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Mysterious Samurai Ghosts of Japan

The nation of Japan has a long tradition of ghostly phenomena and at times absolutely bonkers paranormal folklore. Here we have a country absolutely steeped in history, much of it dark and violent, and its mythology and folklore is suitably saturated with countless tales of the weird. Included amongst the many tales of ghosts and phantoms of Japan are those of ghostly samurai, those proud warriors of yesteryear, who seem to be just as proud and ferocious in death as they ever were in life.

One of the more well-known of these mysterious samurai ghosts was in life Taira no Tomomori (1152-1185), who was a Taira Clan commander and high ranking warrior. During his prestigious tenure he was notably involved in the epic Genpei War, which saw the Taira and Minamoto clans wage bloody battle against each other for dominance. Tomomori was known as being a very ruthless warrior, as well as a resourceful one who often tried unorthodox ways to engage in warfare. One such example can be seen during his involvement in a great Naval battle at Mizushima, where the commander ordered ships to be tied together in order to provide a sort of artificial island on which to fight.

When the Taira Clan was eventually defeated, Tomomori refused to bow down to his new masters, and he and all of his warriors instead chose to commit ritual suicide by tying heavy anchors to their feet and hurling themselves over the side of a naval vessel to their deaths in the Shimonoseki Strait. Ever since that fateful day, the spirits of Tomomori and his fellow samurai warriors are said to haunt this patch of sea between the main islands of Kyushu and Honshu, often seen as underwater ghosts and even causing storms or freak accidents and tragedies in the area, and it is their spirits that said to give the area’s Heike crabs their mysterious samurai head markings. Tales of shadowy figures in full samurai regalia wandering aboard passing vessels or of anomalous lights under the waves are also not uncommon here.

Another of the most famous of the ghostly samurai of Japan was a fierce warrior by the name of Masakado, who was also born into the clan of Taira and was a relative of Tomomori. Masakado was notorious for being 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 a formidable force to be reckoned with in battle, single handedly defeating the ambush to send them scurrying back to where they’d come. Masakado’s revenge was furious and merciless as he descended upon his relative’s lands to burn and demolish everything in his path, as well as brutally killing thousands, many by his own sword.

The bloody dispute was brought to the attention of the emperor, 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 and terrifying 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 oppressive 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 combat, 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 and promising to bring it all under his wing.

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.

When the head was moved it was noticed to have not decomposed as it should have, even after months of being on display, and that the eyes almost seemed to be alert, and it was even said to change facial expressions day to day. Even more bizarrely, not long after its interment there the head was said to call out into the night, moaning, groaning, and asking for its body back. It was also at times allegedly seen to be taking flight to terrorize the area. One evening, 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 like a rocket. The flying, screeching head eventually fell to earth in a fishing village called Shibazaki, where it supposedly 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, with a shrine subsequently built over the burial site. This shrine was to become ground zero for various ghostly phenomena, such as mysterious lights, anomalous noises, and a full-bodied apparition of a samurai wandering about to frighten locals.

In addition to these hauntings, Masakado’s spirit was blamed for all matter of tragedy and maladies that plagued the area at the time, with natural disasters, disease, and accidents happening with intense frequency. The resting place of Masakado was eventually moved to Kanto to appease the angry spirit, but disaster would follow not far behind with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which caused widespread devastation. The Ministry of Finance building, which had been erected near Masakado’s resting area, was razed to the ground, and 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.

In the coming days 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 cursed building from the premises, and from 1928 began holding annual purification rituals in an attempt to somehow calm down the furious ghost of the ghostly 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 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 nevertheless continued to loom over the area well after World War II, with even the occupying U.S. forces experiencing all manner of paranormal phenomena at the site.

The land was turned over to the Japanese government in 1961, and this seemed to put the samurai spirit at rest 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.

Masakado’s monument in Otemachi, Tokyo

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, continuing to hold frequent purification rituals to calm Masakado’s spirit, and a festival is held every May in the samurai’s honor.

Perhaps not as well known as these cases but certainly just as spooky is a location known as the Gridley Tunnel, at the U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base, in Yokohama Japan. Within the confines of the base is a very narrow tunnel that runs through an overgrown hill from Gridley Lane to Nimitz Blvd, and which is barely wide enough for a single car to drive through at a time. It is a spooky enough place to be at night even without any tales of ghouls and ghosts, but this place apparently has a dark history and a very angry spectral samurai that make it terrifying.

The story goes that there was once an unnamed samurai warrior who was on his way through the tunnel on a bloody mission to avenge the death of his lord when he was ambushed and killed by his enemies. Since he was unable to complete his mission, it is said that the samurai’s spirit is eternally doomed to wander the tunnel, and many eyewitness accounts attest to this. The most common form of sighting is that of motorists who report seeing a man in period samurai clothing within the tunnel, often appearing in the rear-view mirror only to vanish into thin air, even causing accidents at times. Other reports come from pedestrians walking through the tunnel who have reported seeing the samurai appear before them and even lay his hand upon their shoulder to leave a chilling cold behind. Such sightings are said to typically happen on rainy nights between the hours of 1 to 3 AM, and so common are the reports that Gridley Tunnel is often considered one of the most haunted places in Japan.

Gridley Tunnel

Also with its share of eerie samurai ghosts is the vicinity of the tiny fishing village of Kotsubo, in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. Here along the scenic coast with its crashing waves and quaint beaches is supposedly a tomb which carries the remains of several samurai killed in battle. Locals have sometimes reported that the spirits of these fallen warriors can be seen around the area, often perched upon ridges peering off forlornly over the sea, and some visitors have given accounts of being startled by these spirits as well.

Perhaps the most famous such account came out in 2015, when a Canadian family was on vacation in the area and the father took some pictures of his daughter by the beach. In the series of photos most of the pictures look normal, until one gets to a very peculiar one which seems to show a pair of ghostly black boots. The girl’s father was adamant that no one was there at the time, and indeed other photos in the series of five snapshots taken at the same spot in quick succession show no one in the background. The anomalous pictures were posted online and soon went viral, with the father saying:

They look like samurai boots to me. I know there are several very old samurai tombs nearby.  Again, not saying that this is what is there, just that, based on preliminary research, this is my best guess. We just can’t explain this.

The mysterious photograph

Others suggested that they looked like those of a World War II era Navy uniform, equally as ghostly, while others suggested that this was a photoshopped hoax or just a guy in boots and dark pants who photobombed the pic and merely looks paranormal due to a trick of perspective. The girl’s family have remained insistent that no one else was there and that the pictures have not been doctored in any way. Was this a hoax, a photoshop, or what? The pic has been picked apart and debated, but no one really knows.

With a history as long and as tumultuous as that of Japan, it should be expected that if ghosts do exist then they should do so here. Such tales can be found all over the country, and indeed are some of the creepier out there. Certainly among these are the ghostly samurai warriors, fierce in life, and seemingly just as much so in death.