Friday, August 24, 2012

Japan: The Tradition of Ghost Stories in Summer

Since the Edo period in Japan (1600-1868) ghost stories have been an integral part of the Japanese Summer months. Both ghost stories and haunted houses abound today. Many Japanese films, television shows, and books that are released in the summer all reflect this interest in ghosts. But why are ghost stories so popular in the summer time in Japan?

This interest was first based in Japanese Buddhism. The month of August or July--depending upon the region in Japan-- is the Obon or Bon season. This season is basically a ghost festival. During Obon the Japanese believe that their ancestral spirits return for an annual visit.* Hence a tradition of telling ghost stories in summer evolved in Japan. This belief of spirits returning creates the perfect atmosphere or backdrop for sharing ghost stories. **

Another reason for the Japanese tradition of telling ghost stories in summer is much more practical. Telling ghost stories helps people cool down in the heat of summer. You may be wondering about this statement but it is true. When people become frightened by a good scary story it makes cold chills run up and down their spines. What?

It is a scientific fact that when humans are frightened, the blood vessels on the surface of their skin contract, reducing the flow of blood which results in the lowering temperature of the skin. So in other words people can actually cool off when they become scared. So this method of using ghost stories to help overcome the summer heat is an example of good ancient Japanese wisdom.

Modern day Japan of course has air-conditioning therefore there is no more need to use scary ghosts to help cool off humans. But with the Obon season the ghost story tradition is still rooted deeply in the Japanese summer culture. One newer tradition that has been added to this interest in ghosts is the development of some spectacular Haunted Houses.

Haunted Hospital in
Shin-Nishihara Fujiyoshihida-city,
Click Here to see their web site

The Japanese are known to have some of the largest haunted houses in the world. These houses are what draw Japanese tourists to amusement parks in the summer. One popular haunted house is based on a hospital ward***. It spans 550 yards from entrance to exit. It takes 30 minutes to an hour to go through. Visitors are treated to eerie sick rooms, operating rooms, and of course a morgue. For visitors that become too frightened to continue the house provides emergency exists throughout the structure. The Japanese refer to these exits as “chicken ways”. As tourists wait in line, a common sight is to see others running out of these exits in a panic or in tears.

Another popular summer theme park attraction is based upon an Inn from Hell. In this high tech haunted house visitors are given hand held devises that are sensitive to infrared rays. As they make their way through the house the devise triggers at various points startling them. Their pulse rates are measured at the entrance and exit—then their “cowardice level” is calculated and printed out for each visitor to keep.

* Obon is one of three major holidays in Japan. Traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the returning spirits. During this ghost festival dances are performed and the Japanese visit graves and leave food offerings at home altars or temples. As Obon ends the Japanese place lit floating lanterns in rivers, lakes and the sea to help guide the visiting spirits back to their world. The Japanese do a lot of domestic traveling during Obon. 

** In elementary and middle schools all over Japan students learn what is called the “seven mysteries”. Both Japanese books and films use these traditional ghost stories. Because of this they evoke a strong sense of nostalgia --this nostalgia plus a fright is a formula that has been cited as the reason for the success of ghost stories in Japan today.

*** The Guinness Book of World Records states this Haunted Hospital is the world’s scariest. It is located inside the Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Japan.

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