This week in Japan people across the archipelago are making the pilgrimage to their family homes to celebrate Obon (sometimes known as O-Bon or just Bon) – a holiday reserved for revering the ancestors.
According to the 500-year-old tradition, for three days it is the right time of year for people to visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. It is also the right time for the spirits of their departed loved ones to visit household altars. To ensure a welcome return, lanterns, candles and, for good measure, dance (Bon-Odori – you can watch it here), are all employed. Offerings of flowers are made, alongside fruits and vegetables to sate the appetites of the spirit guests – as well as spirit animals made of eggplants and cucumbers for the spirits to ride on their inter-dimensional commute.
“People traditionally travel and gather to clean up their family grave plots around this time, to think about their family members who are watching over them,” Hiroko Yoda, co-author of Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide, told The Diplomat. “It isn’t specifically Buddhist; it has far older roots in Japan. It’s intertwined now but it is its own thing.”
The festival may have become a cultural rite unto itself – more of a family reunion than anything – but in the past it was linked to a particular story from Buddhist lore of Gautama’s disciple named Mokuren who used his supernatural powers to check on his deceased mother. When Mokuren realized she had descended into the realm of the hungry ghosts (gaki), Buddha recommended for Mokuren to pray to a group of monks who were on their way home from a summer pilgrimage on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.
His prayers were answered, releasing his mother from the realm of the gaki. In response, Mokuren danced for joy – this dance became the Bon-Odori. This dance reached its highest expression in the Awa Dance Festival that takes place in Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.
Similar traditions can be found in other parts of Asia, as seen in China’s Yu Lan (“Hungry Ghost”) festival. Even Mexico’s Day of the Dead is based on a similar concept. Like Obon, the Hungry Ghost festival takes place in the seventh month of the lunar calendar on the 15th day. But it brings a different cast of characters and customs to the table, including the practice of making ethereal monetary offerings by burning fake money for spirits to use in the afterlife.
“As far as I have experienced, Obon isn’t about hungry ghosts (gaki, or damned souls condemned to feeding an insatiable hunger for filth), but about welcoming one’s lost relatives and ancestors back into one’s home. It is a time of celebration, not fear,” Matt Alt, a Tokyo-based localizer of Japanese pop culture content and co-founder of AltJapan who co-authored Yurei Attack! with Yoda, told The Diplomat.
Alt continued: “Obon in and of itself isn’t horrifying, but when the ‘lid of the underworld’ lifts off to let our relatives back for a visit, so too do all sorts of creepy crawlies and spooks sneak out as well – yokai and yurei among them. This is why Japanese tales of terror are inevitably set during the summer, not the autumn.”
It is towards these tales of terror we now turn. But first, a caveat: entities belonging to the category of yokai are generally considered “monsters” while yurei are usually rendered as “ghosts.” This is a gross simplification, but for our purposes “ghosts” are the species in Japan’s supernatural menagerie that concern us now. While Obon is a family affair for most, rest assured, Japan has its share of ghouls too.
According to Alt, “The scariest ghosts in Japan are the angry ghosts – the spirits of people who perished in some unjust way. The reason they’re scary is because they don’t just seek revenge against the person who did them wrong, but against anyone they encounter at all. They’re like supernatural land mines.”
Among the ghosts explored in Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide, there is a prime example of the type of spirit Alt describes: Tokyo’s most famous ghost, Oiwa-san, “a woman horribly disfigured and murdered by her cheating samurai husband.”
“She came back to take her revenge on him and is still considered a potent force to this very day,” Alt said. “Intriguingly, she didn’t really exist – she was the creation of a smash-hit 19th century kabuki play called Yotsuya Kaidan, (“The Horror of Yotsuya”) that is still performed to this day. She basically transitioned out of fiction into real life; the same way Sadako from Ringu (The Ring, Japan’s most widely known horror film) emerges from television screens to stalk her victims.”
While Japanese are known to be a practical lot, tales of ghosts still hold sway, even today, according to Alt. He added, “I think the most interesting thing about Japanese ghosts is how widely respected they are even in an era of technology and science. It’s a testament to how deep their roots go.”
As an example, he said, “Nobody would dream of disturbing the grave of Taira no Masakado, which sits on some of Tokyo’s most expensive real estate in Marunouchi, because of the curse associated with it.” Taira no Masakado was Japan’s first samurai and was beheaded on the battlefield over 1,000 years ago. But for a spirit like Taira – another angry ghost – time is no object.
“His furiously defiant spirit would not allow him to go quietly into the afterlife. That sheer strength of will is his power – and his charm,” Alt said.
“One of the things I love about Japan is its peoples’ ability to maintain traditional beliefs like this without allowing it to compromise or interfere with their modern, science-based view of the world.”
Yoda added, “Taira no Masakado’s obelisk represents history. The respect people show it is as much about that as anything.”