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


Eventually those rebels seized power for themselves through victory in combat, and Masakado was anointed the “first samurai.” His grave, located at the Buddhist Kanda Shrine, was now officially incorporated within the new capital city: the great Edo, now the city of the Shogun.

The position of Shogun was never meant to be permanent. It was supposed to be a crisis appointment: a hatchet-man for the emperor during a national emergency. The canny Tokugawa family, however, twisted it into a dynasty, and from the 1600s they became the de facto rulers of Japan for the next 250 years. By 1720 Edo had become the largest city in the world and the true power center of Japan — with Masakado as its shadowy patron.

Japan also deliberately cut itself off from other countries, while Edo became home to the “floating world,” an isolated enclave of artistic pursuits, advanced craft techniques and sometimes seedy nightlife. The popular kabuki theaters were censored from discussing politics, so instead the big-city audiences flocked to lurid tales of ancient vengeful spirits. Masakado (1836) was one of the hits, with his sorceress-daughter retelling his story and fighting off her pursuers with witchcraft.

But eventually Masakado’s people were themselves defeated. The samurai started to fade in relevance, and in 1868 a revolution overthrew the Shogun and “restored” the emperor. Edo was renamed To-kyoto (“Eastern Capital”), soon shortened to just Tokyo. Masakado’s grave wound up on the grounds of the new finance ministry.

Wary of his influence, in 1874 the new government officially proclaimed him an “enemy of the emperor,” ending his semi-divine status. Then the finance ministry burned to the ground in the 1923 earthquake.

Masakado was blamed. Rumors then spread that the replacement building, too, was cursed: accidents, falls and mishaps claimed 14 lives in five years — including that of the finance minister himself.

Gingerly, officials confessed that they had bulldozed the grave during construction. After the death of the finance minister, they hastily restored the grave in 1928, and a priest was called in to hold a “pacification ceremony” — because it’s rude to say “exorcism.” They forgot, however, to put back the stone slab carved with spells to hold Masakado in check.

That, at least, was the excuse offered in 1940 when nine nearby offices were destroyed in a lightning strike. The stone was put back, only to enter the news again in 1945 when it got the blame for causing a bulldozer to overturn, killing the driver. The US Army Occupation force had planned to turn the area into a car park, but were persuaded after the accident that the best policy was to leave Masakado in peace.

The Mitsui Finance Corporation didn’t get the memo. Five decades later, with Japan mired in a two-decade recession, it tried to sell mineral mining rights to Masakado’s land — an act of hubris, perhaps, that signaled the desperation of Japan’s economic crash. As usual, Masakado had the last laugh: the company filed for bankruptcy in 2002. It was during that time that Tokyo-Mitsubishi bank, taking no chances, tried to bribe him in the afterlife by opening an account in his name.

Masakado isn’t the only ghost in Tokyo. The victims of lethal experiments at Toyama Park are still reportedly heard, while so-called “stigmatized properties” or haunted houses can be rented for a major discount. Not even the prime minister is immune. Since 2012, Shinzo Abe has refused to move into his official residence in Nagatacho, where one of his predecessors was assassinated.

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