• Joseph Simurdiak

SUMMER: THE SEASON OF GHOSTS

最終更新: 11月12日


Oiwa's Ghost, portrait by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

I. The Gruesome Swelter

Summer is easily Japan’s most brutal season—at least in the Kanto region where I live. Folks who endure winter up in the so-called “snow country” to the northeast may disagree if they like, but I for one love snow, even in the ridiculous, crushing, road-stopping amounts they get in that blessed region. The ruthless heat and punishing humidity of the Kanto summer, by contrast, turns Japan’s great outdoors into a cooking grill by late July.


I’ve heard it said that Japan actually has two summers (and thus five seasons), an observation with which I generally agree. First is monsoon season—the tsuyu, or “plum rains” that run through June and into July, flooding the rice fields, battering umbrellas, and causing landslides in prolonged and steady downpours. Following the monsoon comes a “second summer” of rising heat and infrequent rain, when the climbing temperatures meet the humidity in what feels to me a diabolic combination. My body, I admit, is not designed for it. I grew up with the long, cold winters and mild summers of northern Wisconsin, and sometimes, particularly in August, leaving my house in Japan feels like stepping into a sticky, sweaty hell. On the very worst of days, the air itself steams in front of my eyes. I usually choose this time of year to travel home to Wisconsin and visit family, but in 2020, due to the pandemic, such a journey is impossible and I find myself stranded in a sauna.


While climate change has caused heat levels to spike in recent years, even in ages past many Japanese regarded the summer season with ambivalence. The classical poets, who famously wove seasonal imagery and natural motifs throughout their work, considered summer an inferior seasonfar less poetic or aesthetic than either spring or fall, thus giving it comparatively little artistic attention. American culture, by contrast, is replete with songs in praise of summer. It is the season we most anticipate, but among the Japanese that has rarely if ever been so. It’s telling that as far as seasonal aesthetics go, so much of the traditional art and poetry involving summer in Japan emphasizes nighttime and other “cool” imagery, such as evening, breezes, chilled desserts, wind chimes, handheld fans, and water.


That’s not to say summer is without its charms. It is also the season of fireworks and festivals, of lotuses blooming in temple ponds, and I personally love the eerie, distinct cry of the higurashi cicadas that sing in the half-light of dusk. I’ve also long been a lover of things strange, dark, and macabre—and summer in Japan is the season of ghosts.

II. Celebrations of the Dead

Such an association may seem unusual to those who grew up in a culture like my own. In America and Canada, October is the time of year we most associate with spirits and ghostly tales. The autumn itself seems ideally suited for it, as nights grow longer, leaves die, plants wither, and the air takes on a literal chill. Halloween crowns the season like a grinning skull—merry, ghastly, ever peculiar. Perhaps death gets the last laugh in the end, but in October we get to laugh along with it—and back in its face, if we dare.


This all goes to illustrate the varied ways in which different cultures comprehend the same earth and the same realities of life and death. Western Halloween traditions trace back to Celtic Samhain and the folk belief that on October 31st (midway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice) the veil between the physical and spirit worlds grows thin, increasing the ease with which ghosts, demons, faeries, and monsters can manifest in our world. Japanese Buddhist tradition holds a similar idea, only this meeting of worlds takes place in the summer—particularly in August, around the time of Obon, the festival of the dead.


Though the timing of Obon can vary depending on the community, the festival generally takes place from August 13th through 15th. Dating back five or six centuries, it thrives today as perhaps the summer’s biggest event. Japan sees widespread travel during this time as families from across the country reunite to honor the souls of their dearly departed. The festival itself is not a ghoulish celebration by any means; rather, it is a time of reunion, music, and dance, a celebration closer in nature perhaps to Mexico’s Día de Muertos than to any recognizable Halloween tradition. People visit and clean the gravestones of deceased relatives, while lighting lamps to guide the spirits home. Families leave offerings of food, drink, and incense at household altars, which ancestral spirits are believed to inhabit during this time. The living offer prayers for the dead, and at nighttime the lively Bon Odori dances take place amid folk music and orange and yellow lanterns. The living celebrate, and the dead with them. On the final night of Obon, celebrants light farewell fires called okuribi to send the spirits on their way. In some towns, such as Ichinomiya where I lived, floating paper lanterns are set adrift on a river and carried out to sea.


But the benevolent spirits of family are not the only ghosts that lurk the summer nights. Others are said to cross over as well—some lost and lonely with no living family to welcome them, and others still of a darker nature, bent on mischief or vengeance.

III. “Strange Tales”

There are, of course, ghosts for every season, yet summer is when they reach their cultural zenith and feature most prominently in films, magazines, and TV specials. The popular phenomenon is a long one—kaidan, as Japanese ghost stories and other such “strange tales” are called, have been widely celebrated since at least the Edo Period (1603-1868) as spine-chilling stories to help cool the summer nights.


One popular game of that era (and one I would love to experience firsthand) was called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会), which supposedly originated among the samurai class but soon caught on among commoners as well. Brave participants would gather in a house after sundown, light a hundred lanterns or candles, and take turns telling frightening stories—snuffing out one light at the end of each chilling tale. As the night progressed, the room would grow darker and darker, until the last tale was told and the final light extinguished. Supposedly, finishing the game would summon a spirit into the darkened room, though not everyone would be brave enough to stick around to the end and witness it.


Though certain celebrations such as Obon celebrate the return of the departed from beyond the veil, various traditions also hold that some souls never cross over to the other side at all. Those who die with strong earthly attachments, or in the throes of powerful emotion (particularly dark emotions such as rage, hatred, jealousy, or despair) may find themselves tied eternally to the earth as restless, malevolent, and sometimes very dangerous spirits—and those are just the kind inspire some of our most popular and chilling kaidan.


Why not explore a few kaidan ourselves? In honor of summer and the ruthless August heat, let’s acquaint ourselves with some of Japan’s most infamous, legendary ghosts.



Taira Masakado felling an enemy warrior from horseback. Portrait by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892)

TALE 1 — TAIRA MASAKADO: The Japanese public was terrified of Masakado even before he died. A warrior chieftain turned rebel, in 939-949 AD he had a falling out with the governor of Hitachi Province over a personal family matter, and differences that should have been entirely solvable through peaceful dialogue instead spiraled out of control to plunge the entire region into armed conflict. Determined to crush his enemies before they came for him, Masakado raised up an army in defiance of the government and led them on a swift, violent rampage of conquest throughout Eastern Japan. Province after province fell to his forces, while government officials fled in terror to Kyoto (the capital at the time) to warn the emperor. Within the space of a month, Masakado had conquered all eight provinces of the Kanto Region, and rumors swirled in the capital that his insolence and ambition knew no bounds, that he was planning to march on Kyoto, overthrow the emperor, and declare himself lord of the whole country.


Such a large-scale rebellion was unprecedented in Japan’s history, and frightening omens had appeared in the capital in the months leading up to it—earthquakes, swarms of butterflies, a lunar eclipse. Sensing that the fate of the country was on the brink, the emperor’s court raised a massive army and sent it east to put down Masakado’s rebellion. After a series of savage battles, Masakado was finally struck down by an arrow amid the marshes of Hitachi Province. The Emperor’s troops severed the villain’s head and brought it to Kyoto, where it was paraded through the streets and then hung from a tree outside the East Market gate for all to see.


That’s where the historical account of Masakado ends—but the legends were only beginning. Supposedly, the severed head never lost its color or decayed, and a dark vitality clung to it even as it hung outside the market gate for months on end. Over time, the severed head began to stir after sundown—first emitting groans, then wails, then finally shrieks and screams for its missing body. Night after night it raged and howled, cursing the fates and the foes that had struck it down, until at last one evening it began to thrash and strain on its branch… and broke free. Borne aloft by unseen powers, the head vanished eastward, flying on a cursed wind in the direction of its old home and the battlefields where the corpses of its brethren lay rotting.


Numerous tales exist as to what became of the head, but the most common versions of the story say it never made it all the way home, instead falling to the ground, its energy spent, in the countryside of Musashi Province. Farmers from nearby Shibazaki village saw the head fall, at which moment the earth trembled and a peal of thunder rippled through the clouds overhead. Terrified, the farmers recovered the head and recognized the fearsome warlord who had once conquered their lands. They turned the head over to the local priests at Kanda Myojin Shrine, who interred it in a burial mound.


But even that wasn’t the end of Masakado. Centuries later, a series of calamities and natural disasters in the area came to be blamed on his restless spirit. In the early 1300’s, a traveling monk diagnosed the source of the problem—Masakado’s burial site had fallen into neglect over the generations and needed to be properly restored. He repaired the site and raised a stone monument next to the rebel’s grave, after which the spirit’s anger seemed to subside again. Pacified, Masakado’s ghost laid low for many years… only to reemerge with renewed fury in the 20th Century.


(Note: Everything following from this point on is true.)


By this time, Shibazaki village and the surrounding countryside had long since vanished, swallowed up by the steel and concrete jungle of Tokyo. Most of it, anyway—Masakado’s burial mound remained untouched, even as the great towers of Tokyo’s financial district rose up all around it.


But in 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, destroying much of Tokyo and damaging Masakado’s grave. In the aftermath, the Finance Ministry, looking to rebuild, decided to develop the spot for their new offices. They dug up the burial mound to see if it really contained anything, but found only an empty stone chamber. No skull, no trace of human remains. Surely the old tales of the cursed head were just that—tales. So, with a collective shrug, the ministry officials had the entire site leveled and began to construct their new offices on top of it.


And then they started dying off—ministry officials and construction workers alike. In less than two years, fourteen people connected with the project were dead, including the Minister of Finance himself. Following the surprising wave of mortalities, the project was quickly abandoned and Masakado’s grave site restored, with the priests of Kanda Myojin Shrine called over to purify the spot. The Finance Ministry set up a new stone monument by way of apology and moved on to build its offices elsewhere.


Masakado, it seemed, was not placated. In 1940 (precisely one thousand years after his death) fire from a lightning strike destroyed the new Finance Ministry building, along with eight other government offices. Once again, the priests of Kanda Myojin were called to bless the grave site and calm Masakado’s wrath. This time, it finally seemed to work.


The grave mound went undisturbed throughout the War, surviving miraculously unscathed even as Allied bombs leveled the surrounding area. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, the American Occupation briefly tried to construct a garage on the site; right as the project began, however, a bulldozer attempting to clear the spot struck the grave’s foundation, flipped, and killed the driver. With dire warnings from the Japanese, the Allied Occupation took the hint and called off the construction.


Masakado’s grave site stands today amid the high towers of Tokyo’s Otemachi District. Located in the heart of the city’s financial center, it’s something of an incongruous site: a square of otherwise desirable real-estate, large enough to accommodate a new building, carved out and set aside for a samurai rebel over a thousand years dead.


Dead he may be—but that’s his spot, and the living do not touch it.



TALE 2 OIWA: The tale of Oiwa, or Yotsuya Kaidan, is Japan’s ultimate ghost story. Composed in 1825 by kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, it’s been the subject of dozens of adaptions over the years across theater, print, and film. In fact, Yotsuya Kaidan has left such an indelible mark on Japanese horror that its influence runs even in the blood of modern-day J-horror movies and their American remakes (ex. The Ring, The Grudge, etc.). It was a savage, gruesome, genre-defining tale when it first premiered on stage almost 200 years ago, and it still carries its power to shock and horrify into the 21st Century.


Much of the story’s horror lies in the creation of the ghost. At the start of the tale, Oiwa is a sweet, kind, and tragically naïve girl who has the great misfortune of falling in love with Iyemon, a handsome young samurai whose charming exterior conceals a secret, near-bottomless capacity for selfishness and cruelty. When Oiwa’s father recognizes Iyemon’s true character and opposes marriage between the two, Iyemon murders him in the dead of night and leaves his body on the roadside in imitation of a bandit attack. He then vows to Oiwa that, as her husband, he will hunt down “the people responsible” and bring them to justice.


Of course, he does no such thing. A year or two into their marriage, Oiwa has given birth and fallen ill due to the difficult delivery, while Iyemon secretly begins flirting with a younger, healthier girl named Oume Ito. Ito comes from a rich, well-connected family, and she plots to steal Iyemon away from his sickly, bedridden wife. Feigning concern for Oiwa, she sends poison disguised as medicine—a medicine that does not kill Oiwa, but horribly disfigures her, turning the flesh on the left side of her face into a hideous, melted ruin. Immediately upon seeing Oiwa’s disfigurement, Iyemon recoils in disgust and tells his wife he cannot bear the sight of her—and that he is leaving her to marry Ito instead. Oiwa pleads with him to stay, to look over her while she recovers her health and to help raise their child, but Iyemon curses her and storms away. He orders his servant to rape her so he will have grounds to divorce her on charges of infidelity.


The servant, mercifully, does not go through with the horrifying command. He finds Oiwa weeping in her room, attempting to brush her hair as it falls out in bloody clumps due to the poison. He shows Oiwa, for the first time, her ruined face in a mirror, at which Oiwa’s beleaguered mind finally snaps; she takes up a sword to fend him away, yet the poison leaves her delirious and clumsy, and she accidentally wounds her own throat as she staggers with the sword. She collapses to the floor and dies in a pool of blood, cursing Iyemon’s name.


Learning of Oiwa’s death, Iyemon returns home in time to frame his servant Kohei for her demise. He “takes revenge” by killing his servant. Then, taking down a wooden door panel, he nails Oiwa’s body to one side and Kohei’s to the other, and disposes of them in a river. Thus Iyemon washes his hands of his old life, and looks ahead with anticipation to a new, more prosperous chapter as Ito’s husband.


. . .


If the first part of the tale seems like a relentless parade of cruelties and injustices inflicted upon a poor girl and those who care for her, the rest of the tale portrays a powerful ghost exacting terrible, unstoppable vengeance. Up until this point Iyemon has lived a life almost totally free of accountability; he has gotten away with murder, abandoned all responsibilities to his sick wife and newborn child, and married upward into a rich and powerful family—who has now made him its heir. With a fortune at his fingertips and a beautiful new bride at his side, his life seems darkly charmed.


On the night of his wedding, he retires with Ito to their bedchamber, feeling as if he holds the whole world in the palm of his hand. But as he lifts his new wife’s veil to kiss her, the lantern flickers out—and Oiwa’s face, not Ito’s, stares back at him from beneath the veil. Hate sizzles in her eyes; Iyemon panics and draws his sword as Oiwa reaches for his throat. With a scream, he cuts off her head in a single blow—only for the vision to fade and reveal his new bride Ito lying dead, her wedding clothes soaked in blood, her severed head staring at Iyemon in confusion and horror.


Terrified, Iyemon tries to run for help, only to be confronted in the hallway by the figure of his murdered servant, Kohei. Once again Iyemon panics and slashes the specter, and once more the vision fades to reveal he has slain a human—this time his new father-in-law, the head of Ito’s clan. Having cut down a very powerful and influential man, Iyemon sees no choice but to flee into the night. In a single evening, he has lost everything.


Over the following weeks, the rest of Ito’s family crumbles in a series of mysterious accidents. Iyemon, meanwhile, hides away in the countryside, yet everywhere he goes he is tormented by visions of Oiwa. Her face appears to him in shadows, in water, and in lanterns, and her voice cries his name. Iyemon’s conscience, long buried, finally starts to emerge, and he begins showing traces of guilt for his wrongs. He pleads with Oiwa’s ghost for forgiveness, but to no avail.


One evening, while fishing in a river, Iyemon hallucinates that he discovers the door panel with Oiwa and Kohei’s crucified bodies floating among the reeds. Seized with fear, he offers a prayer for the souls of his victims—but then Oiwa’s corpse speaks, vowing that her hatred will never rest until the last of Ito’s family has withered away and Iyemon himself lies dead.


Frenzied and delirious, Iyemon flees into the mountains, where he takes up living in a temple hermitage. But there is no escaping from Oiwa’s ghost, who will not be pacified, exorcised, reasoned with, or persuaded toward mercy. She does not finish him quickly, but torments him day and night, grinding his sanity down through whispers, nightmares, and bloody, gruesome visions, until he is no longer able to distinguish objective reality from the demons inside his head. By the time an old samurai rival finally tracks Iyemon down one snowy night to make him answer for his past crimes, Iyemon is an insane, broken shell of his former self, whose hallucinations render him unable even to swordfight properly. After a brief duel, Iyemon is cut down in the snow, and Oiwa’s curse is at last complete.


Or at least, complete as far as the tale itself goes. Rumors persist of Yotsuya Kaidan itself being a cursed play, much like Shakespeare’s Macbeth; over the course of nearly two centuries, numerous accidents, injuries, and deaths have been associated with its production both on stage and in film. A shrine to this supposedly fictional ghost stands today in Yotsuya, Tokyo, and people involved with producing the play and its various adaptions are said to pay their respects there before commencing their work. Such is the power of the tale and its horror that even those who perform it professionally still fear it.



TALE 3 KUCHISAKE-ONNA: Our final tale in this sordid collection is that of the Kuchisake-onna, or Slit-Mouthed Woman. Of the three ghosts I have examined here, this is perhaps the one most likely to be known outside Japan; indeed, anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese horror is likely to have heard of it. Different versions of the legend exist, but all tend to be some variant of the following: Long ago, a samurai learned that his beautiful wife was being unfaithful to him. In a rage, he confronted her one night about her infidelity, and though she protested her innocence, his mind was already set. Pinning her down, he stuck a blade in her mouth and slit it wide from ear to ear, screaming, "Who will find you beautiful now?" He stopped just short of killing her, but cast her out of his home disfigured and bleeding.


Filled with rage and grief, the woman became a violent ghost after her death (whether she killed herself in despair or died later as a consequence of her abandonment is unclear). Tethered to the earth by her hatred, she still stalks Japan to this day, seeking victims to share in her anguish. She wanders small country towns, dark roads, and even cities, sometimes appearing in broad daylight. Hiding her disfigured mouth behind a holding fan or facemask, and concealing a knife, a razor blade, or a pair of shears in her sleeve, she approaches her victims with a simple question posed in a coquettish voice: “Am I pretty?”


If her target answers “No,” she simply draws her weapon and murders them on the spot. Should the target answer “Yes,” however, she will then lower her fan or facemask to reveal her slashed mouth and ask, “How about now?”


The victim who says “No” at this point—or, more realistically, screams and recoils in horror—will instantly be murdered. And answer of “Yes,” however, will not appease her either, and only earn the victim a slashed, bloody mouth to match her own. Only by offering an ambiguous or middling answer, such as, “You look about average,” can her target escape while she hesitates to figure out how to respond.


What makes the Kuchisake-Onna such a noteworthy ghost is that actual social panics have been associated with the legend. As recently as the 1970’s, sightings of the ghost caused real public scares in parts of Japan; in some towns, children walking home from school were required to be chaperoned for fear of encounters with the murderous Slit-Mouthed woman.


Whether there is any truth behind the urban legend is anyone’s guess—I don’t find it at all implausible that a jealous samurai in ages past could have mutilated and abandoned his wife (much as Iyemon did in Yotsuya Kaidan), nor that she might have sought revenge. As for whether a slit-mouthed ghost of such a woman still prowls the shadowy streets for victims, I find that the plausibility of such a tale depends proportionately on how late at night it is, and how alone you are.


*


And that concludes our macabre foray into Japan's ghostly summertime. (Interesting note: Just as I typed that sentence a strange shuffling noise came from the direction of my kitchen, like the sound of muffled footsteps. I am home alone, so perhaps it was coming from outside my apartment door. Still, it made me freeze, deer-like, and perk up my ears. But oh, it was probably nothing....) We're nearing the end of August, which in Wisconsin means that the first hint of fall should already be in the air. Come October, I will have some suitably eerie follow-ups for those who enjoy topics such as ghosts, monsters, and the perennial mysteries of life after death. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me at jsimurdiak@gmail.com with any questions/suggestions for content you'd like to see covered.


Until then, enjoy what remains of the summer.


 © 2018 by Joseph Simurdiak