Ghosts in Japanese Culture

We Westerners hear about the mysterious East, but often don’t stop to think why we think the Far East is so mysterious. Part of this problem is that Westerners simply don’t understand Eastern culture. Behind superficial differences between the two cultures, it seems that fundamental shifts in focus are most responsible for cultural confusion between East and West. Shifts in focus? Yes. In contrast to Western cultures where emphasis lies on the development of individual ego, Asians generally focus on harmonious interactions within a larger community. Community spirit rests at the heart of the universe. As a result of this focus, an individual’s first responsibility rests in assuring the smooth functioning of society at the expense of individual needs. The imperative to emphasize community supports the unusually (to Westerners, at least) structured behaviors that lie at the heart of Asian culture.

Quick Explanations
I realize that pointing to a culturally ingrained emphasis on community is a quick generalization, but this generalization is a necessary first step into a more detailed explanation of Asian mentality. Until a more detailed understanding of Asian cultures emerges, it is first useful to keep in mind that quality of community focus varies from Asian culture to Asian culture. For example, Asian relationships to spirituality can be as varied as, say, Western interpretations of Christianity. A crucial distinction is, however, that, in contrast to Western history, Asians haven’t used different interpretations of religion as a justification for war. They recognize that, although different approaches to spirituality use different rituals, the essence that supports all forms of spirituality is the same. To remain meaningful, expressions of belief fluidly adjust from culture to culture. There’s no reason to fight over religion. Ignorance breeds conflict. Fights are not useful for the whole of society.

Never the Twain Shall Meet
My references to religion and war aren’t the beginning of a meandering socio-political argument. Actually, I will use attitudes to spirituality and war to begin a discussion of essential disparities between Eastern and Western interpretations of paranormal phenomena. How? Firstly, the emotional impulse of Westerners to deal with the unknown using denial contrasts with the Asian wish to understand and patiently explain the unexplainable (Ross, 1996). The result of this divergence is that Westerners either pooh-pooh the paranormal or make it into a New Age business venture that is sure to stimulate profitable interest at the expense of genuine understanding. In addition, Western media so heavily promotes the terrifying, bloody, and other sensational aspects of the paranormal that it is difficult to transform the paranormal into a subject worthy of serious study. Indeed, it is not unusual for a Western investigator to accompany an explanation of his/her interest in the paranormal with an uncomfortable apologetic air. Let’s face it: in the Western world, it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit to an interest in the paranormal. Conversely, other cultures have different feelings about the paranormal.

Instead of giving in to a less-than-respectable opinion of those who investigate the unknown, why not turn to cultures that actually have an interest in the paranormal and, furthermore, support active investigation. Why not? There are places where the paranormal is an intrinsic part of the culture. Where? Interest and curiosity about the paranormal exists in Asia. For example, the Japanese are highly interested in, and curious about, the paranormal (Ross, 1996).

Ghosts in Modern Japan
Of all Asian cultures, Japan provides a valuable example because, among Asian cultures, the urban Japanese have assimilated into the West as an influential economic force. In spite of this Westernization, however, it is siginificant that Japanese culture is full of contrasts that reflect bothold traditions and new ideas (Ross, 1996). In fact, Japanese culture holds to quite a few ancient traditions, although these traditions have been adjusted to modern life. For example, it is not unusual to see a contemporary Japanese businessman carry anicient charms along with his cell phone and briefcase (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994; Ross, 1996). In addition, the media is full of ghost and monster stories that either take the form of traditional folk tales or legends or have been adapted from folk tales to contemporary films and novels. (Remember Godzilla?) Even modern Japanese religion integrates the supernatural into its teachings.

The bottom line is that, even today, daily life in Japan is supernatural: 8 million deities (kami) are responsible for everything in daily life (even the toilet) (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994).; Ross, 1996). Emulating old traditions, modern Japanese frequently feel that there’s little difference between the world of the living and then world of the dead. Ghosts are commonplace. For this reason, living people easily meet ghosts . . . and may not even realize that they have done so (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994)!

Land of Spirits
There are spirits in Japan-many of them. There are, in general, two kinds of spirit: the spirit of the living (seiryo), and the spirit of the dead (shiryo) (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994). Spirits can be dead or alive. It doesn’t matter much. The main distinction is that spirits either come from komoyo (this world) or anoyo (over there). Ghosts of the dead appear out of anoyo because a spirit that should be in anoyo is tied to komoyo by strong emotions or feelings of obligation. It is, however, possible to draw the spirit into anoyo by reading special sutras, or Buddhist scriptures that release the spirit from unresolved sensations of obligation, duty, debt, honor, and personal responsibility (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994). As might be imagined, in the spirit of Japanese community, feelings that involve other people are most responsible for the appearance of ghosts. Duty does not stop at death.

Because duties do not expire with the body, there are quite a few ghost stories that deal with strong feelings of obligation. (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994). For this reason, many ghost stories relate to, say, ongoing relationships between a dead mother and a live child or a dead child and a live mother. Close relatives or lovers that share a sense of mutual responsibility, but are separated by death, also present possibilities for ghostly phenomena. As might be apparent, responsibility transcends death in Japanese culture.

The Dead are Near
Since, in Japan, the dead are near the living, the Japanese consider it wise to continue to treat the dead as if they were alive (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994). That means that relatives still honor the dead on their birthdays, or on specific holidays. Maybe the living will continue to do maintenance on a garden that was loved by the departed. This maintenance is not a matter of stubbornly holding onto a memory; it is doing something for someone who is not able to do the work. The departed gardener will somehow show appreciation for this polite consideration. If, however, the gardener isn’t happy with garden maintenance, in one way or another, displeasure will appear.

Why the Obsession with Death?
Does an extreme concern with death seem usual? This concern should be understood in the right spirit. In contrast to the West, Japanese ghosts serve a purpose (other than to be dead). Although the Japanese see actual physical decay as “dirty,” death, when understood in a spiritual sense, is a profound mystery that moves above and beyond decaying bodies (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994). Ghosts are useful because they inspire emotion, more emotion than is common for the living Japanese. Ghosts make debts, obligations and guilt very real and very obvious. That’s because they don’t hide behind polite gentility. In addition, ghosts frequently serve as reminders of duties that must be done, or appear as helpful guides that impart vital information to the living. More importantly, ghosts give the living (and the dead) freedom to express intense emotions that are normally repressed in Japanese society. In some respects, ghosts present an unearthly opportunity to confront unresolved social tensions or emotional issues that were so strongly imprinted in the living person that, to move on, this person must confront the same issues in death. Death that results from any form of emotional stress, such as torture, betrayal, or disregard of acceptable social behavior is excellent for creating a ghost. Interestingly, Japanese ghosts are often prone to interact with the living in forms that speak and can be touched. Suspicion is that the living who see, talk, and otherwise interact with ghosts have a level of acceptance that creates the solid appearance of ghosts. Not surprisingly, perceptions of solidity occur frequently (Iwsaka and Toelken, 1994).

As is the case in most of Asia, it is important to remember that, unlike most Westerners, the Japanese both love and honor their ghosts. It’s a good place to be a ghost!

Iwsaka M. and Toelken B. (1994). Ghosts and the Japanese. Logan: Utah University Press.

Ross, C (1996). Supernatural and Mysterious Japan. Tokyo: Yen Books.