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The ridiculously frightening world of Japanese spooks

Halloween has nothing on the often bizarre ghosts and monsters thought to stalk this archipelago

by Gianni Simone

Halloween is that time of the year when the occult, macabre and humorous come together to create a festival of fear and fun for all the family. A celebration of death and demons with its roots in pre-Christian Europe, the summer’s-end spook-fest has morphed over the centuries into a highly commercialized — and arguably sanitized — phenomenon that has spread its icy grip around the globe.

Halloween was not celebrated in Japan until recently, but the country has long been open to cultural and religious traditions from abroad, and younger generations seem to have embraced this new opportunity to party in faux-spooky fashion. Part of the attraction might be that Halloween’s dress-up tradition has obvious similarities with cosplay which, as well as involving anime- and computer game-inspired costumes, also incorporates ninja, samurai and other traditional elements.

Despite being relative newcomers to Halloween, the Japanese have of course been taking their ghosts and monsters very seriously for centuries, leaving behind a rich vein of supernatural fiction and spooky storytelling. During the Edo Period, for example, there was a popular game among the samurai called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales). The players gathered in a room at night and, after lighting 100 candles, took turns telling scary stories. After each tale a candle was extinguished, and the room steadily grew darker and darker. It was believed that when the room was pitch black, a ghost would appear.

According to Edward Lipsett, a Fukuoka-based American expat who since 2002 has been publishing many of these stories through his Kurodahan Press, kaidan (strange tales) and kaiki shōsetsu (weird fiction) were born as a genre in the mid-17th century and have remained very popular ever since, thanks in part to numerous theatrical and, more recently, movie reinterpretations. Ueda Akinari’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” (“Tales of Moonlight and Rain”), for example, was adapted for film in 1953 by director Kenji Mizoguchi and is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema.

The classic horror elements so common in Western ghost stories are not always present in their Japanese counterparts, explains Lipsett. More often than not these tales are about “an ordinary occurrence, interrupted,” he says. “By ordinary, I mean usual, normal aspects of life that are somehow disrupted by weird events. A good tale is not just about fear and blood, after all.”

What’s more, he adds, many, if not most, Japanese ghost stories are based on real-life events. “It is at least true that one of their main characteristics is a blurring of the border between fiction and nonfiction.”

The three-volume “Kaiki” series — one of Kurodahan’s more popular productions — explores this unique tradition through a collection of short stories, both old and modern, that read like dream studies, in which the characters try to make sense of the weird situations in which they find themselves stuck.

Another distinctive feature of Japanese folklore is a quite large gang of oddball demons and spirits called yōkai that walk a thin line between horror and ridiculousness. Not exactly human but capable of a wide range of human emotions, these creatures tend to be neither good nor bad but are certainly mischievous, often getting their kicks by playing tricks on their victims.

Matt Alt, an American yokai expert whose book “Yokai Attack!” is a guide to surviving an encounter with these monsters, says that their shape-shifting powers make them particularly hard to recognize. “Probably the easiest to grasp are the kappa (water goblin), the tengu (mountain goblin), the kitsune (fox) and the tanuki (raccoon dog),” he says.

The most famous Tokyo-specific yokai are probably the Nopperabo (“faceless ones”), which Lafcadio Hearn wrote about in his 1904 story “Mujina,” and the huge leg featured in “Ashiarai Yashiki.”

“The Nopperabo are normal-seeming humans but with horrifyingly smooth and featureless faces,” explains Alt. “A century and a half ago they were often seen in Akasaka’s Kiinokuni slope, once considered one of the scariest places in the city.”

“Ashiarai Yashiki,” on the other hand, is the tale of an enormous, disembodied leg and foot that smashes through ceilings without warning in the dead of night, demanding to be washed. “Legend has it that the first ‘big foot’ appeared in a royal mansion in the Edo district of Honjo, corresponding to Sumida Ward in present-day Tokyo,” Alt says.

Another class of supernatural beings that often overlaps with the yokai are called obake or bakemono, a term often translated as “ghost” even though they are sometimes distinct from the spirits of the dead. In line with Shinto and animistic traditions, these can belong to the animal or vegetable world, like the bakeneko (transforming cat) and the kodama (tree spirit), while the tsukumogami are household objects.

All these spirits and monsters have often infiltrated the world of pop culture and entertainment, one famous example being obake karuta, a card game popular between the Edo Period and the early 20th century that is considered a precursor of the Pokemon trading card game, whose characters were also designed after creatures from Japanese mythology.

More recently, in 1959, manga artist Shigeru Mizuki created the series “GeGeGe no Kitaro,” in which not only the 350-year-old one-eyed protagonist and his ghost father, Medama Oyaji (literally, Eyeball Father), but all the characters are yokai. Though hugely popular in Japan, this series has never broken into the mainstream overseas market, apparently because it’s too weird for all but the most rabid of foreign manga lovers.

Light Gist offer a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

Spook out JT readers to win a tour or book

Share your scariest experience in Japan or tell us about your favorite spooky Japanese tale for a chance to win a Haunted Tokyo Tour or a volume of Kurodahan Press’s “Kaiki” series of short stories.

The Japan Times has two tickets for any of Lilly Fields’ scheduled Haunted Tokyo Tours to give away (valid until the end of 2012), as well as three copies each of “Kaiki” volumes 1 and 2, “Tales of Old Edo” and “Country Delights.”

Send your submissions (maximum 500 words) to community@japantimes.co.jp by 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 25, and please rank your prize preference (e.g. 1. Tour; 2. Volume 1; 3. Volume 2).

The winning entries will be published on the Community pages at a later date.