The Scariest Tales in the World? Japanese Ghost & Folk Stories Part 3 by M J Steel Collins

In the first two parts of this series, we had a general overview of the nature of the ghostly in Japanese culture and explored some stories. In this section, we’ll start to have a deeper look at ghosts, or yurei and how stories of them became important.
As already mentioned, ghosts are probably more important to the Japanese than they are in the West. The Japanese believe they live in the most haunted country in the world. According to Jonathan Ross in the BBC series  Japanorama, being able to tell the scariest ghost story is quite important. So how has the Japanese ghost story evolved?
Traditional ghost stories, known as Kaidan, have been around for a very long time. Kaidan translated into English can be quite tricky, as Zack Davisson on his excellent website discusses. It usually ends up as ‘ghost story’ or ‘mysterious’ story, but according to Zack, misses the true meaning of the word. Nor are Kaidan specifically meant to be scary. They can just be strange, funny or weird tales, but Westerners find the idea a difficult one to digest. Probably because the thinking behind Kaidan doesn’t fulfil standard Western notions.
Many great Kaidan tales have been used in Kabuki, a traditional form of Japanese theatre involving dance dating back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868). One tale, the most famous ghost story in Japan, Oiwa, has been used several times. This is the tale of a particularly vengeful female ghost. In fact, she has so big a grudge that nasty things are supposed to have happened to people who have been involved in Kabuki performances of her story, and generally anyone retelling the story. In portraying the tale, it’s recommended you pay tribute to Oiwa by visiting her grave, and perhaps visiting the shrine found on her family land for extra protection.  Since this is slightly beyond my means, I’ll stand by a lesson I picked up from anthropology, called ‘let’s play it safe’, and suggest checking out books like Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide if you want to discover the story of Oiwa!
The ghost with a grudge is a common theme in Japan. Strong emotions are what are supposed to make them so dangerous. Sometimes the emotion can be so over riding that the spirit can never be appeased. In Japan, the potent mix of a grudge and anger is called Onnen. Anyone, not just the instigator, can be caught up in this, and the results can be catastrophic. The Japanese believe that the human spirit is everlasting. After death, the spirit must spend some time in a type of purgatory before ascending to the next realm. This is normally spent in the world of the living. For anyone with a particular chip on their shoulder, their strong feelings of injustice can become strong and lead to them being trapped on earth, it being difficult to ease their feelings.

Women make up a large proportion of the ghostly population. Historically, they occupied a very low place in the social hierarchy, and so were open to exploitation. After death, they would come back looking for revenge. The social hierarchy also played an important role in the ghost stories of feudal Japan. It wasn’t possible to criticise those vested with power, such as the shogun, without unpleasant consequences, so grievances were played out in ghost stories. Here, the spirits of wronged servants managed to get one-upmanship on their masters. The ghost story allowed for a quiet background criticism of the status quo.

The relief offered by the ghost story gave rise to a parlour game, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai,  which translates as A Gathering of 100 Supernatural/Weird Tales. In this, a group of friends gathered together, lighting 100 candles. Each person told a weird, strange or scary tale. It could be something that happened to them, a tale from their hometown or village or an explanation for an unusual natural feature in the locality. After each tale, a candle would be blown out. The fear would be heightened with each story, with the chance that conditions would be ripe for the appearance of something otherworldly by the last tale.
The game perhaps originated amongst the Samurai, the aristocratic warrior social class, as a form of testing their bravery. In Ogita Ansei’s 1660 account of a Hyakumogatari session held by young Samurai, Ogoti Monogatari, the mood is heightened by the last tale. The Samurai telling the story sees a grotesque, large hand in the candle light, and draws his sword. But he becomes a figure of mirth as it turns out he only saw the shadow of a small spider! Hyakumogatari soon spread to the lower classes as a form of entertainment, leading to many cheap publications of spooky tales specifically for the game. Many Kaidan tales come from this.
Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek expat, preserved many Kaidan in his books. He wrote a lot about Japan, but is best known for his collections of Japanese ghost and folk tales, including Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Hearn had lived in a few places around the world, but he preferred Japan, taking Japanese citizenship and the name Koizumi Yakumo. Born in 1850, he was raised in Dublin, Ireland, working around America as writer before settling in Japan. He died in 1904 and laid to rest in his adopted country. Four of his stories were used in the 1964 Japanese horror film Kwaidan. Incidentally, this is another term for Kaidan, but a little controversial.
Nowadays, Japan is a leader in international horror. Many of the films, novels and comics have their basis in the traditional Kaidan, such as the famous Ringu trilogy, apparently based on the story of Okiku, the ghost who counts plates in a well. But modern stories are not themselves Kaidan. J-Horror is a modern type of Japanese horror taking a lot from Western influences, but its origins can be found in Kaidan.
In the next instalment of our Japan series, we’ll be taking a look at some Kaidan themselves and explore the types of yurei found in them. Maybe you’ll be brave enough to have a go at Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai yourself!
For those wanting to find out more, good resources include:
Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, 2012, Tuttle Publishing – Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide is its sister book, focussing on supernatural beings from the same publisher. Yokai will be the subject of later articles in this series.

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