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The Role of Ghosts in Japanese Culture Essay

Updated August 9, 2022

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The Role of Ghosts in Japanese Culture Essay essay

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According to USA Today, 65% of just Americans believe in ghosts. The topic of ghosts have been around for centuries and is a worldwide phenomenon that is still being debated to this day. Growing up I have always been fascinated in the world of ghosts and other supernatural things. I have also had some personal experiences with the supernatural, from things going bump in the night or witnessing shadowy figures moving around. A couple of years ago, I had little cousins who stayed over the night at my house and sometime early in the morning they woke me up saying that they saw a shadow crawling around on the ceiling and after that event, mysterious events began to pick up in the house, from shadowy figures moving about to strange sounds coming from nowhere, until one day it just all of a sudden stopped. As my interest grew, I began to research more about ghosts and I found out that many different cultures have some beliefs in the supernatural too.

After reading all of the stories, the country of Japan caught my attention. In Japan it seems that the beliefs in ghosts and other supernatural beings are quite popular there and has some important cultural meaning behind them. “Ghosts are ubiquitous in Asian culture, as pointed out by the writer Chandrani Warnasuriya, who writes: “Beliefs in Ghosts, Spirits, Demons and related creatures and phenomena are an integral part of Oriental and Far Eastern cultures” (Olry & Haines, 2014). “This is particularly true in Japan, where folklore, art, theatre, literature, and cinema are packed with this kind of story (Olry & Haines, 2014).

The U.S. is different from Japan in the sense that they don’t really support the idea of ghosts while Japanese culture takes it more seriously, however, in modern days, there are some Japanese people who have grew on from ghosts and do not believe that ghosts are important in their culture at all. Some would say that it is outright silly to even think that anything ghosts related would have an important part in their culture. Japan is constantly growing and there are many skeptics that would try to come up with rational thoughts to explain the unexplainable but with the nonbelievers, comes believers. Some people in Japan have also been hesitant to even acknowledge the existence of ghosts and maybe, just maybe, ghosts are important in the cultural history of Japan.

So how come it is so hard for them to believe in this when it is mentioned in their culture? Does the modern age have anything to do with their beliefs at all? Or should I say lack of beliefs? Although there may not be people in Japan who believe in ghosts or would even consider the fact that spirits are important in Japanese culture, ghost lore is bounded to them and plays an important part in their culture by the countless number of folktales told there about spirits, not to mention their core Shinto-Buddhist beliefs of worshipping and fearing spirits, and the many traditions that the people of Japan have that revolves around ghosts and other supernatural beings.

To understand why ghosts are important, one must know what a ghost really is and the background of these specters. For those who do not know, ghosts are typically thought of as cursed spirits that are left to wander the material world (Hersberger, 2015). Ghosts are also known as specters, orbs of light, or even disembodied figures (Hersberger, 2015). Even though ghosts are worldwide and there are different types in different locations, the idea of them are very similar. According to the series, Monsters Among Us: The Spirit World, ‘the idea of a parallel world of the spirits has persisted since the beginning of civilization. Ghosts returning to earth or remaining as echoes of the past (Hersberger, 2015).” The belief in ghosts in Japan goes far back to the indigenous Ainu (means human) people who considered that spirits are the manifestation of a person’s dark side (Cartwright, 2017). Through “normal” beliefs, ghosts are thought to be created from violent deaths that leave a stain on the human world or if someone dies with unfinished business (Picone, 2012).

Some of these beliefs come from folklore. Folklores are typically traditional beliefs or stories that are passed through generations. A few good words to know are séances and mediums. Séances are gatherings of people in an attempt to contact the dead, typically with a medium. As stated by many sources, specifically by Rebecca Rosen, from the Oprah newsletter, mediums are people who are able to tune into spiritual energies in order to read people—know about their past, present, and future, and also communicate with spirits (Rosen, 2010).

One thing that is important in Japanese culture are their folklore, more specifically, ghost lore. With the fascination of ghost and the supernatural in Japan, ghost stories are implemented into Japanese culture through the creation of folklore with most of the tales originating from Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist religions. In Japan, scary stories are normally referred to as Kaidans. The Kai in Kaidan stands for “strange, mysterious apparition” and Dan stands for narrative (Reider, 2000). Reider stated that “the social stability at the beginning of the seventeenth century made the terror and death associated with civil war a thing of the past,” which helped the people regard their fears and “strange phenomena” as entertainment (Reider, 2000). With this tendency, “a gathering called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (Gathering for One Hundred Kaidan Tales) became quite popular” and “it was believed that when a hundred Kaidan stories were told at a midnight gathering, their telling would evoke a strange event” (Reider, 2000). Folklore is important to the Japanese because it transformed their fears into a source of entertainment. Kaidan came to be around the Edo period (1600-1867), and “traveling merchants, priests, and many travelers would spread these tales along the countryside and would eventually make its way into the urban and rural areas” (Reider, 2000). Some of these folklores would also make people act a certain way.

For example, in the article, Transformation of the Oni, Reider mentions the Oni, who is a demonic supernatural creature that the Japanese feared. The Oni was an invisible evil deity to the Japanese and some would say that Oni’s are a representation for the spirits of the dead, also known as ghosts (Reider, 2003). The number of Onis increased as Buddhism was introduced to Japan. According to Mark Cartwright, the Japanese believed that the Onis were responsible for many diseases in Japan (Cartwright, 2017). Importantly, the people of Japan would also try to act well behaved because the Onis were the ones that would carry the souls to hell and they believed that they could avoid damnation if they behaved well. Even though Onis were feared, it is said that they could also bring fortune, thus plays, shrines, and rituals were made (Reider, 2003). It is ironic that they would have a shrine of something they feared but the Japanese believed that if they behaved well enough, then they would be capable of earning good fortunes from the demonic deity.

As Kaidan tales grew, “this form of entertaining would eventually demand professional storytellers” (Reider, 2000). As for the tales, Reider recalled that “on a dark night, one puts a light on an andon (paper-covered lamp stand). The paper for the andon should be pale colored. One hundred wicks are placed in the lamp and every time a tale is told, one wick is pulled out. Gradually the room becomes darker and darker. The pale color of the andon flickers in the room, and the atmosphere becomes ghostly. If the stories continue to be told, it is claimed that a horrible and/ or mysterious thing will happen without fail” (Reider, 2000). Connecting to the previous quote, Reider admits that the origins for these gatherings are not certain on who or when these gatherings started but people still undertook these gatherings out of curiosity and entertainment (Reider, 2000).

The popularity did decrease over time due to people not believing in these tales anymore. However, books containing these tales have grown more in popularity as more prints were made. The people of Japan who do believe in ghosts and the supernatural would often use these stories as scapegoats—a person that is made to bear blame for others, “to explain the events that have happened in their daily lives” (Reider, 2000). It would give them a reason for why certain things would happen, whether it was good or bad and that they can move on instead of dwelling on it.

Oddly enough most of the ghosts and spirit folklores in Japan originates from Shinto-Buddhist beliefs. This is important because most people in Japan practice Shintoism, Buddhism, or a combination of both. Significantly, Jeffrey Hays, who is a teacher in Japan and writer for the website FactsandDetails, has found that 40.5% of Japanese practice Buddhism and 54.1% practice Shintoism (Hays, 2012). Hays has also stated that “according to one count, Shintoism has 107 million followers (85 percent of the population) and Buddhism has 93 million followers (75 percent).” What Hays is trying to say with this is that most of the people in Japan practice some form of both Buddhism or Shintoism but only a few are devout followers of either (Hays, 2012). Now for the part where the importance of spirits come in is behind what exactly they practice with Shintoism and Buddhism. Unlike other places, the Japanese view religious practices more as duties, traditions, and customs.

Evidently like the Chinese, Hays has reported that “the Japanese worship both Buddhist and folk deities as well as ancestral spirits in hope of pacifying everyone and ensuring good fortune” (Hays, 2012). Also, Shintoism to the Japanese is the worshipping of their ancestors and pays “tribute to Kamis, that has a traditionally strong bond with the Japanese culture” (Hays, 2012). Importantly enough, this all means that for the people who do practice Shinto-Buddhist ways and who do believe in spirits, it is crucial for them to honor the spirits of their past ancestors in order for them to be laid to rests. If they don’t lay the spirits to rest, then they could become restless and the Japanese believed that it could cause bring misfortune to them.

Japan also has daily or weekly memorial service just for soothing the spirits. John Makoto, bishop of Tokyo and author of The Spirits of The Dead: Christianity, Buddhism and Traditional Belief in Japan, brings up the tradition of memorial services in Japan and says that behind the tradition is the “belief in, or fear of, the spirits of the dead, whose presence is still near” and that they must be soothed “by the regular offering of prayers or by those who have special spiritual power” (Takeda, 1997). From what Makoto has stated, we can understand that the spirits are vengeful because the people of Japan fear them and the only way to soothe these spirits is through regular sessions of prayers in the form of memorial rights.

The statement from Makoto builds onto the fact that the beliefs of ghosts and spirits are important and integrated into their culture because they fear the spirits and want to lay them to rests by memorial services. Significantly, John Makoto also proclaimed that “for many scholars of religion, the belief that the dead become hotoke (buddha;jobutsu means ‘becoming buddha’) appears strange and is unique to Japanese Buddhism. Even popular Buddhism outside Japan has no such teaching” (Takeda, 1997). This is significant because not only do many scholars of the religion believe in this, but the beliefs of spirits integrated into the culture is unique to only Buddhism in Japan and nowhere else. Evidently, another set of statistics from Mary Picone, from Japan Research Center (JRC), has said showed that “The Buddhist cult of the dead as performed in temples is slowly weakening and many Japanese declare themselves to be without religious affiliation. Yet when misfortune is thought to strike too often or in other unhappy circumstances, many people may try to find a spiritual cause for their problems” (Olry & Haines, 2014).

In a 1993 survey of college students about “60%, even of those without an affiliation to a specific religion, claim to ‘believe’ in kami (Japanese gods), spirits and the afterlife” (Olry & Haines, 2014). Whether or not the Japanese actually believes in ghosts and spirits, if a bad event happens, they will most likely try to find a way to put the blame on something else. For example, they would blame the spirits for their misfortune. In Transformation of the Oni, some people would pin their bad behavior on being possessed by the Oni (Reider, 2003).

Most Japanese people back then used to believe in ghosts and were religious. However, not everyone in Japan is religious today and they sure do not believe that spirits are in any way bounded into Japanese culture. While it is true that most of the ghosts and spirit lore in Japan come from their Shinto and Buddhists beliefs, they could be just that, merely beliefs and folktale. Jeffrey Hays has also stated that “Japan is intrinsically not a very religious place” and “most Japanese regard themselves as nonreligious but still make regular visits to religious facilities” (Hays, 2012).

Since Japan is not a religious place like it once was, and many Japanese are nonreligious, they would not need to believe in ghosts and spirits since those ghosts are rooted in the religion. To them, the belief that ghosts are important in Japan culture and how Japan works is just a silly idea. The online source known as the FactsandDetails has also mentioned how “religion does not play a big role in the everyday life of most Japanese people today” (Hays, 2012). Many Japanese continue to have Buddhist and Shinto alters in their homes but yet, only a few of those people considered to be religious. Also, to further support that idea, a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun (Japanese newsletter published in Tokyo) had revealed that “72 percent of Japanese do not have a specific religious affiliation” (Hays, 2012). So what is a ghost to a non-believer and why do the people there still celebrate traditions like the Matsuri festival and other festivals if they, themselves, do not believe in ghosts? They simply do it for fun.

In a place like Japan, where there are many activities that are going on all year round, people cannot help themselves but to celebrate. Even if someone is a believer or non-believer, they still celebrate on the basis of it being fun, people enjoy going to festivals and spending time celebrating, and those people do not need to believe in ghosts or otherworldly beings anymore to celebrate. They also turn ghosts into a more modern form of entertainment like horror movies which is ironic because they are still fearing ghosts, but they are also getting enjoyment from it even if they do not believe in ghosts.

On the other hand, another artifact that makes Japan the way it is, is the countless number of traditions they have, specifically the ones that revolve around ghosts. More interestingly, Japan has an annual ghost season each year during summertime but more during Augusts. The Japanese take an interesting approach to ghosts and spirits in the way that throughout the decade they turned folklore into traditions and with the same famous movies. For example, “The Ring” and “The Grudge”. What makes ghosts season so important is because the middle of Augusts is considered a spiritual season based on Buddhist traditions. Jun Hongo, a writer for the JapanTimes News, reports that “many honor the dead during Bon (Buddhists custom to honor spirits of one’s ancestor) by gathering and paying respects at ancestral graves” (Hongo, 2008). The importance of these traditions lies in the idea of honoring and paying respects to these ancestral spirits which has been mentioned many times already because it is one of their core beliefs. Oddly enough, before the spirits can be sent back to the “other world” they have to be summoned firsts from that “other world” in order to “greet and show respects to the spirits by offering food and prayers” (Hongo, 2008).

Another important tradition in Japan are the memorial rites, which was mentioned earlier. “Every Sunday at every church, the names of loved ones who have died are called out in a memorial prayer.” They have monthly services for their departed members also. The Japanese do this because of their fear and beliefs in the dead. That is the only reason why they do this (Takeda, 1997). According to Makoto and traditional beliefs, it is said that “between 33 years and 50 years must past before the restless spirit can become hotoke (Buddha) or sorei (ancestor god), which leads them to rest. After that, the burial ceremony has completed” (Takeda, 1997). This goes to show how committed the Japanese are in this tradition because it takes a span of between 33 and 50 years to complete and it is that important to their culture to complete this. This is also important because if the burial ceremony is not done properly then the spirits will become vengeful. Oddly enough, this belief did not come from Buddhism but instead, it came from ancient Japanese beliefs. Remarkably, the structure behind memorial rites lead to the creation of the Matsuri festival.

The Matsuri festival is yet another festival that involves soothing the spirits of ancestors. In brief of what the festival is, “the first thing that happens is to invite the spirits in and then prayers and offerings are made. They have special foods and wine made and after the offerings, spiritual powers are received; finally, they send the spirits back to wherever they came from” (Takeda, 1997). An additional importance of this tradition is to refill people with ke (air, breath, and spiritual power) energy. The believed that ke energy is lost doing everyday chores and the only way to replenish this energy is through rituals like the Matsuri festival. Makoto also states that “the discrepancy between the sect’s ideal teaching and the reality of religious practice is recognized in Japanese Buddhism as it is in Christianity; neither is able to ignore the deep-rooted traditional belief in the spirits of the dead” in order to assert once again the importance of the beliefs of spirits being ingrained into Japanese culture and that spirits are behind almost everything in Japan.

On the whole, even though there are people in Japan who do not believe in spirits or consider themselves to be religious, evidence has argued that the belief in spirits are essential to Japanese culture. Throughout the culture of Japan, there have been a countless number of folktales that involves spirits and ghosts. Some of these beliefs in spirits are also the basis of their unique form of Buddhist-Shinto religions and the traditions that came to be through these beliefs. In order to dig further into this investigation, one must ask questions like: how many of the Japanese population still believes in the importance of ghosts? Is modernization the main factor on people not believing anymore? To this day, why is there no concrete answer on whether or not ghosts are real? With these questions up in the air, hopefully, this will call into action for further research done because some of the people in Japan still do not believe in the importance of ghosts shaping the way of their culture. Nevertheless, what makes Japan the way it is, is the integration of the beliefs in spirits through folktale, their religious beliefs, and traditions that they have that revolves around pleasing the spirits.

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