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. …

Noah’s Ark and a New Atlantis

I’ve recently been thinking about the unexpected connections between the weather

Cracks in Frozen Lake by Evgeni Dinev, courtesy of
Cracks in Frozen Lake by Evgeni Dinev, courtesy of

news and Howard Norman’s book In Fond Remembrance of Me. Norman worked in Churchill, Manitoba collecting Inuit folklore during the mid-1970s but from the start everything went wrong. As soon as he arrived in northern Manitoba in 1977 he learned that a Japanese linguist and Arctic expert, Helen Tanizaki, was interviewing the same Inuit elder. While she was willing to collaborate, their informant loved Helen but could not stand Norman. The befuddled Norman also soon realized that his informant was also making up much of the folklore that he was documenting. These tales centered upon a cycle of stories in which Noah drifted into Hudson Bay, where the ice trapped the ark during the winter. In all these stories Noah encountered Inuit peoples, who would paddle their kayaks out to the ark to understand why both he and this remarkable boat was there. In every case these people would make a request –a piece of wood to burn or perhaps some animals to eat- to which Noah would always answer “No!” This denial would be incomprehensible to the Inuit. After all, Noah had many animals- why shouldn’t he share the giraffes with them? The result was always a disaster for Noah, who might witness his family deserting him so that his wife could marry a better hunter, or his animals dying in the dark of winter. In the end, Noah was usually left on the ice to be rescued by the Inuit. In the spring Noah would leave the Inuit to walk south, from where –as so often in folklore- he “was never seen again.” …

The Lost Island of Bermeja

The world is filled with mythical islands, maybe because the idea of an isolated place evokes ideas of a utopia. Perhaps that is why Judith Schalansky’s

Image of islands courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at freedigitalphotos

Atlas of Remote Islands became a popular book. But few mythical islands islands have been as enduring as Bermeja, which cartographers have been placing on maps off the coast of the Yucatan since Alonso de Santa Cruz first mentioned it in 1539.  In the nineteenth century something strange happened. The island disappeared, likely because it had never existed. But the power of this idea is so strong that people continue to look for it, including a BBC film crew.

What is more important, however, is the popular view of the island in Mexico. How is that an island that existed on maps for centuries could disappear? A cynic might wonder if map-makers had been copying each others’ maps for centuries. But within Mexico there are conspiracy theories, which argue that the United States destroyed it. Because Mexico lost so much of its national territory to the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War, there is a profound distrust of the U.S. in Mexico. Much of Mexico’s national budget comes from the operations of the state oil company PEMEX, which pumps much of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico. And a June 2000 treaty between Mexico and the United States defined rights to oil reserves based on the distance from U.S. or Mexican territory, in particular islands. For this reason, one can find Youtube clips blaming the United States for dynamiting the island into oblivion, and calling on Mexicans to be aware of what has been stolen from them. Posts about this are easy to find on the web. Mexican radio stations and TV news also discuss this topic, as these Youtube clips (for those who speak Spanish) show. …

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