Moist Earth and Humid Air
You might be surprised to know that the hot and humid days of summer in Japan are not only the season for dreaded mosquitos, but also of monsters and ghosts. When I was growing up, I was told that the reason we tell “kaidan” (which means strange stories) in the summer is because scary stories give us the chills and would cool us down. I later realized that kaidan had more to do with “obon” being around this time of the year when, the Japanese believe, the souls of our ancestors return home and stay with the living for a couple of days.
Sharing stories of ghosts and supernatural phenomenon in the summer is a national pastime and it is perfectly acceptable for grown-ups to frighten young children with these tales. I loved being scared and often pestered the adults to tell me more kaidan. Some told them so well that I had nightmares for days. On those nights, I would fidget in my bed and fight the urge to go crying to my mother who was sleeping in the other room. I was afraid that my mother would be angry and forbid me from hearing more kaidan.
There are some distinguishing characteristics to Japanese ghosts found in famous classic tales. First, they have no legs. This is helpful because it makes it very easy to distinguish ghosts from real people. Second, ghosts are mostly women because Japanese consider women to be much more vengeful and jealous, which is very sexist. Third, they come out and usually say “urameshiya,” which means “I’ve been wronged”. This is because they feel that they died under undeserved circumstances. For example, the servant Okiku of the famous “The Dish Mansion at Bancho” kaidan, was killed by being thrown into a well because she did not comply to her master’s sexual advances.
These ghosts will not sleep in peace until we hear their stories. You can find many of the classic kaidan stories in the book “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”, written by Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo.
My favorite kaidan is “Earless Hoichi,” and we had a picture book of this story at home. It is about a blind biwa lute player who lived in a temple. He was an excellent performer of “The Tale of Heike,” a long military narrative about the rise and fall of the Taira clan, while playing the biwa. One night he gets invited by some samurai servants to go to their powerful lord’s estate to perform the tale. His performance impresses them and he is told to return the next night to continue as the Tale of Heike is very long, and it takes several days to completely tell the tale.
The samurai servants and the lord turn out to be the souls of the fallen Heike ghosts possessing Hoichi, and the estate he was performing at was actually a graveyard. The priest of the temple tries to protect Hoichi from the returning ghosts by writing the heart sutra all over his body which makes him invisible to the dead. The ghosts return and are enraged that Hoichi is missing but they discover his ears where the priest had forgotten to write the sutra. As a result, the ghosts rip off Hoichi’s ears and disappear, but he survives the injury and becomes a famous biwa performer.
I asked my older sister to read this book to me so many times that she quickly got tired of it. I also became fed up asking other people to read for me, so I memorized the whole book. I often imagined and shivered at the thought of sitting amid ghosts while hoping for the best for Hoichi. I schemed about what I would do if I were put in Hoichi’s situation, which could happen any night, so decided that I would cover my ears with my hands. My hands would be covered in the sutra so they would make my ears invisible.
I wonder what picture books children read in the U.S, but my hunch is that ghost stories are not on the top recommended lists. Many of the Japanese stories are clearly aimed at teaching children to steer away from danger. But I also think they allowed us to experience fear and sadness with others. And because these feelings are usually experienced alone, sharing could make the experience more tolerable and make us feel closer.
During obon, we light lanterns so our ancestors can find their way home, or chant a sutra to comfort them, or even cook dishes the departed liked. These acts of remembrance let those that have passed cross the mythological river of Sanzu, where they can rest in peace, because culturally, one of the worst things we can do is to forget about the people who are no longer with us. The Day of the Dead celebrated by people in Mexico is very similar to our obon.
Once I asked my mother what the “heart sutra” of Earless Hoichi was, and she surprised me by reciting the whole sutra to me. She went to a Soto Zen temple’s women’s high school and had to recite it every morning before starting class, so she knew it by heart. When I heard it for the first time, I thought it sounded beautiful and calming. Later, whenever I heard a priest chanting the sutra, I often joined in on the catchy climax of the sutra which goes like, “gyate, gyate, hara gyate, haraso gyate, boji sowaka”.
It was only decades later that I discovered the penetrating meaning of this verse:
Gone fully over and
I know it sounds strange, but thinking about death and those who left us fills me with gratefulness.