Spend a summer in Japan and you’re bound to notice the ghosts. It starts with the media’s escalating emphasis on local hauntings or folklore, a nod to the widely accepted belief that spooky tales bring welcome chills to battle the heat. It culminates with the Bon holiday period, which generally runs in mid-August, although the timing depends on where you live in Japan.
It’s a Buddhist belief that Bon is when the spirits of the ancestors return to the land of the living, and it is customary for Japanese to travel back to their birthplaces to honor their dead. Now on the cusp of Bon, here’s a look at three contemporary literary twists on the ghostly realms of modern Japan.
First up is Japanese writer Aoko Matusda’s 2016 absurdist collection of short stories, “Where the Wild Ladies Are.” The English edition, translated by Polly Barton, was released this year. A wondrously surreal yet realistically grounded take on traditional Japanese ghost tales, Matsuda deftly reworks classic stories by placing the female spirits front and center. Her pragmatic ghosts give beauty advice, take lovers and long baths, and even babysit for an overworked single mother.
As Barton says in an interview with The Japan Times, “From an early age, Matsuda has been fascinated by ghost stories where the ghost isn’t made into a particularly spooky or scary entity, but simply lives alongside human beings in a casual and unremarked-upon way.
“Yet as she read more, Matsuda realized how ghost stories represent a core of misogyny and abuse in Japan — all this terrible stuff happens to women and then they die. As ghosts, they wreak their revenge and become otherized as terrifying beings, end of story. No accountability is taken for what was done to them in the first place.”
In Matsuda’s reimaginings, the ghosts take control with agency, wit and compassion — and a streak of pop culture flair. Barton adds, “Matsuda wants to bring feminism to a younger readership in a way that feels fun, and readers will realize feminism is for them. Most of these stories are modern adaptations of kabuki or rakugo, traditional art forms that quite often attract staid or conservative ideas. There are hardcore traditionalists who may see Matsuda’s methods as irreverent, but in her world, it shows her respect for the stories, that they are universal in time and place, and are constantly being reinvented in modern terms.”
Two American writers have also found success in reworking the appealing spiritual world of Japan. Writer-performer Barry Yourgrau runs “Tokyo Ghost Gaga,” a bilingual series of short fiction for NAMI magazine, and Thersa Matsuura is the host of the ghost-story podcast “Uncanny Japan” as well as a Bram Stoker Award nominee for her collection of Japan-inspired horror tales,“The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales” (2017).
For both writers, each drawn to the inexplicably strange, the Japanese sensibility to ghosts is an undeniable attraction. As Yourgrau says, “being in Tokyo is so fascinating because in many ways it’s the city of the future, but it also has these medieval hangovers around every corner. Tokyo blends a combination of the future and hyper-present with a medieval legacy that hasn’t gone away.”
For Matsuura, a long-term resident of Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japanese spiritual beliefs consistently influence daily reality, and in the rural fishing village that she calls home, the supernatural is never far away.
“There’s a pervasive belief that you’re always living with the ancestors, and the spirits are so alive here since the land is so old,” she says. “Temples or shrines are at every block, the kamidan (gods’ shelf) rests in the house, and every morning you put the offerings in the butsudan (Buddhist altar). Ghosts are absolutely part of a daily ritual of acceptance.”
Ten years ago, Matsuura’s mother-in-law matter-of-factly declared her “sticky” to ghosts, insisting on a series of exorcisms to rid the family of potential bad luck. Matsuura weaves all these realities into her work, including an “Uncanny Japan” episode, which aired on May 29, that explains sayings related to yо̄kai (supernatural monsters) and the Japanese tradition of creepy children’s songs. Matsuura also offers up audio-dramas as “Bedtime Stories” on Patreon and pens a column about the surreal in the Asahi Weekly.
Yourgrau’s tales in “Tokyo Ghost Gaga” were drawn from an extended stay in Tokyo with his partner, a food columnist, and are a mix of “fact and fabulism” with a focus on cultural ghosts. The stories take the reader on a ghostly ramen-tasting tour, to the base of an anthropomorphic lovesick Tokyo Tower, and off on a night drive with the spirit of Yoko Sugiyama, Yukio Mishima’s bride. “The real events happened,” says Yourgrau, “and then I researched to discover different ghostly or surreal connections.”
With its endless possibilities, the popularity of the Japanese ghost-story genre seems sure to live on. As translator Barton points out, “(Outside of Japan), ghosts belong to such a rigid category of being, whereas in Japan you have such a wide class of supernatural beings, from yо̄kai to yūrei (ghosts) to tree spirits, and all those categories seamlessly blend into the realm of kami (gods). So in the whole animist tradition, everything is a lot more fluid (at the point) where it passes from the living to the dead.”
Yourgrau adds, “(The ghost-story genre) represents such a richness of the culture, as it indicates the presence — mentally, emotionally and psychologically — of the departed. It suggests the dead haven’t really gone — and on some level, it’s true. In dreams or daily life, we still hold strong connections with the departed; they haven’t gone away. They’ve just taken another reality, a psychological or emotional reality. Japanese ghost stories speak to that reality.”