In the West, we associate cool weather and the changing of the seasons as the time when spirits roam and imaginations wander. However, in Japan, summer is usually when you should break out your horror movies and swap tales of terror with friends.
You may be asking why this time of the year. While it’s true that Halloween is becoming a more popular celebration, especially in Tokyo, there’s actually a very good cultural explanation for why summer is the epicenter of ghost season.
The festival where spirits return
In the middle of August, Japanese people celebrate the Obon holiday. During Obon, many Japanese families will visit relatives and pay respects to deceased loved ones. It’s a special occasion where departed spirits are welcomed back to the world of the living to be with their descendants during this time.
People will typically have a break from work during this time, which they’ll use to visit their hometowns and spend time with family. Did you know that despite many companies giving employees summer holiday during Obon, many Japanese consider this a dangerous time to visit bodies of water and go swimming? The superstition is that souls return to the living world through water. Any living person going swimming could be caught by wandering souls and dragged to the world of the dead.
An Obon festival in Japan
Like many superstitions, this has some basis in reality. In August, the island nation experiences off-shore currents and rougher tides. Because of the weather patterns, the waves on a lot of Japanese shores are more extreme than usual during that time of year. Naturally, people living in older, more superstitious times with less understanding of tides and weather would believe that the reason for the ocean’s wrath was because of the spirits called forth during this highly spiritual season.
However, even today many accidents occur around oceans, lakes, and rivers during Obon weekend. Take extra care when traveling to bodies of water in August.
To bring the ancestral spirits back to the home, families will typically clean the graves of relatives and use lanterns to transport the spirit. In the past, many families used actual fire. Nowadays, using an LED lantern is perfectly acceptable.
While at the family home, a candle is lit at a household shrine called butsudan. Family members will give their ancestors offerings of food during their stay for the holiday. At the end of Obon, the family will transport their ancestors back to their graves in a tradition called okuribi.
The giant dai in Kyoto
Some places do okuribi more extravagantly than others. You’ve probably seen the giant kanji for dai on the side of Daimonji Mountain in Kyoto. The Gozan no Okuribi festival in Kyoto is the most famous example of the okuribi custom, a huge festival that draws thousands of visitors every year.
The origin of yurei
So obon is one of the major reasons for the heightened spiritual affinity in summer. You may be thinking that all of this sounds rather heartwarming and far from the sinister depictions of Japanese spirits that you see in most media. Well, it’s one thing to welcome spirits of loved ones. It’s another when a spirit has unfinished business in the realm of the living.
The introduction of Buddhist customs is actually believed to be the cause for the rise in superstition and the subsequent belief in spirits of a more evil persuasion in Japan. Before Buddhism became the dominant religion, Shintoism held sway over most of the population. Spirits also existed in Shintoism, but they were mostly benevolent or harmless in nature.
This might just be the earliest recorded example of a jump scare
Buddhism introduced the idea that individuals who had been murdered or died with some great regret could return as vengeful spirits to exact their revenge on the living. This is where the origins of most Japanese spirits or yurei came from.
As many sources will tell you, yurei translates more literally to faded soul, and their stereotypical appearance follows along that transliteration. They usually wear all white, as is common in Shinto burial rituals. A cloth folded in the shape of a triangle called a hitaikakushi is usually affixed to their forehead. Yurei also have no feet and will float over the ground.
The yurei is a recognizable figure in Japanese art
Yurei is a blanket term used for spirits. A wide selection of variations exist, and most of the distinctions have to do with how they died or why they are returning to the world of the living. Some of these include ghosts of children, ghosts of those who died at sea, and your typical vengeful spirit. These are just of a few of the different varieties of yurei.
Because spirit activity is particularly high during the hot and humid time of August, ghosts and ghost stories have been largely attributed to the summer season in Japan. So ingrained are these stories and the myths surrounding them that summer superstitions still abound throughout the culture.
100 ghost stories in one night
A popular pastime during the summer months is the hyakumonogatari kaidankai, or gathering of one hundred ghost stories. In this game, one hundred candles are lit in a room with a mirror placed on a table facing toward the ceiling in the middle of the room.
Participants then sit in an adjacent room, usually one featuring a shogi paper door that can be closed between. They will then begin telling ghost stories. After each story, one of the candles is extinguished and that person must look into the mirror in the center of the room. Naturally, as the stories continue and more candles are put out, the room becomes darker and darker until…
Where the party at?
Well, usually most people will give up before they reach one hundred stories out of fear of the spirits they have called through the telling of the tales.
There’s a long tradition of telling ghost stories in both Japan and in the West. One of the reasons people tell these kinds of stories, or read scary books or watch horror films is to feel the rush of fear, the chill down your spine. With the unbearably tropical summers in Japan, doesn’t it make sense that people would want to cool down one way or another? Why not try telling some ghost stories with friends the next time you’re desperately trying to find relief from the summer heat?
In any case, we hope you enjoyed this little introduction to ghostly summer season. We’ll be following it up with more ghost and horror related articles in the coming weeks and throughout the summer, so be sure to check back soon.