Japanese Ghost Stories : 5 Books

Frightening oneself with ghost stories or haunted houses is a summer activity in Japan for the chilling frisson it’s believed to provide. Yet the Japanese literary tradition filled with spirits, ghouls, specters and other supernatural phenomena is so rich that a full year wouldn’t be enough to even scrape the surface. Since dark fall evenings are a good time to delve into it, I decided to share five of my favorite Japanese books over whose pages hover ghosts.

The Japanese concept of a ghost, yūrei, is quite complex, but in its essence, it’s a soul of someone who died in a violent manner and may not have had proper funeral rites. The soul then returns to the living world to seek vengeance and to torment those who were responsible for the crime. The purpose of Japanese ghost stories, however, is not only to paint the frightful deeds of the unpacified souls, but also to examine the complexity of love, betrayal, loyalty, faith, and other human emotions and dilemmas.

Japanese Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyoka, translated by Charles Shiro Inouye

“She seemed too delicate for someone living in the mountains. Even in the capital you don’t see many women as beautiful. As she rubbed my back. I could hear her trying to stifle the sounds of her breathing. I knew I should ask her to stop, but I became lost in the bliss of the moment. Was it the spirit of the deep mountains that made me allow her to continue? Or was it her fragrance? I smelled something wonderful. Perhaps it was the woman’s breath coming from behind me.”

One of the most innovative writers in Japanese literature, Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939) weaves a mysterious ambiance in his stories. To me, he belongs among the surrealists like Luis Buñuel, René Magritte, and Salvadore Dali. As in traditional stories, the supernatural elements throw light on the complexity of human emotions and motivations. How does society shape our behavior? How do we navigate personal desires and responsibility towards others?

Japanese Gothic Tales is one of the few of Kyoka’s works translated into English, and it showcases his mastery to the fullest. Note his use of colors, especially white and red, which appear again and again, the symbols of the violent and the erotic.  The effect is powerful.

Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari, translated by Anthony H Chambers

Ugetsu Monogatari, usually translated as Tales of Moonlight and Rain, was published by Ueda Akinariwas in 1776. This collection of nine tales is based on traditional Japanese and Chinese ghost stories. It explores human emotions and behavior, and the ghostly presence often highlights the moral decay of the living characters. The measured, cool tone of the narrator, even when charged with explaining the most graphic or frightening scenes, is as much of a surprise as the plots themselves, but it keeps things in check and avoids moralistic overtones.

One of the most famous tales in the collection is called “The House Amid the Reeds.” A samurai abandons his wife for a younger woman and leaves his home. Returning many years later, he finds her receiving him as kindly and gratefully as ever, but when he wakes up the next day, he finds that his house is in ruins and that his wife had died long ago. The story inspired one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film Ugetsu.

Five Modern Noh Plays by Yukio Mishima, translated by Donald Keene

Noh plays originated in antiquity as temple performances during the harvest and other celebrations, but they were refined at the shogun courts into a highly symbolic form where a single movement could indicate a complex event. The simplicity of the set and the pared down dialogue make Noh a difficult art form, but one that could cast a spell even on those who know little of its traditions and the subtle meanings of its stories. Ghostly appearances are an essential part, connecting the world of the living and the dead.

Noh stories follow classical patterns, but in Yukio Mishima’s rendition, the modern themes of alienation, frustration, and the emptiness of wealth and power are evident. His vision of humanity is more cynical than that of traditional stories, but Mishima casts a similarly strong spell on his readers.

Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn

Born in Greece, Lafcadio Hearn spent the last 14 years of his life in Japan, and his major contribution was not only to introduce the Meiji-era Japan to the West, but also to collect its folklore and ghost tales. Reading the traditional stories, I always catch myself on the side of the ghosts. The most frightening characters are the individuals who were weak and abused during their lifetime, and most of the time they are women. Lacking the agency in life, they assume ferocious powers as ghosts, and I must say that reading about their revenge is satisfying. Although Hearn’s collection includes much more than just ghost stories, it features many famous tales, such Kwaidan, which was the inspiration behind the 1964 film by Masaki Kobayashi. The original story is as eerie as the film.

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin

“Evening, and a lowly servant sat beneath the Rashomon, waiting for the rain to end. Under the broad gate there was no one else, just a single cricket clinging to a huge red pillar from which the lacquer was peeling here and there…. No one bothered to maintain the Rashomon. Foxes and badgers came to live in the dilapidated structure, and they were soon joined by thieves. Finally, it became the custom to abandon unclaimed corpses in the upper story of the gate, which made the neighborhood an eerie place everyone avoided after the sun went down.”

Yet, it’s the living, rather than the dead, who are horrifying in Akutagawa’s stories. The seventeen stories in the Penguin’s collection showcase Akutagawa’s skill as a storyteller as well as his layered writing style that blended irony, satire, drama and humor. His obsession with ghosts, symbols and madness haunts the pages of his work.

What are you reading at the moment? Do you have any favorite books with supernatural elements?

Image: Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), Yoshitoshi ryakuga, 1882. Illustration to a story about an artist, who painted a ghost so realistically that it materialized out of his drawing. Via wiki-images.

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44 Comments

  • Cornelia Blimber: I love horror stories and ghost stories! Of course E.A. Poe. And Polidori. Bram Stoker. Tom Holland (he of Persian Fire) is also a gifted story teller (”The Vampyre” figuring Lord Byron).
    Short stories: Ambrose Bierce, Vernon Lee, Algernon Blackwood M.R. James (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary), Guy de Maupassant (Le Horla), Ray Russell…etc. You name it.
    ”La Cité de l’Indicible Peur” by Jean Ray is a wonderful book. I love all kind of ”gothic” books. One of my favourite authors: Ann Radcliffe.

    As an experienced horrorstory reader I am not easily frightened, but this one is really weird, even if I reread it more than one time:
    Macbeth.
    The opera by Verdi has the same frightening quality.
    There is one book that was too much even for me: Melmoth the Wanderer.
    .Too bad that the Japanese stories are not for me. I have no affinity with the Japanese culture. October 23, 2017 at 7:49am Reply

    • Victoria: I didn’t realize Tom Holland wrote fiction. I will have to check it out. Thank you! October 23, 2017 at 1:37pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: He wrote a lot of fiction. Be not afraid of gory details… but enjoy his true gift of telling a story. October 23, 2017 at 2:34pm Reply

        • Victoria: I can see that from his descriptions of battles! October 23, 2017 at 2:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: And thank you for this inspiring list! October 23, 2017 at 1:39pm Reply

    • Jen: I’ve been considering reading something by Ann Radcliffe; your comment tipped the scale! The Romance of the Forest it is! October 24, 2017 at 3:09pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Enjoy! October 25, 2017 at 7:31am Reply

  • Jillie: Like Cornelia I love to be chilled by ghost stories and have spent winter evenings by the fire reading M R James (one of my favourites) and being delightedly spooked by shadows in the corners of the room!

    I haven’t read any Japanese stories yet and can quite imagine them being horrific in a very different way – I get the impression they are more artistic, more literary and intellectual than their English counterparts.

    Feeling a little nervous now as the daylight dies ….. October 23, 2017 at 10:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Somehow I realized when I made this list that I don’t really read many ghost or horror stories apart from the Japanese ones. Gogol or Kafka probably don’t count in the same genre, although Akutagawa was inspired by Gogol especially. He even has a story called The Nose in the same collection I mentioned. It doesn’t feature ghosts, but it’s bizarre! October 23, 2017 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Kaleidoscope: These stories sound perfectly terrifying, Victoria! Thank you for sharing.

    I’ve just finished reading about a century’s worth of fragrance in the entertaining book, Perfume: A Century of Scents (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/lizzie-ostrom/perfume/). The author mentions your website in the back as one to which she often goes.

    I am now reading The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/books/review/the-folded-clock-by-heidi-julavits.html). It is pretty wonderful – a diary but not a diary; an essay but not an essay; a memoir but not a memoir. It’s kind of all three in a fascinating way.

    Neither of these books are/were scary, however.

    Following are just a handful that are guaranteed to raise goose-bumps (at least they did for me!):

    – The Accursed and Dis Mem Ber, by Joyce Carol Oates.

    – The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

    – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

    Great to read on a cold, rainy fall day with a nice cup of tea…or something stronger for the faint-hearted! October 23, 2017 at 10:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for this great list! Now I’m tempted to watch the film “Rebecca”. It’s even more chilling than the book for me. October 23, 2017 at 1:39pm Reply

      • Kaleidoscope: You’re welcome!

        I have seen the Hitchcock version as well as the 2003 Masterpiece Theater version, but was unaware of a hard-to-obtain 1979 version which, according to this reviewer (http://talkingwriting.com/hitchcock-got-rebecca-dead-wrong) is the best one. Though I liked the other two, now I want to see THAT one 🙂 Forbidden fruit…

        The ongoing issue of movie adaptations from books continues to “haunt” us 🙂 October 24, 2017 at 9:29am Reply

        • Victoria: I had no idea there was another adaptation. As much as I love the Hitchcock version (and contrary to the blogger, I think that the casting was perfect), I want to see the 1979 film too. October 25, 2017 at 1:37am Reply

  • Alicia: This makes me remember of my childhood, in Spain and in Argentina. I’ll tell of the latter. Every early winter we would go to my uncle’s ranch in the pampas. By the end of the day the gauchos will meet in the fields, before returning to their homes, and have a last ‘mate’ while they would tell ghosts stories, and occasionally sing them. We, the small children, would go to bed with our heads full of these strange, scary tales. How we loved them! October 23, 2017 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can just imagine! What kind of stories were they? Do you still remember them? October 23, 2017 at 2:51pm Reply

      • Alicia: I was little, six r seven years old. I remember the setting, the falling sun, the gauchos gathered around a fire, occasionally with a couple of guitars, singing a payada (a type of alternate song, in which the first singer settles the rhyme which the second should follow). The payadas were mostly about riddles, but sometimes told stories, One is etched in my mind: the story of the lights that would follow a rider in the dark. Souls of the dead seeking vengeance or something else, but nothing good. One afternoon I went to the river with my horse and, when it became dark, I was returning home when I noticed those lights following my horse. I can’t say how scared I was. Many years later I learned that the lights were produced by the phosphorous gasses emanating from the carcasses of dead animals left in the fields, abundant in the pampas. Never told my family, ashamed that some soul wanted vengeance for wrongs I had done, and never again returned to the river at dusk. October 23, 2017 at 3:36pm Reply

        • maja: What an incredible memory to cherish! October 23, 2017 at 3:53pm Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: I can imagine how scared you were.
            On the other hand, you and other little children loved these strange stories. I guess you remembered them, when you were older and riding your horse. And then, suddenly it was a chilling reality.
            Lucky for you, there was a natural explanation (as often but not always!) October 23, 2017 at 4:09pm Reply

            • Victoria: I seem to recall seeing these lights on the walks with my grandmother. She always explained it scientifically, but they still spooked me. October 24, 2017 at 2:05am Reply

        • Victoria: What a story! I can just imagine how frightened you were.

          In the Slavic folklore, watery places are the liminal zones, where the spirits and the living can meet. Which is why divinations often happen in the saunas (bania) at night. My grandmother’s bathroom is located in a separate building on the property, one half of which is used for storage and another for the bathroom facilities. Occasionally, I would stay up late working and then I’d go to take the shower at midnight. I always think of my great-grandmother’s bania spirit stories then and rush through my ablutions as quickly as possible. Once I was about to step into the shower, when I saw two eyes glittering from the corner. I nearly had a heart attack on the spot, and then I discovered that it was a stray kitten. Who was as frightened as I was. October 24, 2017 at 2:04am Reply

          • Alicia: Victoria, you have heard of the great Mosque of Cordova, now a Cathedral. Once I went there in search of Don Luis de Góngora’s grave. I had a plan of the chapels, and eventually got to it. It was very dark, and in that darkness, seemingly disembodied, I saw two glittering eyes. This time I wasn’t scared, but quite puzzled, so I stayed there until my eyes, now used to the darkness, saw the shape of a shadowy cat, sitting, heraldic, over the great poet’s tomb. It moved me. In that immense building the cat had chosen the last place of one of the most revolutionary of European poets , and guarded it in the shadows, like an ancestral, ebony god. October 24, 2017 at 5:47am Reply

            • Victoria: I haven’t been to Cordoba yet, but I know of the great Mosque of Cordoba. What a great story! October 25, 2017 at 1:38am Reply

              • Alicia: Plan a trip to Andalusia, Victoria. Not in the summer, full of tourists and awfully hot. Córdoba, the city of the great Caliphate, of Séneca, Lucano, Averroes, Góngora is a marvel Try to stay in the Parador Nacional, a bit expensive, but worth it. Granada is not far away. It is a fairytale place, not only the wondrous Alhambra, but also the Catholic city, with the superb Renaissance Cathedral with the graves of the great monarchs who in the XV century united Spain (a poignant thought in these times), and the gypsy suburb of the Sacromonte, so beloved by García Lorca. It is a magic place. October 25, 2017 at 1:48pm Reply

                • Victoria: Thank you! In Spain it seems that every city has plenty of treasures to discover. October 26, 2017 at 2:14am Reply

                  • Alicia: Very true, like other countries, rich in history. The main difference is that Spain together with the Roman-Christian tradition had the Islamic culture from 711 to 1492. That makes it unique, particularly the Andalusian region. October 26, 2017 at 5:14am Reply

                    • Victoria: Not to forget Sicily, of course. October 29, 2017 at 7:55am

                    • Alicia: Victoria, I adore Sicily and chose it for my honeymoon. Sicily is notable for extraordinary Byzantine treasures (Montreal, Cefalu), Normand and Hohenstauffen castles, and particularly and uniquely for Greek Doric temples and theaters (Agrigento, Selinunte Syracuse…), but the Muslim influence, although it exists, has not produced there any masterpiece comparable to the Spanish ones.
                      The great Baroque of Sicily was created under the Spanish Viceroys, since Sicily and Naples were part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilys, which belonged to the Kingdom of Aragon. Such is the reason why the Neapolitan and the Sicilean dialects are so influenced by Spanish. The great Neapolitan Opera House, San Carlo, is so named by King Carlos of Naples, and later Carlos III of Spain, a Spanish Bourbon, and excellent monarch. October 29, 2017 at 12:38pm

                    • Victoria: It’s still extraordinary enough, and the traces left in the Sicilian cuisine, language and culture visible to this very day make it a fascinating place. October 29, 2017 at 3:35pm

            • Silvermoon: Alicia, lovely story. And yes, there are few buildings more spectacular than the Mosque Cathedral of Cordoba (and I have seen many great buildings). Two things struck me: the architectural (and decorative) beauty and how the Christian monarchs appreciated this enough to make the effort to “save” it even though it belonged to the “enemy”. These two elements lend the place a poetry and emotion like few other man made structures. October 25, 2017 at 5:07pm Reply

              • Victoria: It looks splendid photographed, so I imagine that in real life it’s even more spectacular.
                Yes, for similar reasons that the Ottomans preserved Saint Sophia after their conquest of Constantinople. It was one of the most remarkable buildings of its period. October 26, 2017 at 2:30am Reply

                • Silvermoon: Victoria, I have never been to Istanbul, but I can imagine the splendor of the Hagia Sophia. And as you say, in this case the saving is the other way round!

                  And speaking of ghost stories, I remember as a child in India, when families of friends got together for dinner parties and there were powercuts/blackouts at night, all the kids would get together in a room, light a single candle and then begin telling ghost stories – the scarier the better. But oddly it also felt quite deliciously delightful. I think ghost stories transcend cultural differences – everybody seems to have ghost story telling traditions. October 26, 2017 at 4:10pm Reply

                  • Victoria: Completing the reconquest started by his predecessor, Ferdinand II might have saved some lovely buildings, but he also ordered the expulsion of Jews (and Muslims) from Spain in 1492 and under whose reign the Spanish Inquisition flourished. Actually, I know one Jewish family that could trace their lineage to the Muslim Cordoba. The stories were passed down from one generation to the next. October 29, 2017 at 8:17am Reply

                    • Alicia: Dear, you got the wrong Ferdinand in respect to Cordoba. The conqueror of Cordoba is Ferdinand III of Castilla and León., xiii century. The conqueror Of Granada, the expulsion of the Hews, Inquisition,etc is the husband of Isabel I of Castilla, Ferdinand of Aragon, end of the xv cenrury. October 29, 2017 at 12:18pm

                    • Victoria: I certainly didn’t. I meant Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, and I should have added, Isabella, Queen of Castile. The conquest of Al-Andalus was in the 13th century, so obviously, it couldn’t have been the same Ferdinand. October 29, 2017 at 3:33pm

              • Alicia: Silvermoon, you are absolutely right! The Mosque was enlarged Caliph after Caliph.Córdoba was conquered by Spain in the XIII cenrury by St. Fernando, King of Castilla and León. He, and his successors respected the integrity of the Mosque. The great palace of the Caliphs near Cordoba was not destroyed by Christians but by fanatical Muslims invading from Africa in the XI century (the almorávides). The Catholic Monarchs at the end of the xv century also respected the Alhambra, which enchanted them, to the point that they chose to be buried in Granada. October 26, 2017 at 5:30am Reply

                • Inma: Delighted of reading about Córdoba here! As I live in Seville but my family comes from Córdoba and Cádiz. I am not good at history though…even so I love the city, of course, it is soooo beautiful, you can only fall in love with it. October 30, 2017 at 6:59am Reply

                  • Victoria: And Seville is such a beautiful place too! October 30, 2017 at 9:13am Reply

                  • Alicia: Inma, I have been in Sevilla many times. The Queen of the Guadalquivir! La Reina del Betis… The Alcázar started by Pedro I is just splendid. The Cathedral extraordinary, where I paid my respects to the tombs of those great kings Saint Ferdinand, the Conqueror, and Alfonso the Wise, who created the Castilian prose . When the orange trees are in flower the city is permeated of the fragrance of angels. I never saw the Semana Santa in Seville, but that of Málaga. Inolvidable. My Visigothic blood (Asturias) perhaps remembers the glory of St Isidoro de Sevilla, that most learned man, whose Etimologias dominated the European University system for centuries. You are fortunate to live among the glories of such an illustrious city. Blessed indeed. October 30, 2017 at 1:30pm Reply

                    • Inma: 😍😍😍 October 31, 2017 at 6:16am

  • Ariane: I have just read “House of the Sleeping Beauties” by Yasunari Kawabata, not a ghost tale, but strange, creepy, and haunting. October 23, 2017 at 9:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: Kawabata certainly had plenty of personal ghosts to exorcise. I also read this book not long ago. October 24, 2017 at 2:05am Reply

  • maja: Nah, I am such a chicken when ghosts, fantasy or horror are concerned. I try not to read or watch anything scary. I suffer certain “regular” books too if the descriptions are vivid and terrifying. 🙂 October 24, 2017 at 4:17am Reply

    • Victoria: What about Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka? October 24, 2017 at 4:36am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you for sharing these books, Victoria, there seems to be a real tradition for ghost stories in Japan, I had no idea.

    I love Mizogushi after having seen La Vie d’Oharu femme galante as a teenager, I always think of him as the Jean Renoir of Japan, the same generous humanism in their films.

    I’d like to share Elizabeth Gaskell Gothic Tales, I am just discovering her (she was a contemporary of the Brontes). October 29, 2017 at 11:25am Reply

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