SUMMER: THE SEASON OF GHOSTS
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 season—far 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.