Exploring Japanese Hell.

“God of Heavenly Punishment.” From the scroll “Extermination of Evil” ( 1127 – 1192 AD).

As a child, growing up in Japan, there was one book that terrified me. Luckily, I didn’t own it. The red hardback sat on the bottom shelf in my friend’s room and every time I went over to play I could see it, out of the corner of my eye, staring me in the face. Once we pulled it out and flipped through the pages; each featured a grotesquely illustrated realm of hell with scenes of fire, torture, and suffering. It was, I assure you, a children’s book. But it was made for parents to use as leverage whenever their child acted up, or misbehaved. And boy was it effective.

These concepts of hell (jigoku; 地獄 in Japanese) are derived from ancient Buddhist scriptures, and I’m ceaselessly amazed by the imagination of the monks and artists who came up with so many different forms of punishment. The range from the fairly standard – being eaten alive by demons and dragons, or being torn apart at the crotch – to the more inventive – being forced to hold large stalks of daikon radish in your mouth and being used as a drumstick. Then, there’s my favorite: being flattened out by a roller and then cut up into soba noodles.

Now, a new art book that’s being released in October has collected a wide range of images that depict hell in Japanese art from the 12th century to the 19th century. The massive single-volume collection consists of almost 600 pages of works designated as Japanese National Treasures and features the various depictions of hell by artists such as Kazunobu Kanō,Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and the master of horror Kyōsai Kawanabe.

It’s currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Essays from historians of both Japanese art and Buddhism are also included in bilingual text. If you have kids you may (or may not) want to leave this book sitting around.

You can read, and see much more of the always gruesome hell at Spoon & Tamago.


  1. rq says

    It’s funny, I’m not a fan of horror movies or shows as such (I hate zombies, for what it’s worth -- though I do enjoy a good psychological thriller, even if zombies may be involved somehow), but I love dark and violent art like this (music included). Not sure how that works, but this book seriously piques all my interest.

  2. says

    I’d like to have this one, too. I have The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which contains a lot of hell-based art, but is primarily focused on a complete history of all the various hells. It’s excellent.

  3. says

    Oh, and the first image, I’m fascinated with the way the flames are depicted, a kind of blend of antlers and leaves. And I love the detail of the second one, I’d dearly like a much larger version of that. All the expressions!

  4. rq says

    Oh yes, that fire is a living entity all its own -- as it often seems in real life, too. Something that grows and holds a power deeper and stronger than anything humans can come up with to limit it. I’m fascinated by the second one, too, because I’m unclear as to what the specific punishment is -- fire in the mouth, clearly (which seems to be a recurring theme), but is it a specific punishment for a specific sin? A time period thing? Mythological basis of some kind? So much more interesting than the standard wailing and gnashing of teeth.

  5. says

    There are Greek roots there, somewhere. There’s a river of fire in Hades. Of course, this isn’t an uncommon theme, a river of fire, so as not to be able to quench your thirst. I was also reminded of one of the psychopathic stories in the bible, where so and so has to slaughter hundreds of leftover soldiers or something, and can’t figure out which ones to kill. The solution? Send them to the river to get a drink, and those that drank by scooping water with their hand were spared; those that drank directly from the river were killed. In the image, the person scooping the water looks to be grinning, the one with their face in the river, not so much.

  6. says

    I’m also curious about the tree and foliage in that image. “Hey, all you get to eat and drink is fire, but you’ve got nice digs!”

  7. rq says

    Yes, I’m familiar with the river of fire -- but the article also has this image, where the people seem to be exhaling fire… though the more I look at it, I’m not sure if it’s fire from their mouths, or bits and pieces of their faces in general. Either way, I’d love to see the whole book to see if this is a theme of some kind.
    And it is a very nice tree -- I wonder what’s in the upper half of the picture, though, where everyone seems to be reaching upwards for something… poison fruit? As nice as the digs are, there doesn’t seem to be much healthy food to eat. :)

  8. says

    Yeah, what’s happening out of the frame has me so curious -- I wonder if it’s a kind of Tantalus thing going on where we can’t see.

    The image you linked I’m also fascinated with. I’d like to know more about the horse demon/god. Those people, it looks almost like a depiction of a trance, how their arms and hands are held, and the fire, or whatever it is, seems eye-based. Yeah, I’m going to have to get the book, I need the attached text!

  9. gobi's sockpuppet's meatpuppet says

    The real Japanese hell is Shinjuku train station at rush hour… :)
    For an interesting take on hell of the Christian mythos, have a look at Barlowe’s Inferno.

  10. DonDueed says

    Caine, the bible story you’re thinking of isn’t quite as bad as you remember.

    Unless I’m mistaken, it’s the story of Gideon’s army of 300. The Lard tells general Gideon to reduce the size of his army, and the method of sorting is according to whether the soldier kneels down and drinks from the stream, or scoops up a handful and sips (while presumably keeping his weapon in hand).

    Nobody got killed… at least, until the whittled-down army (now all hard-core fighters) went on to do some serious slaying of Midianites.

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