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.

Japanese Ghost Stories part 2 – for the more timid enthusiast by Amy Van De Casteele

Anyone who has seen the films The Ring and The Grudge and their sequels, or who has spent some time browsing Japanese ghost stories on the internet, will be well aware that some Japanese spooks can be truly terrifying. There are many stories from Japanese folklore which are not for the faint-hearted, even among paranormal enthusiasts. With that in mind, here is a sample of some of the less disturbing of the pantheon of Japanese spirits, for those who prefer their ghost stories to be a little less terrifying.
Zashiki Warashi
The zashiki warashi are one such example of less daunting ghosts. The name, which translates roughly as ‘parlor child’, gives a good insight into how this particular ghost appears. Zashiki warashi are ghosts of good fortune, which manifest as children with rosy red cheeks and sleek bobbed hair. These haunts tend to be found in sprawling, well-manicured mansions and are harbingers of luck and success. To attract such ghosts and keep them happy, you must show them the same care and attention which you might show to any child…but be careful not to give it too much attention or the ghost will flee and your home fall into disrepair and hard times.
Zashiki warashi are not only child-like in appearance, they are also childish by nature and will often pull harmless pranks on the residents of the house they inhabit. Objects may move, unexplained music could be heard from an empty room, and they might leave tiny footprints behind them. They may also play with the mortal children residing in the house, and often it is only the home’s inhabitants which can see them.
Another rather touching but mournful Japanese ghost is the Ubume, or ‘birthing woman ghost’. The spirit of a woman who died during childbirth, she appears to passers-by cradling a swaddled baby in her arms and asks them to hold her child for her. At this point she will disappear and the passers-by are left holding a baby, which becomes increasingly heavy until finally they are forced to relinquish the burden and realize they have been holding a boulder, not a child. The Ubume has been well-documented by Japanese artists and authors since the 12thcentury and local women would visit the statue of an Ubume at the Shoshin’in temple, where they would pray for a safe and successful labour, for an abundance of milk, or to conceive a child.
The third example I will give of a less demonic Japanese ghost is the Yuki-onna, or ‘snow woman’. While this spirit can be ruthless and is known for leading travellers astray so that they die in a blizzard, she is also a rather moving and poignant figure. Ethereally beautiful, with pale skin, blue lips and curtains of long black hair, the ghost has been described as wearing a white kimono, while other legends say she appears naked. Rumoured to be the ghost of a woman who perished out in the snows, she drifts across the cold white wastes, often killing those she finds. This may sound terrifying at first, but there are other legends of the Yoki-onna who tell of her sparing some of her victims. Perhaps one of the most famous of these legends is the story of how she once allowed a young boy to live because she was moved by his youth and beauty; she let him go, but made him promise not to speak of her to anyone. Later, she married him, though he did not know it was she, and when he told her the story of the snow woman she revealed herself to him and chided him for his foolishness. However she spared him again, for the sake of the children they had together and she melted away, leaving him and the children to continue with their lives, with the warning that if he ever harmed their children she would return to punish him. He was a kind, loving father and never did so he was left unscathed.
These legends, of the zashiki warashi, the ubume and the yuki-onna, reveal a softer, more bittersweet side to Japanese folklore and although these ghosts may appear unnerving – even frightening, in the case of the snow woman – still they are more thought-provoking than terrifying. So if you ever go to Japan and see the spirit of a young child with rosy cheeks smiling at you, or encounter a melancholy woman who asks you to hold her swaddled child, don’t be afraid… it is just a zashiki warashi wanting to play with you, and an ubume who still mourns for the child – and the life – which she lost, long ago… 

The Scariest Tales in the World? Japanese Ghost and Folk Stories Part 1 – by M J Steel

Japan has cornered a special market in the genre of horror. Films, novels and comics of this ilk are not for the faint hearted. I still shudder at the thought of Samara/Sadako crawling around in The Ring and Ringu films. The Grudge also has the propensity to keep me up trembling into the wee small hours. Japanese folk stories and urban myths of the supernatural are no less scary. In fact, they’re probably the most terrifying I’ve come across in about twenty years of being interested in the paranormal. Hence this being the first in a series exploring the nature of Japanese ghost lore.

In Japan, belief in ghosts is stronger than in the West. Ghosts are mostly associated with summer, mainly due to the Bon or Obon festival, a Buddhist tradition that celebrates ancestral spirits. Families visit the graves of their departed at this time to clean them. The family spirits are believed to visit family alters at the same time. Ghosts are seen as spirits of the dead existing between two worlds. The soul is thought to travel to the next world upon death, but some don’t quite make it. Those who pass in pain or with strong feelings of bitterness and regret tend to hang back, unable to move on. Appearance wise, they have weak wrists, messy hair and a blur from the knee down. They haunt the places and people that were known to them whilst alive. Children believe ghosts haunt damp places such as a bath or toilet, as seen in the tale of Hanako-San below, whilst adults believe ghosts only come in times of unease.

There are two types of ghost in Japanese culture: the yurei is a spirit in human form, which can be capricious or angry. They may be human entities who souls were unappeased before leaving the living realm, returning to wreak vengeance. Yokai are the second type, playful half-human, half-animal beings associated with place. Japanese ghost stories have a common theme of spirits returning to our world in order to deal with unfinished business or look for the repayment for immorality. On, or obligation is at the core of many stories – failing to meet this can be rather harrowing if it involves dead souls.

One of the most famous ghost stories in Japan is that of Hanako-San, mainly an urban legend spread by schoolchildren. It became very popular during the 1980s. The main thread of the legend goes that if you enter the third floor girls’ lavatory in a school, and go to the third cubicle in the room, knocking on it three times before asking, “Are you there, Hanako-San?” a voice will reply, “Yes, I am.” If you then go into the cubicle, you will find the ghost of a small girl in a red skirt. There are regional variations to the story across Japan. One version has it that Hanako will pull the protagonist into the toilet if they go into the cubicle to see her. In the Yamagata prefecture, the story goes that if Hanako talks in a nasty voice, something bad will happen. Another in the same region has it that the ghost is a three-metre long lizard with three heads using a young girl’s voice to lure unsuspecting humans in for its dinner. Other variations have a huge hand coming out of the toilet, perhaps covered in blood. Enough to fire any lively imagination!

Hanako is thought to lurk in the cubicle until sought out by an enterprising (or foolish) student. She can be avoided if you keep away from her hiding spot. Overall, despite the above grisly versions, she is seen as harmless. The best way to get rid of her if she is encountered is to show her schoolwork with top grades, as good scores tend to make her vanish. There are a number of origins for Hanako depending on where the story is told. Primarily, she is thought to be the ghost of a young girl killed during the Second World War, perhaps during an air raid that occurred while she played hide and seek. Another thread is that she was a child murdered by an abusive adult, either a stranger or parent, who found her hiding in the toilets. Some schools portray her as an ex-student who died in an accident at the school. The story tends to be used by Japanese schoolchildren as a rite of passage, with many having a tale to tell of their own encounter with Hanako.

There is quite a grisly spin off to Hanako-San’s story. In this one, it is a male ghost called Aoi or Aka Manto, who hides in the last cubicle of the girls’ toilets. Upon entering the toilet, you may hear a male voice calling out, “What do you prefer? The red paper or the blue paper?” Neither have a good outcome. Picking the red paper will earn you being slit on the throat several times, spilling enough blood to make you look as though you’re wearing a red cape. The blue paper means death by hanging. And I thought the tale of the haunted toilet in my primary school were bad!

Another and the final tale to be examined in this instalment of Japanese ghost stories is that of the Nopperabou, or No Face. This isn’t so much a ghost as a supernatural entity that has the ability to fool people into thinking it has a face. It is usually encountered at night in isolated rural places, although generally speaking, it can be met anywhere that is lonely. The sole aim of the Nopperabou seems to be to cause fear. It will enter into conversation with its unsuspecting victim, giving the illusion that it has a face. Then it waits for the opportune moment to drop its mirage, presenting its companion with a visage of smooth skin, lacking the normal facial features of eyes, nose and mouth. The most famous Nopperabou tale is of Lafcadio Hearn’s Mujina, as follows:

On the Akasaka Road, in Tôkyô, there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka, — which means the Slope of the Province of Kii. I do not know why it is called the Slope of the province of Kii. On one side of this slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens; — and on the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace. Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset.

All because of a Mujina that used to walk there.

The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyôbashi quarter, who died about thirty years ago. This is the story, as he told it :—

One night, at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, when he perceived a woman crouching by the moat, all alone, and weeping bitterly. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped to offer her any assistance or consolation in his power. She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family. “O-jochû,” he exclaimed, approaching her,— “O-jochû, do not cry like that!… Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you, I shall be glad to help you.” (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.) But she continued to weep,— hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochû,” he said again, as gently as he could,— “please, please listen to me! … This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you!— only tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded:— “O-jochû!— O-jochû!— O-jochû!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochû!— O-jochû!”… Then that O-jochû turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand;— and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,— and he screamed and ran away.

Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the old soba-seller, crying out, “Aa!— aa!!— aa!!!”…

“Kore! Kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! what is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”

“No— nobody hurt me,” panted the other,— “only… Aa!— aa!”…

“— Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”

“Not robbers,— not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman— by the moat;— and she showed me… Aa! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…

“He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face— which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.

(Source: http://www.trussel.com/hearn/Mujina.htm)

This particular story causes some confusion though, particularly for Westerners. The entities involved are Nopperabous, but Mujina is the name of a different supernatural creature altogether…