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Why do Japanese people like to tell ghost stories during the summer?

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Prof. Yoshiyuki Ikura

Updated on Aug 10 2015

Q.Japanese people like to tell ghost stories during the summer. In the United States, we do so during the Halloween season. What’s behind this difference?

A.The souls of the deceased come back to this world in summer

 In Japan, summer is the season of “kaidan”(怪談) ghost stories, when horror movies are released, and magazines and television stations broadcast seasonal features about spiritual phenomena. It is said that people tell chilling ghost stories during the summer because they want to cool off with spine-tingling tales. Ethnologist Shinobu Orikuchi(折口信夫), who lived from 1887 to 1953, said Japanese society began regarding summer as the season of kaidan because of summertime kabuki performances. They were called “suzumi shibai”(涼み芝居; cool plays), and included plays like “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan”(東海道四谷怪談) or a savage tale of revenge by the ghost of a murdered woman. Orikuchi said these kabuki plays with unusual stories developed from village folk art called “bon-kyogen”(盆狂言), comic summer plays passed down from ancient times. Japanese society gives particular importance to two seasonal events ― “oshogatsu”(お正月) New Year’s Day and “obon”(お盆) or “bon”(盆) in the middle of summer. During obon, the souls of the dead are believed to temporarily return to this world, and some households still follow the traditional Buddhist custom of preparing a “bondana”(盆棚) altar and “mukaebi”(迎え火), or welcoming fire, to greet their ancestors. In ancient times, Japanese people thought souls temporarily coming back to this world would include “muenbotoke”(無縁仏) deceased persons without relatives praying for them, and “onryo”(怨霊), vengeful ghosts. Against this background, “bon-kyogen” plays emerged as a form of requiem for the repose of ghosts unable to rest in peace. Summer in Japan is therefore a season symbolized by “obon” events for spiritually interacting with the souls of ancestors and taking pity on unhappy ghosts. Even today, summer continues to be the season of kaidan.

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published in The Japan News on 10/8/2015

 

Yoshiyuki Iikura

Research

Oral literature, Japanese Cultural Traditionology

Contact: Public Relation Office

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