Shito-Dama, the Japanese Fireball Spirit

Michael Goss
Magonia 24, November 1986.
The Japanese spirit world is populated by a strange crew; there are teasing, shape-changing entities known as kitsune or ‘fox spirits’ which delight in deceiving lone travellers; there are bird-faced tengu in the forests, and half-human, half turtle kappa in the deep ponds. And of course there are the ghosts of the departed who cling obsessively to the things left undone or uncorrected in their earthly existence.

These phantasms have amused Western readers ever since folklore retailers like Lafcadio Hearn and A. B. Mitford made the mythologies of Japan accessible to non-specialist audiences. Yet the shito-dama, the ‘fireball spirit’ remains a largely unpublicised quantity. 

In Japan more than anywhere else in the world, spirits of the departed tend to harbour strong feelings on justice. Above all, a ghost is unlikely to rest until the wrongs which led to its being deprived of a physical existence have been put right. Take as an example the unhappy and vengeful spirit of 0 Same – she died of a broken heart for the love of a handsome priest – who was blamed for the great Tokyo fire of 1788 that killed 180,000 inhabitants. She was protesting from beyond the grave about the way that her fine dress (presented to the temple after her death) had been sold. After two young female owners had died of love-sickness not long after acquiring the second-hand garment, the dress was judged to be possessed and a ceremonial exorcism-by-burning arranged. In the course of this a mysterious wind whisked a burning sleeve into the rafters, causing the conflagration which fire-conscious Japanese narrators claimed was one of the worst in the history of mankind.

History, mythology and supernatural revenge on the living – including those not directly responsible for and probably not even born at the time of the original offence – rank high in this and other tales garnered towards the end of the nineteenth century by Richard Gordon Smith. During nine years in Japan where he was chiefly engaged in collecting natural history specimens for the British Museum he had unusual opportunity to talk to fishermen, farmers, priests and children, drawing from them folk material which might otherwise never have reached the west. Much of it featured ghostly apparitions and none of it was more puzzling than the fireball-like spirit that informants styles shito-dama.

Though he never saw one for himself, Smith encountered belief in shito-dama on several occasions and in several places. One such instance happened on a visit to Lake Biwa, the famously-beautiful stretch of water in the southwest of the main island, that is named after the traditional four-stringed lute-like instrument of Japan.

One of the lesser attractions of Biwa-Ko – not one of its ‘Eight Beauties’ celebrated by Japanese poets – was the small settlement of Seze. As Smith indicates, the ‘settlement’ amounted to little more than the lakeside cottage of a very old fisherman and his three sons who owned and operated “an immense fish trap which runs out into the lake nearly a mile, and is a disgrace to all civilised ideas of conservation”. the family had apparently acquired the rights a century or more before from the local daimya (lord).

Though a little bewildered to find a visitor – and a foreigner! – interested in simple tales that even his sons didn’t care to hear nowadays, the elderly fisherman had a few ‘truths’ (or as we’d say, folk yarns) concerning his part of the lake. First and most intriguing of these was the shito-dama or ‘Spider Fire of the Spirit of the Dead Akechi’. Rooted in local history, the fireball was a fact as far this aged narrator was concerned: “a curious and unpleasant thing” that he had seen at first hand – evidently too close and too often for his comfort.

The fireball was seen on the lake in wet weather, began the narrator, and it was ‘The Spirit of Akechi’. Whether Smith realised it or not, the old man must have been referring to the daimyo Akechi Mitsuhide, familiar to generations of Japanese as ‘Shogun of Thirteen Days‘. Akechi was famed for an act of revenge and rebellion; he had waited five years before rising against his liege-lord Nobunaga whom he held responsible for the death of his mother and he capped the encompassing of his enemy’s death by proclaiming himself Shogun or military dictator (and effectual ruler) of Japan. From the time of his rebellion to his total defeat by Nobunaga’s right-hand-man Hideyoshi Toyotomi and thence to his death in 1582, Akechi had enjoyed a paltry 13 days of glory, hence his popular title.

Historians say that Akechi Mitsuhide died en route for the safety of his Sakamoto castle, massacred at the hands of a peasant mob in the village of Ogorusu. Smith’s informant had a more romantic version of that event which invested cold fact with picturesque overtones dear to the heart of folk-narrators and audiences everywhere … at the expense of actual cold fact itself. These overtones were the staple twin-elements of Japanese popular lore: betrayal and supernatural revenge.

According to the fisherman, Akechi had built his now-ruined castle at the foot of Mount Hiyei and when the time of his reverses came he held it against a siege by the far larger forces of Hideyoshi. The castle might well have remained untaken had not a fisherman from Magisa told the besiegers the secret of its water supply. Once this lifeline was cut the garrison had no choice but to capitulate; Akechi and most of his men took the honourable way of forestalling the inevitable by committing suicide.

As already pointed out, this version of Akechi’s bloody end doesn’t square with the sober biographical details given in standard texts like Papinot’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan. More interest though, is the way that it lent itself to interpretation of a menacing local phenomena. For it was said that ever since the betrayal and death of Akechi:
“…in rain or rough weather, there has come from the castle a fireball, six inches in diameter or more. It comes to wreak vengeance on the fishermen, and causes many wrecks, leading boats out of their course. Sometimes it comes almost into the boat. Once a fisherman struck it with a bamboo pole, breaking it up into many fiery bits, and on that occasion many boats were lost… That is all sir, that I can tell of it – except that often have I seen it myself and feared it”
As a meteorological phenomenon – a literal fireball, perhaps, or ball lighting which is seen only in certain rough-weather conditions – the shito-dama of Akechi sounds quite believable. More important is the way in which something that could possibly be a natural phenomenon has been interpreted as a supernatural one. Certain aspects of this process seem peculiarly adapted to the prevailing cultural beliefs against which the story is told; the shito-dama’s purpose is revenge on fishermen because to this class belonged the man who in distant time offended against a dominant social law – namely, loyalty to one’s lord. The spirit does not distinguish between innocent fishermen and the descendants (if any!) of the guilty one: all fishermen are guilty and hence legitimate subjects of its supernatural vengeance. That this rationale is founded on a non-existent or literally incorrect piece of history doesn’t matter.

At the same time, the basic motif – a supernatural light over water commemorating a past homicidal tragedy engineered by betrayal of accepted human standards – is not uniquely Japanese. The shito-dama of Akechi bears comparison with themes implicit in Rhode Island’s ghostly classic, the so-called ‘Palatine Light’.

As described by one resident of Block Island in 1811, the light appears about half a mile out to sea: sometimes small, like an illumination from a far-off window, at other times reaching the heights of a fully-rigged sailing ship. Whatever its source, the oft-cited accounts indicate that the light was regularly reported throughout the nineteenth century and (more specifically) was just as much a reality for the residents of Block island as the Akechi shito-dama was for the Seze fishermen. Also like their Japanese counterparts, the islanders usually attributed it to the paranormal – and to a piece of spurious criminal history.

The Palatine was supposed to have been a Philadelphia-bound immigrant boat lured onto Block Island in 1752 by wreckers who slaughtered the helpless survivors and set the vessel on fire. Since that day, ran the yarn, the blazing ship appeared sporadically offshore to testify to that foul and inhuman deed.

Local historians have proved quite confidently that there was no foul deed – at least not on the islander’s side, and not even a ship named The Palatine. It is thought that the story derives from the wreck of the Princess Augusta in 1738 (not 1752) with 350 refugees who came from the German districts of the Upper and Lower Palatinates. The ship struck a hummock off Block island, and the local inhabitants were almost wholly responsible for saving some of the immigrants despite the inexplicably callous behaviour on the part of the Princess Augusta‘s commanding officer; the ship eventually drifted away and sank after hitting a rock.

Since she did not catch fire there seems no logical connection between the burning “Palatine light” and the ill-fated ship, save for the folk-rationalisation that the allegedly paranormal radiance at sea marked the fiery fate of a vessel which had come to be equated with the genuine wreck of 1738. As we have seen, Japanese folklore furnished similarly dubious reasons for the Akechi fireball to seek revenge on fishermen, quite ignoring the historical fact that Akechi had more reason to hate the land-based Ogurusu peasants than the boatmen of Seze.

The crux of the Akechi story is the way in which it shows how a rare but universal phenomenon – here, some kind of fireball – has been interpreted according to folklore conventions on the supernatural. For the fishermen it was not merely a random ball of light, but none other than a shito-dama.

Richard Gordon Smith wrote: “So much evidence have I got from personal acquaintances as to their existence, and even frequent occurrence, that I almost believe in them myself”. The shito-dama seems to have been such an integral part of Japanese beliefs that it is surprising to find so little on it from western commentators. Smith felt that the shito-dama was an astral spirit that could wander the earth after death. As such, this specifically Japanese form relates to a widespread tradition that some part of the human organism may survive death and be visible in or around the locality in which that terminal event took place. Japanese readers would have had little difficulty in understanding (and believing in) the pallid lights or “magnetic effluvia” said to have been witnesses by nineteenth century clairvoyants in graveyards.

Smith’s informants divided shito-dama into two categories: some were of ’roundish tadpole shape’, others ‘more square fronted’ and ‘eyed’ as in the case(s) of those belonging to a deaf man and a fisher-girl seen by two to three dozen people at Tsuboune near Naba. His hunter assistant Oto of Itama claimed that he and his sons had seen the shito-dama of a dead woman that was something like an egg with a tail. At Toshishima a number of elderly men testified that the shito-dama belonging to a carpenter had been red, but more typically witnesses spoke of a smoky white phosphorescence.

Although shito-dama were firmly held to be manifestations of the human spirit, they were not to be confused with conventional ghosts of the dead. Generally speaking Japanese ghosts are always recognisably human in form. The shito-dama was nothing more than a moving light, perhaps an abstract of the human spirit. At the same time it might be seen alongside a more representational phantom. In Smith’s ghoulish record of ‘A Haunted Temple in Inaba Province’ the shito-dama hovers and buzzes as it leads “the luminous skeleton of a man in loose priest’s clothes with glaring eyes and a parchment skin!” The narrative makes it clear that both apparitions belong to the same murder victim.

A kind of limited intelligence directs the shito-dama’s peregrinations. In common with haunting ghosts the world over, its actions seem defined by obsessive preoccupying thoughts, of which revenge or the desire to reveal the whereabouts of its mortal remains are usually paramount. Again, it may continue in an attempt to carry out some important act left unfinished by death.

The folk-tales collected by Gordon Smith were told and retold to him principally for their entertainment value. Then as now Oriental ghost stories can be enjoyed for that alone; they have a quaintness and charm of unfamiliarity that is hard to resist. But what does the shito-dama tell us about the Japanese approach to the paranormal? And has it any relevance to our own approach to that topic?

At folktale level a phenomenon which may sound to us uncommon but natural has been taken as something spiritual – a visual symbol of the soul, the astral body, or some other element that survives bodily death. The shito-dama stories also have a moral or educative value aimed at the living. The phenomenon is intended to reinforce a deep-rooted ethical teaching that binds humans and society. Overt or implicit, these underlying factors are loyalty and duty. Betrayal of trust – a terrible failing in a hierarchical society like that of Japan – brings evil consequences not merely for the individual but for those about him. Thus the fisherman who gave away his lord’s secret and caused his death drew supernatural retribution on unborn members of the class to which he belonged in the Akechi tale.

These interpretations may seem irrelevant to cultures outside Japan, yet the shito-dama has a much deeper significance than that, for it reveals the remarkable uniformity of believer response between peoples set apart by vast barriers of geography and custom. Ostensibly the gulf between feudal Japan and pre-20th century Britain is beyond compromise. It may be misleading to over-value similarities between cultures which could arguably be sheer accident, but folklorists have always been impressed when two remote cultures yield evidence of beliefs which suggest a common mode of interpreting unknown phenomena. So it is revealing when the attitudes of Smith’s shito-dama narrators are placed beside British rural traditions concerning wandering, unearthly-seeming luminescences known variously as ‘corpse-lights’ or ‘corpse-candles’.
Technically, the corpse lights discussed in the following paragraphs were believed to be different from the corpse candles spoken of in many parts of Britain, but most especially in Wales, The ‘candle’ was a moving ball of light said to presage a coming death in the community, often it was supposed to have belonged to someone who had already ‘passed on’ and in this case it was said to manifest in welcome or in warning to a person whose death was imminent, interestingly, some East Anglian corpse lights were described as red, like the shito-dama of the Toshishima carpenter

Here again the phenomenon can be summed up as an eerie nocturnal ball of light or flame which tradition asserted was the soul of a deceased person. The corpse light was particularly prone to wander when the departed had been the victim of an undisclosed, unpunished crime and could not rest until this issue had been acknowledged and resolved. As in the Japanese material, opinions differed on the dangers posed by these itinerant lights: some were thought to bear no malice to the living, whereas others were to be avoided at all costs.

The parallels with Smith’s legends go much deeper. Folklorist Baring-Gould heard that a flame seen dancing over fields and hayracks one harvest time was believed to be the soul of a young man who had helped bring in the hay last year but had since died from consumption. Perhaps the spirit wanted to assist in the communal harvesting of the parish. Equally – and given the critical nature of this annual event when every available hand was expected to turn out – it may have responded out of a post-mortem sense of social obligation. As late as the 1920′s rumours of corpse-lights sprang up in the wake of a well publicized and sordid British murder. Clearly the victim’s spirit was prosecuting its claim for justice, just as the buzzing shito-dama of the Inaba temple drew attention to “the bones of a priest who had suffered a violent death and could not rest”.

These similar beliefs of uncomplicated (often unlettered) working people have suffered comparable attempts at rationalist, deflating explanations. Corpse lights were dismissed by the learned as fungoid luminosity, spontaneously-igniting marsh gas, or both. The origins of the shito-dama could take in these answers as well as meteorological or geological hypotheses. Neither rationalisation process has completely convincing results and neither can gainsay the ease with which folk-audiences insisted the phenomenon were spiritual, paranormal manifestations. Evidence of so-similar interpretations of fireballs among cultures so remote and segregated from each other – ideas which could not be borrowed nor exchanged from one to the other – indicates that despite ethnic differences people respond to the unknown in standard ways. That the British and Japanese should both interpret a species of ‘fireball’ in terms of spirit survival is no coincidence and it matters more than the undeniably distinct cultural lines along which those races have developed.

Parapsychologists may ponder that across the world folk-ghosts have a quality which goes beyond narrative form and convention. If every nation interprets its ghosts in ways that encapsulate some essential approach to life, it could explain why so many supernatural motifs are common to people who have no (or at best limited) contact with each other until long after those motifs had evolved. The unhappy ghost which demands justice for its unpunished murder is not necessarily a disseminated story: it walks the countries of the globe because Man has a strong sense of justice and hates to think that murder can go unpunished. And Man also hates to think that death is the end, so much so that a luminous fire in the night stands for the visible survival of his soul.

Perhaps the fisherman from Seze was right. Richard Gordon Smith asked his for curious legends. The old man replied that he could tell him a few ‘truths’.