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1868 (pre): O-Sono’s Ghost

In 1903, author Lafcadio Hearn published a story he had been told while visiting Japan. Hearn never states whether the story was considered to be true or not, but given the very specific details of the account, it sounds as if it was told to Hearn as if it were true. The events took place in the old province of Tamba, which was divided up between Kyoto and Hyogo Prefectures in 1868 (hence the date above).

        As the tale goes, there was a rich merchant named Inamuraya Gensuke who lived with his family in Tamba. He had a daughter named O-Sono who was so clever and pretty that he felt she deserved to be educated in Kyoto in all things that refined ladies learned, so he sent her there with trustworthy attendants to act as guardians. When she returned, O-Sono was married to a friend of the family, another merchant who lived in Nagaraya, and lived happily with him. They had one child together, a boy, before their happiness ended... for O-Sono became very ill and died four years after the marriage.

        It was on the very night after O-Sono's funeral that the problem began, quietly. O-Sono's young son came downstairs and told his family that his mother was back. She was in her room upstairs and though she would smile at him, she wouldn't talk; and this frightened him. A few brave members of the family went to investigate and, sure enough, they could see O-Sono plain as could be, illuminated by the small lamp on a shrine in the room... her head and shoulders were perfectly visible, but her figure became more and more transparent as it stretched to the floor, where her feet were invisible. O-Sono's ghost stood looking at a tansu, or chest of drawers, that contained the clothing and ornaments she had worn in life. When the family discussed the matter downstairs a little later, it was decided that O-Sono had probably returned because of a desire to have her finery still; so on the following day all the contents of the tansu were donated to the local temple, in the hopes that O-Sono would now rest.

        O-Sono's spirit continued to appear each night, however, and continued to stare at the tansu. Soon the family was actively afraid of what might happen if this situation continued. The mother of O-Sono's husband went to the temple to talk to the head priest about the appearances. The head priest, a wise old Zen master named Daigen Osho, felt there had to be something about the tansu itself that was worrying the spirit; so he stated he would spend the night in the room with the tansu, and see what he might figure out. That night Daigen Osho was left alone in the room, not to be disturbed unless he requested it. O-Sono's ghost appeared a little after midnight; and she ignored the presense of the priest, only staring in a wistful way at the tansu.

        Daigen Osho, addressing the ghost, explained he was there to help and then asked if she wanted him to search through the tansu. O-Sono's spirit gave ever so slight a nod, so the old priest proceeded to pull out each drawer, and investigate in, behind, and under each, trying to check every nook and cranny of the tansu; he found nothing. Since O-Sono was still staring at the tansu, Daigen Osho knew there had to be something he had missed... and it occurred to him that there was one place he had not yet looked: under the paper that lined the bottom of the drawers. Sure enough, under the lining of the bottom drawer the priest discovered an old letter. He asked the spectral figure if this was what she was worried about, and she turned towards him staring at the paper. He asked if he should destroy it for her, and O-Sono bowed to him. With that, Daigen Osho promised O-Sono that the letter would be burned at his temple that very morning, and that none other than himself would ever read it. O-Sono smiled, and quietly vanished.

        Daigen Osho informed the family that O-Sono's spirit would not bother them again, and she did not; and the letter, a love letter from her time studying in Kyoto, was burned that same morning.

Legend or Anomaly?

        The story -- as Hearn tells it -- has aspects of both history and legend, thus making it a hard call on how to approach it. On the historic side, the tale talks of very specific people, places, and even times... by stating the tale occurred in Tamba province, it sets the time as pre-1868, the so-called "Meiji Reformation" in Japan when, among other things, the old provinces of Japan were re-shuffled into the newer prefectures that are still in use. On the down side, the details are not very helpful if you want to try to historically confirm the events: Tamba province existed at least as early as 700 CE, so even at a short guess, we have at least a twelve-hundred year range the story could be attributed to!

        The fact that O-Sono's spirit is described as having no feet is pointer in the direction of legend. The idea of ghosts not having feet was established in Japan by the artwork of Maruyama Okyo [1733-1795], whose images of ghostly figures that vanished to nothingness as they approached the floor were so popular that they became the standard way to depict ghosts from then on in popular public art. In legends from Japan after this period, ghosts are generally described as footless... but in actual reports and sightings of spirits from Japan, ghosts both before and after Maruyama Okyo's time are generally reported as having feet.

        Another telling point is that a search for the name 'Daigen Osho' doesn't bring up a history of the man or any temples that claim he once lived there, which would be standard for any actual priest that became a legend. Instead, a search for his name gets just references in multiple languages to Hearn's story. I may try to search out O-Sono's merchant father's name, but if record of him exists, it is likely in old Japanese language documents available from libraries in the country itself... so bit of a dead end for now.

        But either way, legend or anomaly, the tale of O-Sono's ghost is still a fine example of the beliefs about ghostly appearances and behaviors in Japan around the turn of the 20th century.