Even in the West we imagine that objects particularly beloved by a person prior to their death might somehow wield a supernatural quality -- as if the intensity of the departed soul's affection for the object becomes a part of the object itself. Stories to this effect abound in traditional Japanese folk tales.
The following tale is of a sorrowful young woman's most beloved possession, an ornamented purple robe like the one her only true yet fleeting love had worn. By confessing and dedicating to the Buddha her unrequited love for the young man, not even the power of priests and temples would be able to protect themselves from the robe's strange power upon her passing.
The following text is from Lafcadio Hearn's 1898 In Ghostly Japan
Recently, while passing through a little street tenanted chiefly by dealers in old wares, I noticed a furisode, or long-sleeved robe, of the rich purple tint called murasaki, hanging before one of the shops. It was a robe such as might have been worn by a lady of rank in the time of the Tokugawa. I stopped to look at the five crests upon it; and in the same moment there came to my recollection this legend of a similar robe said to have once caused the destruction of Yedo.
Nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, the daughter of a rich merchant of the city of the Shoguns, while attending some temple- festival, perceived in the crowd a young samurai of remarkable beauty, and immediately fell in love with him. Unhappily for her, he disappeared in the press before she could learn through her attendants who he was or whence he had come. But his image remained vivid in her memory,--even to the least detail of his costume. The holiday attire then worn by samurai youths was scarcely less brilliant than that of young girls; and the upper dress of this handsome stranger had seemed wonderfully beautiful to the enamoured maiden. She fancied that by wearing a robe of like quality and color, bearing the same crest, she might be able to attract his notice on some future occasion.
Accordingly she had such a robe made, with very long sleeves, according to the fashion of the period; and she prized it greatly. She wore it whenever she went out; and when at home she would suspend it in her room, and try to imagine the form of her unknown beloved within it. Sometimes she would pass hours before it,--dreaming and weeping by turns. And she would pray to the gods and the Buddhas that she might win the young man's affection,--often repeating the invocation of the Nichiren sect: Namu myo ho renge kyo!
But she never saw the youth again; and she pined with longing for him, and sickened, and died, and was buried. After her burial, the long-sleeved robe that she had so much prized was given to the Buddhist temple of which her family were parishioners. It is an old custom to thus dispose of the garments of the dead.
The priest was able to sell the robe at a good price; for it was a costly silk, and bore no trace of the tears that had fallen upon it. It was bought by a girl of about the same age as the dead lady. She wore it only one day. Then she fell sick, and began to act strangely,--crying out that she was haunted by the vision of a beautiful young man, and that for love of him she was going to die. And within a little while she died; and the long- sleeved robe was a second time presented to the temple.
Again the priest sold it; and again it became the property of a young girl, who wore it only once. Then she also sickened, and talked of a beautiful shadow, and died, and was buried. And the robe was given a third time to the temple; and the priest wondered and doubted.
Nevertheless he ventured to sell the luckless garment once more. Once more it was purchased by a girl and once more worn; and the wearer pined and died. And the robe was given a fourth time to the temple.
Then the priest felt sure that there was some evil influence at work; and he told his acolytes to make a fire in the temple- court, and to burn the robe.
So they made a fire, into which the robe was thrown. But as the silk began to burn, there suddenly appeared upon it dazzling characters of flame,--the characters of the invocation, Namu myo ho reng e kyo; --and these, one by one, leaped like great sparks to the temple roof; and the temple took fire.
Embers from the burning temple presently dropped upon neighbouring roofs; and the whole street was soon ablaze. Then a sea-wind, rising, blew destruction into further streets; and the conflagration spread from street to street, and from district into district, till nearly the whole of the city was consumed. And this calamity, which occurred upon the eighteenth day of the first month of the first year of Meireki (1655), is still remembered in Tokyo as the Furisode-Kwaji,--the Great Fire of the Long-sleeved Robe.
According to a story-book called Kibun-Daijin, the name of the girl who caused the robe to be made was O-Same; and she was the daughter of Hikoyemon, a wine-merchant of Hyakusho-machi, in the district of Azabu. Because of her beauty she was also called Azabu-Komachi, or the Komachi of Azabu.1 The same book says that the temple of the tradition was a Nichiren temple called Hon-myoji, in the district of Hongo; and that the crest upon the robe was a kikyo-flower. But there are many different versions of the story; and I distrust the Kibun-Daijin because it asserts that the beautiful samurai was not really a man, but a transformed dragon, or water-serpent, that used to inhabit the lake at Uyeno,--Shinobazu-no-Ike.
1 After more than a thousand years, the name of Komachi, or Ono-no- Komachi, is still celebrated in Japan. She was the most beautiful woman of her time, and so great a poet that she could move heaven by her verses, and cause rain to fall in time of drought. Many men loved her in vain; and many are said to have died for love of her. But misfortunes visited her when her youth had passed; and, after having been reduced to the uttermost want, she became a beggar, and died at last upon the public highway, near Kyoto. As it was thought shameful to bury her in the foul rags found upon her, some poor person gave a wornout summer-robe (katabira) to wrap her body in; and she was interred near Arashiyama at a spot still pointed out to travellers as the "Place of the Katabira" (Katabira-no-Tsuchi).