While many overseas scholars are attracted to the retrained aesthetics of Japanese arts and letters, it was the country’s wild and wooly folklore that captivated Zack Davisson, an American writer and translator. While pursuing his masters degree in Japanese studies Davisson immersed himself in the mysterious world of kaidan. These are not your horror ghost stories, but any story that has an element of the strange and unusual.
Davisson has been working in the field for almost a decade and his website Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai has grown over the past four years into a formidable collection of fascinating tales of the Japanese paranormal. When asked if the stories have changed his worldview, he said that these stories provided him with a greater depth of appreciation for the variable nature of reality.
In this Japan Times Blogroll interview, we find out more about Davisson and how a short story can impart a wealth of insight about a country’s culture. As Davisson said himself, quoting Lafcadio Hearn’s book “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation,” “You couldn’t understand really Japan without understanding Japan’s ghost and folklore.”
What inspired you to get interested in Japanese folklore and ghostly tales?
I’ve always been interested in monsters, ghosts and folklore — I was the kid who read Fortean Times and could tell you about the Jersey Devil and the Bell Witch. Fortunately, my mother supported my fantasy fix and got me the TimeLife series “The Enchanted World,” about world mythology and folklore.
“The Ghosts” volume had “The Wife’s Revenge,” with Oiwa from “Yotsuya Kaidan.” That planted the seed.
How would you describe the Japanese view of the supernatural? Is it similar to the Western perspective? Do you see that view evolving over generations?
I would say it is very different. Japan takes the supernatural as a matter of course. The omnipresence of shrines and temples has something to do with that — Japanese children are introduced to the supernatural at a young age, and grow up with kappa, dragons and yūrei [ghosts]. The dead even claim space in the house in the butsudan (family altar). They have their own holiday, Obon. There’s an attitude of accepting the supernatural as a part of their heritage. And I think that holds true generationally.
The Western perspective tends to be either more cynical or more extreme. It’s similar to attitudes about religion — Japan tends to practice religion as an extension of tradition and culture, putting aside questions of belief and actuality.
Is there one kaidan story in particular that has left a very strong impression?
My favorites are the ones that are slightly odd. I love “The Smoking Husband” from “Konjaku Monogatari and The Rattling Bridge” from Kyoka Hyakumonogatari. And of course, the perennial favorite, “Kappa and the Small Anus Ball.”
Are there any places in Japan that are particularly fruitful for kaidan?
You’ll find kaidan everywhere, but the Tono region is rich in folklore, as captured in “Tono Monogatari.”
Tono is a fairly isolated, mountainous place up north, with a long folktale heritage. Kunio Yanagita — one of Japan’s first folklorist — found a treasure trove in Tono when he was researching Japan’s native folklore. Many familiar folktales, like kappa stories and the Yama Otoko, come from Tono. The book “Tono Monogatari” (“The Legends of Tono”) is really wonderful. Shigeru Mizuki did a manga version of it that I hope to translate someday.
It is interesting to see how some kaidan tales were also used to promote Buddhism in Japan. Is that common in eastern Asia? Were kaidan chosen due to their popularity even among the upper classes of society?
That’s a big question, maybe too big for this interview! I’ll say that religion always walked hand in hand with the supernatural in Japan. It took centuries for the emergence of supernatural-as-entertainment. Buddhism is full of miracle tales, so when it came to Japan it was perfect. When the early Buddhist priests were teaching, they found if they couched it as a tale of supernatural they got more adherents. Existing folklore, like oni, fit right in.
And what exactly are oni?
In the quick and dirty, oni existed in native Japanese folklore before the arrival of Buddhism. Some even think that they are transmitted legends from an actual events — the large, hairy bodies and iron-working have made some speculate about a shipwrecked crew of Europeans who made a home up in the mountains giving rise to oni legends. But they were a folkloric boogie man for centuries, then when Buddhism came over oni were “recast” as demons in Buddhist hell, and eventually took on traits of both religions. If you want the full story, read Noriko Reider’s “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present,” which is a great book on the subject.
You interact a lot with your blog’s readers. Do they often provide you with interesting topical comments?
I learn a lot from my readers, especially about other countries’ folklore. I never expected to have a worldwide readership.
Are you interested in other countries’ folklore?
Absolutely! I love ghost stories and monsters from anywhere. I love the ghost stories of Scotland, the Penanggalan from Southeast Asia, the Krampus from Northern Europe . . . My wife and I take trips around the world to see mystery places, like the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico. And modern folklore too, like Ancient astronauts, Bigfoot and the Mothman. I have an endless appetite for the weird!
Do you ever come across tales that echo narratives or figures in other countries’ folktales?
All the time! It’s a little scary how universal some of this stuff is. I’m a Joseph Campbell fan, and you can see how themes are shared and interpreted across cultures. “Magical wife” stories, for example, or “don’t look in the box” stories. But then there are things that are uniquely Japanese — and just weird — like the shirime.
It seems that you and your wife are both fans of supernatural. Does she help you out, since she is Japanese and might know some stories?
She has an interesting relationship with the supernatural. My wife is famous amongst her friends for having a strong reikan — meaning the ability to sense the supernatural. And she is an immense help with my translations, because as a native speaker she is a living dictionary I can turn to whenever I need help!
But she has less of a passion for the historical elements that I love and stays away from my strange hobby. She finds it a constant mystery that she has an American husband fascinated with Japanese ghosts.
You announced on your blog in March that your book “Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost” will be published in the fall. Is the book based solely on the results of your research, or will the reader get to know about your personal experience with the paranormal as well?
A few personal stories, but 99% based on my research. It’s largely my MA thesis rewritten, then expanded with new research, translated stories, and pictures. It’s going to be cool.
Are there any other inspiring writers or artists who work with the Japanese supernatural whom you admire?
I love Lafcadio Hearn, and all those known and unknown writers who contributed stories to Japan’s vast cultural history of folklore and monsters. I enjoy Noriko Reider’s contemporary research.
It’s not Japanese supernatural, but I would put “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola on the same level as Shigeru Mizuki and Hearn. He’s impressive. An artist and a scholar.
You have also translated Shigeru Mizuki’s “Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan.” It seems from your posts on your website that he is one of the people whom you respect deeply. At the age of 92 he is being praised as the oldest working manga artist in the world. Do you imagine yourself dedicating your life to folklore same as Shigeru Mizuki did with manga, or is there a certain limit?
I deeply respect him. Shigeru Mizuki the man is as fascinating to me as his works, and it a great honor to be able to bring his works to a new audience.
I have no idea what the future holds, but I have at least two more books planned, and hopefully more Mizuki. If could be Stephen Turnbull I would be very happy!
Are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about?
“Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan” comes out May 27. I just proofed the final pages and it is beautiful. Hopefully soon “Supernatural Geographic” with Brandon Seifert. And of course; “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost” comes out in September. Nothing has me more excited! It is going to be an incredible book!
Zack Davisson’s books can be found on Amazon.com