USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Japan’
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative

Blue Ghosts in Okinawa, Japan

AM: So, it was- like the first month or two when i moved to Japan and I was hanging outside at like…2am like at night in a park. Um, the military base we was staying on was built like near like Japanese Shrines and whatnot and they said that you know the shrines are haunted and there’s a lotta “superstitions” with those. So while we’re out hanging, there was like oh look- you can see a bluf- blue figure on a hill like on top of the shrine and when I looked over you- I saw like a bluish like glow from the hills where the shrine was and they said that this island is one of the most haunted places and that there’s a lot of spirits around.

VG: Woah. What island was it?

AM: Okinawa.

VG: Woah-

AM: And that is- it is very common to see those there… so we was like “yeah, let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

Background:

Location of Story – Okinawa, Japan

Location of Performance – Dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night

 

Context: This performance took place in a group setting – about 2-3 people – in a college dormitory room. This performance was prompted by the call for stories about beliefs, ghosts, or superstitions as examples of folklore. This story came after a few others. The one prior was specifically about a high school grade being cursed.

 

Analysis: One point of interest in this performance is the effectiveness of the subtlety of the description of the “spirits.” The only physical description the audience receives about these supernatural beings is that they humanoid in figure and blue. The color is particularly notable because, at least in my experience, I have always viewed the ghosts in ghost stories as being neutral toned or white. Therefore, this description was able to create a whole new image for me and draw me deeper into this performance. It also reinforces the foreignness AM might feel since he had just moved to Japan: not only is the location different but also all of the local lore. One might even go so far as to say that this story was presented with a negative conation despite having no description of graphic hauntings or threats. 

Childhood
Customs
Game

Kagome – Japanese Children’s Game

NC: There’s a Japanese game that children play called kagome, um…so it’s-it’s really similar to ring around a rosey in that…um…it was based on…experiments that people were doing, so Ring around the rosie is about um the disease the bubonic plague but um uh kagome is about experiments that people were doing um on the Japanese and they- they basically took children and they mutilated them I think that’s what it is. And um they would haunt people in the building like they would haunt the doctors and they would say um “kagome, kagome” and some other uh words and they would basically play that game in a circle and um that’s just like the ghost story behind that game.

 

Background:

Location of Story – Japan

Location of Performance – Dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night

 

Context: This performance took place in a group setting – about 2-3 people – in a college dormitory room. This performance was prompted by the call for stories about beliefs, ghosts, or superstitions as examples of folklore via a group message. NC approached me in person in response to the text and this is the second of two stories she presented. The first was about a monster who took the form of a beautiful, floating female head that had been decapitated and haunts a building. It was apparent that NC had just recently discovered this game because she was looking at her computer the whole time. 

 

Analysis: I think the comparison to “Ring Around the Rosey” is really effective here because it reinforces the idea that games or rhythm games are often counter-hegemonic and can critique a system under the guise of play. It is an indirect form of protest and also a way to be able to process the trauma of an experience such as this with humor and distance from the actual reality. On a different note, I really wished I would have NC where she discovered this game because I can understand stumbling upon a ghost story but not a traditional Japanese child’s game; I want to know where these are being documented online since she had her computer. 

 

Annotation: Upon further research, I discovered that the folk song element to this performance is actually much more essential to the folk game in other collected versions. For example, there is a documentation of this game in Highlights magazine for kids will additional information about how to perform the song. This version documents the chant as, “Can you guess? Can you guess? Who is right behind you? Could it be, possibly…” and then the participants would recite their names until “it says stop.” I could not identify what the “it” of this game is, but what is interesting to note here is that the word kogome is missing from this particular chant. This may very well because it is a translation, but for me, it demonstrates a lack of that historical context. The meaning is even more deeply hidden in the practice of the game. Additionally, Highlights includes the physical rules of the game, which involve being in a circle and blindfolded. See citation below for a PDF of the Highlights article.

 

Citation: Yasuda, Anita. “Kagome Kagome.” Highlights for Children, vol. 65, no. 10, 10, 2010, pp. 12. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/756206958?accountid=14749.

Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Japanese New Years Traditions

Informant: The only other thing I can think about is some Japanese traditions. It’s very different over there than it has been in Oregon.

 

Interviewer: Yeah sure, which traditions are you talking about.

 

Informant: I mean, there’s New Years, Birthdays, School.

 

Interviewer: I think New Years would be good, I see it represented a lot in Japanese media so it’d be nice to have a personal account.

 

Informant: Ok. It’s similar to America in that there are a lot of fireworks to celebrate at New Years, but before New Years there are a couple of things we do different. Pretty much the entire city cleans up right before New Years, you know, to make sure it is a blank slate, a clean start very literally. Kids usually get money from their parents and sometimes grandparents, my parents would only give me money after I was done cleaning my room and part of the living room.

 

Interviewer: Interesting. Back home we also get money sometimes, but it’s usually during Christmas.

 

Informant: The other noteworthy thing off the top of my head is that basically everyone goes to the shrine on New Years Day.. Like, on January 1st. Usually we all go together, the shrine is always really ******* packed. But we stop by and ask for a good start to the New Year. Other than that… We also do New Years Resolutions, but you write them down and display them somewhere in the house. In my house we did little slips of paper that we stuck in a tree branch in the garden.

 

Analysis

I’d seen several of these traditions in anime, but I always wondered what happened in real life Japan. I’m pleased that most of the portrayals were accurate, and it’s also interesting to draw some comparisons with my experiences during New Years. Catholic families in Mexico also go pray on Jan 1st to receive a good beginning of the Year, however, the tradition is to go to a mass that happens at 12 am!

 

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Signs
Tales /märchen

Fireball Ghosts

After college, my mom lived in Japan 7 years. She taught English to get by and apprenticed as a potter to gain experience. Growing up, she told me tons and tons of stories from her time there. I was always particularly interested in their spiritual beliefs. Specifically, those regarding ghosts.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:

In Japan in graveyards – because it’s… because everybody’s cremated it’s very common during typhoon season to see fireballs and whatnot. And that’s really because of the seepage of the rainwater into burial urns combining with the phosphorous of the bones and creating fireballs. But some people believe that they’re spirits and that the graveyards are haunted. So, yeah I guess. Some people believe it’s the spirits and other people believe it’s the phosphorous in the bones with the rainwater. It’s also very easy to imagine … you sort of feel different presences in Japan. Especially in subways in Tokyo. Because they’re very old, you can feel lots of spirits.”

This anecdote is particularly interesting, as it includes scientific explanation for a supernatural occurrence. Imagine walking home late one rainy night when you see fireball after fireball erupt out of a graveyard. That would be absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, my mother never told me this story as a kid, as it would have almost undoubtedly caused innumerable nightmares and late nights for her. Though she explains the fireballs, she still admits to feeling a very strong spiritual presence across the country as a whole. A presence no one can account for outright. Though some ghosts are easily explained, others are not.

Childhood
Customs
Festival
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Musical
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Visiting Spirits and Dead Babies

After college, my mom lived in Japan 7 years. She taught English to get by and apprenticed as a potter to gain experience. Growing up, she told me tons and tons of stories from her time there. She’d speak fondly of their unusual ceremonies and traditions, and how, by the end of it, her host families said she was so in tune with the culture, that if they closed their eyes, they couldn’t tell she was a foreigner.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:

“In Japan, it’s a uh … a worshipping of dead ancestors day in August, Oh-Bon. They put out the dead people’s – the dead grandpa, the dead grandma, they put out their favorite food, and they put out chopsticks, and they will, you know, burn their favorite incense and they do all this so the dead can come and visit. They do this in their home. Every year, in August. It’s always in August. So it’s like Halloween, except it’s got a religious significance. It’s when the dead come back. They have festivals in town too, Oh-Bon-Matsi.

“It was a festival for dead children. And there was a river running through the town. Not dead babies but dead children. And, they… But. You know lanterns with lights in them? They’d float these lanterns with lights in them down the river and it was just gorgeous. Each lantern represented a dead child and they had this beautiful eerie music, just vocalizations for the occasion. Traditional Japanese instruments too. And incense burning. It was a very volcanic, sort of lunarscape in the far north. I can’t remember the name of the… the far north of Honshu. So you can look up ‘dead baby festival Honshu’ and figure it out.”

This is a very comforting view of the afterlife. It’s as if death is not the end, but merely a move to a different city. Growing up, she imparted this same sense of the dead on me. She’d always tell me not to fear death or the presence of ghosts, but to welcome them, as they were once in our shoes and only wanted to visit. The dead baby festival further illustrates their benevolent view of death. In America, when a child dies, we mourn and often times never speak of it. In Japan, it is tragic, however they still take time to celebrate their lives. No matter if that life was only for an instant.

 

Childhood
Customs
general

Bath Time – Japan

My informant was born and raised in Japan, but moved to America to finish her college degree at the University of San Diego. She told me about a childhood custom that is common among Japanese families.

“In Japan a little daughter and dad shower and bath together is normal–with son too. People from other countries say that’s disgusting. (But) it’s because normally dads don’t have time to communicate with their kids cause the work, so bath time is perfect time to have kids time to them. We did until I was 7 or something.”

I knew she had an older brother, so I asked if her dad would shower with both of them simultaneously or one by one. Her response was:

“Both! But that’s only when we’re little like 3 or 4. After that let’s say probably when I’m taking the bath my dad join me after. We just talk and play in the bathtub. Maybe he help me wash my hair, but not the body.”

I thought it was interesting how my informant pointed out how other countries saw this custom as strange, and felt the need to provide an explanation (almost in a defensive manner). I think it is because in Western culture it is more commonly heard of for mothers to take baths with their children since they are the ones to have given birth and are the “caretakers” of the family. A father  taking a bath with his child–especially a daughter– could be interpreted as inappropriate or even as sexual abuse.

However, baths are a huge part of Japanese custom. Japan has numerous public bathhouses located all over the country, varying from rural to urban areas. These bathhouses have large communal baths that are typically segregated by gender. Visitors comfortably bathe and walk around nude in front of complete strangers. With this information in mind, I was not surprised to hear that it is typical for children to bathe with their fathers.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Japanese New Year Eve

Information about the Informant: The informant is a 23 year old USC student named Eddie Roche. Eddie is a business major and is half Japanese half American. His father is from Chicago while his mother is from Japan. Growing up, Eddie lived in both Japan and China so he was immersed to numerous holiday traditions that both countries practiced. He has lots of family in Japan so he spent all of his holidays with family and learned about his culture.

Informant: “So basically every new years eve, all of the Japanese people clean everything in their house. It’s something that the Japanese people call Oosoji. It may take hours upon hours but it is a tradition that always occurs among Japanese people. Whether its making beds perfectly, re-cleaning every dish, or dustin all the furniture, the tradition is to cleanse everything in the house. People also clean out their cars and other forms of property that can require cleaning. They do this in order to begin the new year off on a blank page. If anything is dirty on new years, it means that some of the previous years’ bad habits are leaking into the new year.  After the cleaning is done, its tradition to put up numerous New Years decorations like Kadomatsu which are made up of pine and bamboo. Japanese people really like Bamboo. They all believe it is a symbol of longevity and good luck.”

Analysis: I found this Japanese New year eve tradition to be a tradition that makes a lot of sense practically and symbolically. From the perspective of an outsider who had never practiced such a tradition, I can easily understand how cleaning houses and property to perfection before the new years starts makes sense. It is as if the Japanese people are beginning the new year on a completely blank slate. What happened in the past is the past and there is nothing they can do about it once the next year comes along.

Customs
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Japanese New Years Day

Information about the Informant: The informant is a 23 year old USC student named Eddie Roche. Eddie is a business major and is half Japanese half American. His father is from Chicago while his mother is from Japan. Growing up, Eddie lived in both Japan and China so he was immersed to numerous holiday traditions that both countries practiced. He has lots of family in Japan so he spent all of his holidays with family and learned about his culture.

Informant: “After the oosoji on New Year’s Eve where everyone in Japan cleans everything, the day of New Years is equally as important. This day is all about giving and sharing good fortune. Pretty much everyone just gives everyone money throughout the whole day. Lots of the young kids receive money from the parents, relatives, and friends as a sign of good fortune for the rest of the year. In order to receive money you have to be under 22 years old. The tradition is called Otoshidama and the closer you are to 22 years old the more money you receive. Typically really going kids don’t get much money but its more about the idea of giving money to the kids as opposed to the exact amount they get. Another tradition on New Year’s Day is that most people, religious or not, travel to the temples in order to give money to the temples and receive good fortune. At the temple we walk around through these pillars and then throw money into a basket. Also, there is a tradition where you shake a brown box with a small hole on it and a bunch of sticks in it. You shake the box until a stick comes out and once the stick comes out you make the number on the stick to a corresponding piece of paper. Whatever the paper says determines your fortune for the new year. It can range from saying you will have really good luck to having very bad luck for the whole year.”

Analysis: Although he is Japanese, my informant wasn’t necessarily the most fond of these traditions. He enjoys them but he doesn’t really believe what they say. This is mostly because he is not full Japanese and did these traditions with his family more just because he had to than anything else. Japanese culture is very fond of fortune telling and it makes sense that these traditions are so heavily practiced on New Years Day, a day that is seen as a blank slate from what happened in the previous year.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chado

About the Interviewed: Yuki is a Japanese student  from the University of Hokkaido, currently studying western art and culture. She’s currently participating in an American homestay at a friend’s house in Southern California. Yuki is ethnically Japanese, and she’s said that her family has lived in Japan for a long time. She’s about 21 years old.

My subject, Yuki was willing to tell me about a folkloric tradition in her family. 

Yuki: “My dad performs Chado for work. In English, it means “Tea Ceremony”. Chado is the art of making exquisite tea, but it is also very difficult. You have to train for a long time to do it properly. Chado requires absolute [specific] steps. You can’t make mistakes. People pay a lot of money to watch Chado because it’s traditional.”

I ask Yuki if she can explain what a “Chado” performance looks like.

Yuki: “I can’t do [demonstrate?] it. It’s too hard. My dad studied for a very long time. I’m sorry. I can explain it though. You take a bowl, and you carefully clean it. Then you prepare the tea in a very special way. Chado is history. People used to make tea for Kings using the Chado style.”

I carefully ask if Chado is more about technique, or if the Tea is just that good.

Yuki: “(laughs) The technique is more important. But the Tea is better than most. Chado is about watching tradition.”

I ask what Chado has meant to Yuki.

Yuki: “I think it’s interesting. I just can’t do it. (laughs)”

Summary:

Chado, or Tea Ceremony, is a traditional art performance that has deep historical roots. It involves making tea using a highly articulate technique that requires intense training to master. People pay to watch those who know the technique perform their craft.

Yuki was unable to perform the tea ceremony for me, but independent research has shown me that there are a large number of materials required to make the ceremony “work”. It has a lot to do with the concept of “authenticity” in folklore. People want to engage in a culture that is as close to its original counterpart as possible.

Customs

Taking Off Shoes – Japanese Domestic Customs

About the Interviewed: Yuki is a Japanese student  from the University of Hokkaido, currently studying western art and culture. She’s currently participating in an American homestay at a friend’s house in Southern California. Yuki is ethnically Japanese, and she’s said that her family has lived in Japan for a long time. She’s about 21 years old.

My subject, Yuki, was telling me about the customs involved when entering a Japanese home.

Yuki: “Japanese people don’t wear shoes in the house. We have a Gedabako [shoe rack] for putting shoes when you enter the house.”

I ask Yuki why she thinks that Western People and Japanese People have different ways of doing things.

Yuki: “I don’t understand why westerners wear shoes and walk on the floor. You can get dirty. In Japan, we walk on the floor in our feet, so it’s good to keep the floor clean.”

I tell Yuki that it might be because Japanese floors are lined with tatami mats, which Japanese people sleep, eat, and generally walk upon barefoot.

Yuki: “Not all Japanese people sleep on mats. But it’s important to keep them clean. (laugh) Walking indoors with shoes on is still something I find difficult.”

Summary:

In Japan, it’s seen as customary to take your shoes off when you enter the home. This is probably because Japanese people typically walk around barefoot, as well as sit upon the floor when they eat and sometimes sleep.

Japan isn’t the only culture in the world that has a custom against using shoes indoors. Countries in Europe, like Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, as well as other Asian countries like Thailand and Korea, also have taboos against getting the floors dirty. I think it’s interesting that certain cultures are fine with the sanitation limits of using shoes indoors, yet others are more wary. Customs are oral traditions that are performed/enforced to maintain a cultural standard.

http://expatsincebirth.com/2013/11/24/take-off-your-shoes-please/

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