Compared to the Western ghost, the Japanese ghost is an entity far more common and considerably more dangerous. In Japan, it is believed that after death, one turns into an aramitama (ragged, impure spirit). For a period of seven years riturals of appeasement and purification are performed so that impure aramitama become increasingly purified and finally become sorei - ancestral spirits that oversee the welfare of the family. However, this in-between world is uncertain and ambiguous and spirits who have not achieved sorei status and who are angry or unhappy can return to the world of the living to express their unhappiness. This can occur when death has been violent or disgraceful, which when looking at Japanese folklore, a large majority of those who end up in this unfortunate position are female
Ghost stories became extremely popular during the Edo Period and were readily adopted into all forms of popular art, including the kabuki stage, ukiyo-e prints, from which stem depictions carved as netsuke
Stories frequently involve women suffering maltreatment at the hands of men, resulting in gruesome death. The Yurei then becomes consumed with exacting revenge on those who have wronged her. Such stories are thought to reflect the repression of women in the society of the day, combined with the social unrest that came with the last decades of the Tokugawa shogunate.1
Here Sosui skillfully conjures up a vision of the dreaded powers of woman as seen in a yurei. He has portrayed her in her typical form; with long hair, loose and unkempt, and limp hands fluttering in front of her chest. She creeps forward wearing a gown which hangs off her skeletal body and the bones of her legs trail into nothingness. The lined face is deeply carved in dark, glossy wood and the mother-of-pearl eyes half-shut, create a hooded, deeply sinister effect.
1. Stephen Addiss, Japanese Ghosts and Demons, Exhibition Catalogue, Spencer Museum of Art, (New York, 1985)
For a similar example, also by Sosui, see Sydney L. Moss, Zodiac Beasts and Distant Cousins: Japanese Netsuke for Connoisseurs, (London, 1993), cat.98