Five Reasons For Japan’s Haunted Summers

Guest post by Zoe Drake!

In western countries, ghost stories are traditionally associated with Autumn (namely Halloween) and sometimes Christmas (thank you, BBC adaptations of M. R. James short stories – for depriving me of so much sleep). In Japan, however, the time for tales of the supernatural is summer. This is the season when books, magazines and TV specials document real-life and fictional encounters with the spirit world, and visitors throng to the haunted house attractions all across the nation. Summer has been the season for ghosts for several hundred years … but why?

The first reason is a highly practical one. Summer can be incredibly hot and humid in Japan, and before the creation of air conditioning, there were many analog ways to make the population cool – such as eating watermelon, hearing the clean crystalline sound of carefully made wind-chimes, using paper fans, sprinkling water on the streets, and listening to Kaidan – scary folk tales handed down by storytellers through the generations.

It is a scientific fact that when humans are frightened, the blood vessels on the surface of their skin contract, reducing the flow of blood which results in the lowering temperature of the skin. So in other words people can actually cool off when they become scared; now there’s good old homespun Japanese wisdom for you!


The second reason is a more spiritual one. The month of August or July–depending upon the region – is the Obon season in the Japanese Buddhist calendar. During Obon the Japanese believe that their ancestral spirits return for an annual visit.

Traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the returning spirits. During this ghost festival Bon-Odori dances are performed and the Japanese visit their family graves and leave food offerings at household altars or temples. As Obon ends the Japanese place lit floating lanterns in rivers, lakes and the sea to help guide the visiting spirits back to their world. Obon is one of three major holidays in Japan, along with New Year in December and Golden Week in Spring.

The third, many people believe, is thanks to a man called Tsuruya Namboku IV. Ghosts and other supernatural creatures had been an integral part of Japanese storytelling for hundreds of years (the Tale Of Genji, written in ?, contained accounts of possession by a vengeful spirit) but the popularity of ghost stories snowballed in the Edo period, (1600-1868). In 1825, a Japanese kabuki playwright named Tsuruya Namboku IV (1755-1829) noticed that crowds in Kabuki halls dropped dramatically during the peak of summer in the month of August. In a bid to bring a summer crowd into Edo’s old Nakamuraza Theater, Namboku scripted a horror show called Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya) in 1825 to be performed at night during August. A tale of betrayal, murder and revenge from beyond the grave, the play proved to be a smash hit and brought ghouls to the masses. Yotsuya Kaidan featured the tortured tale of Oiwa, a young woman who died at the hands of tormentors and came back a ghost wandering the earth to seek revenge – a yurei.

Namboku’s play, and the scores of imitations that followed it soon after, really codified the Japanese ghost as we know it today, and served to inspire the Ring novels and movies in the present day – the white dress or kimono, the drooping arms, stringy hair covering the face (which makes it even scarier, when the listeners or watchers imagine what kind of visceral horror is concealed behind the hair).

The Obon festival, meanwhile, had been celebrated for at least 300 years prior to the debut of Yotsuya Kaidan at Nakamuraza, but it had no firm date of observance, and many locales celebrated Obon at different times. Gradually, through the rest of the early 1800s, most Obon celebrations began to gravitate toward the same time as the performances of the now nationally famous Yotsuya Kaidan, and by the mid-1800s, with the integration of Yokai, Obake and other scary characters, mid-August became the de facto witching month in Japanese culture. While local Obon festivals can still be celebrated either in July, August, or on a moving lunar calendar, the common observance of the holiday in mid-August could be credited with an uncommonly successful Kabuki horror story.

Lafcadio Hearn – or as he is known in Japan, Koizumi Yakumo. Born in 1850, died in 1904, Hearn was a writer, translator, and teacher who played a huge part in introducing the culture and literature of Japan to the West. In 1890 Hearn traveled to Japan for Harper’s Magazine, but stayed to marry and settle down in the distant region of Izumo. Hearn’s articles on Japan soon began appearing in The Atlantic Monthly and were syndicated in several newspapers in the United States. He soon moved on to books –  Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), Exotics and Retrospective (1898), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Shadowings (1900), A Japanese Miscellany (1901)— and perhaps his most famous work, Kwaidan (1904) –  a collection of Japan’s best-known stories of the supernatural and translations of haiku poetry. Through Hearn’s unflagging dedication, images of Japan’s haunted summers began to filter into the Western subconscious.

The fifth is the development of some spectacular Haunted Houses. Every summer, millions of visitors (mostly young couples) flock to spooky attractions such as the Haunted Hospital in Fuji-Q Highland (near Mt Fuji), which was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s scariest hospital in 2008.  It spans 550 yards from entrance to exit, and takes 30 minutes to an hour to go through. Visitors are treated to eerie sick rooms, operating rooms, and of course a morgue. For visitors that become too frightened to continue the house provides emergency exists throughout the structure. The Japanese refer to these exits as “chicken ways”. As tourists wait in line, a common sight is to see others running out of these exits in a panic or in tears.

Feeling a chill trickle down your spine yet? 

In August, Excalibur Books will be running the Zoe Drake Scary Summer Campaign – giving away ebook and paperback version of “The Mists of Osorezan”, among other freebies and discounts. To get your copies, join the newsletter mailing list here …

And for more information about me, go here! 

The Mists of Osorezan

It begins with a series of unconnected mysteries …

AOMORI, JAPAN: A young girl dies during the testing of a revolutionary brain-scanning technology.

VENICE, ITALY: Strange omens are seen in the skies above a haunted island in the lagoon.

LONDON, ENGLAND: A secret society of occultists gather to discuss the oncoming crisis.

Gradually the threads are drawn together …

David Keall, a young British resident of Japan, finds himself attracted to his private student, Saori Yoshida, and becomes fascinated by the mysterious death of her sister during trials of the Tsuguru University Sleep Research Project. He enrolls in the same project to help Saori uncover the truth, but finds his life turning into a nightmare as his darkest dreams erupt into reality around him. Two mysterious strangers with paranormal powers arrive, offering help … but can he trust them? Can David find his way back to normality – or will he be lost forever in the mists of Osorezan?

More information here!




About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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