Mon, Jun 17, 2019 - Page 8 News List

The curse of Masakado: why a malevolent ghost haunts Tokyo

The tale of the ‘first samurai’ whose severed head still terrorises Tokyoites today is the story of the city itself

By Jonathan Clements  /  The Guardian

An archer on horseback dressed as an ancient samurai warrior shoots an arrow at a target during an event last month to celebrate Japan’s new imperial “Reiwa” era at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The tale of the “first samurai,” Masakado, is cloaked in violence, superstition and coincidence.

Photo: AFP

A Tokyo bank once opened an account in the name of a man who had been dead for 1,000 years.

The bank was a branch of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (now part of MUFG, the largest bank in Japan), which looked out over a neighboring lot that contained the grave where the man was buried. The bank employees were reportedly instructed not to open any windows to the man’s grave, nor to turn their backs on it, even when at their desks; the account was set up to placate him.

The figure, Taira no Masakado, a rebellious warrior who was killed in 940AD but whose spirit has terrorized the region ever since. How Masakado became such a malevolent symbol to ordinary Tokyoites is the story of the city itself, and its centuries of violence, superstition and coincidence.

At the time of Masakado’s death, the region now known as Tokyo was little more than mudflats and plains of high reeds. Japan was ruled from far-away Kyoto — literally “the Capital” — while the Tokyo area was the lawless north, the destination for younger sons, bastards and outcasts who were packed off to the frontier. These borderland warlords called themselves the samurai — “those who serve” — and boasted of their lifelong loyalty to the throne.


Mostly. Masakado was the first glimmering of a shift in power away from Kyoto and towards these new warriors. One day, announcing that the Sun Goddess had chosen him, he proclaimed himself emperor, killed a local governor and seized two northern provinces. Shocked by his treachery, the real emperor put a price on his head, which one of Masakado’s cousins soon collected. Dead or alive, however, the damage had been done: Masakado had challenged the sovereign’s divine authority.

It wasn’t long before the legends began. He was said to be invulnerable, except for the top of his head, where his mother — a serpent — had failed to lick him. Plagues of butterflies supposedly warned of his revolt as rainbows broke out simultaneously in the capital.

The authorities tried to mock him by claiming that he was speared by sword-leaf trees in the afterlife, his liver eternally roasting — but this propaganda only revealed the degree to which he’d rattled them.

His daughter, Takiyasha, was said to live on in the ruins of his fortress, dabbling in necromancy and raising an army of frogs. In Japanese, frog (kaeru) is a pun on “return,” a hint that Masakado would come back to seek his revenge.

To prevent that, the authorities cut off his head and brought it to Kyoto, where they hung it from a tree in the marketplace. But the severed head howled in the night, and demanded to know where its body was.

Eventually, the head flew away. A temple in Gifu marks the spot where a local warrior shot at it with an arrow, and then it was on the move again, eventually coming to rest in an obscure fishing village called Shibazaki. The locals washed it, buried it with full honors and inscribed the gravestone with charms that prevented his escape. But lighting strikes and strange apparitions continued — and whenever bad luck struck the village, it was inevitably blamed on him.

Meanwhile, Masakado’s infamy was starting to grow among the rebellious samurai bad boys, who had taken to quoting his scandalous maxim: “The people of this world will always anoint their sovereigns through victory in combat.”

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