If there are eerie goings-on in the neighborhood — and Halloween is still two months off — it could be because Japan’s traditional “ghost season” maxes out at this time of the year.
While belief in the afterlife and in wandering spirits kept from peaceful rest can be found anywhere in the world, ghosts in Japan take on a unique persona. Gripping tales of phantasms have been made into Hollywood movies, including the hugely popular “The Ring,” serving up story lines featuring grudges, curses and spine-chilling plots.
Following are questions and answers about Japan’s ghosts and their background:
What do Japan’s ghosts look like?
Called “yurei” (faint spirits), ghosts typically wear a white garment and triangular forehead cloth. This is rooted in the way the dead are traditionally laid to rest in white Buddhist burial kimono, and is the preferred attire for the deceased to travel to the other world.
Japanese-style haunted houses at amusement parks will most likely feature a pale-looking ghost with wild black hair, arms stretched forward and wrists dangling. Japanese ghosts are also usually legless. Experts theorize that this is a reflection of their supernatural powers.
Why is summer ghost season in Japan?
Mid-August is considered a spiritual season because of Buddhist traditions. Many honor the dead during Bon by gathering and paying respects at ancestral graves.
The date and customs vary depending on region, but family members typically meet on Aug. 13 and begin a bonfire called “mukae-bi.” It is believed the practice brings souls of the dead back from the other world.
After cleaning family graves, families greet and show respect for the dead by chanting sutras and preparing special meals.
The souls are sent back to the other world with “okuri-bi” bonfires, which are usually lit on Aug. 16.
How do Japanese and non-Japanese ghosts differ?
Most ghosts are generally considered to be wandering souls of the dead that are deprived of a peaceful rest.
But religious backgrounds and concepts of death lead to significant differences, said Haruo Suwa, a professor emeritus at Gakushuin University.
While Western religions, including Christianity, and even Islam of the East, believe in the existence of one deity, divinity is omnipresent in Shinto. Beliefs held in Japan include the notion that men can be transformed after death into supernatural beings.
Whereas Western ghosts may be regarded as the extension of one’s self after death, a yurei was originally believed to be godlike.
This belief can be observed in the fact that Japanese ghosts are usually depicted without legs or only from the waist up, to demonstrate the individual has been transformed from what it was when alive, Suwa said.
Why are ghosts often depicted as being vengeful and bearing a grudge?
According to Suwa, whose published works include “Nihon no Yurei” (“Japanese Ghosts”), ghost tales have been documented since the early eighth century in the Heian Period.
Beliefs in supernatural beings were common even before that, he said.
But the yurei of ancient times was considered harmless and even favorable. They only manifested grudges and eeriness with the spread of Buddhism throughout the country.
“The religious perception of heaven and hell came into Japan” with the new religion, Suwa said, noting the Buddhist theory of reincarnation and folklore-inspired supernatural beasts helped redefine the concept of yurei. Ghosts “eventually became visually terrifying,” Suwa said.
Folklore, in which ghosts are portrayed as the soul of someone robbed of life and deprived of a peaceful afterlife, also influenced the characteristics of Japanese ghosts. Today it is widely believed a yurei returns to the world to exact revenge, and will not stop until its goal is met.
One notable tale is “Yotsuya Kaidan” (“Yotsuya Ghost Story”), which is probably one of the most famous in Japan.
The tale of vengeance takes place in Edo Period Tokyo in the Yotsuya district, featuring Oiwa and her husband, Iemon. Eager to marry an affluent neighbor, Iemon poisons Oiwa, causing her hair to fall out and leaving her face disfigured. Oiwa dies but returns as a ghost and exacts her revenge, killing her husband.
The story was originally written as a play in 1825 and was later adapted for kabuki and movie scripts.
How can one stop being haunted by ghosts?
In the Christianized West, holy water and crosses may help ward off ghosts, but they won’t keep their Japanese counterparts, buried under Shinto or Buddhist rites, at bay.
Instead, “ofuda” strips inscribed with Buddhist sutras are believed to be effective in keeping evil spirits away. Some Shinto shrines also provide “oharai,” a purification ritual that removes bad omens with wooden wands and chants.
Do ghosts really exist in Japan?
Some sites, notably cemeteries, tunnels and old battlefields, generate ghost sightings. Widely known folklore has it that ghosts are most likely to appear between 2 and 3 a.m., the “time of the three oxes.”
Gakushuin’s Suwa says he “can’t tell if ghosts exist.”
“But it is a fact that many Japanese believe in the existence of supernatural spirits. Studying the beliefs and their background is key to understanding Japanese customs and people.”
For those who do believe in ghosts, is there any way to detect them?
Try Baketan 2, a ghost detecting gadget that Tokyo-based Solid Alliance Corp. sells online for ¥1,980.
The detector runs on a single lithium-ion battery and captures the “specific rhythm of ultrawaves in an area” that are supernaturally aligned, according to Solid Alliance spokesman Shuichiro Saito.
The detector also translates what the maker calls “spatial algorithms” into electronic sounds, warning the user if a supernatural being is approaching.
Solid Alliance claims on its Web site that Baketan 2 reacted strongly when tested at sites that are deemed haunted. The gadget maker clearly states that the product is a toy, but the hit series has sold more than 50,000 sets in less than three years.