In Japan, the major religions are Shintoism — which is Japan's earliest religion, Buddhism, and Confucianism (which is more of a philosophy than a religion, in fairness). Christianity, despite missionaries' historical and current attempts, never really took off in Japan. Most Japanese people declare themselves non-religious or atheistic, but practice or believe a mixture of Shintoist and Buddhist beliefs and customs. Both Shintoism and Buddhism have deep roots in Japanese history and culture, and maintain their vice grip on Japan today.
Shintoism began quite early, before the sixth century C.E. It is intertwined with nature and agriculture; perhaps its most titular belief is the belief that kami (神, most easily translated as spirits or "gods") exist in nearly everything. They could be in rocks, rivers, trees, and even people. A great example of this belief is the popular mobile game Barcode Kanojo (バーコードカノジョ, or Barcode Girlfriend) played on this. It is a reimiagining of the Shintoist tradition of "yaoyorozu no kami" (八百万の神, eight million gods), which signifies how kami is in everything. According to the game developer's description, due to the modernization of Japan, the significance of these eight million kami has diminished. As such, they have thought to extend the concept of kami to just about anything with a barcode. The game revolves around scanning barcodes to gain different girls; each barcode reveals a different girl. It's a simple and fun game, but it provides an easy, accessible means to understanding how kami can be in everything.
The concept of kami in relation to people is similar to the Western concept of the "soul," in that everybody has one and it lives on after death. The afterlife in Japanese religion is not as clear-cut as it is in Judeo-Christian beliefs (perhaps due to its conglomeration of several faiths), but, as in Western tradition, spirits may be inhibited from proceeding to the afterlife (whatever the afterlife itself may entail, depending on varying faiths and beliefs). Violent, sudden deaths, or improperly performed funeral rites can be the chains holding a person back, but so can such things as emotional ties or "things left undone," as is common in Western ghostly tales. With this, the Japanese "ghost" is an interesting contrast to the Western one, with similarities and differences aplenty. The Japanese tradition of spooky tales is a fascinating one, and the concept of a "ghost" plays an analogously colorful and prominent role in Japanese culture, both historical and modern.
kaidan ・ 怪談
Kaidan, or 怪談, is commonly translated as "ghost story." However, it carries with it a specific nuance, particularly that of Edo-period (1603-1868) Japanese tales. The word kaidan is comprised of the kanji 怪 (kai = mysterious or strange) and 談 (dan = talk or discussion about something); thus, literally, it'd mean "discussion of mysterious things" or something among those lines. 怪談 rose up in the Edo period, with the popularity of the game hyakumonogatari kaidankai (百物語怪談会, or "gathering of 100 ghost stories"), which spurred the compilation of ghost stories and folktales from regions near and far and, alongside the printing press, culminated in a new literary genre: kaidanshu (怪談集, which literally means "compilation of ghost stories").
In comparison to modern Japanese horror, which is commonly denoted with ホラー (horror), kaidan is usually reserved for use in reference to older Japanese horror tales. Many have varying versions, as they have been retold through the ages in various forms of media and by various authors. Some of the most prolific of these tales are Banchou Sarayashiki (番町皿屋敷, or The Dish Mansion at Banchou), a story about a beautiful servant who spurned her master's advances one too many times and was thrown down a well, after which she became an onryou (怨霊, or vengeful spirit); Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談, or Ghost Story of Yotsuya), a story about a betrayed wife who returns from the dead to exact revenge on her philandering husband — incidentally an incredibly famous story, retold many times through film, literature, and art; and Botan Dourou (牡丹燈籠), a story with many different variations, some in part the result of the cultural shift that came with the Meiji restoration, that tells of a samurai's love story with a ghost. These stories still carry a cultural influence today, as the origin of modern Japanese horror.
Reikon, or 霊魂, is the spirit of a human that leaves the body upon death. It is similar to the Western concept of a "soul." After leaving the body, if all goes well the reikon continues on to the afterlife; beliefs vary on what this means, however. For example, in some Buddhist beliefs, one is reincarnated after death. In order to avoid this, nirvana must be achieved. There are other beliefs about the afterlife in Japanese religious faith, such as the Sanzu River, similar to the River Styx and the Obon Festival, in which the spirits of past ancestors come to visit their relatives in the world of the living.
A distinction between yurei and reikon is that reikon are simply spirits; yurei are spirits who are unable to, for some reason or other, pass on to the afterlife.
Yurei, or 幽霊, are closely related to the Western concepts of "ghosts" or "spirits" (in the haunting sense). Yurei are spirits who are kept from passing on for some reason or other; perhaps they had died in a sudden or violent way, or the funeral rites were not properly performed. The spirit could also be spurred on by intense emotions, like love, revenge, jealousy, hatred, or sorrow. Powered by either the wrongs done or its strong emotions, the yurei lingers until it is appeased, through proper funeral rites or righting the wrongs the yurei is tormented by.
Yurei are often characterized by a white kimono, long black hair, limp wrists, missing legs and feet, and hitodama (人魂) which appear as a supernatural fiery ball.
onryo ・ 怨霊
Onryo (怨霊, a vengeful ghost) are perhaps the most famous type of yurei. They can be seen in popular examples such as RIngu (The Ring/リング) and Ju-On (The Grudge/呪怨) which may be the most enduring images of onryo in modern film. As their name describes, they are ghosts who return to exact revenge for wrongs done to them. The concept of a ghost returning for revenge is one that exists in Western supernatural tales as well, interestingly.
ubume ・ 産女
Ubume (産女, lit. a birthing woman) is a ghost that has died in childbirth. A common legend surrounding them is that an old woman, appearing with a child in her arms, begs a passerby to hold her child. Once they do, she disappears, and gradually the child grows heavier in the person's arms until it turns out it is actually a boulder, or perhaps a jizo statue (commonly carved in stone, he is the protector of travelers and children and is found all over Japan). The ubume commonly is depicted soaked in blood from the waist-down.
funayurei ・ 船幽霊
Funayurei (船幽霊, where 船 = fune, or boat and 幽霊 = yurei, or ghost) are the spirits of drowned sailors and seamen that have turned into onryo at sea. Funayurei ghosts attack ships, drowning them by using ladles to fill them with water and thus sink them, killing the sailors onboard. There are different ways to protect oneself, like throwing food so that the funayurei go after the food instead, or giving the ghosts ladles with holes in the bottom. They can take on various shapes, such as appearing as one huge funayurei, and appear often at night and on rainy or foggy days.
zashiki warashi ・ 座敷童子
Zashiki-warashi (座敷童子, lit. room child) are a more mischievous type of yurei. They are house spirits, similar to a Brownie or a Puck. They are child-like in both appearance and nature, and enjoy playing harmless pranks. Zashiki-warashi look to be about five to six years old with rosy cheeks and (typically) short, bobbed hair dressed in traditional kimono. They bring good fortune to their home and family, and are often well taken care of. There are variations in other areas (such as the kurabokko/warehouse children, or 倉ぼっこ).
gaki ・ 怨霊
Gaki, or 餓鬼 (which also can mean "brat"), are hungry ghosts. They come from Buddhism, and occupy their own realm in the Buddhist six realms of existence where greedy and hungry souls are punished for their avarice by having even more of it. They have large bellies, and are commonly associated with such traits as addiction. They look different than other yurei, and are more like zombies in appearance than ghosts. A variation on them, the jikininki (食人鬼, read as shokujinki in modern Japanese) who are corpse-eating ghosts.
ikiryo ・ 生霊
The ikiryo (生霊, lit. living ghosts, but also can mean doppelganger) are the spirits of people still alive which have left their bodies temporarily. This is similar to an out-of-body experience. They appear at such times as a near-death experience, fainting, and emotions like love or vengeance. Vengeful ikiryo can curse people (祟り, or tatari, meaning "curse" or "divine punishment"), for example. Ikiryo can also possess people and appear shortly before death to loved ones and friends. In the Edo period, they were thought to be symptoms of illnesses like rikonbyo (離魂病, or sleepwalking) and kage no yamai (影の病, or"shadow illness").
obake, bakemono, and youkai, oh my!
Obake (お化け) is most commonly translated as ghost, but is more accurately described as a type of youkai (妖怪), which is a general word for supernatural monsters and spirits. Obake are closely tied to bakemono (化け物, which literally means "something that transforms"), a common character in Japanese folklore: shapeshifting tanuki (racoon dogs), kitsune (foxes), bakeneko (cats that transform), and so on are exceedingly common in Japanese myths and folk tales, even persisting today in popular culture. Bakemono disguise themselves as humans or other creatures, like the hitotsume-kozo (一つ目小僧, literally one-eyed youngster, which are youkai that shapeshift into a bald child with one eye, similar to a centaur) or a noppera-bo (のっぺらぼう, or faceless ghost).
There are a very wide variety of youkai, which include such famous entities as kappa (河童, a mythical water-dwelling creature with a small plate on its head), tengu (天狗, a goblin-like creature with a long nose and an avian-esque appearance), youko (妖狐, or kitsune youkai, of which all are believed to be able to shapeshift into people, similar to selkies), oni (鬼, or orgres/demons which are commonly depicted with horns on their heads, red or blue skin, tiger-skin loincloths, and iron clubs), and akaname (垢嘗, lit. filth licker, a youkai which licks clean dirty bathrooms at night).
kaidan + modern day
As stated before, kaidan today have morphed a bit from their Edo-period origins. Much like record players and disco, it carries with it now a "vintage" aura, similar to the word "Victorian" in the West. However, much like record players and disco, kaidan maintains an influence outside of its old-timey associations. Kaidan is the mother (or father?) of modern Japanese horror, a genre highly popularized around the globe. It has influenced stories and folklore since the Edo period, and continues to maintain a presence today.
Kaidan reflects not only folklore and myth, but also cultural —and perhaps even universal — ideologies. The ideas that the dead must be buried with the proper rites and that one must respect the dead are ones that persist to this day. The human fear of death may indeed have been the breeding ground for the world's stories of ghosts and spirits, and kaidan is simply one facet of that. Maybe the reason kaidan resonated so strongly with the people of the time is due to both the existence of many things that could not be explained with common sense or reasoning, and human dread of the unknown. Fear of the dark is fear of absence of light, sure, but it is also fear of what may or may not be laying in the dark. Kaidan plays on not only the terror that we have in regards to mysterious phenomena, but the wonder and awe we have in the face of them. It doesn't have to be scary, even though oftentimes the unknown carries with it the undeniable shadow of fear.
So, kaidan may not be a part of daily life the same way it was in the Edo period, but at its core, the concepts that it played to are still very much existent in humans around the globe.
kaidan in and of itself is more than just scary stories to tell in the dark. It is a cultural phenomenon, and it gave birth to a variety of artforms across multiple mediums. Playing to the fear, awe, and curiosity of the mysterious innate in the human soul, kaidan has endured to the modern day through modern Japanese horror.
It is important to remember that while we may enjoy it (and/or be frightened of it), kaidan teaches us a bit about human nature. When reading these tales or looking at illustrations of them, we can learn more about humankind as a race, as well as about Japanese culture. Kaidan can be fun and educational! So I hope you enjoyed this.
This site was the product of a passion for web design and spookiness, but quickly turned into an appreciation for Japanese art and literature as well. I feel that I learned many things about kaidan through this, that I honestly would not have learned otherwise. It is incredibly easy to get caught up in stereotypes about Japanese horror and culture and to forget the roots of those things, much like it is easy to do the same with American culture (or really, any culture). So often one may hear people laughing over how perverted or weird Japan is (and Japan has some pretty odd stuff, no doubt), but it is unfair to judge the culture and its thousands of years of history on it. Oversimplification isn't very conducive to understanding something, and, by extension, analyzing one aspect of Japanese horror is a horrible way to understand it (and Japanese culture) as a whole.
I hope that this site was both aesthetically pleasing and an enjoyable read, but I also hope you were able to perhaps see another facet of Japanese horror or culture through this tiny glimpse at kaidan. If you are interested in sources and further reading, feel free to click here. Thank you for your time!