Japanese tale #43 – Ghost Song

ghost song.jpg

A long time ago in the city of Kyoto, the emperor owned an amazing biwa lute. Named Genjo, the antique instrument had been passed on from generations to generations since ancient times. Made of the smoothest dark wood, its neck rose thin and tall like a graceful crane.

Renowned for its clear voice, Genjo was one of the most fabulous treasures of the court. None but the emperor had the right to play it, and very few had had the chance to hear it sing for the man was not a keen music player.

Most of the time, the lute rested well guarded deep in the heart of the palace, nestled among the finest silks in a precious wooden chest.

One morning though, the instrument went missing. Servants hastily searched the halls, from golden rooms to luscious gardens, yet nowhere the biwa could be found.

The emperor burst in a grieving rage:

– Who?! Who have dared to steal my Genjo!

Courtiers and guards, ladies in waiting and maids, all had fallen faces to the floor where they laid fear stricken by imperial wrath.

Finally, the Minister of the Right summoned his courage and uttered:

– Your Imperial Majesty, such a breathtaking instrument will not be easily hidden. We will find the rat who have stolen it, I swear!

Soon, the word spread from the palace to the city. Everywhere, streets buzzed with gossips and whispers, but no one had any clue explaining that mysterious disappearance.

Later that night, in a noble mansion, a young man named Minamoto no Hiromasa sighed as he watched the moon:

– Such a shame the Genjo vanished. I will never hear its pure sound now…

Hiromasa was a biwa player with keen ears and a delicate soul. For years he had trained to master pitches and keys, dreaming that one day he would play for the emperor. The theft of such an incredible instrument saddened him deeply.

A melancholic melody echoed faintly in the shadows.

Hiromasa turned sharply, listening with careful attention the music of the night. Far away, the song echoed again.

– What an amazing sound! That musician is truly skilled…

Caught by the strange tune, the noble man called his servant and hurried down the pitch black streets. Both walked and walked, with only a small paper lantern lighting the way.

Carried by midnight wind, the music grew stronger and stronger as their jittery steps led them to the city south area. Beautiful mansions had since long given place to shabby houses and grim slums. And suddenly, the gloomy silhouette of Rashomon gate rose from the dark.

With its double roofs and red painted pillars, deep as old sticky blood, the gate looked like a wide mouth full of fangs, a monster ready to gulp innocent passersby and evil-doers alike.

The sad melody was still playing, falling pure and clear from the rooftop. As his servant paled, ready to flee at any moment, Hiromasa mused:

– Why would such an amazing artist settle in that ghastly place. Only demons could live and thrive here…

His eyes grew wide:

– A demon of course! Who else could have stolen Genjo and escaped unseen!

The lantern bearer whimpered but before the little man could have stopped him, Hiromasa had taken a brave step forward and called:

– You! This lute is not yours! I have followed your music in the dark and now, I command you to give the Genjo back.

The song stopped on a long dissonant chord. Stifling silence blanketed the night.

Something fell from Rashomon rooftop.

The servant let out a high pitched screamed and dropped the lantern. Running for his life, the little man disappeared in the shadows leaving his master alone in the face of danger.

As his eyes adjusted to darkness, Hiromasa took in the strange figure who now stood a few feet from him. Veiled in sheer silks, the silhouette had heavy hips and long limbs, a slend neck… and no head.

Hiromasa gasped. Before him stood not a demon, by the Genjo itself. Many years on this Earth had granted the lute a true soul.

The man fell to his knees and bowed deeply in front of the ancient instrument, raising his lithe musician hands in adoration:

– I should I know that such a breathtaking tune could not have been human-made! Oh Genjo, the emperor misses you very much. I beseech you, please return to the palace!

The biwa did not move, only letting a short, sad chord. Hiromasa understood as surely as if notes had been words:

– You are sad to be all by yourself all day in the palace, where nobody hears your voice isn’t? You know, maybe I could talk to the emperor, explain to him why you ran away?

A colorful melody sprang.

Hiromasa approach a trembling hand. As soon as he touched it, the ethereal being vanished. And in his arms, the noble man now cradled but an beautiful lute.

When he returned to the palace, Hiromasa was welcomed as a hero. The emperor was so pleased that his biwa had been handed back to him he appointed the young man musician of the court. And the Genjo never disappeared in the night ever again.


Biwa are Japanese musical instruments inspired by the Chinese pipa. Favourite instrument of goddess Benten, they were (and still are) very expensive and so mainly played only by rich people and royalty. The Genjo is a famous biwa which was owned by the Emperor and many stories surround it: it was for example said to have escaped on his own from a blazing fire unscathed!

Like many old objects, very ancient music instruments can develop souls, becoming alive beings called tsukumogami. Youkai biwa have their own subdivision and are named biwa bokuboku. Not truly malicious creatures, they mainly sing very sad songs at night, longing for their owners to return.

The Rashomon gate was one a the main entrances to old Kyoto, made in noh play, short story and movie. Situated at the south end of Suzaku avenue, it was a dreadful area, proned to floods, and a knowed bandits and thieves lair. No wonder people even thought demons lived there, like the great Ibaraki Doji!

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]


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