Tokyo grew into a bustling metropolis, with residents continuing to care for his grave.

As space grew scarce in the growing city, some wanted to get rid of the shrine. Following a great earthquake in 1923, the Ministry of Finance planned to remove the shrine. But within two years the Minister of Finance and 14 other workers from the site died spontaneous and mysterious deaths. Scared that the deaths may be related to the shrine, officials held a ritual to appease the angry spirit and kept the temple in place.

During World War II, residents were too busy to hold their yearly rituals at the shrine, and Masakado made it known that they had forgotten about him. In 1940, exactly 1,000 years after his death, a lightning bolt struck the building next to his grave, destroying most of it. Then, after the war, U.S. troops attempting to move the shrine for their military vehicles suffered numerous deadly accidents.

After these incidents, some believe that the fortune of Tokyo depends on the respect given to the shrine. To this day the shrine is well maintained and takes up land in Tokyo’s financial district near the Imperial Palace—some of the most expensive land in the world. Understandably, no one wants to push their luck by destroying the shrine and making Masakado angry. Are you brave enough to pay a visit to this malevolent spirit?

More on the Japanese Culture of Ghosts:

  • Japan has a history of ghostly tales dating back millennia. From the earliest periods of Japan’s history, there have been tales about ghosts, known as yūrei. Traditional ghost stories, or Kaidan in Japanese, are designed to both entertain and send a moral message.

  • Yūrei are part of a deep foundational belief in Japanese Buddhism that humans carry a god—similar to the idea of a soul—inside of them, which is released upon death. Reaching the afterlife is a challenging task. If properly honored with rituals and care after death, a spirit can make it to the afterlife and will watch over and protect people from misfortune.

  • However, if the spirit has left with unresolved problems or died an untimely death, they can become stuck between life and death, manifesting as a yūrei. These souls won’t rest until they have solved their earthly problems and have great importance in storytelling in Japan.

  • Yūrei have taken many forms in Japanese folklore. In ancient Japanese stories, Yūrei were invisible and formless in folklore, while later on, they were indistinguishable from human beings. Storytelling involved humans interacting with a yūrei without knowing.

  • If a person died with feelings of rage or revenge, they may become an onryō, or vengeful spirit (like Masakado). These are the most powerful creature on the planet, and in ancient times, natural disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes would be explained as the wrath of an onryō.

  • Buddhist and Shinto rituals are one way to pacify an angry spirit. In the early medieval period, the court would sometimes placate an angry spirit by declaring them a deity after their death.

  • Today, Japan’s culture is significantly interwoven with the supernatural. Yūrei have greatly impacted arts and culture—from scary movies to contemporary art.

Pay a visit to the shrine of Masakado and learn more about Japan’s deeply rooted connection with the dead during Japan’s Cultural Treasures.

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