Unsolved mysteries: Japanese fans of the occult are engaged in a never-ending search for the truth

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Whether it’s tales of hauntings, spirits or paranormal phenomena, Yuki Yoshida loves a good scare.

The 37-year-old writer known as the “occult detective” is on the lookout for the supernatural. From ghost sightings and bizarre religious rituals to unidentified flying objects, he has spent over a decade investigating urban legends and reporting his findings in books and magazines.

He has no extrasensory powers, however, and maintains a level of skepticism when researching the otherworldly. He is also unfazed by most spooky tales that follow a conventional format.

Once in a blue moon, however, even a thick-skinned collector of the macabre such as Yoshida comes across accounts that give him the shivers.

Yuki Yoshida, 37, has spent more than a decade investigating urban legends in Japan.
Yuki Yoshida, 37, has spent more than a decade investigating urban legends in Japan. | ALEX MARTIN

“Rather than any single episode, it’s when I stumble upon a recurring pattern in the stories I gather from different people,” Yoshida says.

Case in point: Yoshida knows of families that have suffered a series of misfortunes involving bankruptcies, house fires and even untimely deaths after sealing old, unused wells on their properties without conducting proper purification rites.

“These strange coincidences creep me out because it gets me thinking that maybe there’s another world out there beyond our perception and logic,” he says. “And therein lies the real thrill of my job.”

‘Golden age of the occult’

While many Japanese may not consider themselves particularly religious, much of the nation’s folklore and ghastly legends are rooted in Shinto, Buddhist and even Christian traditions.

Fear and reverence toward the dead are very much alive, and even more so during o-Bon season in mid-August when the souls of the deceased are believed to return from the netherworld to their living families.

Tales of ghosts are depicted in classic literature dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185) and flourished during the Edo Period (1603-1868) when the genre became known as kaidan (ghost stories), providing fodder for traditional arts such as kabuki plays and rakugo storytelling.

Tales from the crypt: A woodblock print featuring an interpretation of the ghost Oiwa from the folk tale
Tales from the crypt: A woodblock print featuring an interpretation of the ghost Oiwa from the folk tale ‘Yotsuya Kaidan’ by Utagawa Toyokuni (1812). | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Perhaps the most famous is Yotsuya Kaidan, a grim saga of betrayal and murderous revenge written in 1825 by dramatist Tsuruya Namboku that has since been adapted for numerous films and literature, influencing Japanese horror to this day.

Japan was swept by a new interest in the paranormal during the Showa Era (1926-89) as the nation underwent a dramatic postwar evolution that saw it join the ranks of economic superpowers.

Often dubbed the “golden age of the occult,” the 1970s saw kids and adults alike transfixed by television shows and magazines featuring Israeli spoon bender Uri Geller, the prophecies of Nostradamus, cryptids such as the Loch Ness Monster and Yeti, and kokkuri-san, Japan’s equivalent of the ouija board.

This was also the heyday of the UFO craze, producing some of the most infamous encounters with the extraterrestrial.

In what has come to be known as the 1975 Kofu Incident, two second-graders in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, said they discovered a circular craft in the middle of a vineyard, from which they said emerged a short brown creature.

In the 1974 Nikoro Incident, a 28-year-old man in Hokkaido claimed he was abducted on multiple occasions by aliens on a flying saucer. During one such outing he returned with a piece of rock he said was from Jupiter, despite the planet being mostly comprised by a giant mass of gas.

The period’s exploding interest in the unknown led to the birth of arguably the country’s most influential and longest living occult magazine: Mu.

Mysterious magazine

Subtitled the “Super Mystery Magazine,” Mu was launched in 1979, the same year Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi horror film, “Alien,” hit the big screens.

Published by a subsidiary of Gakken Holdings Co., which is known for its educational books and magazines, Mu is a hodgepodge of all things extraordinary.

A single issue could explore anything from UFOs, Freemasonry and conspiracy theories to spiritualism, ancient lost civilizations and other esoteric mysteries from exotic parts of the world.

Takeharu Mikami, editor-in-chief of Mu, says his publication has traditionally adopted an open-minded attitude toward the supernatural.
Takeharu Mikami, editor-in-chief of Mu, says his publication has traditionally adopted an open-minded attitude toward the supernatural. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Takeharu Mikami, editor-in-chief of Mu, says the magazine’s concept has remained mostly unchanged since its founding days, and reflects the bygone era’s more open-minded attitude toward the supernatural before tougher compliance standards forced the media to tone down its coverage of the potentially dubious and fantastical.

“Those who were in elementary school during the 1970s formed a basis for our readership,” he says. “Since then, we’ve been ‘untiringly devoted to the uncertain,'” Mikami quipped, referring to what he says is the unofficial editorial motto of the publication.

The boom continued well into the 1980s and early ’90s, with prime-time television running shows featuring shamans and spiritualists conducting divinations, exorcisms and battling vengeful ghosts.

The late clairvoyant Aiko Gibo, for example, was a fixture on mass media, performing psychic readings and publishing best-selling books on guardian spirits.

Fortune-telling, including astrology and palm and tarot card readings, became popular among teenage girls, while a rise in young people believing in life after death and spiritual worlds provided fertile ground for various new religions to emerge.

Among them was Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult whose long-haired, bearded guru, Shoko Asahara, made frequent appearances on television programs and magazines including Mu before the dangerous nature of the sect began to surface.

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was hanged in July along with 12 of his disciples for his role in a series of heinous crimes culminating in the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks that killed 13 and injured around 6,000.

The deadly Aum affair triggered an outpouring of negative media coverage and general suspicion toward new religions, tarnishing the image of spiritualist practices.

The Okinajima Pension in Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture, is known as the
The Okinajima Pension in Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture, is known as the ‘ghost pension’ and is a popular spot among paranormal aficionados. Now abandoned, rumor has it that its owner committed suicide in the building’s basement, and his shocked wife subsequently lost her mind and killed their child. | COURTESY OF YUKI YOSHIDA

By the turn of the millennium, however, the popularity of the occult saw a resurgence. It took a gentler form, however, with emphasis toward individual happiness rather than the threats posed by hostile ghosts and spirits.

The advent of smartphones also had a significant impact on how the public consumed and propagated such content, Mikami says.

One example may be the decade-old “power spot” boom that sees people traveling and trekking to locations such as Mount Fuji and Togakushi Shrine in Nagano Prefecture in search for mystical energy sources.

“Amulets and talismans were replaced by smartphone pictures of power spots that could easily be shared among friends for good luck,” Mikami says.

Diviner Kazuko Hosoki made regular appearances on TV in the 2000s.
Diviner Kazuko Hosoki made regular appearances on TV in the 2000s. | KYODO

The 2000s also had its share of superstar television diviners, notably Kazuko Hosoki, an acid-tongued fortuneteller known for giving blunt, ominous prophecies to her celebrity guests, and Hiroyuki Ehara, a soft-spoken spiritualist who reads people’s auras and offers heartwarming messages from their deceased loved ones.

Mu, for its part, has strived to stay up to date by featuring timely topics such as artificial intelligence and the singularity, alongside its more traditional coverage of UFO sightings and legendary creatures.

Despite a general decline in the print industry, Mu has managed to remain relevant thanks to a dedicated fan base including musicians, actors, comedians and even politicians — most notably Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s former prime minister nicknamed “the alien” for his otherworldliness and prominent, somewhat bulging, eyes.

Hatoyama’s wife, Miyuki, claimed she was abducted by aliens as she slept one night and was taken to Venus.

With the magazine’s 40th anniversary approaching next year, Mikami is in frequent demand for interviews and other public events where he shows up wearing dark suits and shades, a la Tommy Lee Jones’ character in “Men in Black.”

The 49-year-old makes it a point to explain how he doesn’t like Mu being described as an occult magazine, and prefers it being called a philosophical publication exploring unsolved mysteries.

And there are real-world connections with what people may consider to be in the realm of the occult, he says.

“UFOs are closely linked to military secrets, rumored-to-exist animals like Nessie reflect environmental concerns over endangered species and extrasensory perceptions and spiritualism have strong affinities with religion,” he says. “Then again, don’t believe everything you read.”

Ishigami Shrine, Aomori Prefecture, is a well-known
Ishigami Shrine, Aomori Prefecture, is a well-known ‘power spot.’ Enshrined is a large rock called the ‘Ishigami-sama,’ revered for its reputed healing powers emanating from crevices that look like human eyes. | COURTESY OF YUKI YOSHIDA

‘Is this for real?’

If Mu embodies the sense of wonder harbored by the postwar baby-boomers, Tocana may be its digital-age successor.

Launched in 2013 by online publisher Cyzo Inc., the occult news site employs a slick design inspired by the British tabloid Daily Mail and uploads eight or nine new articles a day, garnering around 50 million to 85 million monthly hits.

Yukiko Sumi, the 35-year-old editor-in-chief of Tocana, says stories on earthquake prediction and queer customs in Japan’s rural communities do particularly well with the site’s core readers in their late 20s to late 30s.

Yukiko Sumi, editor-in-chief of Tocana, grew up watching
Yukiko Sumi, editor-in-chief of Tocana, grew up watching ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘The X-Files.’ | ALEX MARTIN

“Incest and cannibalism are also very popular keywords — people love reading about taboo topics, especially since mainstream media can’t run stories that are too risque,” she says.

Like many in her industry, Sumi traces her interest in the supernatural to a childhood encounter with the inexplicable.

Growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, her family began experiencing poltergeist disturbances when she was in the second grade of elementary school.

Sumi would find herself inconceivably locked out of her apartment or trapped on her balcony when no one else was home. Electronic devices suddenly stopped working.

One day after school, she heard voices speaking to her and found herself in a neighboring city — she had apparently walked the distance unconsciously while the school searched for her.

Concerned with the paranormal activities, her father consulted a psychic who suggested the string of incidents could be related to the spirit of Sumi’s aunt who was recently found dead from an apparent suicide. A female shaman was summoned to conduct an exorcism in the family’s apartment, drawing an end to the mysterious phenomena.

“That was a major life event,” Sumi says. “The sensation of something outside our physical world closing in on me was terrifying.”

Unlike the 1970s and ’80s when it was all the rage, Sumi says stories on UFOs don’t do so well now. It may be partly due to how the advancement of science has made the possibility of life beyond Earth more plausible, spoiling some of the mystery that used to be associated with alien encounters.

The Kawakura Sai no Kawara Jizoson is a place of worship in Goshogawara, Aomori Prefecture, known for the 2,000 jizo statues it enshrines that protect the souls of deceased children and unborn babies. During its annual festival held during the summer, female shamans known as itako are available to summon the spirits of the dead for conversations.
The Kawakura Sai no Kawara Jizoson is a place of worship in Goshogawara, Aomori Prefecture, known for the 2,000 jizo statues it enshrines that protect the souls of deceased children and unborn babies. During its annual festival held during the summer, female shamans known as itako are available to summon the spirits of the dead for conversations. | COURTESY OF YUKI YOSHIDA

Instead, recent trends indicate interest in meditation is growing thanks to the mindfulness movement and major corporations incorporating the practice into their culture.

“Meditation is a topic that can be easily spun into an occult story,” she says.

The Large Hadron Collider near Geneva is also a treasure trove of outlandish theories, Sumi says, with alarmists worried that the atom smasher could spell the end of the world by creating a black hole of its own or open gateways to parallel universes.

Tocana — a play on the Japanese phrase “hontō kana,” that can be translated as “Is this for real?” — wants to find celebrity fans of the occult who can help the subculture become more mainstream. Despite the large viewership, the site’s unconventional coverage makes it difficult to draw advertisers.

“We want more people like Michio Kaku,” she says, referring to the American theoretical physicist and futurist. “He’s an internationally known scholar but talks about weather modification and contact with extraterrestrials.”

Sumi, who grew up watching “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files,” also wants to cultivate younger readers and is keen on pushing out gadgets and tech-related articles.

In May, Tocana released a limited number of “Baketan” ghost radars, a portable spirit-detecting system that can be attached to mobile phones, for ¥3,900. Produced by SolidAlliance Corp. back in 2006 and no longer commercially available, the “legendary occult gadget” can hunt for apparitions while protecting users from evil specters — or so it was advertised.

Sumi says they sold out immediately.

Pitch black: Inunaki Tunnel opened in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1949 and fell into disuse decades later. Now sealed with blocks of concrete, the tunnel was the scene of a brutal murder that took place in 1988 and is considered one of Kyushu
Pitch black: Inunaki Tunnel opened in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1949 and fell into disuse decades later. Now sealed with blocks of concrete, the tunnel was the scene of a brutal murder that took place in 1988 and is considered one of Kyushu’s most haunted spots, rife with rumors of vengeful ghosts and paranormal phenomena. | COURTESY OF YUKI YOSHIDA

Mind reader

Nana Ryuko doesn’t need special gadgets to see the otherworldly.

The clairvoyant in her late 40s claims she has been able to sense the presence of phantoms and read people’s minds since her youth.

She appears to be making good use of her skills. Ryuko, who uses a pseudonym like many others in her profession, writes a column for a women’s magazine and runs an online fortune telling service on the instant messaging platform Line. In June, she published the second volume of a series of manga episodes titled “My Husband is a Ghost,” which chronicles her two-year stint living with the spirit of her late husband.

Ryuko counts many business executives among her clients, including the president of a leading apparel retailer. She gives face-to-face counseling sessions to three to five customers a day for ¥15,000 an hour, although she turns down requests from people she suspects may be suffering from mental illness.

Diviner Nana Ryuko feels that she was always destined to be a clairvoyant.
Diviner Nana Ryuko feels that she was always destined to be a clairvoyant. | COURTESY OF NANA RYUKO

“One person asked me to prophesize when they might die since they didn’t want to live any longer,” she says. “I had to tell the person that I don’t do that kind of thing.”

The Japanese in general easily fold divination into their worldview, Ryuko says. She claims to know fellow seers who offer advice to high-ranking politicians and says the government seeks guidance from such experts before constructing public buildings.

On a more basic level, domestic society is immersed in uranai, the Japanese term for fortune telling — from the traditional omikuji (sacred lots) people draw at shrines and temples to learn their new year fortunes to the booming business in love-matching based on one’s blood type.

A pro like Ryuko is expected to be knowledgeable in all three genres of uranai: meisen, which refers to methods of reading fortunes based on names and birthdays, including Eastern and Western variations of astrology; bokusen, which uses objects such as tarot cards and crystals to offer divination; and sōsen, which involves visual perception such as physiognomy and dream interpretation.

“This gives us flexibility in dealing with a diverse range of requests. In addition, I employ spiritual reading,” she says, a bonus talent that typically bumps up the price of a session.

Divination is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and tales of ancient mystics remain a popular source of entertainment.

The third-century Chinese text “Wei Zhi” includes a description of Japan’s shaman Queen Himiko, who was said to have ruled her people through sorcery.

En no Gyoja, a legendary mountain sage of the late seventh century and the putative father of Shugendo, an old Japanese religion that combines mountain worship with Buddhism, was said to have possessed magical powers.

Meanwhile, Abe no Seimei, a Heian Period diviner who frequently pops up in works of fiction and films, was employed by emperors to give advice on a broad range of issues.

“This is a nation that has traditionally been very closely associated with these things,” Ryuko says, reflecting on how she herself always empathized with the dead.

In one memorable episode from her high school days, Ryuko recounted how she and her friend walked past two young girls engaged in cheerful banter. Her friend, however, saw a crazy girl talking to herself — apparently Ryuko was witnessing the girl speaking to a ghost.

“In retrospect, it’s as if I’ve been destined for this occupation,” she says.

In search of knowledge

Tales from the crypt: A woodblock print featuring an interpretation of the ghost Oiwa from the folk tale
Tales from the crypt: A woodblock print featuring an interpretation of the ghost Oiwa from the folk tale ‘Yotsuya Kaidan’ by Shunbaisai Hokuei (1832). | PUBLIC DOMAIN

For Yoshida, the occult writer who contributes stories to both Mu magazine and Tocana, his work is the antithesis of the white-collar job he once dreamed of.

Ensnared by the “employment ice age” that lasted until the early 2000s, he was rejected by more than 80 firms following his graduation from the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Disillusioned, he decided to write about society from the vantage point of urban myths and other under-reported incidents.

His next book, for example, involves drawing a spectral map on peculiar spots that are off-limits, either because they are sacred or cursed.

Whether or not these places are haunted, however, seems beside the point for Yoshida. Ghost stories native to specific locations are often metaphors for past social injustices and unsettled issues that have never been properly addressed in academic history.

His job is to shed light on these forgotten testaments in order to deliver an alternative narrative that has been lost in time.

And that, he says, is essentially what the word occult means.

“It’s about searching for knowledge of the hidden,” he says.

Domestic legends

Tsuchinoko: Perhaps the most famous Japan-born cryptid is the tsuchinoko, a legendary snake-like creature with a thin head and tail and a fat body. Said to be around 30 to 80 centimeters in length, the tsuchinoko has appeared in literature dating back centuries and has been subject to numerous sightings. Its popularity surged in the 1970 and ’80s when the nation was swept by a tsuchinoko-boom, with various municipalities offering cash prizes for those who were able to capture the mysterious creature alive.

An illustration of a kappa by Toriyama Sekien (1712-88).
An illustration of a kappa by Toriyama Sekien (1712-88). | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Kappa: A kappa is a mischievous amphibious monster found in Japanese folklore, often depicted as a slimy green humanoid creature with webbed fingers and feet, carrying a turtle’s shell on its back and with a depression on its head called a sara (dish) that contains water. One of the best-known yokai monsters in Japan, legends and sightings of kappa can be found across the nation and its popularity remains strong to this day.

Japan’s own Nessie?: The Loch Ness Monster boom spawned numerous similar sightings in Japan, with the subject often named “~ssie” in tribute to the mythical Scottish animal. Below are some examples of Japanese lake monsters:

• Issie: Said to live in Lake Ikeda, Kagoshima Prefecture.

• Mossie: Believed to lurk in Lake Motosu, Yamanashi Prefecture, near Mount Fuji.

• Kussie: Thought to reside in Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido.

Tomb of Jesus Christ: The village of Shingo, Aomori Prefecture, is home to what locals call the grave of Jesus Christ. Based on the story told in a collection of apocryphal papers called the Takeuchi document, there are two graves, one that is said to contain an ear of Christ’s younger brother, Isukiri, and a lock of the Virgin Mary’s hair, and another with the bones of Christ himself.

Yonagumi Monument, Okinawa Prefecture
Yonagumi Monument, Okinawa Prefecture | MASAHIRO KAJI / WIKICOMMONS

Yonaguni Monument: A giant rock formation found off the coast of Yonaguni, Okinawa, has baffled experts for its geometric, pyramid-like structures, spawning theories that it may be the remnants of an ancient civilization submerged in sea.