Things that go “Bump” in Japan: Happy Halloween ハピ ハロウイン!

Kodai-ji Temple Goblin Lanterns. August 2011. Kyoto.

— H A L L O W E E N    2 0 1 3 — 

I originally posted this   “Things That Go ‘Bump'” piece 2009.  I’ve updated it over the years.  Let’s start it off with a vid of incredible, haunting, Steven Rollinson photos of mannequin scarecrows from Gifu Prefecture.  The angst and ennui expressed by these mannequins is a thing to behold — 

h/t to wonderful site/blog, Pink Tentacle, for bringing this to my attention.



October 2012 Kansai Scene – Magazine for the International Community

Kansai Scene — October 2012 Edition


Kodai-ji Goblin Lanterns. Detail. August 2011.

.               .               .

WiFi for Smartphones Poster Detail. Tokyo. August 2011.

In October 1990 I was living in a small mountain town in Hyogo Prefecture.  I write about this town in the stories “Etsuko” and “Enlightenment”, whose links you can find at the top of this page.  I was a middle school teacher.  Come the season of red and gold, it occurred to me that in the spirit of cultural outreach I should find a pumpkin and carve a Jack-o-Lantern for and with the students.

My Japanese counterpart teachers (of English) liked the idea and a big pumpkin was found and brought into the school without much trouble.  A few days before Halloween, in a corner of one of the school hallways, I carved it in stages throughout the school day as students gathered around, amazed.  Several of them helped me scoop-out the insides of Jack’s skull.  Others handed me tools, acting as my nurses in the operating room.  Good times.  When, towards the end of the day, the job was done and the candle was lit and placed just so in Jack’s now-empty skull, I gave a signal and the lights were extinguished in the hall.  Gasps and giggles rippled up and down the flock of students nearby.  They had never seen such a thing.

While that wasn’t that long ago, it was long ago enough: Halloween — with its origins dating back well more than a millenium with the Celts of Northern France and the British Isles, brought to America in fits and starts during the 1700s, popularized by Irish immigrants during the latter half of the 19th Century, and supremely commercialized in the States after WWII — is now a Japanese holiday, in the strictly commercial, kitschy sense.


Happy Halloween in Japanese:   ハピ ハロウイン



"The Ghost of Koheiji".  Woodblock print.  Hokusai.  1830.

“The Ghost of Koheiji”. Woodblock print. Hokusai. 1830.

But ghosts and goblins and the creepy stories surrounding them have their own long tradition in Japan (as is the case in every culture).  Celebrated Edo Period wood block artist Hokusai (1760-1849) created a series of Kabuki-inspired “ghost story” prints around 1830, “Hyaku Monogatari”.  Above you see the print, “The Ghost of Koheiji”, based on an 1803 story-turned-kabuki-play by Santo Kyoden (poet, writer and woodblock artist).  Koheiji was betrayed and murdered by his wife.  So, naturally, he comes back from the dead to torment her and her lover by slipping under the mosquito netting around their bedding and joining and doling out horrific justice on them.   Below is famous, The Ghost of O-Iwa, a woman murdered by her husband who came back in phantasmic form to haunt and exactly bloody vengeance on her loathsome husband.

The Ghost of O-Iwa.  On the lantern is the Buddhist prayer, "Praise to Amitabha Buddha"

The Ghost of O-Iwa. Lantern writing’s the Buddhist prayer, “Praise to Amida Buddha”


Going back a good 1,000 years into early Japanese Buddhist tradition are the tormented “Hungry Ghosts”, or “gaki“.   Gaki are the spirits of those whose lives were consumed with avarice, greed and narcissism (today’s “social climbers”), while leaving their humanity on the back burner (or no burner at all) — you get the picture.  Seems in the afterlife such people will be assigned to wander through —  but never visible to  —  the living world, all disgusting with their distended bellies, wracked with hunger and able to eat only the bowel movements of those in the corporeal world.  They are all around us today, in fact.  Quite the disgusting ghost story and morality tale, all rolled into one and very reminiscent to me of Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where in death the Rich Man begs Abraham, “‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish.’  But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things and Lazarus in like manner received like manner of evil things; but now he is comforted and you are in anguish. . . .’” (Luke 16:24, 25).

"Gaki", or Hungry Ghosts.  Late 12th Century.

“Gaki”, or Hungry Ghosts (detail from scroll). Late 12th Century.

.          .         .

Hearn’s “In Ghostly Japan

After decades of bouncing from job to job and occasionally living in poverty, Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan from the U.S. in 1890 and began teaching English in a Middle School in Matsue  —  a town not far from the one in which I lived and taught Middle School English… exactly 100 years after Hearn.  And he fell in love with Japan.  Hearn became one of the first Western “Windows on Japan” and Japanese culture through his books and essays on every day life, Japan’s educational system (which is not too different a 120 years later) and, yes, Ghost Stories he collected over his years living in Japan.   Note:   one of the world’s largest Hearn collections is located in the Rare Books section of the University of Alabama.

Happy Halloween.

= March 2010 Video Update.  It’s inexcusable that I could have left THIS off the original post =

Ultraman was actually one of my first introductions to Japan.  In the late ’60s and early ’70s it aired every weekday afternoon on UHF Channel 20 in the Washington, D.C. Metro area where I grew up.  I was, indeed, a fan.

~      ~      ~      ~      ~


And then there’s the King of the Monsters, for Japan and elsewhere, whom I had the privilege of sitting down with and interviewing a few of summers ago.

    • Matt
    • October 25th, 2009


    • Lois
    • October 25th, 2009

    I’d forgotten about the creepy/kitschy/cute (which is creepy) side of Hallowe’en in Japan.


      • letsjapan
      • October 25th, 2009

      Yeh, you get that Cute Can Be Creepy.

      Like when a professional baseball team hits a home run and there’s this big duck or bunny rabbit or something there at home plate waiting to meet the Latter Day Samurai Slugger with furry hugs and kisses, like an overly affectionate chicken with a glandular condition. Freakin’ Kafka Kangaroo. I love that stuff.

      We in North America are much too Serious.

  1. Happy late Halloween! 🙂
    Love those Japanese yougai, they’re always so weird!
    btw, let exchange links!

      • letsjapan
      • November 2nd, 2009

      Just checked out your site. What fun. Gambare!

      Would be honored to cross-link sites. I’ll do that on my end within the next several hours. Must run for now. Kind regards to you.


  2. haha Love the Ultraman intro.

    I was actually re-visiting how I got introduced to Japan myself this morning on my way to work.

    It unfortunately turns out to be Yojimbo at a much too young age

      • letsjapan
      • October 19th, 2010


      So glad you like this, especially Ultraman. He was one of my Big Childhood Influences. Is that a confession or a brag? Depends, I suppose!

      Yojimbo = Classic x 1,000.

      All kind things to you. Spread the word!


      • letsjapan
      • October 19th, 2010

      P.S., Fransgaard – I plan to put “Japan in London” up on my blogroll. Later on this evening.


  3. I discovered your little exchange about stats in the WP forums this a.m., and just have spent the most wonderful half-hour exploring your blog.

    First, a note re: the stats. You’re not alone. Mine have been doing the same for about three weeks, and the change actually seems to me related to the change from line graph to bar graph. If you’re patient enough to refresh your stats page from the alternate choices (admin bar, browser, etc.) you’ll discover you can get the higher number back. And the good news is that things always seem to resolve at the end of the day. It’s the software, no question about that. In short, I think it’s an irritation more than a problem.

    As for your blog… I’m not at all knowledgeable about Japan, but got involved in a Japanese Reading Challenge on a lovely book blog. I began with Shoko Tendo’s “Yakuza Moon”, discovered I didn’t know enough of the culture to understand the book, so now I’m doing some other reading about the Yakuza to give me a context for her book. I must say, it’s rather creepy enough for Halloween.

    You blog is visually beautiful, well-written and interesting. I’m so glad you “got into it” over on the forums or I never would have found you! I’ll no doubt become a regular reader.

      • letsjapan
      • October 26th, 2010

      Dear Shoreacres –

      You’ve made my day (and it’s still early). Thank you so much on both counts.

      Regarding WP and the site stats, it occurs to me that any of the “volunteers” or “moderators” or other regular tech geeks could have answered my very simple question — as you did. But they don’t seem to be too up on their “people skills.” It seems to be something inherent in that sector.

      More importantly, I’m so glad you found this site. Please, I invite you to navigate around, explore posts from earlier in the year, or last year; none of them are really time-bound and I hope all are somewhat enjoyable. Plus — atop all pages — there are the Galleries and the Stories.

      Come back soon and often and know that your comments are always welcome.

      R Newton

      p.s. – thanks for the heads-up re: _Yakuza Moon_, will check it out.

  4. I so look forward to your blogs, thank you!

      • letsjapan
      • October 24th, 2011

      Dear Shauna,

      Thanks so much. Of course as a new subscriber you’ve got a little over 2 years worth of archives to plow through first! I kid, I kid. Nevertheless, I do hope you’ll go back over the past couple of years and here and there read a piece that looks interesting to you. One thing I try to do is make most of my posts “timeless” so that after several weeks, months or even a year or two they remain relevant and interesting. Also, every 6 months+/- I post a “here’s what you may have missed” piece with links to recent posts.

      Thanks again, and don’t neglect the Galleries and Stories, too.

      All kind things to you and yours,


  5. Like the photos of lanterns as i had not seen them before.

    Lafcadio Hearn also translated dozens of kyouka about spooky creatures or monsters or ghosts or whatever you would call them. His essay was called Goblin Poetry. I introduce and re-translate some egs from it and others I gathered from the original elsewhere in “Mad In Translation.” It is 100% viewable at Google Books and you are free to introduce any of the translations you wish to.

      • letsjapan
      • October 26th, 2011

      Dear Robin,

      This (re: Hearn) is great to know. I’ve yet to do the “Just Re: Lafcadio Hearn” piece here, and I’m glad I’ve waited. Now I can incorporate your work/info into it, if that’s o.k. with you.

      I’ve only been to Matsue once (with one of my friends who offers a comment upthread, in fact), but it was a really wonderful couple of days. As I imply in the above story proper, I feel a special connection with Hearn because I was doing what he was doing, just one prefecture over, exactly 100 years later. Read his diary while I was there and found that little had changed in 100 years!

      All the best to you,


      • Of course, OK. As i am busy researching and writing my next books — once again in jpse — i doubt i will long continue with the facebook groups and have no money to hire help or pay for pr or even reading copies, so, mention of the book in your blog may be the only way your readers know of it.

        Without knowing how far you plan to go w/ Hearn & ghosts, i wonder if you have read Creole Sketches, which foreshadows much of the sort of work he would do in JApan — i believe he relates one or more ghost-stories in it.

        • letsjapan
        • October 26th, 2011

        That’s wonderful, Robin. Please keep me, keep us all, alerted to any impending publishing dates. I’ll make it a point to get the word out — through this site, through Facebook, through Emails & Twitter, etc. I’m wondering how many friends in common, or friends of friends, we have in Japan and globally. 世界狭い and all that, you know.

        As for Creole Sketches, no, I haven’t read that. It’s now on my list, though. Thank you. I think Tulane has the largest collection of original Hearn works and Ohio State (or another Ohio school) or the University of Alabama comes in second. There may be another I don’t know about. I don’t pretend to be a Hearn scholar, but having that “connection” I mention above and having been to Matsue, to his house there behind Matsue-Jo and having read some of his work, well, let’s just say I’m a big fan.

        All kind things,


  1. October 31st, 2012

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