Excerpts from Supernatural and Mysterious Japan: Spirits, Hauntings, and Paranormal Phenomena by Catrien Ross
Think-aloud points and discussion/research questions by Mrs. Kibbie
- Think about the last time you heard a ghost story. When do people in America typically tell and listen to ghost stories, or watch scary movies? What time of year is it?
As night deepens, a group of people gathers to play a game of daring. One hundred candles are lit and set behind blue paper. By the flickering light, each group member, one after the other, narrates a ghostly tale. As each story is recounted, another candle is extinguished. Bit by bit, the room grows darker and still darker. At last, the final candle is put out. Now there is only silent blackness. Huddled together, the storytellers shiver. It is the moment to await what the darkness might bring…
Like people all over the world, Japanese love ghost stories, and the scarier the better. In creating just the right atmosphere blue is chosen because it is thought to be the color of hito dama, or the spirit as it leaves a newly dead body. Blue lights sometimes hover above graves, or are seen gliding out of houses. Use of the number one hundred, simply signifying numerous, dates back to one of the oldest beliefs about the supernatural in Japan, the hyakki yako, or “night parade of one hundred demons.” Popular since the Heian period, the belief in hyakki yako is based on the premise that night is the time when goblins and ghosts appear, ruling the hours of darkness before disappearing again at dawn. Out of this belief came the basis for the game hyaku monogatari, or “one hundred eerie tales,” with its form of storytelling established by the middle of the seventeenth century.
- What color do the Japanese associate with ghosts? How about in our traditions here? Compare and contrast what you have read so far about Japanese ghost story tradition with your experiences in America. What is the Heian period? When was the seventeenth century?
These days in Japan, telling ghost stories is still popular as a summertime activity. The sweltering month of August is now characterized by crushed ice and haunting tales. This is, after all, the time of Obon, when dead relations are invited home for remembrance and feasting before they are sent back to the spirit world in paper lantern boats or astride miniature steeds fashioned of eggplant.
- Do a quick search for Obon. What did you find? What other holidays do you know of that are similar to Obon? Does it seem similar to Dia de Los Muertos? Can you find some pictures of these paper lantern boats or eggplant horses?
At shrines and local parks everywhere, even in central Tokyo, men, women, and children wearing yukata, or cotton summer kimono, dance to the drumbeat of Obon rhythms around raised platforms lit by lanterns. There have been many accounts of ghostly encounters taking place during these circular dances for the ancestors. It is an ideal season to dwell on the strange and the supernatural.
In Japanese thought, when a person dies, the spirit leaves this life, bound for an eternal world. Before reaching this destination, however, the spirit must spend some time in an in-between plane of existence, a limbo of vague uncertainties. It is while detained in this state that a spirit can become a restless or unhappy ghost set on haunting or otherwise disrupting those with whom it still feels a strong connection. Thus, powerful emotions of hatred, revenge, sorror, or jealousy can create a ghost, drawing a spirit back into this world to wreak its havoc. Such ghosts continue to haunt the earth until someone or something releases them back to limbo to resume their journey to eternity.
- Comment on the second paragraph. How do ghosts form, according to Japanese tradition? How can you avoid being a ghost? Is this similar or different from your understanding of Western ghost stories? What are your thoughts on the concept of limbo?
During Japan’s Edo era many such ghosts were female. Although ghosts and ghost stories had been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, it was in the Edo era that strong interest in the supernatural was revived. This may have been because this long era in Japanese history was one of social upheaval in which creation of class structures imposed severe restrictions on common people. Perhaps the re-emergence of a panoply of supernatural phenomena, including ghosts, demons, and changeling animals reflected the unrest within society. Or perhaps it was simply an age that craved the thrilling and the mysterious. Especially exciting was the idea of a wrathful female ghost returning to exact vengeance for former mistreatment.
- Research the Edo era. What can you find out about it. Why do you think stories of the supernatural, especially stories of vengeful female ghosts, became so popular? What social upheaval is Ross talking about here? What does panoply mean? Have we had a similar reemergence of interest in ghosts in the United States? Research the Spiritualism movement. What social upheavals can be linked to this era of American history?
Edo era artists typically rendered the female ghost as a fragile form with long, flowing hair and beckoning hands. Dressed in pale or white clothing, the body below the waist tapered into nothingness. Japanese people today still imagine ghosts as lacking feet, and having arms that are bent upward at the elbow, with hands hanging pathetically down from the wrists. In tales from this period, the extent of suffering a person experienced while alive directly influenced the actions of the spirit after death: a wronged woman could return as a particularly nasty ghost. A range of ghostly female emotions is showcased in the Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Moonlight and Rain) compiled by the writer Ueda Akinari (1734-1809)
- Research the Ugetsu Monogatari and Ueda Akinari a bit. What did you find?
Nor was the ghostly world populated by only females. Male ghosts, too, had their place, and indeed, were among the most popular characters in kabuki theater, which allowed for superb dramatic effects when a ghost came on the stage. Kabuki convention dictated that the ghost’s face be pale blue, with eyebrows brushed in silver and lips smudged in blue or black. As befitted a wandering spirit, the hair was disheveled, hanging loose around the shoulders. The popular art of ukiyo-e, another Edo era creation, also depicted ghostly beings, with one of the best-known being Utagawa’s print of the ghost of Sakura Sogoro, the hero of the kabuki play, Sakura Giminden (Legend of Sakura, a Man of Justice). Often grisly in their details, kabuki ghost plays like this nonetheless were meant to convey the sense that evil inevitably gets its comeuppance. There was eventual balm for even the most grotesque suffering and bloody violence, and justice would finally prevail.
- Research kabuki theater. When did it start? What are the plays typically about? What are some of the characteristics of kabuki plays? Find some pictures from kabuki theater. See if you can find a picture of a kabuki actor dressed as a ghost. What is ukiyo-e? What does it look like? Who was Utagawa? See if you can find the picture of Sakura Sogoro. What is the story of the Man of Justice?
In addition to ghosts there are yokai or obake (monsters). Yokai stories are found everywhere in Japan, with different regions having their own versions of the same storyline. Yokai do not arise spontaneously, but are shapes reflected in the mirror of the deepest psyche. They thus show all the bad deeds of which human beings are capable of doing. They are the dark side of our nature, manifestations of our worst imaginings and fears. Forever lurking in the deepest recesses of our mins, yokai are always seeking the chance to surface. Extraordinary shapeshifters, they can change their form into anything they want, anytime. The childhood bogeyman, the monster of the dark, the dreadful shape that looms in the corner, all these are ages-old reminders of our murky past and the part of ourselves we would prefer not to face. At the appropriate time and place, yokai appear once more, terrifying in intensity and malevolent will. Alongside a lonely rice field. In the forest at night. Out in the whirling snow.
- Compare Cohen’s ideas to the paragraph above. Similarities? Differences?
In addition to Shutendoji and Tamamo no Mae, major yokai in Japanese folklore include Zegaebo, the Chinese tengu who came to Japan in 966 to frighten Buddhist monks, but failed miserably. There is also Sotoku Joko, born in 1119, the first son of the unlucky Emperor Toba who was victimized by Tamamo. Deeply embittered by his politically blighted life, he died cursing, biting his tongue so that he could write his last hateful oath in blood. After death he fulfilled his vow by becoming the great king of ghosts.
- What is Shutendoji? Research Tamamo no Mae. What did Tamamo do to Emperor Toba? What is the tengu? Why did it come to Japan? Why is it significant that the tengu came from China?
Momiji was a female demon, while Tsukumoshin tells the tale of monsters born out of the resentment of discarded tools. When they reach the age of one hundred years, tools can become spirits, so most people throw out tools long before then. To give themselves a greater chance of survival, a group of disgruntled tools planed to use the celebration of setsubun, the first day of spring on the lunar calendar and a time of renewal, as their chance to enter the heart of creation, or emptiness (mu in Buddhist doctrine). Here, where the eternal flow of yin and yang creates new matter, they believed that they, too, would receive human spirits. They thus became monstrous yokai, killing humans and animals and drinking their blood. Another yokai was Princess Hashi, whose thirst for revenge transformed her into a living demon.
- Research momiji. Research Tsukumoshin. What do you think about inanimate objects having souls? Are there any tools in your house that might be thought to have a soul? What is mu? Research the concept of yin and yang. Why did the tools become yokai after entering mu?
Demons, or oni, of course, are almost always troublemakers in the human world. A female demon, the shikome, is first mentioned in the Kojiki. Today, female demon masks are still common, and many a Japanese household has a mask, representing a jealous, vengeful woman with two horns sprouting from her head. Demon quellers, with their power to devour goblins and their evil ilk, are associated with the festival known as Boy’s Day, held every year on May 5th.
But insight into Japanese ghosts and demons is best gained by looking at the stories themselves. The following selection collected from around Japan and translated anew here offers an intriguing glimpse into regional folk tales and supernatural beliefs.
- See if you can find a picture of a female demon mask from Japan. What are the shikome like? What is the Kojiki? Research Boy’s Day. What other world cultures celebrate on May 5th? Compare the celebrations. Why do you think so many of the angry, dangerous spirits and demons in Japanese folk tales are female? What does this say about the culture?
Shadow Woman — This tale comes from the Tohoku region, which comprises of the six prefectures of Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata
Let’s find these on the map. Why does the name Fukushima sound familiar? What has happened there recently? What is a prefecture?
In the clear Akita moonlight, a woman’s shadow falls in the doorway of a house at the far end of the village. The woman raps at the door, awakening Sakube. Stumbling out of his sleep, he opens the door. An icy wind blows in. Shrouded in the night is the shape of a woman cradling a small bundle, a baby only days old. Instinctively, Sakube draws back. Who are these midnight visitors and why are they here? The woman replies that she is lost and unable to give milk, and needs some rest. Sakube relents and welcomes her in, taking the baby from her arms. Immediately the woman disappears into the cold, night wind. With a scream, Sakube sees that the baby has grown fangs and a black, hairy covering all over its body. In a panic he throws it down, and it, too, disappears into the cold night wind. From that moment on, whenever there is a chill wind at night, the same woman arrives outside Sakube’s house. Driven mad, Sakube abandons his home and nobody sees or hears from him again. The Shadow Woman has been too much for him.
- Discuss this story. What makes it scary? What messages does this story try to convey to us? What does it say about Japanese culture? Does it remind you of any other ghost stories?
Muddy Rice Field — This tale comes from western Japan. In this nation of rice culture, people everywhere believe that when a rice field is left uncared for, a spirit or monster moves in. Or, there might be some supernatural entity keeping people away.
- Research how rice is grown. How is the process of cultivating rice similar or different from growing corn and soybeans, like we do in Iowa?
In Bizen, in Okayama Prefecture, there was a rice field that people said was really the home of a yokai. Out of fear, nobody in the village went near it. It was also said that the water in the rice paddy was bottomless, and certainly many animals had already drowned there. Yet, every year, this field produced an excellent harvest, although nobody was ever seen tending it. One day, a traveling monk from faraway heard the ringing of a temple bell near the field and went to look. At once the yokai loomed out of the paddy and grabbed the monk. As he disappeared into the depths of the rice field, the flowers of the rice changed from white to red.
- Where is Bizen? Where is Okayama Prefecture? Where is the Tohoku area? Iwate?
For much of Japan’s history the more rural parts of the Tohoku area have been very poor. The practice of infanticide, ro baby weeding, was common. Babies who were discarded and left to die are said to have become zashiki warashi, or “parlor children,” destined to haunt houses throughout the region.
Some three hundred years ago in an Iwate village there lived a wealthy man called Masaimon. Everybody liked him because he was also very kind. So it was a great surprise when an itinerant monk arrived at his house one night and murmured that Masaimon would soon be completely ruined. After the monk left, Masaimon began to brood about the traveler’s words. The more he worried, the sicker he became, until, feverish and hallucinating, he came close to death. As he was laying down one night, he could hear the sound of footsteps running lightly above. Abruptly the footsteps stopped. A small voice just over his head whispered, “Are you dead? Are you dead?” THen water began to drip down on his face from the ceiling. “Limbo is very cold,” whispered the voice again. Suddenly a small child appeared, wet from head to toe. Terrified, Masaimon lost consciousness. When he came to he heard the shoji screen sliding open and then closing. There was the sound of brushing, then the shoji surrounding the room started to shake violently. A child’s laughter pealed out and there again was the small boy standing over him. “Are you dead? Are you dead?” whispered the child. This was too much for Masaimon, who died of fright. Soon afterward the fortunes of his house, as predicted, rapidly declined. His family was ruined.
- Why might a person in extreme poverty choose to end a child’s life? What does Japanese culture say happens to the souls of these children? Why did the parlor child choose to torment Masaimon? Why was the ghost soaking wet? What is a shoji screen? Find a picture of it. What is this story trying to warn or teach us?
In this tale, also known as Hashihime, the wife of Yamadazaemon Kunitoki had bit by bit driven herself crazy over the fact that her husband kept a concubine. Although she many times pleaded with her husband to give up the woman, he ignored her pleas, so she decided to exact her revenge. Near her house was a shrine where people visited at the hour of the ox (between 1 and 3 AM in the traditional Japanese clock) to ask favors of the gods. For seven consecutive days, the same time every day, she prayed to become a living demon.
On the seventh night, she stayed at the shrine, and it was the shrine priest who dreamed that the god agreed to grant the woman’s earnest request. But first she had to don a red kimono, paint her hair red, and divide it like horns, and wear a three-pronged iron crown, in which fires should be lit. After that she had to sit in the Ujigawa river for twenty-one days. Then she would become a living demon.
- Where is the Ujigawa river? Where is Kyoto?
Her husband, meantime, had a series of horrible nightmares which he asked the court astrologer, Abe no Seimei, to explain. The latter warned him that he would lose his life as a result of a woman’s revenge, so the man confessed to having made his wife madly jealous by keeping a concubine. The astrologer gave precise instructions for the man’s protection, so that when the living demon, his former wife, broke into his bedroom one night and stood by his pillow, she was unable to exert any power over him.
Unable to take revenge as she wished, she stalked the streets of Kyoto each night, terrorizing the citizenry. Upon meeting a man, she would change into a beautiful woman he could not resist.
- Discuss this story. What seems to be the message about women’s roles in traditional Japanese culture? Discuss the role of power in the story. What research can you do quickly to get a feel of modern women’s roles in current Japanese society?
Tokaido Yotsuya Ghost Story
Some say she walks the streets of Tokyo, a forlorn figure in white, her long hair hiding her face. As she approaches, she suddenly reveals her horribly scarred features, a face twisted by death agonies. When people scream and run in terror, she disappears, laughing.
So goes the story of Oiwa, perhaps the most famous ghost in Tokyo. Her tragedy is the main tale in a mix of separate incidents pulled together by dramatic effect in Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s well known kabuki play, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Tokaido Yotsuya Ghost Story), more popularly known simply as Yotsuya Kaidan. The play incorporates the strue account of two muders committed by two servants, each of whom killed his master.
During the Edo era, murder of one’s master was considered on par with patricide. For such a crime, punishment could be gruesome. The criminal’s head might be slowly severed from the body with a bamboo saw — an excruciating death. Alternatively, the criminal might be sent to a workhouse, more akin to a chamber of horrors, where every day is a living hell.
In Nanboku’s version of the Oiwa story, a darkened stage is the setting for murder. Iyemon has just killed the father of his young, beautiful bride Oiwa, simply because the man knew about foul deeds committed earlier by Iyemon. Iyemon is a ronin, or masterless samurai, who is now obliged to earn a living as an oilpaper umbrella maker to support Oiwa and their new baby. This affront to his dignity festers into a hatred of Oiwa, which makes it easy for him to succumb to the temptation offered by the granddaughter of a wealthy neighbor. This girl is crazy about Iyemon and wants to marry him.
But first there is the problem of Oiwa. The girl’s grandfather (the wealthy neighbor) persuades Iyemon to give the delicate Oiwa what he claims to be a health tonic. Iyemon knows what this really means — that the tonic is, in reality, a virulent poison — but his desire and greed hold sway. One night, he puts the “medicine” into Oiwa’s food. Before she dies in agony, Oiwa is shown her face in a mirror. The poison has dreadfully disfigured the right side of her lovely face. Her ensuing rage and resentment are the violent emotions which will fuel her vengeance as a ghost.
Iyemon’s wickedness continues. Aware that his servant knows of his crime, Iyemon accuses the man of stealing a family heirloom, using this as a pretext for murdering him. He then nails the bodies of Oiwa and the servant to two sides of a wooden door, which he throws into a nearby river. Now he can receive his new bride. In the play, as the wedding celebration begins, Iyemon approaches the girl and lifts her headdress, only to look into the horrific visage of Oiwa. The startled bridegroom draws his sword, slashing off the bride’s head. He then runs to tell her grandfather, but blocking his path is his murdered servant. Iyemon strikes out again, only to find that he has cut off the head of his neighbor.
In another version, the ghost of Oiwa begins to haunt the new lovers night after night, wailing and howling in ghostly misery. Unable to stand the torment of this vengeful apparition any longer, the samurai one evening rushes out into the yard, sword in hand. There, standing before him, is the figure of his murdered wife, her twisted face visible in the moonlight. Crazed, the samurai advances and strikes her dead. At last, he has gotten rid of Oiwa, once and for all. Yet, as he rolls the body over in triumph, he screams with a terrible terror. At his feet lies the still-warm corpse of his new wife.
The kabuki play shows Iyemon being relentlessly pursued by Oiwa. Her twisted face appears everywhere, even in a lantern that sways over his head. There is no escape from her ghost. One day he goes fishing in the river and hooks a large board. Predictably, it is the wooden door with the bodies of Oiwa and the servant nailed to it. Completely broken, Iyemon retreats to a mountain cottage. But even there is no peace. Around him, vines and ropes come alive as writhing snakes. Flowers seem like accusing eyes. Smoke turns into strands of Oiwa’s hair. Iyemon, by now, welcomes his own death, which finally comes at the hands of Oiwa’s brother.
But while Iyemon’s other victims might have been avenged, Oiwa’s ghost seems unappeased. In modern Japan, for example, legend has it that there are many odd happenings whenever a movie is made about her life. As a ghost story yotsuya Kaidan remains enormously popular, still performed today on stage and film. Japanese people look forward to the special version which is aired at midnight each August during Obon. And so far, it is said, every movie production has encountered a series of inexplicable problems both on and off the set. For instance, there was the film that disappeared, the series of fires, and the several mysterious mechanical failures. These goings-on always stopped as soon as the cast, the film crew, and especially the actor adn and actresses visited Oiwa’s shrine in Yotsuya to pay respects.
Despite several troubling occurrences on the set, one director reportedly dismissed it all as superstitious nonsense — until he fell and broke both his legs… But although she can be very scary for adults who meet her on a dark, Tokyo street, Oiwa is believed able to protect women and children. Her grave in Sugamo and her shrine in Yotsuya are constantly filled with devotional offerings of candles and flowers. There is also supposed to be an unknown woman who has spent her whole life taking care of Oiwa’s grave. And so in Toyko today the Oiwa mystery remains, a haunting reminder of love gone wrong.
- Examine Oiwa’s story though the lens of Cohen’s work. Can you think of any plays or stories that are “cursed” in our culture? Search the curse of the play Macbeth.
From the chapter “Modern-Day Haunts”
Another breaker of silence is the ghostly weeping in the Diet building, the seat of Japan’s central government. After World War II, the eighth floor of the Diet was used by U. S. Occupation forces as a dance floor and a school for office workers.
- Research the Diet building. What is it being used for now? Why would US Occupation forces be in Japan after WWII?
According to the story, one woman, disappointed in her love for a man at the dance club, jumped from a window, breaking her neck. Shortly after that, the weeping could be heard. The eighth floor was then closed off under the pretext that it was for the purpose of “defense of public morals.” Until 1977, there was a red aircraft alert on the ninth floor, and security personnel used to check this every month. After the taller Kasumigaseki Building was constructed, however, the light was removed. Today, few people venture up to the eighth or ninth floors, so there is almost no one to listen for the sad weeping for unrequited love.
Another Tokyo building with supernatural links is the 240-meter-high Sunshine Building, completed in 1978, in Ikebukuro. In August 1979, around the anniversary of the end of World War II, fireballs reportedly appeared above the Sunshine Building’s open area. The fireballs were sighted by a third-year high school student who looked up around 10 PM and saw three fireballs, which he thought at first were UFOs. Two additional fireballs then appeared, hovering in the sky. After about five minutes, all five fireballs disappeared. In Japan, fireballs are thought to symbolize the dead, and before the practice of cremation became so widespread, they were often sighted, especially in or around cemeteries.
The Sunshine Building and the six-thousand-square-meter Higashi Ikebukuro Central Park stand on the site of a former prison where seven Japanese war criminals, including Tojo Hideki, were executed on December, 23, 1948. After the executions, a memorial was built. In 1964 it was designated a historic ruin, and two years later the Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided to convert it into a park. The actual prison facilities were moved to a new location in Kosuge, in Saitama Prefecture, in 1971.
For several years, however, construction was delayed because no company was willing to accept the work, which was considered potentially unlucky. Work finally started in earnest in 1978, but during the construction there were many troubling incidents. Three workers were hurt while taking down a thick concrete wall. Another worker heard a ghostly, groaning voice. Yet another who had to work at a tomb ran away from the construction site and was eventually hospitalized in a mental institution. One worker took a picture of the old prison wall before it was destroyed, and the photo contained an extra image, of a Buddha statue wearing a military capl. Construction of the park was completed in 1980 and a stone monument erected, wishing eternal peace. So far the spirits seem appeased, although fireballs are still seen from time to time.
- Compare these modern ghost stories with ones we have read from much older Japanese tradition. What cultural similarities and differences can you find? Where is Ikebukuro? Who was Tojo Hideki? Search a brief overview of Japanese Buddhism. What do you think a Buddha wearing a military cap would symbolize?
Mystery also surrounded the Kawasaki City Gyokusen branch of the Nakahara Fire Station, about fifteen minutes on foot from Hirama Station. On October 29th, 1980, fifty-two-year-old Okuma Isamu was sleeping as usual in the lower bunk on a second floor area. He was awakened around 2 AM by someone pressing against the right side of his chest. At almost the same moment, someone entered the bed from where his left foot was. This person gave Okuma a distinctly unpleasant feeling. AT the same time, Okuma did not really know what was happening, and later joked with a coworker about the man and woman hwo had entered his bed. Two days later, the same thing happened again, this time around 4 AM. He tried asking his colleague to turn on the light, but found he could not speak or move. He then saw a man and a woman who looked at him for quite awhile before disappearing into the wall. The man was in his mid-thirties, with a longish face. His naked upper body was muscular, but he had no legs. The woman, of average height and build, wore kimono, hand had a round, expressionless face, her head held to one side. She, too, had no legs. Okuma felt that the man, who gave a severe impression, belonged to the early Showa period.
In 1982, Okuma wrote about his experiences in the newsletter Fire Kawasaki. An overwhelming response from colleagues showed that many others had had similar experiences. Out of thirty-two firemen at the time, for example, one-third had seen the ghosts. The next year, on January 29th, a twenty-five-year-old foreman, Akiyama Mikio, saw the torso of a ghost, and when Fire Chief Nakajima reported it to the head fire office, they in turn recounted the background history.
The fire station and its twenty-meter high watchtower were built in 1959, right at the edge of a cemetery attached to the Hottaji temple. The hauntings are said to have started almost immediately thereafter. A middle-aged woman wearing a white kimono was seen climbing the tower, and the sound of ascending footsteps could be heard at midnight. When the ground was cleared for the tower’s construction, many human bones were dug up. At that time, all the firemen prayed at Hottaji and held a special service for the dead before each of the tombs. The tower was destroyed in 1980, but a new building was erected in its stead. Ghosts again appeared in the spot where the watchtower once stood, now a sleeping area for firemen. New construction had resulted in the collection f two cement bags’ worth full of human bones which people believed belonged to unknown persons, or the families of tombs interred in Hottjai’s tombs. Old-timers, however, said that there were wetlands as well as rice farms here before, and that the bones could have shifted a long way in the soft ground.
Wealth had come to this town originally because it could supply gravel and small pebbles, or jari-jari. People had come from afar just to work in the pebble industry, which was so important that even the babies here are said to have cried jari-jari. The bones may have belonged to migrant workers. Once again, the fire station held a service, and in 1982 raised a memorial stone over a square hole dug four meters deep and filled with pebbles. All money for the stone had been donated, and it was decided to offer incense, flowers, and food on the first and fifteenth day of each month. The ghosts were laid to rest.
- What is the Showa period? Where is Kawasaki? How is this story compared with the ancient stories, or with Western ghost stories? What is a fire tower and what is it used for?