“Without forgiveness life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation“ – Roberto Assagiolo
Hey dead people, why do you resent the living? Most of us lead lives that you wouldn’t have wanted when you were on earth, so your envy of mortal existence just seems like sour grapes. I mean, I fully support the vengeful spirit thing if you were prematurely shuffled off this mortal coil by an act of homicide or injustice, some sort of grotesque and cosmically hilarious accident, took a dare that maybe you shouldn’t have, or that you were electrocuted after plugging an RJ45 into an Ethernet jack (I mean, easy mistake to make, they look more or less the same after all). If that’s the case, have at it. Avenge your murder. Rail against the universe. Haunt your buddy. Get in touch with your inner ghost in the machine. If you’re looking to restore some sort of ethereal balance, take it out on those who deserve it. Unfortunately, a lot of ghosts just seem generically pissed off to be dead, and wind up acting out upon the innocent pre-dead (the living, that is. I don’t like to be judgmental just because someone is a rotting corpse) who probably had nothing to do with their demise. That’s just rude. All that moaning, rattling, and banging around only deprives some poor working schlub of a good night’s rest. And stop breaking the plates. They might only be $2.59 at Ikea, but what a pain in the ass. It’s not like there’s one on every corner. And stop trying to take us with you because the afterlife is boring and you’re looking for company. We’ll all be there soon enough. As one not fully dead yet, I feel it’s only fair to give the deceased the benefit of the doubt, and examine what exactly has so many of them in a malicious tizzy. The indiscriminately resentful Japanese Funayūrei (“Ship Ghosts”) make an excellent test case.
The Funayūrei (yūrei = ghost), also called ayakashi, mōjabune, or bōko depending on the region, were the common subject of ghost stories during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867 A.D.), but forerunners appear in ancient China (the Kikokutan no Kai), and even modern encounters have been noted (the 1954 Toya Maru accident has been variously attributed to Funayūrei due to inexplicable claw marks on the ferry’s propeller). They are considered a class of vengeful spirits (onryō). Why are they so angry? They are the ghosts of people who died in shipwrecks. That’s right. They set sail that day for a three hour tour. The weather started getting rough. Their tiny ship was tossed. Nothing more nefarious was necessarily involved. Rather than bellying up to Davy Jone’s Locker for a pint of grog and politely decomposing, these necronauticals have taken it upon themselves to try and coax the living to join them in their watery grave, apparently out of sheer spite. According to some versions, the boat itself can turn into a Funayūrei. Because this is Japan, and what would a Japanese monster be without a little bit of wackiness, the Funayūrei approach boats asking for buckets and ladles, which if provided, they then use to fill the boat with water until it sinks, killing the crew and adding to an ever-growing population of Funayūrei.
They are shades which surround vessels with angry waves and call for buckets and dippers, which, if the sailors grant their request, they use to bale water into the ship until it sinks. But the sailors are too crafty to be deluded thus; they mutter some nembutsu, and throw to the ghosts bottomless dippers, which render them powerless to fulfill their design (Joly, 1909, p38).
Now, the Funayūrei aren’t going after the people responsible for their inadvertent drowning. That would be reasonable. Rather, they are dead set (pardon the pun) on dragging any old living sailors to the briny bottom. Still other versions of the Funayūrei, when they can’t outright sink your boat, find all manner of additional ways to be disturbing including clawing at rudders, appearing as blue fireballs, wailing endless ghostly pleas for help, inducing dizziness and unconsciousness, and generally causing suffering, madness, and fear among mortal men bold enough to put to sea. This ghostly flailing out at any old living person has often been interpreted as a generalized resentment towards the living because of the very fact that we are alive and they are not, which suggests entire mythologies have come into existence simply to account for the presumption that the dearly departed are prone to behaving like toddlers that have been denied a toy, albeit with slightly more menacing aspects to their tantrums.
Around this area, they also tell about how along Cape Kamagasaki [near Osaka] the fishermen catch sardines after mid-October. At this time, the whole beach is alive with people fishing. The people fish between two o’clock in the afternoon and nine in the evening, which means that there is time for them to throw out their nets at least twice. But on the third and fourth day of the month by the old calendar (that is, toward the beginning of November), the fishermen don’t believe in throwing out any nets at all. If they do, as they pull their nets in, their boat is surrounded secretly underwater by naked men with ladles in their hands who circle the boat. They sing sad and reproachful songs, and with these ladles they fill the boat so quickly with water that it goes down. Then the strange men cry, “Come along with us! Come along with us!” and vanish in the sea. This is supposed to mean that those who have drowned in the sea near this spot are calling for more comrades. So they say. On the nights after these happenings, seafarers who travel by the cape hear mourning voices from the bottom of the sea. These voices call repeatedly, begging for help. Any fishermen who hear these voices are deeply shocked. If you hear these voices three times, you’ll see a bright blue fireball near the ship, as big as a washtub. It flashes a few times, then disappears. Anyone who sees this light several times gets dizzy and falls unconscious. If you saw it right in front of your face, you would immediately pass out. Finally, all the sailors on board get dizzy and suffer the whole night. This also comes from the spirits of drowned people, so they say (Iwasaka, p105-106).
The traditional solution among Japanese sailors has been to carry a bucket without a bottom to give to the Funayūrei, who will consequently be unable to fill a boat with water no matter how hard they try (this is also because refusing to give them a bucket is apparently not cool either). We have to assume that not everyone who has ever drowned was a complete moron, which suggests that upon death, a certain awareness of basic physics similarly dies an inglorious death, since the Funayūrei typically fails to recognize a bucket with no bottom.
The spirits of the drowned are said to follow after ships, calling for a bucket or a water-dipper (hishakit). To refuse the bucket or the dipper is dangerous; but the bottom of the utensil should be knocked out before the request is complied with, and the specters must not be allowed to see this operation performed. If an undamaged bucket or dipper be thrown to the ghosts, it will be used to fill and to sink the ship. These phantoms are commonly called Funa-Yurei (“Ship-Ghosts”). The spirits of those warriors of the Heifke clan who perished in the great sea-fight at Dan-no-ura, in the year 1185, are famous among Funa-Yurei . Taira no Tomomori, one of the chiefs of the clan, is celebrated in this weird role: old pictures represent him, followed by the ghosts of his warriors, running over the waves to attack passing ships. Once he menaced a vessel in which Benkei, the celebrated retainer of Yoshitsune, was voyaging; and Benke was able to save the ship only by means of his Buddhist rosary, which frightened the specters away. . . .Tomomori is frequently pictured as walking upon the sea, carrying a ship’s anchor on his back. He and his fellow-ghosts are said to have been in the habit of uprooting and making off with the anchors of vessels imprudently moored in their particular domain, the neighborhood of Shimonoseki (Hearn, 1905, p75-76).
So listen up dead people. Give it a rest and have a little patience. You have all eternity. At best, most of the living have 80 years to go, a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of eternal afterlife. And lose the attitude. We’re not responsible for the high cholesterol, freak weather, or lack of driving skills that likely led to your untimely demise. As Steve Maraboli said, “Let today be the day you stop being haunted by the ghost of yesterday. Holding a grudge and harboring anger/resentment is poison to the soul. Get even with people…but not those who have hurt us, forget them, instead get even with those who have helped us.” And darn it, nothing is more annoying than having a set of mismatched dishes because some phantom wanted to make a ruckus.
Hearn, Lafcadio, 1850-1904. The Romance of the Milky Way: And Other Studies & Stories. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905.
Hearn, Lafcadio, 1850-1904. Japanese Lyrics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1915.
Iwasaka, Michiko, 1945-. Ghosts And the Japanese: Cultural Experience In Japanese Death Legends. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1994.
Joly, Henri L. “Bakemono”. Transactions And Proceedings of the Japan Society, London V9 (1909-1911). London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1909.