Tokyo, Japan, is a thrumming Megapolis known throughout the world for its high tech veneer, neon streetscapes full of high rise buildings, and throngs of people tirelessly swarming about the never sleeping streets. With such a modern and well developed visage, it may seem hard to believe that this vibrant metropolis could be home to spooky old ghost stories, yet one bustling area of the city has long been purportedly home to the spirit of a vengeful samurai warrior whose head refused to die and whose spirit wrought destruction and misfortune upon all who had wronged him.
To fully understand how a samurai ghost could find its way into one of the most metropolitan and technologically advanced cities in the world it is important to remember that Tokyo was not always the city it is today. It was long the site of vicious feudal conflict and bloodshed and the city’s history is soaked with the blood of warriors. It was during one such tumultuous period of Tokyo’s violent early history in the 10th century Heian period that a powerful and rebellious samurai by the name of Taira no Masakado rose up to try and make a name for himself. It would be a legacy that would lead to one of the creepiest haunting cases the Tokyo region had ever seen.
Masakado was born into the Kanmu Heishi, the clan of Taira which was descended from Emperor Kanmu, sometime between 800 and 900 AD. Born into privilege, Masakado was nevertheless rebellious, headstrong, and abrasive to those around him. His troubles began with family disputes, when Masakado’s uncles tried to steal portions of his land upon the death of his father. Since inheritance laws were not firmly established at the time, it mostly turned into a free for all, with the uncles gathering a force of warriors to ambush and kill Masakado. Unfortunately for them, Masakado proved to be truly formidable in battle, single handedly defeating the ambush to send them scurrying back to where they’d come. Masakado’s revenge was furious and merciless. He subsequently descended upon his relative’s lands, burning and demolishing everything in his path as well as brutally killing thousands.
The dispute was brought to the emporor, but Masakado was able to avoid persecution by invoking laws at the time which he argued he had not broken. When the court found that he had remained within the law and had offered good reasons for his decidedly harsh actions, he was subsequently pardoned and given amnesty by the emperor Suzaku. This would not be the end of Masakado’s familial conflicts. Other relatives, including his own father-in-law and cousin, attacked him and were once again driven back by his battle prowess. Howling for revenge, Masakado raised a fighting force to invade their lands in Hitachi province. In the end, Masakado eventually forcefully acquired eight different provinces, all the while arguing that his military actions were all within his legal rights that he had been granted.
Although the nobles of the time condemned his actions, there was not much they could realistically do. Further complicating matters was the fact that the peasants of his conquered lands adored Masakado. Whereas they had been previously treated with disdain and abuse by their rulers, the peasants were treated justly under the reign of Masakado, which caused them to see him as somewhat of a savior. He had also gained legendary status as a fierce and skilled warrior who could not be defeated in battle, which caused all those who would oppose him to fear and avoid conflict with Masakado. The government, which was at the time based in Kyoto, grew increasingly concerned by this powerful, headstrong loose cannon with his new kingdom and masses of loyal peasant followers. It was widely believed that Masakado meant to expand his domain or even proclaim himself the new emperor of Japan. They were right to be worried, because soon the new unruly ruler was soon doing exactly that; making bold claims to being the new emperor of all of Japan.
The emperor in Kyoto did not take kindly to the rumors he was hearing of an uprising to the north. Masakado was deemed a rebel and a traitor, and a hefty bounty was placed on his head. A formidable force, including some of Masakado’s own relatives and one of his closest allies, Fujiwara no Hidesato, mobilized to march forth to the Kanto region and bring back the head of the rogue samurai. In 940 AD, they caught up to the rebels in the province of Shimosa and mercilessly mounted a night raid. Masakado’s well trained army fought valiantly but in the end they were outnumbered almost 10 to 1, and fell before the onslaught. Masakado himself was killed by an arrow through the head, after which his head was removed and sent to Kyoto where it was to be displayed as a warning to anyone who would similarly oppose the emperor.
This is around the time the spookier and more paranormal elements of the story come into play; where things become truly bizarre. The decapitated head of Masakado was indeed brought to Kyoto, but it was quickly noticed that it did not decompose as usual and did not draw any flies. It remained supple and much as it had been in life, and possessed eyes that seemed to be not the gaze of a dead man, but almost thoughtful and contemplative. Even months after being kept on display, the head was said to have not decomposed at all, still looking the same as the day it had been removed. Indeed, the head purportedly went through gradual changes, such as developing a snarled countenance and eyes that looked fiercer by the day.
It was around this time that Masakado’s head was said to have started speaking. Every night, the disembodied head would call out into the darkness, screaming for someone to bring it its body so that it could continue to fight. One night, the head became tired of merely imploring anyone within earshot for its body. It is reported to have begun glowing with an eerie light before floating up into the air, after which the head went shooting into the night. The flying, screeching head eventually fell to earth in a fishing village called Shibazaki, where it landed in an area that to this day is known as Masakado no Kubizuka, or ‘The Hill of Masakado’s Head.’ The head was found by wary locals who cleaned it off and buried it. A shrine was subsequently built over the burial site. This shrine was to become ground zero for various ghostly phenomena.
Not long after Masakado’s decapitated, flying head was buried, the burial site began to experience disturbances such as violent tremors and inexplicable glowing lights. In addition, the ghost of a faceless samurai was alleged to wander about the nearby town frightening locals. The concerned villagers prayed to put the spirit at rest, and a stone monument and headstaone was erected in honor of the fallen samurai. For a time the disturbances and sightings of the apparition seemed to abate for awhile until a temple was built nearby by the Tendai Buddhist sect. This apparently upset the dormant Masakado, and a string of natural disasters, disease, and accidents is said to have befallen the area shortly after the new temple was erected.
In the early 1300s, a terrible plague befell Edo and there was a great amount of death, all of which was attributed to the vengeful spirit of Masakado. To appease the angered spirit, a ritual was enacted to move him to Kanda Myojin shrine, a more prestigious shrine where it was hoped that making the dead samurai into a major deity would calm him down and put an end to the suffering. It seemed to work, and the plague subsided for awhile. When emperor Meiji visited the shrine in 1874, however, it was deemed to be unacceptable that an enemy of the Imperial family should be revered so much and Masakado’s deity status was revoked, whereupon he was once again moved to a smaller, less prestigious shrine. The stone monument that had been initially erected to appease the dead samurai remained where it was.
Disaster struck again in 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, laying waste to the region with tremors and ensuing, widespread fires. The Ministry of Finance building, which had been erected near Masakado’s resting area, was razed to the ground. The ministry went about searching the mound where the samurai’s head was said to be buried, but nothing was found. The hill where the head had been interred was leveled and a temporary Finance Ministry building was built on the site. It was to prove to be an unfortunate decision. Many employees, as many as 14, met untimely demises under suspicious circumstances, including the Finance Minister himself at the time, Seiji Hayami. Other employees of the new building fell mysteriously ill or had freak accidents at their workplace over the years, with the most common type of injury oddly happening to the feet and the legs of the unfortunate victims. The building quickly accrued a reputation as being cursed by the spiteful spirit of Taira no Masakado. The ministry ended up removing the building from the premises and from 1928 began holding annual purification rituals in an attempt to somehow calm down the furious ghost of the samurai.
When World War II began, the government became too tied up in other matters to be concerned about putting long dead spirits of samurai at ease. However, Masakado’s distaste at being ignored apparently reared up when in 1940, precisely 1,000 years after the samurai’s death, a freak lightning bolt struck the new Ministry of Finance building that had been erected nearby and led to a fire that engulfed and destroyed the building as well as several other government structures. Subsequently, a stone monument was once again put up among great fanfare in honor of the fallen samurai Taira no Masakado, and the ministry changed the location of its offices. This new monument stands in Tokyo’s Otemachi district to this day.
Masakado’s angry spirit continued to loom over the area well after World War II. Following the war, in 1945, American occupying forces took control of the land where the fallen samurai’s spirit was held and went about leveling the land in order to make space for parking military vehicles. Almost immediately, the project was beset by a string of weird accidents and setbacks. The bizarre accidents culminated in a bulldozer inexplicably flipping over as it prepared to raze Masakado’s stone monument, killing the driver. Local officials went through great efforts to explain the historical significance of the site and made pleas to the military to halt construction on the sacred site. The US military left part of the parking lot unfinished and eventually cancelled the construction project. The land was turned over to the Japanese government in 1961. This seemed to put the samurai spirit at rest once again until the area underwent development in the late 60s, which perhaps by this time unsurprisingly led to the specter of freak accidents and illnesses befalling workers, as well as various reports of a mysterious shadowy figure appearing in photographs taken near the site. Locals began twice monthly purification rituals in order to restrain the restless spirit. In 1984, Taira no Masakado’s spirit was officially reinstated to deity status.
The ancient curse continued to haunt the city well into the 20th century, with various disasters being blamed on the samurai’s fury. One of the more bizarre incidents to be attributed to the ghost of Taira no Masakado was a curse said to hang heavy over production of a fantasy film called Teito Monogatari, which tells the story of a villain seeking to destroy Tokyo by conjuring up Masakado’s spirit. The production met serious setbacks with various accidents and illnesses striking down crew and actors. The cursed production became so infamous that to this day it has become customary for anyone who attempts to bring the character of Taira no Masakado to the small or big screen to first conduct purifications rituals and pay respects at the dead samurai’s grave in order to appease the spirit.
To this day, the sinister curse of Taira no Masakado is well known and feared by locals. The area where the grave and monument are held have come a long way since their humble beginnings. Otemachi, where the shrine housing the samurai’s spirit currently lies, has transformed into a bustling financial district of high rise buildings and soaring skyscrapers. Among some of the most prime real estate in Tokyo, and just a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace, the unassuming Kanda-Myojin shrine and plot of land where Masakado’s head is said to be buried has remained untouched, and is maintained by an organization of businesses and volunteers who seek to preserve it. Even in this modern megapolis of burgeoning technology and science, local businesses and workers remain wary of the vengeful samurai. Nearby businesses continue to hold purification rituals to calm Masakado’s spirit, a festival is held every May in the samurai’s honor, and it is widely believed to be bad luck to turn one’s back on the shrine or to face it head on.
Tokyo is one of the largest, most advanced cities in the world, yet even in this concrete jungle of glittering skyscrapers and neon, dark, ancient curses from the past can dwell. Whether the curse of Taira no Masakado is real or merely superstition and menacing folklore, it is testament to the curious fact that even a modern metropolis that prides itself on being a frontier of science and technology can be held under the shadow of supernatural evil from the past.