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Miyuki Miyabe’s latest puts the history in Japanese horror

by Matt Alt

Special To The Japan Times

Better known for her crime and fantasy writing abroad, precious few of the prolific Miyuki Miyabe’s tales of terror have actually made it into the English language. Haikasoru’s publication of “Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo” addresses this oversight. Capably translated by Daniel Huddleston, this collection of short stories is set against the exotic backdrop (to foreign readers, anyway) of old Edo — essentially Tokyo before it became Tokyo, in the early 19th century.

Old Edo doesn’t much resemble the metropolis we know today. It’s a low city of wood and paper homes with a disturbing tendency to burn to the ground. Children are sold into indentured servitude or prostitution; aristocrats and masters kill those beneath them with impunity; the elderly are tossed into dank dungeons. Everywhere disease, murders, and suicides take their toll on the beleaguered residents of the city. And those are just their normal, everyday travails. Miyabe’s Edo also seethes with curses, ghosts and strange creatures beyond human understanding.

“Life was hard and short for people in the Edo Period,” Miyabe explained to The Japan Times in an interview earlier this month. “They understood that death might be just around the corner. In fact, I believe this is what contributed to the development of Japan’s scary storytelling tradition.”

Tales of terror, known as kaidan, have been a popular form of entertainment for centuries in Japan. They’re mainly (but not exclusively) a summer phenomenon; in an era before air conditioning, fans would gather in the summer months to swap stories in the hope that a shiver might chill them down from the brutal summer heat. At the peak of the fad in the late Edo Period (1603-1867), this culminated in a hugely popular parlor game called Hyaku-monogatari (One Hundred Scary Stories) in which every participant was expected to bring and recite a spooky tale. Miyabe’s collection is set squarely in this tradition, making it meaty stuff for anyone interested in what freaks Japanese people out — then and today.

Many kaidan resemble what Westerners call urban legend, but while this particular collection happens to be set in what was even then one of the world’s largest cities, Miyabe feels the kaidan owe more to rural storytellers. “Japan was made up mainly of fishing and farming villages back then, small places where everyone knew each other. These were tiny, contained environments rather than cities, but their scary stories still had a great deal of variation and originality. Regional kaidan horror stories fascinate me because they reveal much about the customs, lifestyles, and traditions of the people who lived there.”

This is just as true for foreign readers as it is for Miyabe herself, and diving into this prose will give many non-Japanese the sink-or-swim feeling of being tossed into a study abroad program in Old Edo. The historical detail is rich, but the context is often left unexplained, being as it was written for a Japanese audience who already knows it well. And the creepiness literally creeps up on you, as Miyabe eschews Western-style showcase “boo!” moments for a traditionally Japanese slow-burn of tension and atmosphere.

Particularly striking is “The Oni of the Adachi House,” which centers on the strange relationship between a woman and a weird creature she finds inhabiting a ramshackle lodge used by locals for quarantining travelers. Oni are a constant presence in Japanese folklore, many superficially resembling the ogres of European fairy tales. Miyabe’s portrayal of a monster that not only isn’t particularly dangerous, but apparently a Samaritan of sorts, might come as a surprise to those raised in a more polarized, good-versus-evil school of Judeo-Christian thought. Miyabe’s Edo is a Twilight Zone where the things that go bump in the night don’t fit so easily into black and white categories.

“Japan has a tradition of animism, in which everything under the sun, even the things in our daily lives, can harbor gods,” explains Miyabe. “This is what Japanese mean when we say our nation is home to yaoyorozu-no-kamigami, ’8 million gods.’ Not all of them are on a higher plane than we humans are; many are what might be called lesser gods. Some are even cute. There’s even a ‘god of the toilet.’ Being Japanese, I’m influenced by this culture when I write my stories. Perhaps that’s why many the oni, yurei (ghosts), and even gods that appear in my stories are quite human at heart.”

Japan may be a modern country, but there is an almost insatiable hunger for supernatural tales of terror here, and Miyabe is more than happy to feed it. “I’ve loved scary stories ever since I was a little girl. Even in the age of science that we live in, people are drawn towards things that science can’t explain, to things that frighten them. It’s a kind of a conundrum for me, but I feel not knowing the answer to that question actually helps me write better stories.”

Which begs the question: Why do scary stories have such a hold on the people of Japan?

“We have a very wealthy and stable society overall, but we still suffer large-scale tragedies,” says Miyabe. “Disasters such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake of Kobe or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami spawned new scary tales in their respective areas. In these we can see how kaidan stories act a sort of requiem for the souls that were lost, and as a comfort for those left behind.”