Frightfully Fun: Japan’s Ghosts, Ghouls, and Haunted Houses

Itō Seiu Ghost Paintings Summon Up Spirits of Edo


Japan’s rich tradition of ghost stories has inspired the artistic genre of ghost paintings. This summer, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is holding an exhibition featuring works by the artist Itō Seiu.

Enchō’s Hundred Ghost Paintings

The traditional Japanese art of storytelling, rakugo, is primarily associated with comic monologues and touching tales of human feelings, but it also has a deep connection to ghost stories. San’yūtei Enchō (1839–1900) made his name by recounting bone-chilling tales, many of which he wrote himself. His most famous works include Shinkei Kasanegafuchi (A True Scene at Kasanegafuchi Marsh) and Botan dōrō (The Peony Lantern), which adapted earlier stories to the rakugo format.

Enchō often held hyaku monogatari (100 stories) nighttime gatherings for telling ghost stories. Participants in this tradition lit 100 candles, extinguishing one after each tale ended, and it was said that a spirit would appear when the last candle went out. The link between the number and the spirit world inspired Enchō to put together a collection of 100 ghost paintings.

Half of the paintings were ultimately donated to Zenshōan, a temple in the Yanaka district of Tokyo where he was buried. Every August the temple commemorates Enchō’s death by putting his collection on display throughout the month.

Ghibli Producer’s Fascination

Edo-Tokyo Museum also has an ongoing ghost painting exhibition featuring works from Zenshōan. These 19 scrolls, however, are from the collection of another rakugoka, Yanagiya Kosan V (1915–2002). They are by the artist Itō Seiu (1882–1961), who started his career painting theater signboards before building his reputation with illustrations for story collections and serialized novels in newspapers. He is now best known for his sadomasochistic, erotic art of restraint and torture, but was also an ardent researcher of customs in the Edo period (1603–1868). He is sometimes called “the last of the ukiyo-e artists.”

Itō Seiu’s paintings from the Kosan collection.

Studio Ghibli producer Suzuki Toshio, a close collaborator with Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, proposed the current exhibition. For several summers now, he has enjoyed visiting the Zenshōan temple to view their ghost paintings. Last year, he felt a sudden fascination at seeing some works he did not recognize. The pictures that caught his eye were by Itō Seiu.

At a private viewing on August 10, the day before the exhibition opened, Suzuki talked of how he was drawn by Seiu’s skillful brushwork and the sense of authenticity that clearly came from direct observation. “The more I think he must have painted a model posing in the same position, the more I get a sense of reality from his works, at the same time that he’s drawing on the ghost painting tradition.” For Suzuki, this is what sets Seiu’s works apart from other artists.

Ghost Painting Lost to Next World?

Suzuki took part in a three-way discussion at the private viewing with Fujimori Terunobu, the director of Edo-Tokyo Museum, and Hirai Shōshū, the chief priest at Zenshōan. Hirai explained how last summer the temple had lent half of the Enchō collection to the University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts for an exhibition. As a result, it needed to fill space for its August showing, so organizers picked out 10 Seiu ghost paintings from the Kosan collection. This led Suzuki to see the artist in a new light. “I was really surprised because I thought of Seiu just as a painter of bondage and torture scenes.”

Suzuki Toshio (left), Fujimori Terunobu (center), and Hirai Shōshū (right), in a three-way discussion at the replica of the nineteenth-century Nakamuraza theater at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Rakugo performances are sometimes held in the theater.

When Suzuki heard that there were other ghost paintings by Seiu in the Kosan collection, he wanted to see them all and obtain a catalog for his own collection. That idea became the driving force that made the Edo-Tokyo Museum exhibition a reality.

Incidentally, of the 20 Seiu ghost paintings donated by Kosan, one later disappeared. After Hirai suggested that the missing work may have “passed on” to the next world, or been given a “helping hand” by a human, Suzuki called out to the unknown culprit, “Give the painting back. Thank you for your cooperation.”

The Zenshōan exhibition, which closes on August 31, displays another Seiu work among selections from the Enchō collection, including famous paintings from the brush of Maruyama Ōkyo. There are just a few days remaining, but it is well worth seeing.

Itō Seiu Ghost Painting Exhibition

The catalog for the museum exhibition.


Until Sunday September 25, 2016 (closed on August 29 and September 5)


9:30 am to 5:30 pm (closes at 9 pm on September 9 and 10)


Feature Exhibition Gallery, 5F, Edo-Tokyo Museum


Adults: ¥600
University and vocational college students: ¥480
Junior high school students (neither living nor studying in Tokyo), high school students, and seniors 65 or older: ¥300
Junior high school students (living or studying in Tokyo), elementary school students, and preschool children: Free


A printed collection of Seiu’s 19 ghost paintings is available at the Edo-Tokyo Museum shop on the fifth floor (¥2,700 including tax).

The exhibition From Eery to Endearing: Yōkai in the Arts of Japan runs in the Special Exhibition Gallery on the museum’s first floor until August 28, 2016.

Zenshōan Ghost Painting Exhibition


Until August 31, 2016 (open Saturday and Sunday)


10:00 am to 5:00 pm


Zenshōan (Yanaka 5-4-7, Taitō-ku; five minutes on foot from Sendagi Station, Chiyoda Line)

Admission: ¥


Ghost Painting Gallery

Some of Itō’s ghost paintings are introduced below.

Ihai o motsu yūrei (Ghost Holding a Mortuary Tablet). The swift movement of this leaping male ghost is expressed through effective use of blurring in the curved lines.

Kasane no bon tōrō (Kasane’s Obon Festival Lantern). The face that appears in the swinging Obon lantern has one swollen eyelid, so the eye is not visible. It represents the vengeful spirit of a murdered woman called Kasane.

Urabon’e no mōja (Obon Ghosts). Obon is traditionally held around the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the former lunar calendar (equivalent to August 17, 2016). Spirits are believed to travel from and back to the realm of the dead on spirit animals represented by eggplants and cucumbers. It was once thought that even demons stopped punishing criminals during New Year and Obon.

Sarayashiki no Okiku (Okiku of the Plate Mansion). Based on the famous story of the servant Okiku who loses her life after breaking one of the 10 valuable plates of the family she works for. As a ghost, she spends each night counting and recounting the plates. The depiction of the legs fading out is a standard of the ghost painting genre.

Neko no kaidan (Cat Ghost Story). Since ancient times there was a belief that cats could summon the spirits of the dead. The rakugo tale Cat Ghost Story describes the strange events that occur when Yōtarō is carrying the body of his dead father-in-law.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 25, 2016.)

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