Pan-Asian Hell

People like Hell. Most religions seem to have one, and depicting it is a classic way of instructing the masses about the wages of sin. Reproducing these images is popular with modern folk for different reasons. My students seem to find it easy to identify with pictures of victims suffering horrible torment at the hands of demonic creatures.

One book I have been looking at recently is Hell in Japanese Art by Ryouji Kajitani This is a really good book if you like Japanese Hell. They reproduce a bunch of Japanese paintings and scrolls of Hell and judgement. As a book to pull images from it is mixed. They have good, high-quality reproductions, provide provenance (or at least dates) and reproduce and translate the texts. They don’t really explain the evolution of these images, and the binding sometimes gets in the way if you want to scan something for use in class.

Still, there is lots of good stuff here. Lots of torment

One of the things I noticed right off is that a lot of this looks like Chinese Hell. They have torment there too. (Pictures from a temple in Xian)

Like Chinese Hell, there is a bit of a salvation narrative. We see in Japan the mirror that reflects your past lives1

And the power of the Buddha to save you.

Chinese Hell seems more likely to have pictures that tell you the story of Hell. Here is Mother Meng serving up the Broth of Oblivion that will let you forget your past life as you move on to the next, and souls getting new bodies.

You may note that I seem to be interested in comparisons to China. Part of that is that I mostly talk about Hell in my Rice Paddies class2 and I would really like to be able to talk about Hell in a comparative way. The Japanese are clearly borrowing things from China. Here are some Japanese Hell judges

Note how Chinese they look. Well, not that they look like Chinese people, but that they are dressed like Chinese judges in Hell, like this guy

There are some specifically Japanese elements. Japanese hungry ghosts eat hot coals, and while I think that happened in China too, I have not seen Chinese pictures of it.


There seems to be a Japanese genre of pictures of a beautiful dead woman who’s body decays in a series of pictures. This is a Buddhist theme, (life is only a temporary illusion, after all), but I am not aware of examples of it in China.

The Japan pictures also seem to modernize better. Here are some Tokugawa period demons tormenting people using various bits of food processing technology. Too bad I don’t teach a class on Tokugawa food.


Both places of course show pictures of punishments for sexual appetite by women.

Obviously what I need is a good article on the comparative evolution of ideas about Hell in China and Japan. Maybe Korea too.  I am not aware of anything that really explains all these comparisons. If you know of such an article, post it in comments.  If you plan on writing that article, this book will help.

  1. which I have never seen in a Chinese temple, although I have not been to many  

  2. History of East Asia  

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