One god to rule them all


All new regimes know their enemies. Having swept away the forces of the shogunate, the architects of the 1868 Meiji Restoration found themselves facing another foe. This fifth column was invisible: Its ranks were made up of yokai (ghosts) and bakemono (monsters), kappa (water sprites) and tengu (goblins).

The Meiji program of “civilization and enlightenment” would have no truck with these creatures, which were especially active in rural Japan. “There is no such thing as tengu” was the Education Ministry’s official line on Japan’s most-celebrated homegrown monster that was to be formally condemned in textbooks from 1903. Nor did the new Imperial highways accommodate hashi-hime, the “bridge princesses” who guarded river crossings in folk tales from the Middle Ages onward. One unconventional author, Kyoka Izumi, penned a 1897 short story titled “Kecho (Chimera)” in which a modern-day hashi-hime ekes out a living collecting bridge tolls — but his ghost stories earned him the ridicule of the Meiji literary establishment for “bringing monsters into Tokyo.”

Folk explanations for the events of rural life were discouraged and rational theories offered in their stead.

Hence, if a person were to wander absently into the mountains, he or she was no longer regarded as a victim of kamikakushi (divine kidnapping) but merely a candidate for the mental hospital. “Going into the mountains” was a criterion for incarceration in one of the new yashikiro (asylums). If the playful, beaked kappa were the size of children and lived in ponds and streams, that — the new rationalism determined — was because their origin was in countryside superstition surrounding the practice of infanticide by drowning.

Even local gods were not safe from the Meiji revisionists. Cult or shamanistic centers were destroyed or assimilated in a 1906-12 program aimed at creating a hierarchy of shrines, to bind the regions of Japan in unity and devotion to the Imperial line. Famously a kami-no-kuni (land of gods), Japan was henceforth to have no god but one: its emperor.

But while the Meiji authorities sought to discredit ghosts and demons as the credulous objects of folk belief, to promote the new conception of a divine emperor they had to ensure that the common people retain their capacity for superstitious awe. The cult of Imperial divinity was nothing less than “authorized superstition,” said University of Delaware history professor Gerald Figal in a recent study of Meiji modernization. The emperor himself “was perhaps the most fantastic creature of all in Japan, a kind of lightning rod to rechannel the . . . otherworldly fantasies and desires that coursed through Japanese bodies.”

Modernization may have put an end to literal belief in yokai and bakemono, but they lived on as colorful figures in folk art and legend. Minzokugaku (folk studies) gained credibility as a field of learning even as yokaigaku (“monsterology”), a discipline that invoked psychology to “scientifically” disprove the existence of monsters, petered out with the death of its founder, Enryo Inoue (1859-1919).

But by the time Inoue died, there were those in government who realized that Japan’s monsters might again be of use to the country’s political masters. The work of the Meiji-Era folklorists, in particular that of Kunio Yanagita (a bureaucrat-turned-scholar who traveled the country recording local legends, most famously in the “Tales of Tono”), was pressed into service to construct notions of a unifying “Japanese Spirit.”

Yanagita believed, for example, that tengu had a uniquely Japanese personality, boasting purity, singlemindedness and revengefulness that “are in common with bushido and do not exist in other countries.” Such notions, and that supposedly singularly Japanese Spirit they fostered, were to ideologically underpin the militarist and colonialist course embarked on by the government in the 1920s — ostensibly to fulfill Japan’s destiny as a modern state and a world power.

Those ambitions eventually thwarted, postwar Japan’s pursuit of modernity took a different direction, toward commerce and high-tech production. And yet the yokai and bakemono have survived and thrived.

With the recent runaway success of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away),” in which a small girl hunts for her magically transformed parents in a hot-spring town populated by gods and monsters, it seems the bright city streets of modern Japan are as ghost-haunted as any twilit mountain village ever was.