Chilling Tales for Hot Nights: Ghosts in Japan

The sound of wind chimes dancing. Shaved ice in every flavor imaginable slowly succumbing to the heat. Fireworks coloring the night sky while an army of cicadas sings their almost deafening song... All these are signs that summer has arrived in Japan. Along with the season comes an arsenal of tools and tricks to beat the heat. People here have found many ways to keep cool when the summer swelter rolls in every year. Cool-down tools range from refreshing foods and traditional summer garments to air conditioning and other modern amenities. Like so many countries struggling with extremely hot, humid weather, Japan has mastered the art of summer survival. One way to bring relief from long, hot summer days and sticky nights, however, is unique to Japan: Ghosts and ghost stories.

Summer Culture

Paper lanterns floating down a river on the last evening of the Bon Festival to guide the spirits of the departed back to the other side -- Photo from Flickr cc by Ato Araki
Summer in Japan is all about ghost stories. The tales of vengeful spirits and murderous ghosts will send shivers down your spine and fill the sultry night air with a chill. However, the heat is not the only reason summer is ghost season here. 
Ghosts are rooted deeply in Japanese summer culture because of the Buddhist tradition of Obon. Every year in mid-August, spirits come back from the dead to visit their loved ones. For a few days, families come together to honor the souls of their ancestors before sending them back to the afterlife.

Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

A Japanese yurei -- Photo from WikimediaCommons by Sawaki Suushi
Japanese ghosts are called yurei, which means “faint spirits”. A yurei comes into existence when a human spirit is kept from peaceful rest. A violent death or a simple mistake during the funeral rites could be enough to transform the once human soul into a supernatural being. Jealousy, sorrow, hatred, love and other powerful emotions can become a bridge between the two worlds and bring the spirit back. The lost soul will then wander our realm until the emotional conflict is resolved.

The Golden Age of Ghost Stories

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Ghosts, c. 1850 -- Photo from WikimediaCommons
Most Japanese believe in the supernatural and they have done so for a long time. In ancient folktales, the earth is filled with supernatural energy, the living surrounded by spirits and other magical creatures. Fascinated by this mysterious world of shadows, the Japanese have been telling ghost tales as far back as the early eighth century. 
The Edo period (1603-1868) was a golden age of peace and prosperity but also the Golden Age of ghost stories. "A Gathering of 100 Supernatural Tales", or Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, was one of the most popular parlor games during that time. Players would gather at night, light 100 paper lanterns and place a mirror on the top of a small table. They would then go to the next room and sit in a circle, the light of the lamps shining through the thin paper walls. Taking turns, each player would tell a ghost story. After finishing the tale, the storyteller would go to the other room, extinguish one paper lamp and look in the mirror. With each story, the room would grow darker and darker. As the 100th story was approaching, however, many players would stop in fear of the spirits they had been calling.

Clothes Make The Ghost

Ukiyo-e illustration of the invocation of a ghost -- Photo from Flickr cc by Stuart Rankin
Dark, disheveled hair hanging in long strands over a pristine white kimono. Hands dangling lifelessly from its wrists. The figure approaches you slowly, but you hear no footsteps. If you can now also spot two will-o'-the-wisps beside it, one thing is for sure: you're being haunted by a Japanese ghost.
As most ghost stories emerged in Edo-era Japan, yurei are usually described as wearing a white burial kimono from that time. Long, black hair is another trademark and connected to traditional funeral rites. Back in the day, women used to grow their hair very long to be able to pin it up into elaborate buns and chignons. For the funeral, it was let down, creating the typical ghost image we have today. Modern novels and movies still use this imagery, creating creepy characters such as Sadako Yamamura in The Ring. Standing in a white dress with long black hair falling over her face, Sadako has been terrifying audiences for decades.
Outstretched arms with dangling wrists are also classic features of yurei. Same goes for missing legs and feet. Again, the Edo period influenced this trend. When woodblock prints started depicting ghosts this way, kabuki theater enactments, noh plays and such followed. It didn't take long for them to become well-known characteristics of yurei.
Will-o'-the-wisps, or hitodama, are souls on their way to the other side. The glowing orbs are spotted around graveyards, funeral homes or the houses of recently deceased people. Yurei are usually in the company of a pair of these floating flames.

Know Your Ghosts

Funayurei approaching a ship at sea -- Photo from WikimediaCommons by Takehara Shunsen
If you are brave enough to go on the hunt for a yurei, you could try a number of places. Himeji Castle is haunted by the famous Okiku, the ghost of an unlucky servant maid. Aokigahara, dubbed the Suicide Forest, is an infamous place where many people have ended their lives. The dark, dense forest at the foot of Mount Fuji is said to be haunted by numerous vengeful spirits. Several other places across Japan offer good hunting grounds for those of you hoping for a ghostly encounter. However, you better be sure to know your ghosts before you go. 
Here are the most common types of yurei:
Onryo: Angry spirits who want to right a wrong done to them during their lifetime. Most are female ghosts who were abused or neglected by their partners.
Ubume: If a woman died in childbirth or died leaving a young child behind, she might come back as an ubume. The strong love these women feel for their children will bring them back to our world to help in times of need. Ubume often bring gifts or sweets for comfort.
Goryo: Vengeful and very powerful ghosts. Martyred in life, they return for revenge. One of the mightiest yurei to exist, they are strong enough to destroy entire crops and bring earthquakes and typhoons upon their enemies.
Funayurei: Sailors have a dangerous profession. They can be swallowed by the stormy waves of the sea on any given day. If they are, they might come back as a funayurei, or “ship ghost”. The ghosts of deceased sailors will approach ships at sea and ask for a ladle. If provided with one, they will use it to scoop water into the ship until it sinks.
Zashiki-Warashi: Another interesting kind of yurei is the zashiki-warashi. These mischievous child-ghosts usually dwell in family homes and play harmless pranks on the residents. Although nasty little creatures, having one in your home is said to bring good fortune.

In the Mood For a Ghost Story?

Woodblock print portraying the ghost of Oiwa. The onryo is a protagonist in one of the most famous ghost stories in Japan, Yotsuya Kaidan -- Photo from WikimediaCommons by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
For those of you less eager to lose your lives at the hands of a vengeful spirit, a story might be enough to keep you chilled on a hot summer night. The number of Japanese ghost stories is endless, and sure to include something for everyone's taste--from mothers coming back for their children and dead lovers seeking vengeance from the grave or young maids trying to finish their last uncompleted task. 
The following is a tale of love, betrayal and regret.

Black Hair

Once, there was a poor samurai who lived in Edo. He had a beautiful wife with long black hair who adored him, despite having to live in poverty. One day, he was summoned by the lord of a distant land to work in his service. The samurai eagerly accepted the lord's generous offer. However, when it was time to move, he abandoned his wife, choosing another woman instead of her. A woman younger and more beautiful than she was.
When he was released from his duties with the lord, the samurai returned to Edo. Longing for his old wife, he went to the house he once called home. A full moon hung over his head, shedding its light on his old dwelling. The gate was open, and so the samurai stepped inside. He shyly called his wife's name but received no answer. The entrance was dark and silent save for the soft light of the moon shining through the window. When he reached the bedroom, he found his wife sitting silently on the bed, her face covered by her long black hair.
"My lovely wife!" he said, rushing to her side. "I missed you dearly, please forgive me!"
Not a flicker of anger or resentment crossed her face. Instead, she gave him a soft smile and said, "My dear husband, I've been waiting for you to come back to me. Finally, we are together again."
Overcome with joy, the samurai locked his arms around her and swore never to leave her side again. As she returned his embrace, a happy tear rolled down the wife's face.
The next morning, a ray of sunlight fell through the window, waking the samurai from a deep sleep. His arms were still folded around his wife, and when he opened his eyes, he could see her dark hair shining like ebony. But, when he turned down his face to kiss her, he froze in disbelief. His wife's skin was gray and lifeless--rotten flesh where once rosy cheeks had been. In horror, he looked into her bloody eyes, picked out by ravenous crows and now crawling with maggots. A pungent smell filled his nose and, tossing away his wife's corpse, the samurai dashed out of the door, screaming. 
Outside, a curious neighbor came to the distraught samurai's aid. 
“What happened to the woman next door?!” he inquired, shivering from shock as much as disgust.
“Her?", the old man said with sadness in his eyes. "She was abandoned by her husband not too long ago. Mad with sorrow, she killed herself, but with no family to give her a funeral, her body still lays where she died.”

Hungry for more? Go on a ghost hunt when you visit Japan!

Kathrin Kecht