1. The Japanese Ghost Apartment
Saturday night, and Ruriko and I went out for a pleasant walk. Pleasant. Such is my life in Japan, devolved from Awesome, the Shibuya clubs overflowing with strobes and beats bouncing off bottles of Corona as I tried desperately to remember the name of whichever short-skirted girl I was chatting up. I really should use mnemonics when people introduce themselves. Anyway, now it’s come to this, walking in the dark with what’s-her-name and a lukewarm can of malt liquor.
“That apartment’s for rent again.” She gazed up at the empty space in a run-down three-story story building. “Must be a ghost there.”
“Or it could just be a windowless place on a busy street,” I suggested.
“It’s been for rent three times this year. That’s definitely a ghost.” She wasn’t joking.
“How’s that your first explanation, Ru…riko? Couldn’t it just be next to a fat guy who smokes cigars?”
We stopped under a streetlamp and stared. It was a sad, middle apartment in a gray concrete block overlooking a dry cleaner’s. A steady stream of traffic ran in front. To be fair, it did look kind of spooky.
“Not just be a leaky ceiling?” I continued.
“I know it’s a ghost.”
“And you’re sure how?” I asked.
“Because it’s for rent again.”
Well, you can’t argue with logic. I knew I shoulda brought two cans of malt liquor.
Now, if one were inclined to believe in ghosts—not a recommendation, just saying if—Japan presents a pretty strong case. Take a country shrouded in mists and rain, with a sizeable population living and dying alone in apartment blocks, force them to work terrible hours, mix in a bunch of sexless relationships and suicides, and boom, wha’dya got? Ghosts, is what.
Hey, people need to believe in something other than just here and now. That’s what I believe. Some countries have religion. In Japan, you’ve got your home shrine to your ancestors, mountain temples, suicide forests, rows of statues to unborn babies, and a population convinced of the existence of spirits and fairies. When I moved into my apartment, Ruriko placed little piles of salt on either side of the door, ostensibly to purify it from evil. I was more worried about deer.
2. Only in Japan
I’ve seen the question—-“What’s your ‘only in Japan’ moment?”—-in online forums, and people always write in lame answers like “Gee, I left my camera on the train and the next day got it back.” Yeah, whatever, and Mom sewed mittens to your coat too. No need to broadcast it over the internet. Keep track of your shit. Anyway, I’ll give you an only-in-Japan moment.
So my coworker Yuri recently spent three months searching for a new apartment until she finally came upon the perfect one. Corner room, top floor, overlooking a funky green canal. Hey in this country, any place not facing a brick wall can legitimately be said to have nice view. She was all set to move in, but on the night of the final visit, something just seemed wrong.
“Something,” Yuri said, “just seemed wrong.”
“Uh, maybe that’s because you’re touring apartments in the dark?”
“After work’s the only time I’ve got.” She looked at her shoes.
“But you liked the place?”
“I did, until the real estate agent seemed kind of nervous and I thought it might be haunted.”
“You didn’t actually say that?” I asked. “Okay . . . you did. And what’d he say?”
“He just turned toward the window and mumbled. So I asked, Has anyone died here?”
Okay, right there. Like, only in Japan is this a completely normal line of questioning.
“And he said, yeah, the lady who lived here before was murdered.”
You know, after a decade in this nation, that actually doesn’t strike me as all that unusual. But okay, I’m willing to concede that my experiences aren’t entirely representative.
“So’d you take the place?” I asked.
“Hell no,” she said. “I’m not going to live there.”
“Because there’s a ghost?”
“No, you moron,” she said, “because somebody was, uh, murdered there.”
Well fine, but I’m still not sure that’s relevant. It’s like lightning—-what’s the odds of a murder happening twice in the same place? I mean, statistically speaking, you’re probably safer. But whatever, your apartment.
3. The Japanese Ghost in the Moonlight
So among the old Japanese guys I drink shochu with, there’s a tale that gets told and retold, mostly because everybody’s full of booze and forgets they told it the week before. The way it goes is that one of the guys, I think his name’s Kubo-san, is rushing home to his wife, late at night. It’s a full moon and naturally he’s coming back from a whorehouse. Not because of the phase of the moon, of course, but rather ’cause he’s an old Japanese guy and that’s just what they do.
So anyway, Kubo-san’s hurrying by this field when suddenly, out of the trees and darkness, a ghostly white apparition comes floating towards him. He freezes in his tracks, then drops to his knees and starts bowing and praying. Please, please, I’m sorry, I’ll never stray from my wife again, please…but the spirit just keeps getting closer. So now he’s bowing more and more, crying, face to the ground, so scared he literally pees himself. The fact he’s drunk as a monkey probably isn’t doing him any favors either.
This continues for quite some time. Just more ghost, and more bowing. Ghost, bowing, whizzing. Finally, Kubo-san wears out and lays flat on the ground, in tears, dirt, and pee. And begging forgiveness, he gazes up and sees the moonlight phantom above him has transformed into some farmer’s white shirt hanging on a tree, blowing in the wind. Now Kubo-san’s laying on the side of the road, praying to laundry. And suddenly everything in the universe snaps back into focus, and for the first time ever he realizes what’s really valuable in this life. So he hops up and runs back to the whorehouse.
The old Japanese men laugh it up every time they tell that story. And every time, Kubo-san grabs my arm and chuckles, “Yeah, they talk a lotta shit, but this one’s actually true.” Ah, you guys.
The Japanese Afterlife
A surprising number of Japanese people I’ve asked have seen ghosts, heard ghosts, or at a minimum believe in them. I guess it’s not so different from praying at the shrine for those who’ve gone before us—-parents, children, siblings, and pets. Personally, I pray for Tupac Shakur, but that’s just me. Whether they all count as ghosts or not, I don’t know. But unlike in the West, where everyone’s tidily swept up to Heaven for a birthday party with Jesus, in Japan, the dead continue to reside among us.
So Sunday morning, on my way to buy two cans of coffee and a pair of tunafish sandwiches at 7-Eleven, I passed the same empty apartment. In the daylight it still looked forlorn, but not haunted. Because really, who’d want to live in a such a shabby place? You’d have to be a pretty unambitious ghost. Like hello, invisible guy, you can live anywhere. The way I see it is, if I gotta be a ghost, I might as well haunt a sunny two-bedroom, with separate toilet and shower, plenty of closet space, and a little view of the sea. Now that’s living, in Japan.