Tokyobling's Blog

Masakadozuka – The Ghost of the Samurai

Posted in Places by tokyobling on May 21, 2015

I should have perhaps saved this story for Halloween but here goes. Nestled among the tall business towers and government agencies in central Tokyo is a tiny little cemetery holding only one single grave: the tomb of the head of Taira no Masakado (903 A.D -940 A.D.), often regarded as the first samurai in Japan. In life, and as it would turn out – also in death, he was an exceedingly troublesome fellow. Not happy with being the mere subject of the Emperor in Kyoto, emperor Suzaku (朱雀天皇, 922 A.D. – 952 A.D.), he moved to eastern Japan (the modern Kanto region) and declared himself the New Emperor of Japan! Such insolence could not be tolerated and a bounty was placed on the head of the upstart samurai. Vengence came in the form of the young Taira no Sadamori, a distant clan relative of Masakado, whose father had been killed by Masakado in a battle five years earlier. Sadamori engaged with the rebel forces in modern Saitama Prefecture and managed to put an arrow in the face of Masakado, killing him instantly. Proof of the killing came in the form of the decapitated head of Maskado being put on public display in distant Kyoto. However, such powerful men as Masakado do not die easily, and the head, now furious over such an ignoble fate, flew into the skies of Kyoto and raced off to Kanto find its body. His body having long since been disposed off in fire, was nowhere to be found and the exhausted head, according to legend, fell to the earth and crashed on a small mound in the village of Shibasaki, what is today modern Chiyoda ward of central Tokyo. The local villagers cleaned the head up and buried it with full rituals and put a heavy tomb stone over it to prevent it from flying off again.

However, the local villagers complained of a ghost terrorizing them for centuries, and in 1307 a buddhist monk tried to appease the angry spirit with lavish buddhist ceremonies, which seems to have been somewhat successful. He even built a stupa on the tomb, with the finest stone from Chichibu near where Masakado fell in battle.

Almost a thousand years after Maskado was decapitated, the grave and the tombstone and the legend still going strong, Tokyo is rocked by a massive earthquake in 1923. The government who has long had its eyes on the tomb took the opportunity to remove the tombstone, level the tomb and fill in the little pond where the villagers had cleaned the head up all those years ago. This would soon prove to be a terrible idea. Between 1923 and 1926 The Ministry of Finance conducted archeological research in the spot and reportedly found a stone chamber belonging to the tomb. In 1926 they held a ceremony where the sprit of Masakado was symbolically transferred to the the grand Kanda Myojin near Akihabara.

Thinking all was good, the Minister of Finance, the newly appointed Hayami Seiji ordered the erection of a new office building on the spot, but within days he hospitalized by a strange illness and died after spending three months in hospital, only 57 years old. He would not be the first victim of the curse: within a couple of years fourteen other people, from office workers to provicinial officials would die in mysterious accidents. Although he did not die on his post, it is interesting to note that Hayami Seiji’s successor Takahashi Korekiyo was killed by assassins in a failed military coup a few years later. The many deaths led the Ministry of Finance to tear the building down and rebuild the tomb complete with hill and pond. They even tried to reverse the failed ceremony and apologized for having disturbed the spirit of Masakado.

This did not work out. In June 21st, 1940, the one thousand year anniversary of the death of Masakado, the building next to the tomb, the Ministry of Finance, was struck by lightning and half destroyed. The Ministry responded by holding a much larger ceremony and attempting to appease the spirit with a much larger and nicer tomb than it had had before. The accidents stopped, but in 1945 when the whole area was taken over by the US Military Head Quarters there was a decision to turn the tomb into a parking lot for the American forces. The work had hardly started when one of the bulldozers rolled over in a freak accident, killing its driver. Local officials asked the US Military to halt the construction project and they wisely agreed to restore the tomb.

Since then many people and corporations have attempted to buy the lot containing the tomb but as soon as negotiations would start bad things would occur to all the companies involved. Even the neighboring buildings bear the marks of the curse, as some buildings were designed so that the people working in them would spend as little time as possible looking down upon the tomb from above, not risking to anger the spirit. People working in other buildings nearby have reported that their desks are arranged so that no one will be turning their back on the tomb when sitting down to work, putting a cramp on the office layouts even to this day. There are even television celebrities who have suffered after behaving indecently near the grave.

Now this is the official version of events. The other side of the story, is that Masakado no Taira, far from being a mere rebel, was actually fighting for the well being of the people of Eastern Japan and that he felt the government in Kyoto did little to alleviate the plight of the poor people in Kanto who had suffered famine and crop failure due to flood and draughts several years in a row. As such, he is regarded by some as a true hero of the people, and the noblest and first of all true samurai. I am not sure which is correct, but the legend is fascinating!

I visited the tomb myself one cold winter day and asked the spirit to be kind to the people working in the area, as they surely had enough to worry about right now. As you can see from my photos of the neighboring buildings, it is massively developed area right in the heart of Tokyo. Now, you may wonder why all of a sudden this story is being retold, but you see, in 2020 someone has decided that Tokyo will host the Olympics and there are quite enough people willing to risk the wrath of Masakado no Tairo, and raze his tomb once again. Here’s hoping that they never even try!

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17 Responses

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  1. rudyhou said, on May 21, 2015 at 9:56 am

    what an interesting legend. if that was true, i sincerely hope no more constructions to be done around the tomb area. i wonder if there was ever a movie made based on the legendary masakado.

    Like

    • tokyobling said, on May 22, 2015 at 3:42 am

      I think there has been a few, always with various trouble and accidents!

      Like

  2. amadl said, on May 21, 2015 at 10:14 am

    This appeared on my reader with the Last photo as the featured image. Very fitting with the story!

    Like

  3. libraryguy said, on May 21, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Great article, thanks for sharing

    Like

  4. Jonelle Patrick said, on May 21, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Wow, that is some expert-level legend hunting! I never would have guessed there were such great stories behind such a modest monument…^^;;

    Like

    • tokyobling said, on May 22, 2015 at 3:44 am

      Thank you! There are lots of accounts on this, even Wikipedia has parts of the story. Then it just becomes a task of getting the most interesting parts right while adding details as proof and not managing to bore the reader. I think I failed on that last part! (^-^;)

      Like

  5. valentina smoothie said, on May 21, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    really cool story behind this tomb. Great post!

    Like

  6. Buri-chan said, on May 22, 2015 at 12:45 am

    Very interesting story! I hope there won’t be any more to add on to the story any time soon…

    Like

  7. christiellen said, on May 23, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. Very fascinating man and history.

    Like

  8. Nurul Atiqah Bint Hasnan said, on May 27, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Enjoyed reading this! I’ve always liked Japanese legends and this is fascinating.

    Like

  9. Jonelle Patrick said, on June 30, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    I was just browsing RocketNews and saw that someone did a bare paraphrase of this blog post and put it up under their own byline! (http://en.rocketnews24.com/2015/06/30/japan-is-full-of-ghosts-visiting-the-grave-of-taira-no-masakados-head/) Grr! Hate that! I called them on it in the comments and posted a link to your post.

    Like

    • tokyobling said, on June 30, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      Oh! Thank you! Well, that happens a lot (not RocketNews in particular!) with this kind of sites. I am not too concerned, I too got my information from many different Japanese sites and books. At least they got their own photos. (^-^;) Sometimes some sites just lift everything.

      Like


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