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Spooky Japanese tales will scare the summer’s heat out of you

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

The 猛暑 (mōsho, fierce heat) of 今年の夏 (kotoshi no natsu, this summer) has prompted even my perpetually 冷え症 (hieshō, prone to feeling cold) mom to grab the リモコン (rimokon, remote control) of the エアコン (eakon, air conditioner) and stay indoors.

Typical of her generation, my mother’s threshold of physical endurance is on par with a Navy Seal recruit, and she’s also a complete 節約家 (setsuyakuka, frugalist) when it comes to air conditioning. She has long held that the 冷房 (reibō, air conditioning) is 身体に悪い (karada ni warui, bad for your health), 環境に悪い (kankyō ni warui, bad for the environment) and, most damning of all, お財布に悪い (o-saifu ni warui, bad for the wallet), but this year, she caved. Which leads me to believe this mōsho is for real. If my mom can’t stand it, no one can.

Until last year, the Japanese media used to measure the heat with different terms: 炎暑 (ensho, flaming heat) was intensely dry summer heat, as opposed to mōsho, which is a combo of heat and soaring humidity levels. 激暑 (gekisho, passionate heat) was a cut above mōsho in terms of temperature and the worst was the record-busting 酷暑 (kokusho, cruel heat) that caused people to collapse on the street or worse. This year, it seems the media has agreed to unify all varieties of heat under the single term: mōsho. Mōsho and 熱中症 (netchūshō, heat stroke) have been the most oft-seen words in the Japanese media this past month, along with 西日本豪雨 (nishi Nihon gōu, heavy rains in western Japan).

The Japanese used to be more creative about combatting heat, but then again, as everyone keeps reminding each other, 昔はこんなに暑くなかった (Mukashi wa konna-ni atsukunakatta; In the old days, it was never this hot). Now, it has become the norm to have the AC turned on all night, but until about a decade ago, 夏の夜 (natsu no yoru, summer nights) involved turning off the air-con and 涼を取る (ryō o toru, literally, “taking the cool,” meaning “enjoying a cool breeze”), by doing things like 肝試し (kimo-dameshi; literally, “testing your liver,” meaning “daring to do scary things”) or 車座になって怪談話 (kurumaza ni natte kaidanbanashi, sitting in a circle and telling ghost stories).

Fright would send shivers down the spine or cause us to 寒気がする (samuke ga suru, feel a chill) — an intriguing phrase that blends the word 寒気 (samuke, chills) with the verb する (suru, to do). It’s a passive-aggressive phrase, suggesting that it’s not the person feeling chills but the chills working their effect on the person.

The phrase “samuke ga suru” has evolved over the years. Before, it was strictly about chills and goosebumps, but now it’s more often used as a reaction to a bad joke. The same can be said for the term 寒い (samui, cold) — a frequent response to the 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu, bad jokes from middle-aged men). Feeling cold tends to have negative connotations: samui and 冷える (hieru, get cool) are often used negatively to describe the state of the economy, relationships gone bad or rice gone cold (long considered sacrilege in this nation).

Back to ghost stories, 怪談 (kaidan) was famously spelled “Kwaidan” in the title of the collection of such scary tales by Lafcadio Hearn (aka Koizumi Yakumo). Back in the 20th century, Hearn’s story 耳なし芳一 (Mimi-nashi Hōichi, “Hoichi the Earless”) was one of the staples of both the 国語の教科書 (kokugo no kyōkasho, Japanese language textbook) in 公立中学 (kōritsu chūgaku, state junior high schoolds) and summertime kaidan. One of my friends was a master “Mimi-nashi Hōichi” storyteller, with a true flair for drawing out the climax (the part where the samurai ghost rips off Hoichi’s ears) until someone or other erupted in tears. We all agreed that traditional kaidan were scarier than modern ones, which in those days tended to lean toward ゾンビ (zonbi, zombies) and weird 都市伝説 (toshi densetsu, urban legends) instead of ghosts.

When the millennium kicked in, the entire kaidan scene changed. From the early naughts, it was all ストーカー (stōkā, stalkers) and various riffs on Sadako (from the movie “Ringu”), followed by 裏サイトネタ (ura saito neta, topics from underground message boards) that involved grisly stories of いじめ (ijime, bullying) and 暴力 (bōryoku, violence) which were just grossly horrific and no fun at all.

There are exceptions. One notable stalker story has endured to this day and goes like this:

A 女子大生 (joshi daisei, female college student) was invited to her friend’s apartment to spend the night. Her friend lived in a tiny 1K (one room with a kitchen) apartment on the Odakyu Line. After the pair shared cans of beer and a bag of potato chips, they decided to go to sleep. The friend climbed onto her bed, and the joshi daisei stretched out on the guest futon.

It was then that she saw a man holding a gleaming 斧 (ono, ax) to his chest, lying under her friend’s bed. Forcing herself to stay calm, the girl remarked casually that she was really in the mood to go out and get some ice cream.

The friend protested: “We just brushed our teeth. And besides, it’s past midnight!” But the girl insisted, making sure her voice was calm. She slowly got up off the futon, clutched her friend’s hand and prepared to leave the apartment. As they opened the door, they heard the words: 僕にもチョコ味買ってきて (Boku ni mo choko-aji katte-kite, Get a chocolate-flavored one for me!)

What happened next? それは誰も知らない (Sore wa dare mo shiranai; As to that, no one knows) …