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What's with the Japanese ghost-killing swords?
micah & katie
sailorhathor wrote in little_details
I really thought that finding information on this would be easy, but it's been a frustrating endeavor with zilch for results.

What's with the Japanese ghost-killing swords? I've seen this plot device used over and over in Japanese anime, tv shows, movies, and video games - a magic sword, usually described as "cursed," usually a katana, that can "kill" ghosts. There was even a ghost-killing gun in one tv show. The last two episodes of "Xena" included a Japanese character known as the "Ghost Killer" who weilded a katana. Where does this come from? Usually when you see a particular theme being used repeatedly in Japanese media (the nine-tailed fox, the three sacred treasures, etc), it comes from their mythology or the Buddhist religion. But I can't find a thing about ghost-killing swords in any myth; everything I saw online referred to various tv shows, video games, and movies that include swords like this. It's gotta come from somewhere. Help!

Search terms I've tried: Japanese ghost killing sword, demon killing sword, ghost slaying sword, all of this with variations involving the words "ghost," "kill," "slay," "katana," and "Japanese."

Thanks for any help you can provide.

This is -completely- off the top of my head without doing research on ghost-killing swords, but (as someone who's pretty well-versed in Buddhism and East Asian cultures) it could come from the strong belief in spirits, ghosts, and zombies present in East Asia (some of which comes from Buddhism). I've never heard of stories of ghost-killing swords, but ghosts, spirits, and zombies are pretty popular, so it wouldn't surprise me that there's been a modern take on heroes that destroy them.

all I can think of are "exorcist swords" used in Chinese Taoism.

Ooh! That sounds like a great track for me to pursue. Thank you, I'll research that! (There have been swords like this in the movies and more that didn't "kill" ghosts, but "sent them on to the next life/Heaven/etc," which sounds like exorcism to me!)

Yay, same as majolika. Exorcism swords are pretty big in Daoism (generally made from peach wood or some other component that will be noxious for the ghosts/evil spirits/demon...)

Yes, it sounds like a great track to send me on in my research! I bet this search will yield much better results.

I know if the Grass Cutting Sword, which is one of the Three Treasures but not a Ghost Killing sword...

But you are right, its even carried over in Comics, the DC Comics char 'Katana' has a sword that captures souls

Yeah, that was my first thought, the Sacred Sword, but it was a big bust as there was nothing there about ghost killing. I know that the sacred sword has been used to vanquish evil beings (like in "Sailor Moon," for instance), but there's never anything about ghosts in particular.

See, there it is again! :D These swords either kill ghosts, capture them, or send them into the afterlife.

something might be lost in translation there... try "demon-slaying sword". the kanji for demon (oni) is the same as the chinese character for ghost. A number of pop media references have been known to fall victim to this grey area of confusing the two.

The concept of exorcism swords for the defeat and exorcism of spirits has Taoist origins, though the Taoist ones strictly speaking are usually made of peach wood or red string + copper coins.

Japanese mythology has a fairly rich bank of stories concerning the defeat and negotiation with demons/oni, in which the hero is most often a samurai of some description carrying a prized katana. The usual flow of such things is for the weapon that defeated a great evil to be marked as sacred and then enshrined in order to ward off other evils. They are usually expected to hold some exorcism powers over spirits as well.

The other kind of Japanese lore demon-sword refer to the opposite, a sword that is itself considered to have become evil or possessed by a demon, ergo "cursed". Weapons of this sort are either forged in manners of extraordinary violence or immorality, or were used to perpetuate extraordinarily heinous acts (such as mass slaughter or regicide). It can also simply be a weapon that has had a dark history behind it such as that a similar misfortune has befallen all of its previous owners. The purpose of enshrining these cursed swords is to seal them away, rather than use them to seal something else. These swords are held to be capable of destroying demons due to the perceived raw power behind them, rather than some sort of spiritual link. strictly speaking, they don't actually have any effects on immaterial spirits other than psychological.

Of relation is the Ainu/Shinto concept of Kami, in which the things people use regularly develop "wills" of their own, particularly things that are people-shaped or have associations to hair and blood.

Oh, I tried "demon slaying sword;" all the links are about "Devil May Cry" and "Runescape," and "Here's a cool sword you can buy!" :D

While doing my research, I read about Muramasa swords, which seem to fit more in the category of "cursed" or blood-thirsty swords.

Thank you for this input! It's very interesting and rich with ideas.

I was wondering if I can keep checking back to see where you get with this? I love "research" related to anime and/or existentialism (and cross-referencing!!) and this sounds fun to me ...lately all my friends are consumed by general world history stuffs, re: hetalia, and I'm just not into it, so I've been wandering LJ looking for interesting people, and I'm totally psyched this is actually defined as a "collection of interesting people", I'd like to stalk you a little if that's OK (I already added as a friend so I didn't loose track of you(s), not to be creepy (^_^))
Btw, my Mom knows lots about Taoism (spelled with a "T" and pronounced as a "D" if there's any contention), Buddhism, Yogic philosophy, various Eastern and Western philosophies/religions, and endless obscure references no one else knows, ...and she'd never heard of a sacred/exorcising sword, grass cutting sword, any manner of "ghost killing sword", or any mythology that might have evolved or been adapted into the recurring sword reference ...BUT I remember that she knows practically nothing about Shintoism, it made me think that if the mythology somewhere that might be where it's hiding.
I'd love to know what other symbolisms or recurring concepts you've traced back to their origin or native significance ...I got moderately obsessed with the symbolism of the red balls and red balloons in anime and Japanese films, I eventually surmised the meaning but found nothing concrete to confirm it so I didn't feel satisfied ...also investigated the symbolic implications of having one eye covered (only reference I found was Ossyrus the Egyptian god of the dead) ...the story/reality if any behind red moon/blood moon references ...theoretical and/or neurologic importance of the color purple ...and all permutations of symbolism for white elephants if you know anything on those subjects or interesting stuff in anime/manga that you've looked into I'd love to hear about it!! (SERIOUSLY I thrive on this type of practically unnecessary but totally engrossing intellectual pursuit)

Just curious, was this comment meant for me? It doesn't seem to be me you friended. :)

I found this about exorcism swords (in an ad for one you can buy):
Chinese Exorcism is almost as old as the Chinese culture itself. In the ancient time, many different objects were used by exorcists. Eventually, seal and exorcism sword became two standard tools for exorcists after Taoism became popular. Exorcist swords are also often used as a Fengshui tool/decoration item to guard a household from evil spirits. This is a Chinese Exorcist Sword Jian suitable for normal martial arts practice and Fengshui decoration. The 40 sword features a 33 spring steel constructed blade. The blade is flexible, slightly sharpened, and can be easily further sharpened. On the guard and the pommel of the swords are symbols of bats which rhythms to Fortune in Chinese. The wood constructed scabbard features three copper decoration settings with beautiful and detailed symbols and runes for fortune, longevity, and wealth. On the blade are engravings of a dragon on one side, and Exorcist Sword engraving in Chinese on the other.

You can read about the Grass-Cutting Sword here:

And, white elephants:

Tibet has a 'spirit knife' of a most peculiar shape. There's a description here including a reference to how they can be used in ritual exorcism of a demon. I know this is Buddhist, but it DOES show that such things existed. Possibly it's been borrowed and the idea shifted to a more familiar shape.

I love the face on that ritual dagger. "Grr!" :D

>> Possibly it's been borrowed and the idea shifted to a more familiar shape.

This is what I'm thinking, now that I've seen all these wonderful examples. Certain myths and religious practices seem to float from one Asian country to another with the local culture being applied to it. The katana is the sword of the samurai, who are very important to Japanese history, so it seems natural that this type of sword could become ritually significant for banishing or controlling spirits or demons. I haven't studied enough on Buddhism in Japan to know if they actually use katana this way in their rituals, but they do use it a lot in their entertainment, which works well enough for me and my story. :D

I love this community. I'm going to marry it.

Quite possibly tangental, but what springs to my mind is Fudo Myoo, who is always pictured with a vajra sword (to banish demons [ignorance] and protect believers). He's very fearsome-looking and images of him are pretty popular in the Buddhist temples in my area because of our history of Shugendo, which also has a history of mysticism and exorcism. (The second link contains a description of a typical (I guess) exorcism. No swords involved!)

Thank you so much for this information! That is very helpful. I can clearly see now where the idea for these swords is coming from.

To have a less specific take on it, and I'm not sure about this, but... Samurai are socially approved fighters. Monks, women, and peasants are not really supposed to fight - so you see them fighting evil once in a while, but it's generally a one-time thing, or it's not really a 'fight.' (ie, it's a series of priestly ceremonies.) Save the village from the monster, make your fortune, never fight again.

So in mythology, samurai do most of the fighting. And samurai generally fight with katanas. Because a katana is a very recognizable symbol of samurai, one of those 'weird' fighters often has a katana, to show that they're taking on a 'samurai' role. Their fighting is also socially approved - it's good, and they're the hero.

So if any demon gets killed, it's probably killed by a katana. It's not a big jump from there to creating fictional ghost-killing swords, especially with the tradition of named, sometimes magical, swords.

a legendary sword


2011-06-11 07:23 am (UTC)

well, i found this post searching info on a sword who might be of interest for your question, the onikiri , aka doujigiri made by yasutsuna, who was wielded by the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu. legends on him says he slayed a tsuchigumo, cut off an oni´s arm, and beheaded a legendary oni named shuten-dōji. the sword is located now in the national museum of japan.
"One of the Five Swords under Heaven (天下五剣), legendary sword with which Minamoto no Yorimitsu killed the oni Shuten-dōji (酒呑童子) living near Mount Oe."

That IS extremely helpful, especially since Onikiri essentially means "Demon Cutter/Demon Slayer." WOW. The whole ghost/demon killing sword thing makes perfect sense after all these great responses.