Nippon Day Four: Kaidan (Japanese Ghost Stories)

October is here, and though in Japan the season of ghosts is August, here in America everyone is looking for ways to bring a little safe terror into their lives. What is it about this time of year that makes us think of the other world? Is it the chill in the air? The turning brown of our green world? Or just the simple fact that the days are getting longer, so there is more time spent in the dark? Whatever it is, with the holiday of Halloween coming up, like everyone else, I am turning to the monsters and ghouls. 

Every culture has it's frightful folktales. People have been blaming misfortune and unexplainable phenomena on witches, monsters and ghosts all over the world since the dawn of time. We delight in giving ourselves and others goosebumps, in ghastly tales of horrors that happened to others, and in reliving nightmares that we have experience. Wether you believe in them or not, they still have the power to freeze your blood.

 In Japan a tradition of ghost stories was already present when, sometime in the early 1600s, the game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai became popular. The name roughly translates to "A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales" and it probably started in the samurai class as a test of courage, and it is easy to see why.

Imagine you are at a party with many other people. It is dark outside and through the thin wood and paper shoji walls you can hear the sounds of the night. People begin to tell stories about frightening tales they've heard, maybe about a villager who claimed to have seen a spirit outside his house, or a ghost of a murdered woman who came back to torment her husband.  Each guest takes a turn, and after their story they leave the room, then come back, their face far grimmer.

When it is your turn you are already at a heightened state of fear, your skin is crawling with goosebumps, you can feel your hair standing up, but you tell your own story. Something you heard from a peasant or a servant, about a dark night like tonight, and a white robed spirit, seeking vengeance or simply jealous of the living. Now you are done, and though you are full of fear while in the room of people, now you must go alone into the other room.

It is darker in here, there is some light, but what started as a hundred lamps has slowly dwindled down to a few. Like the other's before you, you make your way to the center of the room, and extinguish one light. The room becomes a little darker, and heart racing, you hurry to the last test of your courage. There is a mirror laying on the floor. You stoop to pick it up and look down at your face. In the dim flickering light you look like a shadow of yourself and the darkness behind you feels as though it could contain anything. Imagination runs wild, did you see something, there, over your shoulder? Before your courage fails, you rush to go back to the room with the other story tellers. You are glad that you are not the last, who must go and extinguish the final light, hoping that the spirit they have evoked will not appear before them. 

This game, easy enough to imagining as a halloween entertainment today, caught on like wild fire in Japan among every class of people. Suddenly there was a rush to gather as many scary stories as you could find from all over the country and even as far away as china. These stories became known as kaidan and were told around the fireside in commoner's homes; shared between samurai and the wealthy; and, of course, used in tests of courage. With the adoption of the printing press in Japan, ghost stories were soon gathered into "books" and the genre of kaidanshu was born. 

You may be wondering what sets kaidan apart from the sorts of ghost stories you might have heard at summer camp? Many of the traditional stories come from old buddhist tales and have a certain moral or karmic lesson attached. Often they feature ghosts who have been betrayed or murdered in life, and have come back for vengeance. Take the story of Okiku, a serving girl who refused the advances of her master. To try and coerce her into bed, he broke one of the families ten heirloom plates and blamed it on Okiku, saying that he would wave the usual punishment of death if she gave into his desires. Okiku still refused and he killed her and threw her body into a well. Almost immediately he heard counting from one to nine coming up from the well, followed by her spirit. 

Often Japanese ghosts are people who were powerless in life, such as women and servants, and therefore can only find justice in spirit form. Okiku is one of the most popular ghosts in Japan along with Oiwa, a woman who had her makeup replaced with poison. Oiwa's beautiful face was scared and her husband abandoned her. Once she had died she came back for revenge, haunting her husband until he descended into madness.

Kaidan were perfect to be adapted into kabuki theatre, since those plays embraced anything grusome and salacious, which many stories were. The kaidan of Oiwa was perfect for the stage and became wildly popular. The kabuki play has it's own legends attached to it, similar to Macbeth, accidents seemed to happen on set, occasionally even costing lives. Even today it is still traditional for people acting in the play and the director to make a journey to Myogyo-ji temple, where Oiwa is supposed to be buried, and ask her permission to tell her story. It is especially important for the actor playing Oiwa to do this.

As with most kabuki plays, many ukyio-e artists made block prints for this tale and others. A particularly popular motif came from a part in the story when Oiwa's ghost appears out of a lantern, her face ruined by the poison and a portion of her hair missing. The images are chilling and beautifully horrifying. 

Today Japan is well known for it's horror films and many of them are inspired by the traditional kaidan. With America taking influences from movies like Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge), the classic themes of kaidan have come to the west, uniting us in our human fears. So this halloween, if you're trying to think of a good spooky costume, maybe consider putting on a white robe, a long black wig, and painting your face white. This is the way Japanese ghosts have been shown in artwork for centuries, and it's always worked for scaring people. 

Until next time, try not to look into a mirror in a dark room, you never know what might be lurking behind you.