Sengoku Hauntings: Hitobashira

Monument to the victims of hitobashira at the Jomon Tunnel

On May 16, 1968, the Tokachi Earthquake hit northern Japan, registering as an 8.3 magnitude on the Richter scale. It caused a significant amount of damage and triggered a tsunami. One of the structures that was damaged by the earthquake was the Jomon Tunnel, which is part of the JR Hokkaido Line. Reconstruction began again in 1970 but a gruesome discovery was made: over 100 skeletons were found near the entrance and in the woods nearby. They were the bodies of the original workers who helped construct the tunnel. This began confirming the rumors that hitobashira were being used during the tunnel’s construction.(1) Hitobashira, meaning human pillar, is a practice that involves burying people alive to appease the spirits that have caused problems during construction of places like tunnels, bridges and castles. Hitobashira has been around for centuries, and has had some ties to the Sengoku Jidai. In this article, we will be looking into hitobashira and the cases of it that are linked to the Sengoku Jidai.

What is Hitobashira?

In order to talk about the places, we need to talk about hitobashira first. It is a type of human sacrifice that has been in practice in Japan for thousands of years with the first record of hitobashira dating back to 323 A.D.(2) The name translates to human pillar and it is as gruesome as you may think. Hitobashira usually came into play with places that have either had difficultly with construction or they are wanting the gods’ blessings to protect them from things like wars, fires and other disasters. Sometimes, a person could volunteer to be the sacrifice, while others did not have a choice in the matter, as we will see in the following examples. Once they were selected for this task, the victims were buried alive within the structure that was being built, hence the name, human pillar.

There are at least three places that are said to be constructed with the help of hitobashira that can be traced back to the Sengoku Jidai, two of which are in the same city.

Maruoka Castle

Maruoka Castle

Maruoka Castle is one out of twelve castle’s in Japan that still have their original keep and is one of the few castles that is still standing in Japan from the Sengoku Jidai.(3) It is also one of Japan’s top one hundred places to view the cherry blossoms in the spring.(4) Legend has it though that Maruoka Castle was built with a hitobashira.

Construction began on the castle in 1576 by Shibata Katsutoyo, who was the nephew of the famous “Devil Shibata”, Shibata Katsuie.(5) Problems arose during construction: walls kept collapsing no matter how many times it was rebuilt by the workers. It was then decided that a human pillar was needed for the castle’s construction. The unfortunate victim was a poor, one-eyed woman named Oshizu. She volunteered to be a hitobashira under one condition: she wanted her son to become a samurai. They promised her that it would happen and she faced her fate willingly. Surprisingly, construction went smoothly after she was sacrificed and the castle was completed not long after. Unfortunately, Katsutoyo was transferred to another province and Oshizu’s wish went unfulfilled. After that, it was said that every spring, the rain would make the castle’s moat overflow, which the locals began calling the “tears of Oshizu’s sorrow”.(6) After a time, the locals constructed a small tomb to help soothe Oshizu’s spirit.(7)

Some have pointed out that the castle walls were collapsing because of the castle’s design and not because of the gods keeping them from completing the castle. The stone piling for the base has been suggested as the problematic part of the castle’s construction, which were unstable. Had a different design for the castle been used, it is speculated that a hitobashira would not have been needed, yet because the walls keep collapsing on the workers, they believed that a hitobashira was needed and Oshizu’s sacrifice did help keep the castle up, for it still stands to this day.(8) Perhaps there is something to this… 

Matsue Castle

Matsue Castle

As I stated in the beginning of this article, there are two cases of hitobashira that are in one city alone, and they are also not that far apart from one another either. Both of these stories come to us from Lafcadio Hearn’s book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, hence why these two tend to be a bit more famous. There is not a lot of information on the case from Matsue Castle, so we will start there and save the best for last.

Matsue Castle was built in 1607 by Horio Yoshiharu, the lord over the city of Matsue.(9) It is unclear as to why, but a hitobashira was needed to complete the castle. I have not been able to find if a hitobashira was used for construction problems or if it was for good fortune. Even the name of the young woman who became the hitobashira for Matsue Castle was never recorded. All that is known is that she was apparently a beautiful maiden who loved to dance. In fact, a law was passed stating that girls could no longer dance in the streets of the city because the hill on which the castle sat on would shake, many believing that it is the young maiden’s spirit who is dancing in her grave.(10)

Matsue Ohashi Bridge

Matsue Ohashi Bridge and Memorial

Not too far away from our last spot is the Matsue Ohashi Bridge. Though it has been rebuilt many times over the centuries, its original construction involved hitobashira. Under the same lord who ordered the construction of Matsue Castle, Horio Yoshiharu, the construction of the bridge began over the mouth of the Ohashigawa (Ohashi River). Due to its location, construction was difficult because of the currents. The foundations kept being swept away by the river, especially in the very center. They believed it was the river gods taunting them as they tried to build the bridge, so the construction workers began searching for a hitobashira.(11) The question was though, who to pick?

The construction workers went with a very weird criteria for their hitobashira: the next person who came along who did not have a pleat in his hakama would be their sacrifice. The unfortunate soul who happened to cross their path was a man by the name of Gensuke.(12) They grabbed him and proceeded to sink him to the bottom of the river bed, burying him alive under the water and stone. Much like what happened at Maruoka Castle, the construction problems disappeared and the bridge went up without any other problems.(13) The hitobashira worked so well that when it had to be rebuilt sometime in the 1890s, townsfolk stayed far away from the bridge, fearing that they would need another sacrifice.(14)

Since Gensuke’s sacrifice, it has become a bit of a haunted spot in Japan. There have been reports of a glow from the center most pillar where Gensuke was buried under the water and stones.(15) While it has been harmless, there has been one death that has been attributed to the spirit of the bridge. When the bridge was being rebuilt to its current form in 1936, a worker named Kiyoshi Fukada was killed by a heavy metal bucket that fell off the side of the bridge and hit him on the head. The news reports at the time blamed the spirit for the man’s death, for he happened to have died while working on the pillar that Gensuke was sacrificed at.(16)

Hitobashira was designed to make structures better for the living, so it is best to pay your respects to Gensuke if you ever are in Matsue and cross this bridge. In fact, the city does this every year with the Gensuke Matsuri Festival, which is held in late October. While there are the usual booths set up in Gensuke Park, which is at the foot of the bridge, a procession does cross the bridge to purify the it and appease the souls of those who died while building the bridge.(17)

Hitobashira was an interesting practice done by the Japanese and it seems like this would be a practice that would be too horrific to happen in modern times. Yet, as we have seen from the Jomon Tunnel, it was still in practice even at the beginning of the 20th century. There are not a lot of recorded cases of such practices to begin with, at least when it comes to researching this topic in the United States. Are there more cases out there? Perhaps… To be safe, next time you go anywhere in Japan, say a thank you that whatever building you are in or structure you happen to be standing on, is supporting you, because it maybe came at the price of someone’s life.


  1. “Jomon Tunnel”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  2. “Hitobashira”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  3. “Hitobashira”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  4. “4 Beautiful Castles Home to Terrible Ghosts”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  5. “Hitobashira”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  6. “Hitobashira”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  7. “4 Beautiful Castles Home to Terrible Ghosts”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  8. “Hitobashira”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  9. “Matsue Castle”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  10. Hearn, Lafcadio. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan Vol. 1 (2015), p. 159: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021
  11. Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (2012), p. 132: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021
  12. Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (2012), p. 132: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021
  13. Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (2012), p. 134: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021
  14. “Hitobashira”,, last visited 9/8/2021
  15. Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (2012), p. 134: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021
  16. Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (2012), p. 134: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021
  17. Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (2012), p. 134: Accessed on Scribd 9/8/2021