Ghost stories exist in just about every culture of the world. You can learn a lot about a culture by the ghost stories they tell. Ghost stories, and particularly Japanese ghost stories have been very popular of late (The Ring, Ju-On, etc) but their origins go back as far as the oral traditions of each culture. Just as with Greek odysseys and ancient poems like Gilgamesh, ancient ghost stories provide amazing windows to the past and the strange of every culture.
During a recent adventure through Victorian era ghost stories, I also learned of an old ghost story telling tradition in Japanese culture. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会, lit., A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales) was a popular Buddhist-inspired ghost telling parlor game during the Edo period in Japan. The exact origins are unknown, but it was believed to be first played amongst the samurai class as a test of courage. In Ogita Ansei‘s 1660 nursery tale “Otogi Monogatari” a version of the game was described in which the narrative tells of several young samurai telling tales in the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai fashion. In the tale, as one samurai finished the one-hundredth tale, he began to extinguish the candle when suddenly he sees a giant gnarled hand descend upon him from above. While some of the samurai cowered in fear, a swipe of his sword revealed the hand to be merely the shadow of a spider.
According to early texts, the tradition method went like this:
- The game was to be carried out on the night of a new moon when the night is darkest without even moonlight. All light sources should be covered or extinguished.
- The location should be the home of someone in the group in a selection of 3 neighboring rooms. The best configuration is if the rooms are arranged in an ‘L’ shape where one cannot see the room at the top of the L from the room at the bottom right of the L.
- The participants gather in one of the end rooms with a few lanterns. The room next to that is to be pitch black.
- The most secluded room has 100 lit candles or andon (traditional Japanese paper lanterns) and a writing desk with a mirror on top.
- All dangerous items should be removed from the rooms (decorative swords/etc).
- Each person is to wear a blue robe.
- The participants take turns telling 1 ghostly or supernatural story at a time. They should be of ghostly encounters, folkloric tales passed on by villagers who encountered various spirits, and the like. These tales became known as kaidan.
- After each story is told, the teller gets up with a lantern wrapped with blue paper.
- They walk alone through the dark room to the room lit with 100 candles/andon.
- They extinguish one candle, look into the mirror on the table, then return to the story telling room.
- Play proceeds like this with the most secluded room becoming darker and darker until the final story.
- In some versions, only 99 stories are told and play stops until the sun rises to tell the final story.
- In other versions you tell the final story. When you enter the lit room and extinguish the final candle while looking into the mirror – some spirit or image may be evoked.
While this might have started as a test of bravery for aristocratic warrior classes, it quickly spread to the working classes. As it gained widespread popularity in the 1600’s, people began scouring the countryside for mysterious tales and collected them into books. The stories also started merging ghostly vengeance with elements of Buddist karma. The collections and popularity of the game grew and is still deeply in the culture today.
For those that have caught Japanese horror movies and popular Japanese anime/manga/literature, the influence of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai and the themes those stories created during that era is very clear. Some shows even have mock recreations or clear spinoffs of the very game.
In Japan, like many other cultures, there is the idea of Kimodameshi (きもだめし or 肝試し; lit. “test one’s liver”). These “tests of courage” involve a person/people exploring frightening, and potentially dangerous, places. Kimodameshi is usually played in the summer, in group activities such as school club trips or camping. At night, they visit scary places such as a cemetery, haunted house, or a forest path to carry out specific missions there.
While many of the stories might seem strange to us today, they are also very interesting and often some very similar characteristics as western ghost stories. I recommend picking up one of the many collections of kaidan/ghost stories from Japan and give them a read.
Here are 10 famous Japanese ghost stories to start your journey. See how many themes you recognize. Another great book is Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was an Irishman that had a colorful past, moved to Japan and researched ghost stories in the late 1800’s