The creepy tales of Japan: The tradition – monsters, spirits, and darkness

'Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper' from the 'Omoi Tsuzura' by Yoshitoshi
‘Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper’ from the ‘Omoi Tsuzura’ by Yoshitoshi

— I wanted to include both a general overview of the Japanese tradition of creepy things as well as highlight one story in particular, so I  divided this post into two parts. Click here to jump head-first into the tale of the yuki onna, or snow woman. —

The tradition

You might recall the Japanese horror films Ringu, which revolves around a woman with abnormally long hair continuously spider-crawling out of  television sets, or Ju-On: The Grudge, in which vengeful spirits haunt a house and quite literally scare everyone to death. Both are fairly good candidates for creeping yourself out to get into the Halloween spirit.

I first saw those films when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. I remember this one time when a friend and I had just watched either Ringu or The Grudge – I don’t recall which one; during this period we re-watched these way too often – in my very dark attic room in the house I grew up in. Afterwards, we hauled our asses downstairs to hang out in our living room. After a couple of minutes of post-film discussion, mid-sentence, the television suddenly switched on, without either of us being anywhere near the remote. I’m practically underground regarding how down to earth I am, so it was more of a creepy moment to instantly make fun of, but still. Sadako? House spirits? And I do love a good ghost story.

When it comes to ghost and/or horror stories, these two films are merely the tip of the Japanese iceberg, so I thought it might be a good idea to seek out the skeletons in Japan’s closet. Join me at your own peril.

I can only stare in awe at Japan’s ability to come up with ridiculously wonderful, horrible monsters and ghosts. Different regions obviously have their own tradition of specific tales and stories – I imagine them being told by old ladies to scare the village children into behaving themselves. However, general trends regarding phenomena such as yōkai (demons/monsters/apparitions) and yūrei (ghosts/spirits) can be observed at least from the time when far to the west, Europe was busy being all kinds of primitively medieval.

Yōkai, sometimes also referred to as mononoke, come in many different shapes and sizes and range from pure evil to merely mischievous. They tend to be somewhat in touch with their inner Uri Geller, as they are often ascribed supernatural powers. As early as the eighth century, the Shoku Nihongi (completed in 797) states that yōkai appeared in the imperial court with alarming frequency, and that Shinto purification was performed to ward them off. Clearly, the demons weren’t deterred enough, or else they would never have become Japanese canon.

Now for some shapes and sizes. Many animal yōkai – some of the more famous of which are kitsune (foxes), tanuki (raccoon dogs), hebi (snakes), and inugami (dogs), are shapeshifters (obake) that often play tricks on people, for instance by using their human forms. More definitively ominous yōkai come in the shape of oni: horned demon/ogre amalgamations that wear loincloths and swing giant clubs or swords about like there’s no tomorrow. More ambiguous are the tengu; bird-like demons that were traditionally deemed disruptive harbingers of war by Buddhism, but who evolved into (still dangerous) spirits who protect the mountains and forest. I can go on for a while still – there are so many different kinds! – but I’ll limit myself to mentioning one last type of yōkai, the tsukumogami. This class is built on the fascinating idea, which dates back at least as far as the tenth century, that certain ordinary household items come to life on their hundredth birthday. I mean, imagine your tea pot playing pranks on you, or angrily seeking payback for all those years of making disgusting mint tea in them. Or your straw sandals. Or your hand mirror. Apparently some of these items even teamed up to take revenge on people who had mindlessly thrown them away…

Besides all these strange monsters, there are also more familiar creeps to be found in Japanese horror history. Yūrei, like their ghostly western counterparts, are spirits who ran into a brick wall while trying to cross over to the afterlife. There is obviously a reason why they find themselves in this sticky situation; generally these people died ever so slightly abnormal deaths. I’ll leave it to your own imagination to come up with the specifics. Powerful emotions such as revenge, jealousy and sorrow can also tie spirits to this world, in which case their particular conundrum needs to be sorted out before they can finally move on. As time wound on, these ghosts took on a fairly standardised appearance: white robes or clothing; long, unkempt black hair; lifeless hands and feet. Ringu’s main character, anyone?

My favourite type of yūrei is the onryō, or vengeful spirit, thought to be capable of all kinds of nastiness (even natural disasters) in order to secure their revenge. They are far more powerful in death than they ever were in life. So, for megalomaniacs, this seems to be the ultimate career path. The same eighth century Shoku Nihongi which mentions yōkai also records the first instance of someone being possessed by an onryō. Clearly, the author must have been an interesting figure. The text states that a man named Fujiwara Hirotsugu had died in a failed insurrection aimed at removing from power his rival, the priest Genbō. Hirotsugu’s soul then returned to literally scare the life out of the priest. Another tale, of uncertain age, but recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904, tells of a samurai who promised his dying wife that he will never remarry. It will come as no surprise to you that he could not keep his feeble mind in check and ends up breaking the promise with alarming speed. His dead wife’s ghost is far too good of a woman for coming to warn him first, before proceeding to murder the young bride by ripping her head off when her warning wasn’t heeded. Yikes.

These kinds of wrathful ghosts are often present in a game I feel should regain some popularity – Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales. It first became popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), and because of this game, the demand for the gathering of kaidan (ghost stories) from all over Japan increased. The game involves a hundred candles or lamps being lit, and the players taking turns recounting ghoulish tales, be they folkloric or focused on personal/local supernatural experiences. After the end of each story, the storyteller douses one light; spirits were obviously drawn to the darkness like moths to a flame. As the game progressed, the room grew darker and darker, leaving more room for creepy apparitions to come and peep at the players from the darkness. Much cooler than an Ouija board, if you ask me.

These little anecdotes are just the beginning; Japanese ghost stories are definitely worth digging into, if you’re into that kind of thing. In the next part, I will tell one such tale; that of the snow woman, or yuki onna. I ensure you it is nothing like Disney’s Frozen.

Here are some creepy pictures that do a much better job at providing an adequate punch line than I ever could.

Onryō by Hokusai
Onryō by Hokusai
Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui
Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui
Oni in pilgrim's clothing. Tokugawa period.
Oni in pilgrim’s clothing. Tokugawa period.

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