Some Revised Thoughts on “Why I Love Japanese Ghost Stories”

 Including philosophical and religious context, as necessary. You’ve been warned.

I was raised strict Southern Baptist. Not, recent reports to the contrary, the most radical of fundamentalists, but definitely on the same end of the spectrum. That’s neither a brag nor a confession, it’s just the fact. At this point in my life I consider myself a “recovering” Southern Baptist, in the same sense of a “recovering” alcoholic. An alcoholic may be clean and sober, but he or she is never “cured.” Those with similar upbringings to mine are pretty much in the same boat. I haven’t attended a regular church service aside from weddings and funerals in over 30 years, nor do I plan on doing so. Doesn’t make any difference. I grew up with the mindset, my brain is wired with the mindset. I can either surrender to it or react against it, but the one thing I can never do is get rid of it. My upbringing informs practically all aspects of my life.

Very interesting I’m sure (*yawn*) but what has that got to do with Japanese ghost stories or, for that matter, any other kind?

Quiet, Mr. Strawman. I’m getting to that. Yes. Ghosts. According to the tenents I was raised with, there aren’t any. References to ghosts in the King James Bible (the only real Bible, end of story) were actually references to evil spirits of various sorts. Why? Because at death a person’s fate was sealed, and whether they had unfinished business or a lust for revenge or the impulse to help was irrelevant. There were minor doctrinal disputes among the branches, I came to understand, but they were mainly along the lines of “Do people go to heaven or hell instantly, or do they have to lie quietly in their graves until Judgment Day, when God shall divide the right from the left, sheep from the goats, righteous from heathen, the former off to Paradise and the latter to everlasting Damnation and Hellfire.” The only difference being “when” not “if.” In either case, human spirits weren’t going anywhere. And before you start, Mr. Strawman, I’m not saying all Chistians believe some precise variation on the above. I’m just saying that’s what we were taught, at that time and that place. I rather doubt it’s changed much.

So ghosts did not and could not exist. Heaven knows (no pun intended) that it wasn’t any sort of rational materialism that led them to that conclusion. The rest of the spirit dimension was out in force. Demons? Sure, just another name for fallen angels. Regular angels? Of course, though they were more likely to act as some variation of God’s Enforcers, smiting and intimidating, rather than making sure a pair of Victorian children safely crossed a bridge. Ghosts? Not so much. We had ghost stories anyway. Ghost stories are universal. Just with the caveat that “Of course it’s just a story. You know there’s no such thing as ghosts.” Not only knew, but it was an article of faith that there weren’t. From my experience, that goes rational materialism one better. It’s not that ghosts were not proven. They were pro-actively disbelieved as an article of faith, not rationality. At least in theory.

What’s the result? Well, in my subset culture and in Western culture in general, a ghost is no longer a ghost, almost by definition. And if it’s not a ghost, what is it? An object lesson, quite often. Take one of Western culture’s most famous ghost stories, Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The three ghosts were not ghosts, but rather spirits with no specific human origin, there to instruct, who really sent them is never stated, but it is implied. But what about Marley? Wasn’t he a ghost? Within the context of the story he was a “horrible example,” and you’ll note that nothing he did was going to make any difference to his own fate. He was already damned. So why did he try to help Scrooge? Guilt? A post-mortem change of heart? Divine compulsion? Didn’t matter in the least. Whatever it was, Marley was beyond help. Whatever happened to Scrooge, Marley kept his chains. His fate was already sealed, and for the same reason that Scrooge would share Marley’s fate upon his own death if he didn’t change course. Death is literally the deadline.

Yes, not all western ghost stories are so bloody didactic as that. Most are just trying to give a good scare. A good “safe” scare. Fun, and worthy for that reason alone. But not meant to be taken seriously. And when they are meant to be taken seriously, it’s as metaphor within the context of the story, and it’s something else within the story that’s meant to be taken seriously. The ghost is a plot device, worthy or not, but that’s all it is, just as Jacob Marley in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I don’t remember when I read or saw my first Asian ghost story, but it soon was clear enough that a different esthetic was at work.

Not exactly a revelation, but to me it was, a bit. The different cultural and intellectual perspective was the proverbial breath of fresh air. Also very clear was the fact that Asian cultures in general and the Japanese in particular luuvs them some ghost stories. In Japan, ghost stories and stories of the strange in general are called kaidan and were derived from an even older Chinese tradition of weird stories. They were transmitted orally by professional storytellers and also, since the Japanese have been literate for a long time, collected together in anthologies called kaidan-shu. When Lafcadio Hearn moved to Japan in the 19th Century and started gathering the Japanese weird tales that eventually became Kwaidan he was working in that same tradition. My own “The Plum Blossom Lantern” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #12) is a take on an Edo-period ghost story of the same type. One thing you’ll usually not find in the Asian tradition is the sort of one-note moralizing so common in the west. Or at the very most it’s going to be from a very different tradition and perspective, as one would expect. Take, for example, a story present in an altered form in Kwaidan about the man who abandoned his wife to go seek his fortune in a nearby city. He finally returns, broke and threadbare, and is overjoyed to find his wife still patiently waiting for him. They spend one blissful night together, and in the morning he wakes up to discover he’s been sleeping with a dessicated corpse. Now, in a western ghost story odds are the wife would have been a revenant awaiting revenge and that reunion night would have been his last. In this story, however, the wife died alone and abandoned, and since handling a corpse created ritual impurity, there was no family there to handle the funeral and cremation, so the woman’s dead body was simply left in her rotting home, patiently awaiting her husband’s return. And after all this, what was his punishment? A good scare and a month of ritual impurity. That’s it. Maybe he deserved worse, but then that wasn’t necessarily the point.

Or then there’s the story of the monk and the ghost of the woman who died for love. A certain monk liked to meditate at night on a certain stone outside the temple grounds, but was warned that the area was haunted. Determined not to alter his practice, he persists, and sure enough he sees the ghost of a woman, a spectre both beautiful and terrifying with long flowing black hair. She stands just outside the circle of his lantern, looking at him. He’s afraid, but does not leave. He keeps meditating. It happens again on the next night. And the next. Finally seeing that he’s never going to be left in peace, he speaks to her. “What do you want?” Her terrifying aspect immediately goes away, and she’s simply the apparition of an unhappy woman, who tells the monk that she died for love, and so was still too much attached to this world to move on. If he would be so good as to give her the tonsure? Right. The ghost has been coming to the monk because she wants to become a nun. In the western tradition this is far too late. In the Asian Buddhist tradition, not a bit of it. The monk agrees to cut off her hair, and once that’s done she vanishes, never to return.

So, was this a dire warning about worldly attachments, a Buddhist rather than Christian moral lesson? Not that I can see. The ghost states her problem, the monk helps her with it. Is she punished? No more than she was going to be anyway, assuming the appropriate hell was waiting for her once she’d left the physical plane. Not to mention that the various hells were not for punishment in the first place, but as an aid to the soul’s eventual transcendence. It’s all rather straight-forward and, well, practical.

Of course there are examples of Japanese ghost stories where specters are merely seeking revenge, or to right a wrong, but they’re not dominant or even in the majority. Many more examples fall into the outlines above. More to the point, there’s nothing in the Asian tradition that says ghosts aren’t real. Quite the contrary. Not that the Japanese necessarily believe in ghosts any more or less than westerners do, but there’s nothing in the tradition that precludes them, and much that takes their existence and continued presence as a given. None of this should be a revelation to anyone with even the slightest interest in Asian myth and tradition, but bear in mind where I’m coming from. Recovering Baptist, remember? It helps me to keep in mind that other traditions see the matter of ghosts and everything else in ways other than the one I was told was right. They’re reminders that no one tradition has all the answers or even all the questions. That it takes work to understand points of view not your own, but it’s worth the attempt. This is a great help to me.

Besides, east or west, ghost stories are fun, and exploring the differences from west to east is fun too. Isn’t that enough reason?

3 thoughts on “Some Revised Thoughts on “Why I Love Japanese Ghost Stories”

  1. This was a fascinating look into process and the cultural differences with the element of ghost stories.

    I must say ghost stories fascinate me, too. You’ve done a lot of work in this with your Mothersbaugh stories and your Asian ones.

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