Japanese Ghost Stories
The Japanese literary culture has an abundance of spirits, spectres, ghouls, and supernatural phenomenon. The supernatural has been a part of the Japanese literature since 1185. While ghosts play an important role, the Japanese horror genre has depictions of psychological horror, exorcisms, supernatural occurrences, seamlessly baked into a folk narrative. The stories stay with the reader long after the book finishes.
The Japanese concept of a ghost, yūrei, are the remnants of an unfulfilled soul who died in a violent manner or did not receive a proper funeral. The spirits of women have historically been a common motif in ghost stories. Female ghost spirits are not just extensively depicted in works of fiction but can also be seen in works of art like, paintings, woodblock prints, and plays. The Japanese believe that the soul returns to the living world in order to seek revenge and cause suffering to those responsible for the crime. However, the narrative is not just a story of a discontented soul, it often examines the complexity and fragility of human emotions like love, betrayal, faith, duty, among many others.
Our 4 favourite Japanese Ghost stories are:
Japanese Gothic Tales, 1996
Izumi Kyoka; Translated by Charles Shiro Inouye
Known as Kyoka’s best work, published in 1996, Japanese Gothic Tales is a collection of 4 stories. The stories featured are a blend of fantasy, mystery, and romance. Kyoka, often referred to as a “great gothic writer who pushed the limits of the Japanese language”, is an exceptional author who has a national award given in his name, the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature.
Inouye, in his translation, has included extensive notes to help the reader understand the cultural and historical background of Kyoka’s work. He also displays his vast knowledge of Kyoka’s work by providing the reader with a brief textual analysis at the end of the book. Inouye begins the book by drawing a comparison between the gothic elements of Edgar Allen Poe and Kyoka.
All the stories are heavily rendered with elements of the gothic. However, Kyoka’s depiction of the gothic is more pastoral than poetic. The stories are fragmentary and open-ended, they have a dream-like quality to them, the narrative does not pay attention to pesky details, and is therefore unreliable. Kyoka lets the reader immerse themselves in the narrative and imagine the ending that best suits their temperament.
"See this glorious grass? These trees? They have blood and passion. They’re hot beneath the sun’s red light, and the earth is warm like skin. The light penetrates the bamboo grove, and the blossoms are without shadows. They bloom like fire, and when they flutter down onto the water, the stream becomes a red lacquered cup that slowly floats away. The ocean is blue wine, and the sky…"
Five Modern Noh Plays, 1956
Yukio Mishima; Translated by Donald Keene
Yukio Mishima is a celebrated post-war playwright who won the Kishida Prize for this collection of plays. Written between 1950 and 1955, the plays by Mishima depict a modern Tokyo. Noh is a traditional Japanese dance-drama. It has been performed since the 14th century and is the oldest major theatre art that is still performed regularly. The plays are a combination of dancing and singing with an integration of props, masks, and costumes. Mishima preserves the inner spirit of Noh plays but infuses them with a modern twist. Whilst ensuring that the plays retain their authentic Noh style, he transforms them into contemporary theatre that can be performed on a park bench or any stage in the world. Mishima retains the haunting absurdity and eeriness of the Noh classics and imbricates it against the rigidity and harshness of any modern city street.
"I know what the face looks like of someone who's come back to life-I've seen it often enough. It wears an expression of horrible boredom, and that expression is what I like.... Long ago, when I was young, I never had the sensation of being alive unless my head was all awhirl. I only felt I was living when I forgot myself completely. Since then I have realized my mistake. When the world seems wonderful to live in, and the meanest little flower looks big as a dome, and flying doves sing as they go by with human voices..."
The Tales of Genji, 1008
Murasaki Shikibu; Translated by Dennis Washburn
Written 1,000 years ago in the 11th century, by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, The Tales of Genji is a prose narrative and is often called the world’s first novel. The novel follows the life and romances of the protagonist, prince Hikaru Genji. The novel gained unprecedented global recognition in 1925, after Virginia Woolf discovered and reviewed its English translation. Its most recent translation is 1300 pages long, hence it is still considered to be a monumental work of literature.
The character’s in Shikibu’s novel jump off the page. Her narration of their stream of consciousness makes the reader feel like they are experiencing the character’s thoughts. Men, both sympathised and admired the flawed character of the protagonist, the prince, Genji. Genji’s rule displayed moments of political power and well as political weakness. Shikibu, through her female narrative, fleshes the character of Genji. While the narrative is loosely sprinkled with mentions of spirits and afterlife, it is a psychological novel.
"We are not told of things that happened to specific people exactly as they happened; but the beginning is when there are good things and bad things, things that happen in this life which one never tires of seeing and hearing about, things which one cannot bear not to tell of and must pass on for all generations. If the storyteller wishes to speak well, then he chooses the good things; and if he wishes to hold the reader’s attention he chooses bad things, extraordinarily bad things. Good things and bad things alike, they are things of this world and no other.Writers in other countries approach the matter differently. Old stories in our own are different from new."
Japanese Ghost Stories, 1899
Hearn’s tumultuous childhood is reflected in his stories. He experienced a tragic childhood where he was abandoned by his mother, his father, and eventually his legal guardian. Hearn was born in Greece, he spent his childhood in Ireland, was educated in England, and eventually established himself as a writer in America, during the last decade of his life, he also lived in Japan. His stories, therefore, are an infusion of his multicultural background. Hearn’s stories especially focus on the folklore and explore traditions through a modern lens. While he focussed on Japanese folklore, being born to a Greek other, he also wrote about Greek and Norse mythology.
His collection of short stories explores themes of the mystical. There are princesses who turn to frogs, brides who haunt the living, flesh eating goblins, and faceless ghosts who haunt peaceful neighbourhoods. Through his masterful storytelling, Hearn, the narrator recounts different Japanese customs and stories that he has been told by different people; with this narrative technique, Hearn ensures that the reader is deeply immersed in the cultural aspect of his stories and though narrating fiction, establishes a aura of authenticity around himself.
“What is the fear of ghosts among those who believe in ghosts? All fear is the result of experience… And the fear of ghosts must be a product of past pain. Probably the fear of ghosts, as well as the belief in them, had its beginning in dreams… Now I venture to state boldly that the common fear of ghosts is the fear of being touched by ghosts – or, in other words, that the imagined Supernatural is dreaded mainly because of its imagined power to touch… And who can ever have had the sensation of being touched by ghosts? The answer is simple: Everybody who has been seized by phantoms in a dream. Elements of primeval fears – fears older than humanity – doubtless enter into the child-terror of darkness. But the more definite fear of ghosts may very possibly be composed with inherited results of dream-pain – ancestral experience of nightmare. And the intuitive terror of supernatural touch can thus be evolutionally explained.”