Figuring out how to say “ghost” in Japanese should be pretty easy. Then you look it up on Jisho.org, and 91 different words pop up. Yikes!
Rather than attempt to give my own severely lacking explanation on how to say ghost in Japanese, I’m going to defer to a fantastic post by Japanese ghost and folklore expert Zack Davisson, founder of one of my favorite Japanese-related blogs in the world: Hyakumonogatari Kaidanka.
How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?
A question I am commonly asked is, “What is the Japanese word for ghost?” However, what seems a simple question is actually complicated.
Ghost. Spirit. Specter. Wraith. Revenant. Several words in the English language describe souls of the dead who have not moved on to the afterlife. Many of these come from other languages; like ghost, which has its probable roots in the pre-Germanic word ghoizdoz, meaning fury or anger; or spirit from the Latin spiritus meaning breath. Then there are more direct loan words, such as the Dutch spōk (spook), or the French phantom, or the Scottish wraith. Each word can mean “ghost,” but each word carries a different nuance or flavor.
Some words are even more specific. Poltergeist combines the German words poltern meaning to rumble or to make noise and geist meaning spirit or ghost. Put the two words together and you have a very specific entity that cannot be mistaken for some other type of ghost. A poltergeist is only ever a poltergeist.
A country as obsessed with ghosts as Japan is obviously going to have more than a single word. Just as in English, there are several words meaning “ghost,” but each with a different usage and feel.
All(most) all Japanese words for ghost use some variation on the kanji 霊. 霊 can be read as either –rei or –ryō (or tama, or mitama, or –ki — no one ever said Japanese was easy). Whatever the pronunciation, 霊 always retains the rough meaning of spirit.
Here is a list and definition of all the Japanese words for ghost that I know. I am sure the list must be incomplete:
幽霊 – yūrei – 幽 (dim) +霊 (spirit) – Probably the most common Japanese word for ghost, yūrei translates pretty happily as…
For the entire list of Japanese words for ghost, please see Zack’s full article on this page.
Finally find out the difference between 幽霊 and 化け物. Find out which Japanese word for ghost is used when describing Hamlet’s father.
Then go explore the rest of his site. Find out which mysterious animal will come and eat your dreams. Or maybe learn what those weird bobble-head creatures are in the movie Princess Mononoke. Most importantly, find out all about the ever-intriguing, um, Eyeball Butt.
Many thanks to Zack Davisson for allowing us to reprint a portion of his article, “How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?”
Good luck with your studies, everyone.
p.s. Here’s my free course, bundled with awesomeness (and love):