(Cover Image: Samuel Berner)
Try to imagine the perfect setting for a good horror story.
Perhaps you imagined an ominous house somewhere remote, or a cabin in the middle of the woods, or even an ancient castle. Maybe you imagined a dark and stormy night, full of lightning and thunder. What you probably didn’t imagine was a beautiful Summer day, right?
Well, for most westerners the sunny days of summer don’t exactly conjure up scary imagery (unless you’re American and grew up spending your summers at camp. After all summer camp ghost stories are a classic little bit of Americana). Usually, when we think of ghosts we tend to think of cold, dark nights, storms, howling winds… In the United States, for example, the “spooky season” is Autumn, mostly due to Halloween, while the United Kingdom has a long tradition of associating ghosts with winter, as we have already seen in our article on the scary Christmas stories of the Victorian era (you can read it HERE).
In Japan, however, Summer is the most haunted season. Horror films are often released around this time of the year, and TV programming is filled with spooky shows, especially day time TV, as that’s the time kids are off school and sitting in front of their tv screens. However, even before the there was anything like cinema or TV, Kabuki theater already featured plays with haunting themes in its summer programs, and telling ghost stories were one of the most popular activities for warm Summer nights.
Chills in the summer?
There are many reasons why Japanese culture associates ghost stories with summer. A very common explanation is that the chills caused by scary stories would supposedly help fight off the heat, as in Japan temperatures can reach over 30° C, and it can get quite humid and uncomfortable. But, of course, it’s not that simple. The association between ghosts and summer has very ancient roots in both culture and religion.
So, to understand what these summer hauntings are all about, first we have to understand the Japanese religious landscape.
Japan has a very unique religious identity, because, unlike countries that have several religions and / or a dominant/more common religion, in Japan there are two dominant faiths that are often practiced together. The oldest is Shinto (meaning “the way of the gods”). It is an animist religion, that is to say that it attributes a “soul” (in Latin “anima“) to the elements of nature. Shinto appeared in Japan in the fifth century A.D. The second traditional Japanese religion is Buddhism, which first appeared in India in the sixth century B.C., but only reached Japan in the sixth century A. D. through China.
About 80% of the Japanese population who declare themselves religious, practice both religions at the same time (a practice known as Shinbutsu-shūgō or “Syncretism of Kami and Buddha”) , but the two faiths do differ in several respects. Shinto is based on the belief in Kami, a word that can be translated as either “gods” or “spirits”, spiritual entities associated with various natural elements, who can be generous if offered proper prayers and rituals, but quite vindictive if offended. Meanwhile, Buddhism doesn’t put its emphasison entities or gods, but rather on the belief in reincarnation and the possibility of spiritual evolution toward enlightenment or Nirvana, a state of complete detachment from material desires and needs.
The Japanese view of death and the supernatural is a blend of these two traditions. Buddhism offers a cyclical view of life and death, based on the wheel of karma and reincarnation. Different schools, however, do believe in variations of a “world of the dead “, that can be more or less similar to our idea of heaven and hell; these are worlds where the spirit would transit between one incarnation and another. Shinto, on the other hand, has a more linear view of life and death, in which the dead simply pass on to the afterlife in a world of the dead known as Yomi or Yomi-no-kuni (“Land of darkness”).
What the two religions do have in common, however, is the importance given to the memory of ancestors. It is very common for Japanese families to have an altar at home to honor their dead, and religious rituals that celebrate ancestors are a fundamental part of Japanese culture regardless of the religion of those who practice them. The dead are seen as an integral part of the family and the day-to-day routine of the living.
But what does all of this have to do with Summer and ghost stories?
Well, one of the main, if not the main reason why summer is associated with ghosts in Japan is precisely a religious tradition shared by Shinto and Buddhism: the festival known as Obon or Bon, a celebration of ancestors that takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and invariably falls in the summer (between June and August in the northern hemisphere).
It is believed that on this particular date, the souls of the deceased return to the world of the living to partake on the festivities with their families and friends. It is a joyful occasion to reunite with loved ones and celebrate outdoors with music, theater, fireworks and the traditional bon-odori dance to welcome the dead. But the Bon it is not just a big party, it is also a time to remember departed loved ones, to pray, make offerings, set up Buddhist altars called bondana and light fires known as okuribi (“farewell fire”) to bid farewell to the spirits at the end of the festivities. The farewell also includes paper lanterns that are placed in small wooden boats and released on a river, to guide the dead back to the afterlife.
Of course, not all spirits who return to the world of the living during the Obon are the beloved souls of the ancestors, coming in peace to celebrate. Many of these souls are muenbotoke, the dead who have no relatives or friends to pray for them or onryo, the vengeful dead, who return to settle scores with those who wronged them in life. That’s why the season of Obon festivities is also perfect time for telling scary stories about these not-so-friendly ghosts.
Historically, theatrical performances have always been an important part of Obon, and one of the most traditional was the Bon-kyogen, a style of folk theatre from the Heian Period (794 to 1185 A.D.). Bon-kyogen used to emphasize comedy, as laughter and a cheerful atmosphere were believed to calm restless spirits. Over time, however, other formats developped promoting plays with more macabre themes inspired by the ghostly folklore associated with the Obon. This is the case with the Kabuki performances known as Suzumi-shibai, literally “cold plays” or “chilly plays”, that specifically dealt with supernatural horror stories. According to ethnologist Ikikushi Shinobu (1887-1953), these performances in particular fueled interest in ghost stories during the summer months. So, what began as a way to appease spirits through humor gradually became its own tradition, as people sought horror stories as a form of entertainment or catharsis.
However, the popularity of ghost stories as entertainment would peak much later, during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
Kaidan and Hyaku Monogatari: the ghosts of the Edo Era
The Edo period is considered a sort of Golden Age in the history of Japan: two centuries of political stability and economic growth marked by a rather rigid social and political structure. Japan had gone through several civil wars during the Sengoku period (1467-1603), but in 1575, Toyotomi Hideoshi succeeded in unifying the country. However, actual stability would not be achieved until after his death, when the Tokugawa clan emerged victorious from yet another series of conflicts, thus ending the Sengoku period and marking the beginning of the Edo Period. The figure of the emperor still existed, but the Shogun (”military leader”) Tokugawa Ieyasu and his descendants held power de facto and ensured peace in Japan through strict political and military control, which is why the Edo period is also known as the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Economic growth and political unification led to an increase in trade among the different regions of the country, which connected rural areas and urban centers, and made each area less isolated. As people and goods moved around more freely, Japan’s diverse regional cultures came into closer contact, which meant tales, legends, songs, and traditions spread far beyond their places of origin.
This environment of constant cultural exchange created a growing demand for various types of entertainment: Kabuki and Noh became more complex, and new forms of theatre such as bunraku (puppet theater) emerged, the craft of the geisha was developed, and storytellers became extremely popular. Some of these artists were itinerant, and performed at festivals or religious events, while others were hired as otogishu,, that is as artists in the private service of a feudal lord.
The end of the constant civil wars also created another curious phenomenon: once again, people were comfortable with the concept of horror as a form of entertainment,as they had been in the Heian Era. During the Edo Period, plays, songs, and stories with themes that included war, murder, revenge, and hauntings became very popular. Many of them even used the civil wars of the Sengoku period as a backdrop. It was almost as if, without the violence of war constantly knocking on their door, audiences were now looking for a little dose of adrenaline.
Another possible reason for this interest in the morbid had more to do with the social structure of the Edo Period. To maintain its power, the Tokugawa clan needed stability, and to achieve it, strict measures of social control were established. That is, peace came at a price: a deeply stratified social structure, draconian laws and complete domination of feudal lords over the people. Stories of ghosts and revenge served as a form of controlled escape from reality. And due to the prevailing censorship, these stories also tended to be a form of veiled social criticism. In the words of Akinari Ueda, author of the famous Ugetsu Monogatari:
“Sometimes an author laments the insincerity of the world, other times he laments the nation’s arrogance. However, considering the forces of current times and fearing the displeasure of people of high rank, an author would set the story as an affair of the past to veil the present.”
No matter the reason, the traditional Japanese ghost story reached its classic form in the Edo Period.
It was at this time that the word Kaidan or Kwaidan appears in writing for the first time. Kaidan it is a difficult word to explain, but it is often translated as “ghost story”. This translation, although more accessible, does not account for the true meaning of the term: “kai” means “strange”,” weird” or “mysterious” and ”dan” can refer to storytelling, but it can also mean “to talk”, “to discuss”. So, “Kaidan” would be the act of talking about or telling strange things. What this means in practice is that Kaidan can be a little bit of everything, from dark supernatural stories to absurd or funny anecdotes. But the most popular type of Kaidan have always been, predictably, scary stories. They were so popular, in fact, that this peculiar taste of the Edo period would eventually lead to the creation of a very popular sort of parlour game called Hyakumonogatari (“100 Stories”) or Hyaku Monogatari Kaidankai (“100 stories about strange things”).
The rules quite simple: a group of people gather at night, preferably on a summer night, and light up a hundred candles or paper lanterns. Then, each person in the group has to tell a scary story, and with each story told a candle is blown out until a hundred stories are completed. When the last light is extinguished, the room should be completely dark. At that moment the group must make some kind of roll call: which each person says something to show that they are present. If the “ritual” was performed correctly, one extra voice, which does not belong to any of the participants, should also be heard. According to some, at that moment of the game the participants would even be able to see an actual ghost among those present (and, of course, this would also be the perfect time for one of the participants to give the others a good scare).
We don’t know for sure if this game was actually played, how often, or even if it was played exactly in the same way it’s described in the literature. After all, lighting 100 candles and telling 100 stories would take a lot of time and require the group to know quite a lot of stories. As a matter of fact, many believe that the excessive number of stories was be the reason why some participants claimed to have seen or heard ghosts: they simply got too tired, and dozed off, dreaming about the hauntings. In any case, Hyaku Monogatari is mentioned very often in the popular culture of the time: it appears in books, plays and especially in Ukyo-E prints. This gives us good reason to believe that people actually did play this game, but most likely a simpler version with a much smaller number of stories.
Several scholars of Japanese literature believe that the popularity of Hyaku Monogatari, as well as other forms of entertainment that revolved around the act of telling scary stories, led to a huge demand for collections and compilations of Kaidan, which ranged from selections of local folklore from various regions, to retellings of historical events and even narratives taken from theater plays. Kaidan anthology authors would even travel in search of new stories to include in their selections.
Among the numerous collections of Kaidan published in the Edo Period, two stand out in particular: Ugetsu Monogatari, (” Tales of Rain and Moonlight”) by Ueda Akinari and Mimi Bukuro (“A bag of ears”) by Shizue Negishi. Ugetsu Monogatari consists of nine stories inspired by Chinese supernatural tales while Mimi Bukuro was compiled by a samurai who traveled all over Japan and who recorded scary stories he heard from prisoners entrusted to him during his time working as a jail guard. Mimi Bukuro contains more than a hundred stories originally published in 10 volumes, which have inspired several films, TV series and even manga and anime.
The popularity of Kaidan spread through various forms of media. Kabuki, which, in a way, had started the tradition, never stopped producing ghost narratives, but Noh and Bunraku used haunted themes much more extensively. Having even more stylized format than even Kabuki, Noh theater lends itself remarkably well to surreal or supernatural narratives (while the Kabuki tends to present realistic and historical themes more often), and Bunraku, being a form of puppet theater, allows for the use of simple but effective special effects which are perfect for supernatural stories.
Ukyo-e prints also used hauntings as a theme, and did it so frequently that there is an subgenre called yuurei-zu (“images of ghosts”). Artists of the Edo period such as Kunisada, Hokusai and Kuniyoshi produced numerous works featuring ghosts and other hauntings and this tradition continued well into the Meiji Era, with artists like Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who produced at least two entire series of ghostly prints.
Modernization, war and trauma: the echoes of ghosts from the past
Ghost story collections were so popular that they continued to be reissued through the centuries, thus helping preserve much of Japanese folklore, especially oral traditions that might otherwise have been lost. However, in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when imperial power was restored, putting an end to the power of the shogunate, Japan underwent a process modernization and political opening. Many intellectuals then began to see horror literature as outdated and to associate interest in the supernatural and Kaidan with ignorance, superstition and backwardness. The race for modernization also led many to reject folklore and popular culture, seeing them as remnants of a feudal past that had to be left behind. While the general population continued to consume Kaidan, the intellectual elite lost interest the genre, which made published collections harder to come by.
In the Meiji Era, the most famous anthologist of Kaidan it would turn out to be a foreigner: Greek-Irish Lafcadio Hearn. The son of an Irish father and a Greek mother, Hearn was born in Greece and raised in Ireland. As a writer and a journalist, he would live in the United States and Martinique before moving to Japan in 1890 as a news correspondent. When his contract expired, Hearn decided to stay. One of the aspects of Japanese culture that fascinated him the most was precisely its folklore in general and Kaidan in particular, so much so that he decided to compile stories and translate them into English. The result was a collection of ghost stories from Japan most Western readers have easy access to: Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange things.
Obviously, not all Japanese intellectuals turned their backs on ghost stories; there were those who sought to preserve this tradition. That was the case of Yanagita Kunio. A law graduate, Yanagita began his career working in the Agricultural Administration Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and trade. Given his profession, he often traveled through rural areas, and eventually fell in love with the regional folklore and traditions he came across, which inspired him to become a writer and researcher. His work as a folklorist contributed to the creation of a new area of knowledge called Minzokugaku, or Japanese folk studies, which led folklore and popular culture to become and object of study in universities, thus overcoming the prejudice thei had previously faced. Which is why Yanagita is now considered the ” father of Modern folkloric studies” in Japan.
From the Taisho period (1912-1926) until the early decades of the Showa period (1926-1989) Japan once again embraced its traditional culture, but it also immersed itself in a deeply nationalist and militaristic far-right ideology that led to its alignment with the fascist Axis powers. The result of this ideological upsurge were conservative policies and particularly aggressive war tactics, as well as brutal crimes against humanity that targeted both civilians (in China, Korea and other Asian countries) as well as PoWs. The war tactics of the Japanese Army caused enormous losses and damages to the Allied countries, but the civilian population of Japan also paid a hefty price, falling victim to constant firebombing, suffering from hunger and the economic and social collapse, and finally from the devastating nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With the end of World War II, Japan was forced to rediscover itself as a country and redefine its identity and its relationship with its own tradition and history.
It was then that popular culture, with cinema at its forefront, rediscovered folklore and, more specifically, ghost stories. Through these narratives, the Japanese collective imaginary found a new meaning to its own national identity and also ways to process the trauma of war. In the 1950s and 1960s, cinema resurrected Kaidan as a narrative form and used its stories to talk about mourning, war, economic and social destabilization, in short, everything the country was going through. Basically it was re-visiting the concept of telling stories of the past to speak about the present as Ueda Akinari had decribed centuries earlier.
The most famous work of this movement is, probably, Kwaidan (1965), directed by Kobayashi Masaki. It takes on the tradition of Ghost Story anthologies with four short films in one: “Black hair” tells the story of a man who abandons his wife and ends up haunted by supernatural happenings, a theme associated with the classic tale Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, “The snow woman ” depicts the famous legend of Yuki-onna, a female spirit that personifies snow and cold, “Hoichi, the earless” tells the story of a blind singer who, in his songs, narrates the tragedy of a battle between rival clans and unintentionally comes into contact with the other world, And “In a cup of tea” a man is haunted by visions that appear on liquid surfaces, even inside an innocent cup of tea.
Kwaidan it is just one of several films that recreated the visual and narrative aesthetics of the Edo Period and its ghost stories. Ugetsu ” Tales of the vague Moon” (1953) directed by Mizuguchi Kenji, weaves a few of the short stories of the collection Ugetsu Monogatari to tell the story of Genjuro, a potter who tries to find his fortune during the troubled Sengoku period, but ends up stumbling upon ghostly events. Another film set during the civil wars of the Sengoku period is Onibaba (1964) by Shindo Kaneto, with an original screenplay inspired by the legend of Onibaba, a cannibalistic creature with the appearance of an old woman who lives in forests or mountains. In the film, the story loses much its supernatural elements and gains strong sexual and psychological undertones as it tells the story of two women, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and a man involved in a scenario of death and obsession.
The 1950s and 1960s also saw several adaptations of Yotsuya Kaidan, a Kabuki play inspired by real crimes and local legends that to this day is considered the most famous ghost story in Japanese literature. Iemon, a samurai, after finding himself without a Lord and without money, decides to abandon his wife Oiwa and newborn son to marry the daughter of a rich man. His plan ends up working a bit too well, as his machinations cause Oiwa’s death, thus clearing the way for a new marriage. But the scorned woman who was sweet and submissive in life, turns out to be cruel and powerful after death.
Therefore, cinema became as a vehicle for dissemination and documentation of the ghost stories of the Japanese tradition much like Kaidan anthologies had been before. Filmmakers turned to folklore, theater and literature for inspiration to tell their stories and thus introduced very old myths and legends to new audiences.
Cinema was not the only one to do this: manga and anime produced from the 60s onward also draw inspiration from ghostly folklore. Works such as Gegege no Kintarou, Gakkou Kaidan, Ayakashi and Fuan no Tane, and artists like Junji Ito have modernized the classic ghost story, and, in a way, returned to the original concept of Kaidan as a genre in which the strange, the mysterious and the humorous all stood on a par with horror. But, instead of telling classic stories, as movie makers had done, anime and manga authors and artists play with the elements of folklore and horror mixing in Surrealism, comedy, adventure, fantasy, romance and other genres, creating entirely new narratives with new dimensions and meanings, forging a space to talk about topics which are relevant to new generations such as bullying, beauty standards, sexuality and mental health.
However, the majority of Western audiences had their first contact with Japanese horror thanks to the horror films of the 90s and 2000s. These movies represent a kind of Nouvelle Vague of the Japanese horror cinema. The most successful of the bunch was, without a doubt, Ringu or “Ring” (1998) by Nakata Hideo, which tells the story of a supernatural curse attached to a mysterious VHS tape and the ghost of a girl inside a well. The popularity of the American remake led many viewers to seek out the original film, and thus discover the huge production of horror films in Japan, a genre that became known in the West as “J-Horror”.
In the universe of J-Horror there’s a little bit of everything, from extreme violence to subtle psychological horror, but the footprint of the classic ghosts from Japanese folklore is visible in most films. The two most popular works of J-Horror cinema “Ring” and “The Grudge” (‘Ju-On’, 2004), by Shimizu Takashi both use the figure of the female ghost with long hair and white clothes reminiscent of the katabira, (a white kimono in which the dead are buried), an image deeply associated with Kabuki and Ukyo-E. But whereas “The Grudge” focuses on the theme of the scorned woman who becomes a ghost along with and her son, inspired by Yotsuya Kaidan, “Ring” prefers to borrow from the Legend of Okiku. Another movie, “Noroi: The Curse” uses masks vaguely resembling those of the Noh theater as a visual element to tell the story of a researcher and documentary filmmaker who awakens occult forces when he decides to film a documentary about an alleged curse. Black Water (2002), by the same director of “Ring”, which got a remake in the hands of Brazilian Walter Salles, also goes back to the association between ghosts and water. That is, even though the most recent Japanese cinema does not aim to produce straight adaptations of classical or folk narratives, it still uses visual and thematic elements that are immediately recognizable to the audience as part of a very ancient cultural tradition.
Now that we know the history behind the ghosts, how about getting to know some chilling stories to freshen up your summer? Then don’t miss the second part of our special: A Catalog of Hauntings!
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