Obon Ghost Stories in Japan

Late July through August is the Obon season in Japan, which mirrors Halloween in the West, or Day of the Dead in Mexico. It is both a time to return to one’s hometown, reconnect to family, pay respects to one’s ancestors, but also to delve into matters of death, afterlife, ghosts, etc.

10th century warlord, Minamoto no Yorimitsu battling a spider monster, as depicted in wood-block print by Yoshitoshi in 1892 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. This would make a pretty neat D&D campaign by the way.

The yokai (monsters and ghosts) of pre-modern Japan differ in many ways to the traditional Halloween, gothic monsters we know, but are rich in variety from simple kasa-obaké “umbrella ghost” to terrifying nekomata “cat demon”. For people who enjoy playing TTRPG games, it is a wealth of material and inspiration, though as with any cross-cultural games, it’s important to be mindful of other people’s culture.

The rich world of Yokai is exemplified by a famous collection of ghost stories called Kaidan (怪談), compiled by the Greco-Irish author Lafcadio Hearn in 1904. Lafcadio Hearn is a fascinating man, who was one of the first Westerns to live in Japan and start a family there, and someone whose works I’ve admired for many years.1 His most well-known work today is Kaidan, but I highly recommend his other writings too. Kaidan, archaic spelling “Kwaidan”, is Hearn’s retelling of various ghost stories he’s heard with his own dramatic flourish. It is well known among Japanese audiences, and has influenced pop-culture since.

Previously, I compiled some of my favorite stories here, re-posting from the Project Gutenberg originals:

  • Mujina – this a short, short tale, but is a great story to retell to others. It also plays into the traditional belief of tanuki as malicious, mischief makers.
  • A Dead Secret – this is less of a terrifying ghost story, and falls more under the “weird” genre that you often see in Kaidan. It is one of my favorites, and was the inspiration of a Dungeons and Dragons one-shot module I published on DMS Guild: A Letter Buried.
  • Earless Hoichi – this story is one of the most iconic of Kaidan, and does a great job of linking the fall of the ancient Heike clan, with a compelling ghost story. The hinotama “ghost lights”, similar to will-o-wisp in the West, are a popular monster you see in Japanese pop culture and make for good D&D monsters too. I have posted monster stat blocks in A Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands if interested.

Kaidan is a great book to pick up if you’re looking for inspiration, or interested in Japanese culture just as it was on the cusp of modernization from the earlier Edo Period of history to the modern-industrial Meiji Period.

1 Kokoro is another good read, though it is more focused on daily life in Japan at the time, while Gleanings in Buddha-Fields delves into more spiritual matters.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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