On a damp afternoon in early July, almost two dozen people sat in silence in a dark room on the sixth floor of a building located right next to Sensoji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. The audience has come to Amuse Museum to hear two presenters — storyteller Chinatsu Ushidaki, who performs under her stage name, “Senka Ushidaki,” and rakugo comic storyteller Sanyutei Kakitsu — deliver their personal adaptations of a folk ghost story titled “Bancho Sarayashiki” (“The Story of Okiku”).
The story has several versions, but it’s usually told like this:
A young girl named Okiku worked as a maidservant in the house of Shogun Aoyama Harima in the mid-17th century. The Aoyama clan possessed 10 precious plates as an heirloom and the maidservant was instructed to ensure these remained scratch-free. On Jan. 2, 1653, Okiku accidentally broke one of the plates. Furious, Aoyama ordered his guards to cut off the middle finger of her right hand and confined Okiku to her room until the punishment could be carried out. The maidservant managed to escape, however, fleeing the house before throwing herself into a disused well. The next night (and every night thereafter), a woman’s voice could be heard counting the plates from the bottom of the well …
A short time later, Aoyama’s wife gave birth to a child that was missing a middle finger on its right hand. News of this reached the Imperial Court, which ordered Aoyama to forfeit his territory. And yet, the woman could still be heard counting. The Imperial Court sent a priest to intervene. Upon his arrival, the priest waited inside the house for the woman to finish her count before adding a “10” at the end. Released from her sorrow, Okiku’s ghost disappears.
Back in Asakusa, the two guests told their version of this folktale in very different ways.
Kakitsu had the crowd in fits of laughter, as he made Okiku a member of fictional idol group OBK48 (OBK, he argues, was short for obake, or ghost).
Ushidaki, by comparison, completely spooked the audience. Wearing a kimono and speaking with only a solitary light illuminating her face, she used her entire body to recount Okiku’s sorrowful tale. Her voice was soft and well-paced until the end, punctuated by the occasional ghastly scream.
“I believe my experience as an actress actually helps,” Ushidaki, 36, says in an interview the following day. “I still work as an actress, but I receive more job offers as a storyteller.”
Debuting in director Hideyuki Katsuki’s “Decotora no Shu” (“Shu’s Art Truck”) 2004 flick alongside actor Sho Aikawa, Ushidaki has gone on to make numerous appearances in films, often as a ghostly character.
Despite her public image, she says she used to hate scary things when she was younger.
“I used to visit my grandma once a year,” she recalls. “She lived in a very old house that only had a few lights and thin walls. The only thing I could hear were insects scuttling around in the dark. I’d turn on my TV so that my grandma wouldn’t try to tell me any scary stories but, unfortunately, there would always be a scary show playing.”
There are a wide variety of yōkai (a broad term that encompasses virtually all supernatural beings) in Japanese folklore. Hiroko Yoda, president of AltJapan and co-author of “Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide” and “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide,” says the sheer number of beings can be a little overwhelming.
“Many Japanese think of animal spirits as yōkai and human spirits as yūrei (ghostly figures),” Yoda says. “At least, that’s the basic concept behind (the categorization in) the two books.”
Yōkai, therefore, include such things as tengu (literally, “heavenly dog”), which have avian features and long noses, and kappa (literally, “river boy”), which are believed to resemble a turtle.
However, Yoda says, the distinction isn’t always clear-cut and the meanings have often changed over time.
“Sei Shonagon (author of “The Pillow Book”) used mononoke to describe these spirits,” Yoda says. “However, people generally used bakemono (monsters) to describe yōkai until the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and other spirits. However, from the Heian Era (794-1185) to the Muromachi Era (1336-1573), people called such horrific creatures oni.”
These days, coming up with the definition for yūrei appears to be a little more straight-forward. Many Japanese believe that humans have a soul called a reikon. When a person dies, the soul leaves the body and remains in a state of purgatory until proper funeral rites can be administered. If a soul is successfully able to join its ancestors, it is believed to watch over the living members of the family and return each year in August during o-Bon to receive thanks.
However, if a person dies in a violent manner and/or if proper funeral rites are not performed, the soul is believed to transform into a yūrei that haunts the physical world until the conflict is resolved.
Some believe yūrei are bitter and resentful about what they couldn’t accomplish while they were alive. According to experts, they typically appear before people saying, “urameshiya,” which can be directly translated as “I’ll get my revenge.”
Ghost stories, meanwhile, can generally be categorized into two types. Traditional kaidan (ghost stories) typically retell Edo Period folktales such as “The Story of Okiku,” “Yotsuya Kaidan” (“Ghost Story of Tokaido Yotsuya”) and “Botan Doro” (“The Peony Lantern”). However, other types of ghost stories are based on a storyteller’s own personal experiences. Called jitsuwa kaidan (real-life ghost stories), this modern style has been popularized in recent times by renowned actor Junji Inagawa.
Ushidaki tells both kinds of stories.
At the beginning of her July show, Ushidaki initially sets the scene for the traditional story she is about to recount by showing the audience video footage of a visit to Okiku’s grave. Since the story has several versions, she is careful to introduce the audience to the sources she uses to form a story of her own.
Not surprisingly, however, Ushidaki puts just as much effort into her jitsuwa kaidan performances. In May, she released a book titled “Chiba no Kowai Hanashi: Borei-tachi no Tsudoi” (“Chiba’s Scary Stories: Gathering of the Spirits”), which explores the ghostly experiences of Chiba prefecture residents. The tales included in the book are all based on stories she heard from friends and relatives living in the area.
Ushidaki says the organization behind ghost storytellers is unlike that of rakugo, which require comedians to undergo an apprenticeship under a master before becoming a professional. Therefore, she says, almost anyone can claim to be a storyteller without professional training.
“A TV celebrity or voice actress is called a ghost storyteller just for recounting scary stories,” Ushidaki says. “That’s why I avoid describing myself as a ghost storyteller as much as I can.”
Looking ahead, Ushidaki dreams of performing the “Ghost Story of Tokaido Yotsuya” and “Shinkei Kasanegafuchi” (“New Edition of Kasanegafuchi”) by the time she turns 40. “These stories — ‘Yotsuya Kaidan,’ in particular — are very difficult to perform,” Ushidaki says.
Ushidaki claims to experience psychic phenomena during and after her performances, and has suffered from a number of health problems in the past.
“I don’t mind putting my life at risk,” Ushidaki says. “Storytelling is losing its popularity, and so I’d like to ensure the country’s traditional stories are preserved forever.”