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.
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.
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…