Ghosts and Monsters in Japan: A Culture of Respect

by Gyōkei Yokoyama

IMG_2362As you may be aware, commemorating the spirits of departed family members and friends is considered to be one of the major roles Buddhist priests play in Japan. It is also the case with the priests serving the Japanese-American Buddhist temples in the United States.

For most of the first and second generation Japanese-Americans, their central focus is on Confucian family values and respect for the elders. For them, it is their cultural identity they are trying to preserve. However, for the other first and second generation Japanese-Americans as well as their more Americanized children, the Buddhist teachings based on our cultural values have been difficult to understand.

When I moved to Long Beach to serve the Japanese-American congregation split between those whose priority has been to preserve their cultural identity and those who have been welcoming the New Age Buddhism, I was put in a position where I needed to clarify the significance of both what’s traditionally believed to be a pure form of Buddhism and what people in the United States are appreciating about Buddhism’s core teachings.

In this article, I would like to share one of the stories I talked about at a lecture I gave recently at the local Japanese language school where I work on Saturday mornings.  It will help to clarify the background and the meaning of the traditions we maintain.

roshisThis summer, Mrs. Tanabe, the director of the school, invited me to talk about the spirits and monsters (yokai) and ghosts (yurei) for the students learning Japanese culture at the school. Just like Mrs. Tanabe, the majority of Japanese people consider Buddhist priests some sort of exorcists with supernatural powers or a sixth sense who can deal with monsters and ghosts. It was, therefore, quite natural that she invited me specifically to talk about the ghosts and monsters of Japan.

Just like England, Japan is known to be a country where many places are haunted by ghosts and monsters. In my hometown, my family and I did all sorts of rituals to pacify the ghosts or “courteously ask” them to move somewhere else whenever there were constructions of roads and tunnels or renovation of the cemeteries.

However, the most important of all among all such rituals was the one we conducted to pacify the angry spirits of the monster called Otora gitsune. It is a monster that possessed the villagers and caused an unstoppable flow of mucus from the left eye and problems with the left knee. Otora gaitsune has long been believed to be the spirit of a fox shot by a gun in the battle in 1575 in our village of Nagashino, where my temple is located.

The Battle of Nagashino was a historically noteworthy battle of the allies of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga against the Takeda army, once considered to be invincible, with Takeda Shingen as its commander. Takeda Shingen was gone at the time of the war and his son Katsuyori led the armies. In this battle, Oda Nobunaga employed thousands of guns to annihilate the Takeda armies. As a result,  the Takeda clan lost its most prominent commanders and its entire future, while Oda Nobunaga later unified the country and Tokugawa Ieyasu brought the new era of piece, establishing the Tokguawa Shogunate government.

bhikkuni+moriAccording to the old documents remaining in the village, what the villagers saw after returning to Nagashino from Tsukude village at the top of the mountain during the battle was a horrifying and gruesome scene, with decaying bodies and dying survivors.

Otora gitsune is a symbolic figure for those who died in agony filled with anger and sorrow. Indeed, I cannot imagine how humiliating it must have been to be defeated by the foreign technology without even being able to touch the enemies with their spears and swords.

Every summer, we have a series of special services to conduct for those who were killed at the battle so that they won’t do any harm to the villagers. Even today, villagers fear the curse that may cause unexpected accidents or incurable illness.

In Japan, there are numerous stories of such battles and many different tragic incidents including abductions and abandoning of babies and old people by their own families out of poverty. And many such incidents have quite frequently happened along the borders at the mountain tops.

country houseJapan has a countless number of villages, many of which have merged into larger towns or cities today. People often claim they have seen the ghosts near the borders. If you have a chance to go to Japan and walk around the area, you may see stone tablets.  These tablets are the deities that protect the village and travelers. In many cases, they indicate that the area used to be the border separating one village from another. We may see the image of Gyubato Kannon (Bodhisattva of Ox and Horse) or deities of Taoism, or Ojiszo sama (Ksitigarbha) on these tablets.

From ancient times, crossing the borders to travel to another village meant passing through the realm of death. For many Japanese, crossing a border is a big deal even today.

Locals have believed there is a realm where people’s unsettled spirits dwell in the mountains. But interestingly, they also believe the deities, Buddhas and bodhisattvas dwell in the same place.

Many locals believe there is a world that is extraordinary and sacred deep in the mountain. If we respect the spirits of the ancestors and all those people and animals that returned to the mountain, they will turn into so-called Nigi tama (和魂 harmonious spirits) and protect us. But if we are negligent and do not pay any respect, they will turn into Ara tama (荒魂 angry spirits) and monsters that will bring misfortune to the village.

Buddhism embraced this indigenous belief and people have been commemorating the spirits of their ancestors and the spirits of all sentient beings respectfully so that they will gradually become enlightened and become Buddhas and guide us. If not, they will be lost in delusions and turn into ghosts and monsters.

k-plaques2The villagers in Nagashino used to take the dead bodies deep into the mountain and set up a grave stone close to the edge of the mountain. Then, they kept Ihai tablets with the deceased person’s Buddhist titles engraved on it at home and at their temple so that they could pay respect and encourage them to turn into deities and Buddhas without turning into ghosts and monsters.

This kind of attitude can be seen in many occasions in Japan. We have been taught to respect everything: mountains, rivers, rice paddies, school grounds, streets, neighbors, pencils and shoes. If we pay respect to them they would bring us peace and happiness. But if we do not treat them with respect they would cause us trouble and misfortune. Maybe that’s why the streets in Japan are known to be the cleanest ones in the world.

Many of the rituals in Shinto and Buddhist tradition in Japan may appear excessively respectful or rigid sometimes but I’d like you to know that such attitudes have deep roots in our culture and history.

At the end of the lecture, I said to to the students at the language school, “If you remain respectful to your teachers, they will nicely guide you and protect you. But you are not respectful, you’ll be in big trouble!” That’s the kind of mentality we have at school in Japan, anyway.

But more importantly, this is true with our attitude to our own selves. If we are respectful to our own inner self, it will turn into a harmonious spirit and become enlightened. But if we are not respectful to our own spirits, they will become lost and turn into ghosts and monsters. I believe it is worth contemplating on what it means to stay respectful to our own self. Please do not create ghosts and monsters right out of your self.

Gyōkei Yokoyama

gyokei bwGyōkei completed his training at Eiheiji, one of the head temples of Sōtō Zen, in 2000 before graduating from Sophia University in Tokyo, where he majored in intercultural communication and was involved in the interfaith community. He worked as a paralegal translator for a few years in Tokyo. While serving as a priest in his hometown, he taught English to children from kindergarten to high school level. He also worked for a Japanese Brazilian and Peruvian community during the recession in 2008 and advocated for the city program for their children with linguistic challenges as a city councilor. He was a vice bishop of Iwoji temple from 2006 to 2011 and a bishop from 2011 to 2013. Currently he is assigned to work for the Long Beach Buddhist Church as a minister and the Sōtō Zen North America Office as the secretary.