3 Japanese Ghost Stories

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.

Japanese Ghosts

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.

44 Replies to “3 Japanese Ghost Stories”

  1. So…. ghosts are real, yes or no? Tell us what the beer tells you Ken. You must have missed Halloween, along with the past month. Ha.

    1. Wait till you see my Thanksgiving post at Christmastime.

      You know, I never once thought about the existence of ghosts until I moved to Japan. But they’re actually a real thing, here.

      Japan is kind of a spooky place. You wouldn’t want to go walking in the woods at night, that’s for sure. If the ghosts didn’t get you, the wild boars probably would. They’re certainly real enough.

    1. Wow thanks, you are fast. Wish I could claim the same.

      I’m still working on the site look and feel, so I’ll update FaceBook in a few days. I really appreciate you checking in.

    1. Thanks. Completely unintentional.

      On Sunday night, in a misguided attempt to improve the site, I added one line of code to a file … and vaporized the entire site. I was like, Oh, did not know you could do that. This was followed by what my girlfriend would later describe as “the best lesson in English profanity I’ve ever had.

      So yeah, looks like we got a new theme. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but perhaps some good will come of it.

        1. Good feedback, thanks. Okay, I added a small panel to show recent comments, although it leaves a bit to be desired.

          There are still a lot of small things that I’m working to improve. Including the actual writing.

  2. The first time my favourite ex-girlfriend entered my then new apartment she hated it and claimed there was an obake there. I don’t really understand the concept but I didn’t really care either.

    1. Probably not a good thing for a lady to say when she steps into your pad. (For those who don’t know, “obake” is “ghost” in Japanese.) I guess you should at least be glad she told you. Now you know who’s leaving all those empty cans of beer around the place every night.

  3. I remember spending a few hours oshimaland because it was quite entertaining. I get the suicides and murder entries, but more than half of them were for paranormal activities in the building. Was quite fascinating. My fav has to be the incredibly detailed ones, along the lines of ‘there was a lonely death here 20 years ago and paranormal activity was noticed between 2003 and 2006 but not since the renovation’.

    On the plus side, I finally found out why we always have a vase of fresh white lillies in the building behind my lab, turns out some kid jumped off the roof more than 10 years ago. Now that’s dedication to the dead.

  4. In Japan it’s not so much a case of, “Do you believe in ghosts?” rather, “Ghosts exist – can you see them?”

    My wife is a completely rational and extremely intelligent person, but every time I convince her to come with me into the “obake-yashiki” at an amusement park she falls to pieces. I mean, she can’t even open her eyes she’s so scared. I’m always like “It’s all just pretend!” and she comes back with “But I read somewhere that this one is ACTUALLY haunted!” Haha Japanese obake-yashiki are all actually haunted apparently.

  5. Ken,

    Here’s a typo you might like to correct.

    Well fine, but I’m still not sure that’s relevant. It’s like lighting—-what’s the odds of a murder happening twice in the same place? I

    I think you meant “lightning”. The odds of lighting happening in the same place is a bit larger.

    Keep up the good work. Wish I was there (sometimes).


  6. YAY new post but OH NO new layout. Change is scarier than any ghosts could ever be. Especially now that the archive link disappeared… Great article though!

    1. Thanks. Yes, change. They say it’s good, but eh, I remain unconvinced.

      I’m working to get the “Category” menu on top in shape, and hopefully that can serve as a list of articles for the time being. Still, not as clean as the old Archive.

      Sigh. At least Sysyphus didn’t have to maintain a blog.

  7. Wow, such a neat new layout, love your blog even more.

    I actually think if ghosts in Japan are not really scary until I heard the story of kuchisake onna. A normal looking woman waits for you in the dark wearing surgical mask like common Japanese. But then, she approaches you, open her mask, and reveal her slitted mouth while asking, “Am I pretty?”
    And whatever your answer you’ll get murdered or your mouth slit. Typical.

  8. The new layout seems to like my phone better. Was sometimes hard to scroll before and comments always got mashed to the side the further down they were. Enjoy your Thanksgiving. I’m making Southern ribs and pumpkin pie.

    1. Ribs and pumpkin pie? What kind of crazy Thanksgiving are we having? Where’s the raw fish and miso soup?

      I’m really glad to hear the new layout works for you. I’m still not used to it myself.

      1. My family always had gumbo instead of turkey growing up. I’d rather not eat forest chicken leftovers for days.

        Good luck with the website. Beer usually helps things turn out however they should.

  9. I love how you incorporated ghosts from the get go by including one in the very first sentence “… and Ruriko and I”

    Must be nice to have been accompanied by their Ghostness all along

    1. I never made that connection with Ruriko’s name. Given the number of Japanese ghosts—and their propensity to be female (which may say something about how haunted Japanese men feel)—perhaps it’s not an unlikely coincidence.

      But now that you mention it, it is rather eerie.

  10. Couldn’t wait to read this, so I had to go on stealth mode while having dinner with my kin. Happy Thanksgiving, Ken! Always thankful for your stories…Tupac, huh?

  11. “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”

    Wow, what dark corner of Japan are you living in?

      1. Don’t know about that, but I’ve been to several places that are anything but what you said. Try Kochi, Wakayama or even better, Okinawa.

        1. I get that. It’s possible to live here and not see these things, so let’s unpack what I said a bit.

          So how much does it rain in Japan? A fair bit, even in Okinawa. And some places it rains a lot. It’s also mighty humid. Fog and mist aren’t uncommon.

          Do a lot of the people live in apartments? Yeah, a huge number of people do. Do many live alone? Check. Surely you’re aware of this. How many people are old? Again, a lot. Do old people die? I’m hoping not, but I’m thinking yes.

          The rest—terrible working hours, sexless relationships, and suicides—are well established.

          I’d like to know a bit more about you. I don’t know how many years you’ve lived with Japanese people, under the same roof, speaking only their language. Do you work with people from other countries or live in sponsored housing? How many Japanese people do you know making minimum wage? How many single mothers do you know? How many retirees surviving on the $600 per month government pension?

          There are plenty of good points to Japan, and they’re readily on display. But to get a more balanced understanding, we’ve got to see the not-so-great points too. It’s not all milk and honey.

          1. Point taken. It just sounded like Japan is only this doom and gloom piece of misery when I first read it. No offense intended.

            As a side, do you ever get pushback from Japanese folks online who prickle at any negative comments about Japan? Apparently, they’re called netouyo or internet right wingers. There is this guy called medamasensei who made a YT video about racism in Japan who along with his employer was hounded by them.

            1. None taken, I promise. I appreciate the discussion.

              The Japanese readers I have seem really supportive. I don’t think I’m saying anything most Japanese folks don’t already know, to some extent. Of course, the level of English required to make sense of the crazy shit I write almost guarantees the reader has spent time in an English-speaking country, and has probably become less “Japanese” along the way.

              I’m familiar with the YouTuber you mentioned. He seems like a sharp fellow and makes some excellent points, but I can see why his approach would be offensive to some.

              Perhaps that’s the difference between reading and watching videos though. Reading takes effort. If you don’t like what’s being said, you’re less inclined to keep going. Video, on the other hand, keeps going for you; it requires an action to make it stop. I’m just fortunate I’m a writer and not a videographer.

  12. In my experience all of the women I’ve been with believe in the supernatural to some degree, even the ones that didn’t believe in God. The last two women I’ve been with specifically forbade me from bringing my Ouija board to their parents house.

    …this actually makes me sound really weird after putting it in writing.

    I got it as a Christmas gift man I’ve only had like one or two good opportunities to use it, and it just so happens these two girls parents house were really creepy.

    Anyway, another great post! Thanks again Ken.

    1. Thanks much, always. Yeah, somehow I can understand why a young lady wouldn’t want you bringing a Ouija board to her folks’ house. Probably a good idea to leave the tarot cards and crystal ball at home too.

  13. The believe in ghost’s in Japan must be the baggage from growing up with Shintoism in and around young people lives. Shintoism believes we are surrounded by spirits all the time and there are eight million deities in the heavens and on earth. Even trees have spirits in the Shinto religion. Add a helping of Buddhism. A good person dies and goes to a pure land and a bad goes to a nether world. Is the nether world on earth but we can’t see it? Spooky stuff. It must get into a kids psyche and play some nutty tricks on their brains. Wait, those Jizo statues. Hold ME I’m scared.

    1. That’s a good point. It’s interesting to see the influence of culture and religion on people’s beliefs. A great number of Japanese folks say they’re not religious, and I believe them. But apparently that doesn’t preclude believing in other supernatural phenomena. If it’s not God, it’s ghosts. People find ways to believe in something other than themselves.

  14. Another post right on the spot, as usual.

    It reminds me of my first year in Japan. I don’t remember how the ghost topic came up (but it always does, right), but then this senpai of the 部活 I used to go looked to me and “And what about your country? Are there many ghosts over there too?”

    I looked to him really puzzled and answered “No, there are none. None in Japan, either.”

  15. Hi Ken. I came across your blog only after I returned from a short trip to Japan. Could have used a little heads up but since Japan still interests me,I guess I’m glad I found your articles even if a little later. Thanks for your posts,you really are an amazing writer !!

  16. I was a Police Constable for decades. I would often attend Sudden Deaths and sometimes fatal RTC’s. At the end of a shift I would phone J-Wife to give her the heads up. Upon arriving home she would open the door and throw salt over me to prevent any ghosts from entering the house. I discussed this ritual at work, and some colleagues would then adopt the same ritual post incident, after returning to the station. One Colleague from Nepal stated that one should also bathe ASAP after such incidents, to prevent the ghost following you. I wonder if J-Cops do the same thing. I remember the little pyramids of salt either side of snack bar entrance doors in Japan, to ward off evil?

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