In Honor of Halloween: Japanese Books on the Supernatural

"Japanese Paper Lanterns" by coward_lion at
“Japanese Paper Lanterns” by coward_lion at

Last Halloween, I discussed my three favorite authors of ghost stories and the supernatural. This Halloween, I want to talk about works on folklore and the supernatural in Japan. Because folklore reflects the fears, ideas and beliefs of a society, it allows us to have insight into social issues difficult to access by other means. For example, the Mexican legend of the Lost Island of Bermeja, which I covered in an earlier post, has reflected that nation’s perception of the United States. Similarly, Japanese beliefs in demons, monsters and ghosts have been reinterpreted by each generation, to give insight into the stories and issues that are meaningful for people of that period.

One can see this evolution in Japanese beliefs in Noriko T. Reider’s masterfully written Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present. Reider traced the origins of Japanese belief in Oni back through various traditions in Japanese, Chinese and Buddhist thought. She persuasively argued that image of the oni spoke to Japanese people because they represented the power of transformation, and the symbol of the other. As such, the provided a means to speak about power and anti-establishment forces. She supported this argument by examining in detail one particular medieval narrative about Shutjen Doji (the Drunken Demon), which represented the complexity of Japanese thought on this topic: “Shutjen Doji, a notorious oni known for kidnapping and consuming the maidens of the Capital of Heian, is a good example of all of the above. He is a formidable, cannibalistic villain; yet, he may also represent someone opposed to public policy, such as a local deity chased away by a religious authority, or a marginalized being considered by the ruling dynasty to be injurious to the general public or the safety of the court itself” (xix). As Reider discussed, this particular legend celebrated both the power of the imperial court, and the perspective of those opposed to central authority.

While this particular narrative was intriguing, I found her discussion of the Yamamba, a female oni, equally important because it provided insight into Japanese beliefs concerning motherhood and sexuality. Indeed, the erotic emerged as a powerful theme in these narratives, as these demons have became equated with the dangers of sexuality. While the art of early modern Japan was far more sophisticated than the modern horror film genre, both traditions have focused on young peoples’ fears about sexual relationships.

What is most impressive about Reider’s work is the depth of the scholarship, and the sheer volume of material that she surveyed. Based on this extensive work, for example, she explored how the state used the image of oni to define foreigners during World War Two. The oni, however, are not confined to the past, but rather represent a living tradition, which now runs through Japanese manga, film and literature. In these works, the oni represents the disenfranchised, who are alienated from society. In a modern context, oni are no longer always portrayed purely as evil forces. Instead, contemporary authors sometimes treat them with surprising sympathy. Reider’s exhaustively researched, beautifully written, and perceptive study should make this book the definitive source on the topic.

For people searching for a more popular treatment of Japanese folklore, however, there are several excellent choices available. Royall Tyler’s Japanese Tales has an excellent introduction, to place Japanese narratives in historical and social context. But the text of the book consists of very brief stories that cover all aspects of medieval Japanese society, with a great many stories on the ghosts, goblins and the supernatural. It’s good bed-side reading. A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan: Folklore, Fairies and Legends of the Samurai is in some ways a similar work, which was shaped by Mitford’s first-hand experience serving as a British diplomat in Japan in the 1860s. He knew the world around him was passing, and sought to record legends that dealt with the old social order, such as tales of the samurai. The first story, “The Forty-Seven Ronins” is perhaps the best-known narrative in Japanese oral tradition, and this particular version of this narrative is significant. His personal knowledge of Japan is clear, as in the appendix which describes his personal experience watching  a man commit seppuku (p. 272-276). The language is somewhat dated, but the stories of vampire cats, human ghosts, and trickster foxes still enchant.

Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken’s book, Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends begins with a discussion of Japanese society, and how ideas of death shape the cultural understanding of the ghost. This careful, scholarly study fills nearly half of this brief book. The second half focuses on a series of ghost stories, with a brief amount of commentary after each. The work is carefully illustrated with black and white images of ghosts in classical Japanese art. The introduction by the famed folklorist David Hufford (the author of the Terror that comes in the Night, an outstanding study of the Night Hag phenomenon in Newfoundland) is a brief but thoughtful reflection on this book’s place in the larger context of Japanese folklore studies.

For more contemporary narratives, one can read Catrien Ross’s Japanese Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Paranormal Phenomenon. Ross is an expat who has lived for a lengthy period in Japan. Her work is intended for a popular audience, and her own belief in the paranormal is apparent. Her work does include stories of the supernatural from the Edo period, but it mostly consists of contemporary beliefs regarding everything from popular tourist locales to the graves of Jesus and his brother Iskiri in Aomori Prefecture (p. 79-81).

Lastly, there are two central works that are essential to any study of the supernatural in Japan. Kunio Yanagita’s The Legends of Tono was the foundational text of folklore studies in Japan. It is often compared to the work of the Brothers Grimm in Europe. The work consists of a series of brief oral traditions from rural Japan, which preserve aspects of indigenous religious tradition and regional history. These oral traditions differ greatly from the polished narratives of Ueda Akinari, the author of Tales of Moonlight and Rain. This collection of nine stories, which were originally published in 1776, have long inspired Japanese authors and film-makers. Some of the stories (such as “the Reed-Choked House”) resemble those later documented by Lafcadio Hearn, while others have Chinese roots that stretch deep into the past. All of the stories reflect the authors prodigious reading and knowledge of both Japanese and Chinese elite culture. They also powerfully evoke the uncanny, and a world in which the line between dreams, the supernatural and reality may be hard to discern. Happy reading.

Update: Interested in more works on the mysterious? You could read my new book Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History, which examines an Indigenous tradition regarding an evil spirit. In Canada the book is now available at or from the publisher. The book is also available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks. The print launch for the United States is set for April 2015.

Lastly, if you would like to learn about a true unsolved mystery, please read my post about the ghost ship called the Baltimore.

Prof. Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.