Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost jpg HD
Detail from Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Image: Wikipaintings

I read an interesting essay from the London Review of Books not too long ago: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Lloyd Parry. The essay tells of spirit visitations — and spirit possessions — reported by many people in the northern parts of Japan, the region struck by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession. […]

Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’

Parry links this phenomenon to Japanese beliefs and customs around ancestor veneration, and to the idea of muenbotoke: wandering souls, those who die without family or kin to pray for them and help them move on. If a tsunami wipes out your entire town, all your family, all your friends — who is left to pray for you? Anyone you can haunt or possess, apparently.

One of the people featured in the article is Masashi Hijikata, a publisher living in Tohoku (a region rich in supernatural folklore). In the aftermath of the disaster, Mr. Hijikata revived the tradition of kaidankai, or gatherings for the tellings of ghost stories. These kaidankai were organized to provide support to survivors of the disaster, those who were not finding their necessary emotional and mental support from traditional counseling or religion. They were places for people to share their disaster-related supernatural experiences with fellow survivors.

Interestingly, Mr. Hijikata doesn’t believe in spirits. But he did believe — because of where he is, because of who the people of his community are — that people would begin to see them, in great numbers. And he was right.

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