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On Japanese Ghosts And Specters (Their Past And Their Present)


A review of Japanese ghost stories blurs the line between life and death...

Ghosts, that ultimate expression of absence, will never entirely disappear from our imaginations. Every culture has delineated these blurred presences in their own way and Japan has done so like no other culture. Japan has created, for example, an exclusive religion of ghosts, one which granted them, in other times, even titles of nobility. The Japanese word yurei generally designates ghosts, but there are innumerable legends of well-known Japanese specters, with names and histories all their own; myths still capable of causing fright, but even more so, of approaching that singular relationship between this particular Asian people and death.

Japan’s culture surrounding ghosts, as pointed out recently in Aeon, extends back centuries and is deeply related to notions of justice and injustice. It’s also characterized by a deep fear of unresolved issues and the inconclusive. But in Japan, a soul in pain can receive the help of its relatives. If they perform auspicious rituals, such as in providing an adequate funeral, recite the appropriate prayers, and make the necessary visits to the tomb, the soul may then have access to the world of the dead, and thus to freedom. Once there, the spirit may give protection and assistance to its living relatives.

If someone dies violently or unexpectedly, due to an injustice, the spirit may return to the world of the living in search of satisfaction or revenge. Thus, the Japanese imagination abounds with female ghosts, the frequent victims of cruelty and abandonment. Many legends speak of women who return to the world of the living in search of revenge; others, those who died giving birth, are known as ubume. These often appear in stories, paintings, xylographs, and the dramatic performances of kabuki theater.

Another well-known Japanese specter is the ikiryo, a spirit who wanders the world of the living moved by anger and jealousy, and able to enter people’s bodies, it may torment or take revenge against enemies. The message in most of these Japanese ghost stories bears a moral side. They speak of the consequences of doing evil and such stories served, in past times, as a vehicle for spreading the principles of Buddhism to a broader audience.

One of the most important compilations of Japan’s phantasmagoric heritage is The Legends of Tono (1910) by Kunio Yanagita, one of the earliest Japanese folklorists. The book was written with the aim of bringing the inhabitants of Japan’s growing urban areas closer to their popular culture and to thus save that culture from an oblivion, which could perhaps never have happened: ghosts seem to roam the very essence of the country.

For the Japanese of today, every year during the summer, ghosts visit the world during the Obon Festival, which includes food and drink, parties and dances. In northern Japan, there is even a place widely considered as the entrance to the world of the dead. It’s a Buddhist temple, more than a thousand years old, called Bodai-ji. Finally, and in a more contemporary space, we might think of the Japanese horror cinema, the memorable ghosts of which inhabit the imaginations of people all over the world.

Another example of such customs are all the newer ghost legends which emerged after the severe 2011 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. Survivors of the tragedies soon began to report supernatural presences, visits from those who’d lost their lives in the disaster. Men and women dressed in winter clothes in the middle of summer were seen and then disappeared. Passengers vanished from the backseats of taxis, and the toy car of a deceased child moved in an empty room. These are but some of the accounts.

Today’s Japan is one of the most modern and advanced countries in the world, at least in terms of technology and urban environments. But its relationship with the phantasmagoric remains paradoxically intact. Taxi drivers, accustomed to spectral passengers, react not with fear in the presence of them. Instead they only listen to what they have to say while escorting them to their destinations. Ghosts, kind or vengeful, ancient or contemporary, inhabit the country as they have for thousands of years. Their survival, sometimes mild, sometimes disturbing, provokes only a deep and well-deserved questioning of the stability of our own existence. If something is a ghost, it’s also an ethereal indication of the fragility of our own lives.


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