• Speakers: Mary Alcaro, Jessey Choo, Haruko Wakabayashi
  • Date: Wednesday, September 22nd, 1pm
  • Location: Remote




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Figure 1. Scene 4 of Gakizōshi (Tokyo National Museum, 12th c., National Treasure). Source: ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp).


The Scroll of Hungry Ghosts

by Haruko Wakabayashi
Department of Asian Languages & Cultures

The illustrated Scroll of Hungry Ghosts from late twelfth-century Japan depicts skinny, human-like creatures with bulging stomachs and narrow limbs, known as gaki (Sk. preta; Ch. egui), or hungry ghostsi. According to Buddhist scriptures, these creatures suffer insatiable hunger and thirst as a karmic retribution for having been deceitful, jealous, or greedy in their previous lives, and feed on repugnant substances such as human waste and corpses. In the scroll, they are found among aristocrats enjoying a musical gathering, a noble woman giving birth, commoners defecating on the streets, and corpses and burial mounds in a graveyard (Figure 1).

The scroll, which consists of ten sheets of painting and no text, has attracted much scholarship across disciplines. Art historians have explored its religious content, identifying its scriptural source as the sixth century Chinese translation of an earlier Sanskrit Sutra on Proper Vows for the True Dharmaii. Meanwhile, historians have viewed the scroll as a pictorial source that contains a wealth of information about the lives of people in the capital of Heian (present-day Kyoto). What is most intriguing, however, is that the scroll places the hungry ghosts in the human world and into a uniquely Japanese environment. In this respect, it could be read as a form of “translation” that transposes the Chinese sutra into a different medium, language, and cultural setting. Analyzing its scenes can help us better understand how the content of the Sutra on Proper Vows was adapted and introduced to a medieval Japanese audience.

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Figure 2. Scene 1 of Gakizōshi (Tokyo National Museum, 12th c., National Treasure). Source: ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp).


See, for example, this first scene that illustrates a musical gathering held at an aristocratic household (Figure 2). Here we see five male courtiers and two women seated on tatami mats, singing and playing instruments. Food is served on pedestaled trays, and sake cups are placed on the floor. While this appears to be a typical scene of aristocrats engaged in the courtly pleasures of music making, several features of the painting suggest otherwise. The most obvious are the tiny hungry ghosts clinging to the faces and bodies of the men. Another that would have signified to viewers of the time that this was not an ordinary gathering is the presence of the two women alongside the men. Female courtiers seldom participated in these events, and if they did, they would have stayed hidden behind curtains. Furthermore, the woman playing the hand drum and singing with her mouth wide open appears to be a professional entertainer who would have been hired to display her musicianship and possibly even to provide sexual services. Women of the nobility rarely sang in public, and hand-drum was an instrument often used by these entertainers who had become increasingly popular among courtiers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The moral decadence associated with the female entertainer would have drawn the viewer’s attention to the third unusual feature: The men are portrayed with flushed cheeks and disarrayed garments, both suggestive of drunkenness.

This depiction of drunken courtiers with a female entertainer and a noblewoman translates the sutra into a uniquely medieval Japanese context. According to the Sutra on Proper Vows,

One who adorns himself or herself or wears women’s clothing [in the] practice of lewdness and thus arouses a mind of desire within others, or one who mingles with such persons…[shall] be born as a lust-seeking gaki…. [This ghost] can skillfully adorn itself and travel everywhere…. It can become very small and sneak into people’s homes…or come in human form and join a banquet…. Because it is tiny, people are unable to see it. In this way, this ghost creates various forms of lust according to its will…or can appear as a woman and mingle with humansiii.

When read in light of this passage, the scene gains new meaning. The noblewoman adorning herself and mingling with men or the female entertainer arousing men’s sexual desires may become hungry ghosts in their future lives because they have practiced lewdness. The men, too, risk falling into this state in their future lives, as the sutra warns. Or the participants in the musical gathering, especially the women, may not be just merrymakers, but rather hungry ghosts themselves, for according to the sutra, lust-seeking gaki could transform into women to mingle with humans. In this way, by placing the hungry ghosts within the scenes familiar to the medieval Japanese audience, the scroll successfully “translates” the sutra, allowing the viewers to envision the world unfolded in the Chinese text within their own cultural context.

Haruko Wakabayashi teaches Japanese history, culture, and language at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, Rutgers University-New Brunswick. For more, read “Visualizing Hungry Ghosts in Heian Japan: Gakizōshi Scrolls as ‘Translation’” in Monumenta Nipponica 75:2 (2021), pp. 205-239.

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Figure 3. Scene 3 of Gakizōshi (Tokyo National Museum, 12th c., National Treasure). Source: ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp).


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Figure 4. Scene 2 of Gakizōshi (Tokyo National Museum, 12th c., National Treasure). Source: ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp).


iThere are two extant scrolls known as Gakizōshi, or the the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts, from the twelfth century; one is at the Tokyo National Museum, and the other is at the Kyoto National Museum. Digital images of both scrolls can be found at ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp).

iiThe Chinese title of the sutra is Zhengfa nianchu jing (Jp. Shōbō nenjo kyō). Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō 721, 17:1a-417c.

iiiZhengfa nianchu jing, p. 97c.