Why Is Summer the Season of Scariness in Japan?
In contrast to the beach days, refreshing icy treats, and outdoor fun, summer in Japan is when things traditionally start to get a little scary. For centuries, Japan’s long, hot summers have been a time filled with ghostly spirits, scary stories, and nerve-shredding tests of bravery. These long-practiced, unsettling traditions held during the hotter months are still prominent today, and in this article, we’ll explain why summer is the scary season in Japan.
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The Meaning of Ghosts in Japan
Yurei - The Haunting Spirits of Japan
The perception of the spirits of the dead in Japan does have some similarities with how ghosts are portrayed in other countries. Ghosts in Japan are called “yurei,” which loosely translates to “faint spirit.” Much like ghosts in the west, yurei are often portrayed in storytelling and art as pale and ghoulish floating figures, dressed in white gowns and resembling the recently deceased.
Traditionally in Japan, it is believed that when a person dies, their spirit leaves the body. For the spirit to pass safely to the afterlife, traditional funeral rituals must be performed for the deceased, including a wake and a proper funeral service. If a person were to pass away without such rituals taking place, then their spirit wouldn’t pass to the afterlife. Instead, they would become ghosts, or “yurei.” The same could also happen if a person’s life ended abruptly or even if they had been seriously wronged during their lifetime, as their spirit would not be at peace. An example of this is vengeful spirits called “onryo,” which are the existing spirits of those who had been seriously wronged during their lifetime.
Any spirits who had not passed on to the afterlife would instead stay amongst the living to finish their business, which could include seeking their revenge on whoever had caused them harm while they were alive. However, in Japanese folklore, there are many categories of “yurei,” and not all are vengeful or malevolent. Typically, yurei are characterized by the nature of their death. For example, “funayurei” are the ghosts of those who have died at sea, while “zashiki warashi” are the ghosts of children. “Ubume” are the ghosts of women who died during childbirth and are said to be benevolent spirits, often returning to look after their surviving child.
Yokai - The Playful Spirits of Japanese Folklore
Besides yurei, Japanese folklore is also rich in tales of “yokai.” Yokai are not ghosts, but supernatural demons that can take on many different forms and are still popular characters in Japanese anime and manga today. Unlike ghosts, yokai are not the spirit of any one individual person, but can take the forms of all manners of various beings, such as animals and otherworldly mythical creatures. In fact, there are many different types of yokai and they can also be either vengeful or benevolent, just like yurei. Whilst well-meaning yokai may bring good fortune, vengeful yokai were believed to be responsible for the outbreak of diseases or even the cause of natural disasters.
How Summer Remains the Scary Season in Japan
Obon and the Ghosts of Summer
One of the key events each summer in Japan is the festival of Obon. Celebrated over three days in August, during Obon, families remember their ancestors and loved ones who have passed away, which also includes rituals such as visiting family gravesites to clean the tombstones. Traditionally, it is believed that during Obon, the spirits of the dead return to the physical world from the afterlife to visit their relatives. Whilst Obon is a time of celebration and is not a scary festival, the rise and return of the spirits of the deceased certainly play a part in setting an eerie tone for the summer.
However, centuries ago, it was also believed that it wasn’t only benign ancestral spirits that made the journey back to the land of the living during Obon, but more sinister types of spirits as well. Spirits that had no living family to pray for them, known as “muenbotoke,” were also believed to appear, but the biggest dread was the return of the vengeful onryo. When arriving back to the physical world during Obon, it was feared that onryo would exact their revenge on those who had done them harm.
Kaidan - Japanese Ghost Stories That Help to Beat the Heat
Summer in Japan is an incredibly hot and humid time of year. In the days before air conditioning, telling scary stories of ghosts and evil spirits was seen as a way to cool the body in the hot summer by sending a chill down the spine. These ghost stories, called “kaidan,” became an established tradition during Japan’s Edo period (1603 - 1867), and the custom of telling bone-chilling stories during the summer continues to this day.
One tradition that began during the Edo period saw groups of 100 samurai warriors get together to tell frightening tales. This custom was known as “hyakumonogatari kaidankai,” meaning “a gathering of one hundred supernatural tales.” Hyakumonogatari kaidankai were seen as a way to entice supernatural beings into the physical world. They were also considered to be a way for samurai to test their courage. The samurai would light 100 lanterns or candles in the dead of night before taking turns to share a scary tale. After each story, a light would be blown out. After the last tale was told, the final light would be extinguished. The samurai warriors would then wait to see if any of the supernatural spirits would appear in the pitch-black darkness of the night, though there were many times that the game was stopped before the hundredth tale in fear of what would await them when all the lights were blown out.
So popular were hyakumonogatari kaidankai that they also became a common pastime amongst the lower classes in Japan during the summer. Many of the tales told during the ceremonies were written down and printed in books, and kaidan soon became synonymous with the hot season.
Scary Traditional Japanese Performances During the Summer
A traditional form of Japanese theater, called “kabuki,” also adopted the practice of performing scary plays in the height of summer around the Edo period. These performances are called “suzumi shibai” in Japanese, which translates to “cool play,” and were seen as another way to help chill the core during the hot and sweaty summer.
“Rakugo,” the traditional Japanese art of storytelling, also came to feature kaidan, called “kaidan banashi,” during the hotter months. Many kaidan banashi performances would tell the stories of famous yurei to excite and frighten the audiences. Even today, you can still find these scary productions being held during the summer.
Kimodameshi - Test Your Courage by Testing Your Liver
Acts of bravery in the summertime are not only restricted to samurai warriors recounting scary stories in the dark. “Kimodameshi” is another age-old summer tradition in Japan where young people get to prove their fearlessness, as it is the act of deliberately going to a spooky place to give yourself a fright to test your own bravery and courage. How kimodameshi is practiced is entirely down to personal preference - it might be done alone on a whim, or in a group on a pre-planned trip.
The most common places to practice kimodameshi are unsurprisingly graveyards, forests, abandoned buildings, or “shinrei” spots (places believed to be haunted by ghosts), typically at night. Rural tunnels are an unusual yet popular spot for kimodameshi, as many tunnels in Japan are quite long, leaving you enshrouded in the chilly, damp air with little to no light, letting goosebumps rise.
The origins of kimodameshi are unknown, but one theory is that it dates back as far as Japan’s Heian period (794 - 1185), and may even have been used by samurai as training for their children. Though a way to test your courage, the word “kimodameshi'' actually means “to test your liver” in Japanese, as in Japan, the liver is associated with courage. Today, many young children take part in kimodameshi trips that are specially organized by schools during the summer, with teachers and volunteers taking part in giving students frights to remember.
Modern-Day Haunted Houses and Chilling Events
Alongside acts of kimodameshi, more modern forms of frightening entertainment are enjoyed when the temperature starts to rise. One of the most popular is haunted houses, called “obakeyashiki” in Japanese. Elaborate and often terrifying, all sorts of individually-run and theme park haunted houses can be found during the summer months.
Haunted houses commonly run around specific themes and are hugely popular, especially with young people. There is usually a challenge to be completed or a story to be followed in a haunted house, which are meticulously designed to be as blood-curdling as possible. They are often in near darkness, and can feature common horror story tropes, such as flickering lights or broken television sets that pump out white noise. Although there are many that follow the familiar layout where visitors will have to walk through the rooms of the haunted house, which often features actors playing the terrifying roles of possessed ghouls or tormented ghosts to add an even more petrifying twist, there are also different versions that keep visitors in one room or a limited space that adds to the fear of being unable to escape.
Summer is also the time of year when a number of horror films are released in Japan. Each summer sees the release of several new scary movies or the re-screening of horror classics in cinemas across Japan that aim to terrify the audience. Television stations also show a number of horror shows and films that continues Japan’s summertime love for all things scary, letting people everywhere partake in the terrifying fun.
Make Your Blood Run Cold in Japan’s Hot Summers
Ever since the Edo period, summer in Japan has been the season to be scared. Telling chilling tales of ghosts and evil spirits was seen as a way to help keep cool in the summer heat. From these tales summer forever became known as a scary time, with kaidan, kabuki, kimodameshi, and more modern forms of horror entertainment all an integral part of the season that carry on the tradition and ensure that summer in Japan continues to be a terrifying time of year. With or without air conditioning, these haunting traditions are sure to send a chill down your spine.
Title image: Purino / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.