Saturday 14 July 2018

Things that go bump in the night - by Lesley Downer

Assorted strange creatures by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
In the 19th century, a time of particular upheaval and uncertainty in Japan, people would spend a summer evening sitting around telling ghost stories, lit by candles and lanterns (a hundred was the canonical number). At the end of each story they’d extinguish one until at the end of the last (and most frightening) story the last candle would go out, plunging the room into utter darkness - at which moment everyone would hold their breath, hoping a real ghost might materialise.

This year, as you will all know, there have been terrible and unprecedented floods in the south west. But usually the dog days of summer are even hotter and more stifling in Japan than we have had this year in Britain. In the old days Japanese would take all the sliding wooden and paper doors out of their houses so that the house became a breezy pavilion. Those that live in traditional houses still do. People made a point of eating oily foods like grilled aubergine and grilled eel and drinking iced barley tea. Essential accessories included a fan and a parasol. Another essential was ghost stories to send shivers down your spine. To this day the kabuki theatre always shows ghost stories.

Maruyama Okyo paints a ghost by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a great master of the bizarre, made a woodblock print depicting a famous Kyoto artist called Maruyama Okyo. It was said that Okyo’s paintings were so true to life that bees tried to pollinate the flowers he painted. He once made the mistake of painting a ghost. To his horror it came to life, looming up from the block. 

Japanese ghosts are the spirits of people whose lives have been cut short while they still have unfinished business - people who’ve died violently, haven’t received proper funerary rites, or died while consumed by a desire for vengeance. Such spirits can’t pass on peacefully to join their ancestors in the afterlife. According to Buddhist teaching, the journey from the world of the living to the world of the dead takes 49 days, and while they are in this limbo they can revisit the land of the living to sort out unfinished issues. A lot of these are the ghosts of women who have been spurned or killed by their lovers or husbands. They are yurei, which means something like 'faint or dim spirit'. 

Lantern Ghost by Hokusai
At the kabuki theatre I once saw the great male performer of female roles, Tamasaburo Bando, playing the ghost of a woman who had been killed by her husband. Her skin was white, her eyes sunken and ghastly. She was wearing a long white gown and floating high up the wall and her floor length hair was dishevelled and tangled in great knots. Wailing, she started tearing it out by the handful as clumps piled up in a heap on the floor. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen.

Katsushika Hokusai, the great woodblock print artist, loved depicting Japanese ghosts. The most famous and frightening ghost story of all is Yotsuya Kaidan, the story of the beautiful innocent Oiwa, who is poisoned and horribly disfigured by a rival who wants to marry Oiwa’s lover, Iemon. Oiwa ends up killing herself and the lover goes off with the rival. But Oiwa returns to haunt her faithless lover, emerging from a lantern hairless and jawless and with one eye hanging out of her head, until Iemon finally goes mad.

But yurei are not always women. There are also men, like Kohada Koheiji, a kabuki actor who specialised in yurei roles and whose wife had an affair with one of his rivals. The rival took him out for a boat ride, pushed him into the water and drowned him. But Kohada rose from his watery grave and haunted his wife and her lover for the rest of their lives, suddenly appearing leaning over the top of their mosquito net and grinning down horribly at them at the most unexpected moments. Both these stories, by the way, are based on true events.
Kohada Koheiji by Hokusai

And if these haven’t cooled you down enough, I have a ghost story of my own to scare you with.

I spent 3 years living in the small city of Kamakura, exactly an hour from Tokyo by train. It’s a beautiful place, full of mossy old temples and vermilion painted shrines with a huge famous stone Buddha.

My western friends and I rented a haunted house there. Japanese refused to live in it, which made the rent very cheap. Japanese ghosts are localised; they torment their own family members or whoever’s done them harm but they don’t trouble people at random and they don’t bother foreigners. In fact foreigners are so radically different that even the most ferocious of Japanese ghosts would probably steer well clear.

My friends and I lived happily in this large, rambling, rather shabby old house. It was beautiful. It had a tea ceremony hut and a carp pond and a very overgrown garden.

Everything was fine until the third summer. That year my western friends by chance all went away at the same time leaving me alone in the house. I had Japanese friends over to stay.
The Great Buddha in Kamakura

‘Lucky you,’ I told them. ‘You can have a room each!’

‘No, thank you,’ they replied. ‘That would be too frightening.’

I’d almost forgotten that the house was supposed to be haunted. Instead they all slept together in one room with their futon mattresses side by side down the middle.

The night after they left was my first on my own in the house. I was lying in my futons on the tatami mats of my room when I heard a distinct banging coming from the other end of the house, at the far end of a long dark corridor.

I listened hard. It sounded like boxes being thrown around. There was no one else in the house. I was definitely all alone. It couldn’t be a human being making all that noise. It could only be an obake - a one-legged umbrella ghost - but I certainly wasn’t going to go and investigate. I pulled my covers over my head, screwed my eyes tight shut and hoped for the best.

Thereafter I stayed well clear of the end of the corridor.
[Scroll on down to see the obake!]

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale with plenty of ghosts, set in nineteenth century Japan, and is out now in paperback. For more see

Woodblock print images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of the Great Buddha by me.

Obake (on the right). The critters on the left are kappa.


Pam De Voe said...

Fascinating and fun read! Thanks for sharing this glimpse into a part of Japanese culture.

Sue Purkiss said...

Chilling! Though the picture of the obake makes it look quite sweet!

Miranda Miller said...

This is so interesting, Lesley, and I love the illustrations.