Jigoku, A Japanese Buddhist Concept of The Underworld

Beliefs sometimes manifest into ideologies or religions which have the power of convincing millions of people to subscribe to it. Among the many famous religions are Judaism, Islam Christianity, Hinduism, Shintoism, and Buddhism.

Where a soul goes after they die has been tackled by these faiths. Some sectors of these religions believe that there are three possible places one goes after one dies; heaven or paradise, purgatory or limbo, and hell, or inferno, and/or reincarnation. Other sectors believe in the existence of a mix and match of these places; like the existence of only heaven, or the exclusion of purgatory, etcetera. 

Tackling the Ideas of Hell

If you were to zoom in on the concept of hell between these four creeds, you may notice that many factors are alike when it comes to their major concepts, though they still do have noticeable differences. Western religions (Judaism and its influenced religions; Islam, and Christianity) believe in a more linear fashion of experiencing life, while eastern religions (Hinduism and its influenced religions; Shintoism and Buddhism) experience life in a cyclical sense.

This simply means that in western religions, once you are damned to hell, you are damned to hell for good, and experience it for all eternity. As for eastern religions, hell does hold intense suffering on many levels, told in vivid detail – but this suffering is not forever. Take Buddhist hell, for instance – particularly the sect is practiced mostly in Japan. Their version of hell is called “Jigoku”, which is the topic this article will explore.

What is the Meaning of the Japanese Word “Jigoku”?

Jigoku, written as “地獄” in kanji, is the specifically Japanese Buddhist word for the hell that has roots to both afterlife beliefs of Chinese mythology (their hell is called “地狱” or “Diyu”) and “Naraka”, which is the traditional Indian Buddhist term for hell. 

While Jigoku is most often associated with hell, others would argue that Jigoku also is much like the Christian concept of purgatory, because of the being’s transience through its hellish experience. 

Even though Jigoku is popularly understood to have the same meaning as “Naraka”, it still holds varied characteristics compared to the traditional Hindi or other Buddhist perceptions of Naraka. Indeed, even within and between sects of Buddhism, Naraka's descriptions can be inconsistent. 

The History of The Concept of Jigoku

The concept of Jigoku was birthed from an interplay of different cultures and religions, specifically Buddhism and Chinese mythology – though it does exclude Shintoism’s outtake on hell, which is Yomi. Diyu, which is the concept of hell in Chinese mythology and is the main origin of Jigoku, also descended from Naraka. 

Historically, Naraka is first introduced by Buddha, mentioned in the Majjhima Nikaya’s (a collection of discourses) 130th discourse. Buddha talks about the different realms of rebirth, which have sub categories within each realm. The lowest realm is called Naraka. He continues to explain that even within Naraka are more subdivisions, which “avici”, (endless suffering) is known as the lowest of the lows. This attribute of hell exists in Jigoku as well, albeit they are given Japanese names.

Salvation in Its Cyclical Nature

There is hope, even for beings trapped in the deepest trenches of hell. Even though it takes ages for a being to dwell there, they will eventually emerge and slowly climb their way out of this realm, moving back to the more bearable realms of samsara, or “Rinne” in Japanese. A being who has experienced hell still has hope to attain good karma by doing good deeds, but mostly by letting go of their attachments, ignorance, and aversions to arrive at “nehan” or “Nibbana”, the Japanese form of nirvana. 

You can find the different depictions of Jigoku in a collection of “hell scrolls” written in the 12the century called “Jigoku-zoshi”. These scrolls are located at the Nara National Museum and the Tokyo National Museum.

An Inside Look at Jigoku, The Japanese Buddhist Idea of Hell

There are computations of how long a being is dictated to stay in that level of Jigoku, depending on which level of Jigoku it is. Some hells make its imprisoned beings stay for 1.6 trillion human years, while deeper hells ask for a quadrillion or so human years. The last and worst part of hell is so intense and unbearable that the amount of time a being spends here agonizing is not even fathomable by math. 

The realm of Jigoku holds many different levels and places, each with its own name and description. There is no definitive amount to these hells, as sources say different things. Some insist that there are only 8 of them, while others indicate it having 64,000 of them. 

The Different Levels of Jigoku

What is popularly understood is that there are sixteen basic categories of hell that are further divided into more subcategories – eight of them being “cold hells”, and the other eight being “hot hells”. The hot hells are what are known for being the most excruciating, thus seizing the title of “eight great hells”, and give the basic idea of what Jigoku is like.

The Reviving Hell, or “Tokatsu Jigoku”

The first hell among the eight is the Tokatsu Jigoku. Those who have killed or repetitively picked fights back on earth, and are not sorry for what they did, end up in this plane. Those in this plain have fists clad with iron claws and have a go at each other until one dies from the attacks. The being is resurrected again and must go through the agony of being ripped apart, as well as being terrorized/beaten up by the devils or “oni” that reside here as well. This is very much like the traditional Buddhist rendition of this hell, which is called “Samjiva”, where one is repeatedly attacked, just as he/she had done so in his/her life.

The Hell of Black Rope, or “Kokujou Jigoku”

The word “ropes” in this label can be interchanged with “threads”. Beings who end up here usually committed acts of thievery and murder. The ropes here are used by uni to mark the areas they will then saw to slice the beings into different pieces. Another punishment for these beings to walk on a tightrope, carrying heaps of scorching iron, eventually slipping and falling into a pan of boiling oil. In traditional Buddhist lingo, this is referred to as “Kalasutra”. 

The Crushing Hell, or “Shugou Jigoku”

Those who belong here are beings who have committed a variety of three sins: murder, lewdness, and thievery. This level of hell contains scenery of trees and mountains – though, the leaves on the trees are as sharp as razors. Beings here are called by beautiful men and women who sit atop trees, tempting them to come over to enjoy a lewd act. As they climb the trees, the leaves slice them.

Once they reach the very top, however, they find that those beautiful people are suddenly at the bottom of the tree. As the beings move down, the leaves slice them again, with their falling limbs and flesh consumed by demons. Iron mountains come together to crush their bodies, and the process is repeated until the being finishes its due time. Traditional Buddhism calls this “Samghata”. 

The Screaming Hell, or “Kyoukan Jigoku”

Combine all the previous sins and add alcoholism to that, and you’ve got a criterion for belonging in this hell. The onis here oversee roasting and boiling sinners, as well as bucketing molten iron into past drunkard’s mouths. It’s called “screaming hell” because the fire is so hot that the beings’ anguished cries are louder than other hells, with the oni yielding more suffering to those who cry loudly. This is called “Raurava” in traditional Buddhism.

The Hell of Great Screaming, or "Dai-kyoukan Jigoku”

If in your past life, you killed someone, stole, acted lewdly, lied, drank often and was extremely hedonistic, then you’re sent straight here after death. Multiply the suffering endured in the last hell by ten, and you can imagine the pain felt by the beings here. This hell takes on mutilation of the tongue, where nails are rammed into the muscle, as it is yanked and ripped out of the being’s mouth. While all the hells previous to this took trillions of years to finish a sentence of, this is the first hell to take 6.8 quadrillion years to complete.

This is supposed to match the traditional Buddhism’s hell of “Maharaurava”, however, the differences of what happens in hell (Maharaurava contains torture by being eaten by animals) are too far apart to draw likenesses.

By Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Burning Hell, or “Jounetsu Jigoku”

The next hell is reserved for those who have committed all the aforementioned sins, especially including those who purposely rebelled in thought and action towards what Buddhism taught. Here, sinners’ bodies are impaled with spears (from their mouths and through their buttocks), trodden by scorching wads of iron, and grilled by a scorching, endless fiery ocean. “Tapana” is what traditional Buddhists call this.

The Great Burning Hell, or “Dai-Jounetsu Jigoku”

The hell right before the last is reserved for someone who’s committed all the atrocities mentioned, with the final addition of having physically violated any member of the Buddhist clergy. If you had murdered a Buddhist monk, for instance, this would merit you a trip to this part of hell. The pain is, again, absolutely excruciating, and ten times worth the sum of all the hells. Here, one is pierced with tridents instead of spears, and just when you think the heat doesn’t get any hotter, it does. “Tapana” is the traditional Buddhist version of this.

The Hell of Unending Suffering, or “Mugen Jigoku”

For the absolute worst cases of deviant beings is the 8th and last part of Jigoku. With torture so indescribable and ultimately unbearable, beings here try to annihilate themselves to cease the torment. A son or daughter who was to kill his father or mother is an example of someone who would end up here. This part of hell is so horrific, that if a human being were to be able to grasp the concept of how horrific it is, that human being would die. This pit is so deep in hell, that it’s supposed to take 2,000 years of uninterrupted free-falling, followed by a literally innumerable amount of years dwelling here.

Lesser Hells

Among the “lesser hells” that are mentioned (and even illustrated) in the Nara scroll. Some examples of these include “Foxes and Wolves”, “Excrement”, “Searing Thirst”, and “Freezing Ice”. The names are self-explanatory, as you would have to come face-to-face with experiencing the unpleasantries that come with being torn alive by hounds, drenched in human feces, freezing to death, or not being able to quench your thirst – if you did not live a morally upright life according to Buddhist teachings, that is.  

What Would You Have to Do to End up In Jigoku?

Attachments, ignorance, and aversions are usually the root cause of all the sins committed by beings, which is why they are referred to as “poisons”. You may have noticed that the kind of hell you end up falling into is both qualitative and quantitative. The more variety of sins you commit and the less you repent for those sins, the deeper into the realm of Jigoku you go. 

A being is given many chances to redeem itself before entering Jigoku. Just as they are allowed if they end up in “meido”, which is something akin to purgatory. Their suffering is eased when they are appealed for mercy by their living family, made 100 days after the being dies.

Japanese Movie Titles Using the Word “Jigoku”

It’s rare to see the word “Jigoku” used often, as it describes somewhat an abstract idea. So, you see it as names of movies, manga, or tv shows, usually those in the horror or supernatural genre. There’s one notable cult film, simply named “Jigoku”, which was released on July 30, 1960, which is otherwise called “The Sinners of Hell”. Nobuo Nakagawa directed it. The movie was remade several times, having names such as “Jigoku: Portrait of Hell”, with the latest one being called “Jigoku: Japanese Hell”, released in the year 1999, made by Teruo Ishii.

Jigoku; The Name of a Place with Hot Springs in Beppu, Oita

If you want to visit a place that is literally called hell, then Jigoku in Beppu is the place for you. Here, there are seven hot springs that you may look at, which somewhat mimic the different stages of hell. The 7th one, of Chinoike Jigoku or “blood pond”, is famous for turning a blood red color. You may at any day, from 8 to 5 P.M., for a 3-hour tour at most, costing you 2000 yen to view all the hells, per person. Come this July for a great summer adventure.