Ghost of Sakura is one of the most famous ghost stories of Japan, involving the vengeful ghosts of the farmer Sogoro and his wife, O Man.
In the 17th century, Japan was ruled by feudal lords, many of whom treated their peasants harshly. Tenant farmers were assessed an annual land tax on the value of their crops. Whenever landlords were pressed for money, they demanded payment of taxes in advance.
According to law, these advance taxes were supposed to be repaid to the tenants over a period of time—up to 20 years—with interest. But in practice, some landlords never repaid their tenants and kept demanding more and more tax money in advance. Such was the case in the province of Shimosa, ruled by Kotsuke no Suke, the lord of the castle of Sakura.
When he succeeded his father’s estate, Kotsuke no Suke imposed additional taxes upon an already severely overtaxed population. The toll was heavy. Hundreds of farmers could no longer support their families. They could not sell their land because nobody wanted to buy it under such heavy taxation. Many abandoned their properties and fled to other provinces. More than 700 men were reduced to begging in the streets. Houses and temples fell into ruin.
Land went untilled. The local officials and councillors to the lord turned blind eyes and deaf ears to the entreaties of the peasants. Finally, the chiefs of 136 villages in the province assembled together in a council. Sogoro, 48, the chief of the village of Iwahashi, distinguished for his judgment, urged that they go to the capital, Yedo (Edo), and directly petition the lord or his close officials.
He acknowledged that this was a risky proposition, for to go over the heads of the lower officials would be deemed a capital crime punishable by death. Whoever undertook to be the messenger would surely lose his life. Nonetheless, the situation was so desperate that the chiefs decided to travel to Yedo and present their petition.
But when the day came to begin the journey, Sogoro was absent. A messenger was sent to his home to find out why, as it appeared that he was too cowardly to follow through on his own suggested action. Sogoro said that he was taken with colic and would not be able to travel for a day or two.
Indignant at his apparent defection, the village chiefs set out anyway for Yedo. At the capital, no one would hear them out, and they were turned away. Crestfallen, the chiefs did not know what to do next and so sent for Sogoro. He agreed to go to Yedo. Before he left, he summoned together his family and informed them of the gravity of the situation.
“My earnest desire . . . is to devise some means of escape from this cruel persecution,”
he told them.
“If my ambitious scheme does not succeed, then shall I return home no more; and even should I gain my end, it is hard to say how I may be treated by those in power. Let us drink a cup of wine together, for it may be that you shall see my face no more. I give my life to allay the misery of the people of this estate. If I die, mourn not over my fate; weep not for me.”
He gave them detailed instructions as to what he wanted done after his death. Sogoro then met with the village chiefs and told them that their only recourse was to directly petition the shogun, or prince.
They drew up a new petition. Then Sogoro heard that a high-ranking official, Kuze Yamato no Kami, would be traveling to the shogun’s palace. He and six of the village elders intercepted the official’s traveling party and handed in their petition. It was accepted, and the elders were elated. Sogoro, however, remained cautious. The matter would not be decided quickly, he said.
He decreed that 11 village chiefs should stay with him and the rest should return home. If charges of conspiracy were made, then only the 12 would be executed, and the other chiefs could return to reclaim the bodies and bury them. So Sogoro and the 11 others waited patiently to hear a response to their petition. Finally they were summoned to the residence of Kuze Yamato no Kami. They were met by two councillors who excoriated them for their audacity in thrusting a petition at their superior.
They would be pardoned for this “heinous offense” this one time. And while their complaint was legitimate, it could not be considered. Their petition was returned to them. The councillors recorded the names of Sogoro and the six elders who had approached Kuze Yamato no Kami. Dispirited, the village chiefs departed. Sogoro would not give up. He declared that he would lie in wait for the shogun himself to leave the palace and present the petition directly to him.
About two and a half weeks later, the shogun, Prince Iyemitsu, left the palace to travel to Uyeno to worship at the tombs of his ancestors. Sogoro tied his petition to a 6-foot-long bamboo stick and hid himself under a bridge along the route. When the shogun’s litter passed over the bridge, he boldly thrust the stick directly inside the shogun’s litter and then managed to crawl to the side and implore the shogun to take it.
The shogun did so. Sogoro was arrested and thrown into prison. Prince Iyemitsu read the petition and referred it back to the offending lord, Kotsuke no Suke, who was forced to pay back all the borrowed tax money from his tenants and to reduce the levies. Enraged and humiliated, Kotsuke no Suke ordered that Sogoro and his wife be executed by crucifixion, and their three sons beheaded as punishment for the “conspiracy” against him (two married daughters were not prosecuted). Sogoro’s property would be confiscated. The six elders who had accompanied Sogoro would be spared death, but they would be banished from the province.
The severity of the punishment shocked everyone, even the councillors of the lord. While all agreed that Sogoro should be executed as a sacrifice for the villages, they begged for mercy for his family, who were guiltless of any wrongdoing. Kotsuke no Suke would not relent and set the day of execution as the ninth day of the second month of the second year of the period styled Shoho (1644). Three of the banished village elders became monks and went off into the mountain temples to pray unceasingly for the souls of Sogoro and his family and to do charity work for the poor.
They lived out their lives in this manner. (Three others were eventually pardoned after the death of the shogun.) Kotsuke no Suke told the three monks that he would not relent in his sentence of Sogoro and his family, and that furthermore, the corpses of Sogoro and his wife would be exposed for three days and three nights—a terrible humiliation. Then the bodies would be given over to the monks for burial. On the morning of the execution, a great and sorrowful crowd gathered. Sogoro, his wife and three sons were led out, bound and made to sit on coarse mats. The weeping onlookers threw candies at the children.
At noon, Sogoro and O Man were bound to their crosses, which were set upright in the ground. In the cruelest of punishments, they were made to watch the beheadings of their sons, who were 13, 10 and 7 years of age. The eldest son gave a short and brave speech about preceding his parents to paradise. The middle son told the executioner he did not know how to die and please not to strike a sore shoulder.
The youngest son died while eating candies. The bodies were placed in coffins and carried away. Then the executioners prepared to thrust spears into Sogoro and O Man to finish the executions. O Man told her husband not to mourn, that they were dying for the good of many, and a good name was more prized than life itself. Sogoro said that he was glad his petition had been successful. Then he laid down a curse against Kotsuke no Suke: “For myself I care not; but that my wife and children should be punished also is too much.
Pitiless and cruel! Let my lord fence himself in with Iron walls, yet shall my spirit burst through them and crush his bones, as a return for this deed.” As he spoke, Sogoro’s eyes became a brilliant vermilion red; he took on the appearance of the Buddhist Demon Razetsu. Sogoro was stabbed with a spear from his left side clear through to his right shoulder. With blood streaming out of him, he watched as O Man was pierced with a spear and died. He declared,
“Listen, my masters! All you who have come to see this sight. Recollect that I shall pay my thanks to my lord Kotsuke no Suke for this day’s work. You shall see it for yourselves, so that it shall be talked about for generations to come. As a sign, when I am dead, my head shall turn and face towards the castle. When you see this, doubt not that my words shall come true.”
The order was given that Sogoro should speak no more. But it took 12 to 13 stabs with a spear before he was dead and silent. When he died, his face turned toward the castle.
The lord’s councillors, astonished and frightened at this sign, acknowledged publicly that the execution of Sogoro’s wife and family was unnecessarily cruel and that honors would be paid to Sogoro: he would be canonized as Saint Daimyo and placed among the tutelary dieties of Lord Kotsuke no Suke’s family. Kotsuke no Suke laughed mockingly at this, declaring that the peasant Sogoro had received his just desserts and would not be elevated in status. He then displayed even more cruelty.
The councillors were removed from their positions. Various officials who had merely carried out the lord’s orders to levy and collect the onerous taxes were either dismissed or banished. Two were condemned to hara-kiri, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. These punishments were for their “bad government,” which had resulted in the lord’s humiliation with the shogun. For two years, nothing happened to indicate that Sogoro’s curse would be carried out from beyond the grave.
And then Kotsuke no Suke’s wife became pregnant. She began to suffer severe pains. The lord sent retainers to all the temples and shrines to pray, but the efforts were to no avail. The pains continued. At the end of the seventh month of her pregnancy, a ghostly light appeared every night in her chamber, accompanied by hideous noises of fiendish laughter and wailing. Sounds of someone walking in her chamber were heard, as well as the weeping of a multitude of people. The ladies-in-waiting were so distressed that they appealed to the lord to help.
Kotsuke no Suke agreed to wait in his wife’s chamber one night. At midnight, he heard a great commotion of voices, and then the terrible ghosts of Sogoro and O Man, crucified, appeared and seized his wife by the hand, saying, “We have come to meet you. The pains you are suffering are terrible, but they are nothing in comparison with those of the hell to which we are about to lead you.” Kotsuke no Suke tried to strike the ghosts with his sword, but the blade only cut through air. The ghosts shrieked in laughter and vanished.
Terrified, the lord sent his retainers out to the temples and shrines again, to pray for the ghosts to be exorcised. It was all in vain. The hauntings grew worse. Night after night, the ghosts of Sogoro and O Man appeared to the lord’s wife, shrieking and howling that they had come to fetch her to hell. When her servants fainted, the ghosts laughed wildly. The ghosts then began appearing in the daytime so that the haunting of the lord’s wife was constant. She sickened and died.
After her death, the ghosts then appeared daily to Kotsuke no Suke in his bedchamber. The forms of Sogoro and O Man would float about the room with red and glaring eyes. If Kotsuke no Suke tried to cut them with his sword, the ghosts would vanish and reappear in an even more horrible form. The servants were literally paralyzed with fear. Kotsuke no Suke became exhausted and terrified. Soon the entire household was in a constant uproar of terror and prayer. The more the priests prayed, the worse the hauntings became. The ghostly visions spread to the bedchamber of Kotsuke no Suke’s eldest son as well.
And when Kotsuke no Suke ventured forth to visit the shogun, the ghosts appeared outside the castle, howling cries of vengeance. For nearly two years, the lord and his castle were thus plagued. Kotsuke no Suke’s family finally prevailed upon him to canonize Sogoro and erect a shrine to him—as his dismissed councillors had decreed—as the only way to lay the ghosts to rest. He relented and did so. Sogoro was canonized as Saint Daimyo and a shrine was built. Honors were paid to him. The action apparently appeased the ghosts, for they ceased to appear.
But Kotsuke no Suke’s troubles were not over. A year or two later, he attended a ceremony at the shogun’s castle. He quarreled with the lord of the castle of Matsumoto and fatally wounded him. This was a most grievous matter, as custom decreed that a nobleman murdered outside of his own castle brought him disgrace, and his lands would be forfeited.
Kotsuke no Suke fled to his own castle. He was ordered arrested on charges of treason. His councillors pleaded that he had gone insane and could not be held accountable for his actions. The shogun was not swayed and had him arrested and brought to Yedo, where he was imprisoned.
His retainers were dismissed, and his castle was given to another man. In prison, Kotsuke no Suke had ample time to reflect on the reason for his misfortunes. He felt that he was being repaid for the injustices he had meted out to Sogoro and his family.
Day and night, he made prayers of repentance to Sogoro. He pledged that if his family would be spared ruin and reestablished, he would see that the spirit of Sogoro was worshipped with even greater honors at the court of the mikado in Kyoto. Soon the shogun pardoned Kotsuke no Suke and restored him to lord of the castle at Matsuyama. A few months later, the shogun died, and Kotsuke no Suke was promoted to lordship of another castle, Utsunomiya, with an even greater revenue.
He kept his promise to elevate the worship of Sogoro as St. Daimyo, and the shrine in the saint’s honor was continually beautifi ed. Peasants traveled from far away to worship at the shrine in the hopes of receiving good fortune. There were no more hauntings.
Taken from : The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits
Edited for the Web by Occult World