It’s that time of year again. The whole of Japan seems to be on the move as people head to their hometowns for the mid-August O-bon festival. And it’s not just the living who make travel plans this month. O-bon is the Buddhist holiday when the spirits of the dead are believed to visit the homes of their living families, to celebrate with them what is the netherworld’s holiday season, too.

In many Japanese homes O-bon begins with the lighting of lanterns, often hung in doorways to guide the spirits home. The spirits are believed to visit for several days before returning to the netherworld, when their return journeys, too, are often guided by lanterns — this time released into nearby rivers.

Buddhist guides to O-bon preparation also describe a special altar in the home bearing a variety of offerings for the spirits: food and drink they enjoyed in life, and often a small horse or a cow made out of vegetables such as cucumbers or eggplant, that are believed to serve as transport for the spirits between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The observance of days on which spirits roam freely is common across cultures. Although some of these festivals, like Halloween, have lost their original significance, their roots all lie in beliefs about life and death that continue to influence our ways of thinking today.

Spirited along the Silk Road

The roots of O-bon are found along the Silk Road. The earliest record of the festival’s celebration in Japan dates back to 657. At that time, the political and cultural center of Asuka (now a village in Nara Prefecture) was very cosmopolitan, populated by people from present-day China and the Korean Peninsula, and Persians who’d traveled the Silk Road to Beijing and then beyond.

Out of this rich cultural brew came O-bon. Eiichi Imoto, former professor of Persian studies at Osaka University of Foreign Studies, links the word itself (whose formal Buddhist form is Urabon) to uruvan, a variant of an ancient Persian term describing a central Zoroastrian belief: an energy field linking life and death. Zoroastrians who reached Japan along the Silk Road brought with them their version of festivals honoring the dead, and these merged with Buddhist festivals that spread after the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in 538.

Buddhism is regarded as the greatest influence on the timing of the festival. A key day is July 15 on the lunar calendar, when Buddhist monks gather to confess their sins to each other and seek enlightenment in return. One Buddhist scriptural tale recounts how on that day a monk called Mokuren, famous for his ability to see visions, saw his dead mother suffering from hunger in the depths of hell. His offering of a bowl of rice helped ease her suffering, and Mokuren’s story is said to have transformed July 15 into a day of ancestor worship in Buddhist monasteries.

Tokyo’s O-bon celebrations still take place in July; but outside Tokyo, O-bon is celebrated in August, the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which is still commonly used in agricultural areas to time planting and harvesting.

All O-bon matsuri, whenever and wherever they are held, center on inviting gods and spirits to join in celebratory dances with the living. These dances, often with hundreds of participants, are the highlight of most O-bon celebrations. Similarly, the haneto dancers who figure prominently in Aomori’s summer Nebuta Matsuri represent spirits who roam the streets during the festival. The haneto call out to each other and are accompanied by rhythmic music on traditional percussion instruments.

Though ancestral spirits are the principal visitors during O-bon, and usually receive a warm reception, uninvited, unwelcome guests are also thought to tag along. These malicious spirits — the ghosts of people with a grudge, or a reason to cling onto this world — are always looking for a chance to cause trouble. (Another function of the O-bon dance is to scare them off.)

Defining concepts

Ghosts have a considerable tradition in Japan — not just at festivals but even among the academic community, where debates revolving around the definition of ghosts are ongoing. Are ghosts really legless, as so often depicted in Japanese paintings? Are women more prone to jealousy than men, and therefore more effective at haunting? Such questions still linger in current research on Japanese ghosts.

Those tempted to such speculations often draw on the definition of ghosts given by Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), the eminent scholar of Japanese folklore. There is a clear distinction between yurei (ghosts) and obake (monsters), he wrote in his seminal “Yokaidangi (Lectures on Monsters).” According to Yanagita, yurei haunt a particular person, while obake (also bakemono or yokai; shape-shifters) haunt a particular place.

Obake are often comical, even endearing. “These creatures are more humorous than scary, and the real fun lies in their wild antics and bizarre appearances,” wrote Adam Kabat, professor of Japanese literature at Musashi University, in a recent essay (Japan Quarterly, January/March 2001). The humor of these monsters, he says, lies in their re-creation of everyday life in a supernatural setting in which human values are turned upside down. Yurei, however, are on an altogether more serious mission: They have a strong emotional attachment that will drive them to chase a person to the ends of the earth.

“Not everyone can become a ghost. It has to be someone who has extra psychological strength,” writes Akira Ishii in “Yurei wa naze deru ka (Why Ghosts Appear)” (Heibonsha, 1998). Ishii’s opinion leads him to offer an unusual interpretation of “Chushingura,” the classic revenge-tale of the 47 masterless samurai.

The story takes place in 1701, when the young Lord Asano Takumi no Kami is insulted by an older lord, Kira Kozuke no Suke. In a fit of fury, Asano draws his sword in the shogun’s palace, a prohibited act for which he is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). His retainers vow revenge, and after a year succeed in beheading Kira — an act for which they, too, are made to commit seppuku. Ishii observes that if Asano had possessed the strength of will necessary to become a ghost and haunt Kira, his 47 followers would never have had to take revenge and sacrifice their own lives.

Those who did have strength enough for a haunting have long taken center stage in Japanese literature, art and folklore. One of the most celebrated ghosts appears in Murasaki Shikibu’s “Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji),” considered the world’s first novel, and whose estimated 1,000th anniversary it is this year.

The story focuses on the delights — and nightmares — of being in love. Its hero, Hikaru Genji, is the object of everyone’s desires, and breaks the hearts of a succession of lovers. The story takes a dramatic turn as the intense jealousy of one of his women, the courtier Rokujo no Miyasundokoro, takes on a life of its own as a passionately grudge-bearing spirit (ikiryo) that possesses her and eventually kills Genji’s wife, Aoi no Ue.

Spirits of a different kind often make their appearance in noh plays, which developed in the 14th-15th centuries when Japan was racked with civil war and the possibility of a violent death was ever present. The spirits portrayed in noh are often the ghosts of victims of violent struggle, unable to find rest until someone prays for their souls. Their appearances are not for mere incidental drama — they assume central roles in the plays.

In “Sanemori,” a traveling monk meets an old man on the road, who tells him a strange story about a nearby lake. Rumor has it, says the man, that a warrior named Sanemori was beheaded during the Genpei wars, the famous clash between the Minamoto (Genji) and Heiki clans. His enemies washed his head in the lake and his spirit has been restless ever since. The old man turns out to be the ghost of Sanemori himself, and it is only when the monk prays for his repose that the warrior is able to find solace and move on into the next world.

The popularity of ghosts peaked during the Edo Period, when political stability caused urban culture to flourish and promoted the development of entertainment such as kabuki. At no other time in Japanese history were so many tales and beings born from the netherworld.

Some live on, ageless, in the form of characters in kabuki plays. Visit the Kabukiza in Tokyo this month, and you will encounter the ghost of Okiku, from the play “Banshu Sara Yashiki (The Dish Mansion of Banshu).” In line with the custom of telling ghost stories in the summer to send chills up the spine — Edo-style air conditioning — kabuki plays featuring ghosts still draw a packed audience.

In more recent times, ghosts have captured the imagination through the medium of manga. Haunting images of 20th-century history are mirrored in the cartoons and anime of Shigeru Mizuki (1922 – ), best known for his “Gegege no Kitaro” series. Kitaro, a one-eyed, orphaned monster who crawled out of his mother’s womb, is rejected as a freak by both humans and monsters. The inspiration for the series were Mizuki’s experiences as a soldier in World War II and the horrors he witnessed in the jungles of New Guinea. His is a tale of grappling with personal ghosts in the darkest corners of the human mind.

In the realm of cyberspace

What role do ghosts have today? The Internet has given them a new realm to inhabit with the launch in June of an online database of more than 13,000 ghosts and monsters (www.nichibun.ac.jp/youkaidb). Compiled by the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto and open to public access, the database compiles accounts of ghostly experiences, ranging from Edo Period records to those more close to our own time. Searching for a ghost in your neighborhood? The database may point you in the right direction, such as its account of a monster that rode on a whirlwind and chased a passenger along passageways linking Tokyo’s Hibiya and Ginza subway stations.

Kazuhiko Komatsu, a professor at the research center and one of the creators of the database, says anything that is considered strange — whether a sound, a smell or something in physical form — and is felt to be the work of a kami (god) or a ghost, is considered for inclusion. He expects to add 1,500-2,000 new entries each year — a striking number of phenomena that illustrates how ready Japanese people are to attribute otherworldly causes to occurrences in their lives.

What beliefs are reflected by the existence of such a large number of reports? Although festivals like O-bon show that Buddhist beliefs persist in Japan, most people in their lifetime undergo the rituals of many religions: blessed in a Shinto shrine at birth, married in a Christian church and sent off into the next world by Buddhist priests.

But the fear and wonder of life and death, of the nature of worlds other than our own, are common to all forms of religious thought. A mid-1990s survey conducted by Shoji Tatsukawa, author of “Nihonjin no shiseikan (Japanese Views on Death and Life)” (Chikuma Shobo, 1998), showed that of the 585 respondents, 29.5 percent held firmly that the other world existed. A further 40.9 percent replied that although they were not sure whether it existed or not, they wanted to believe that it did.

Perhaps the continued mass observance of O-bon reminds us that there is comfort to be found in the infinite possibility of the unknown.

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