The rivalry between British and Japanese ghosts

japanese ghost rivalry

I had no idea of the concern aired in the early 20th century by the keepers of all things paranormal regarding the potential usurping of the traditional British ghost by the Japanese variety. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the Daily Mail, but I have to say that this article from 1933 opened my eyes to the rivalry that existed at the time. The author of the article does ultimately declare that the Japanese hitodama is a worthy contender for the spectral throne but equally I have read a number of earlier newspaper articles that are less impressed by these foreign phantoms. Does anyone know more about this subject?

Daily Mail, 1933

‘There seem to be no bounds to this Japanese competition with Britain. If there is one staple commodity of ours which has hitherto feared no comparison with foreign rivals it is the British ghost. He seemed a natural by product of our Tudor architecture. The panelled walls and stone-flagged passages of the moated granges and turreted castles of Britain provided an environment most favourable for his development, which was assisted by the gloomy and predominantly misty character of our climate. It might have been thought impossible for a, country whose houses are built of flimsy wood and paper to compete with us in this respect. After two visits to the Tokyo Ghost Exhibition I regret to report, however, that in eeriness, blood-curdling horror, malevolence, and general spookiness the Japanese ghost is in no way inferior to the British article.

Fortunately for our native spectres, however, the otherwise most efficient phantoms of Japan have a structural defect which renders them instantly recognisable. No attempt at Japanese spirit-dumping can possibly delude British ghost-hunters into the belief that they are being offered a genuine homebred apparition. The difference lies in the fact that Japanese ghosts have no legs. Down to the waist they correspond to the best European models. The form is generally cadaverous, and of a graveyard pallor. The dank hair’ falls in matted disorder over eyes that smoulder with a baleful glow. The hands are long, and skeletonised, and arc carried breast-high. But the legs merely taper off into a wisp of greyish vapour. Thus the Japanese ghost cannot walk; he merely floats along. Such traditional British effects as phantom footsteps or the dragging of chains are impossible for him.

On the other hand the .returned spirits of Japan have some, special characteristics of their own. One of these consists of a streamer of phosphorescent light, known as the hitodama. This trail of violet-tinted luminosity embodies the soul of the dead person, and always accompanies the earthly form that he resumes. I am told that at the present day there are many people in Japan who claim that when a death occurs they can see the hitodama, like an elongated balloon of purple fire, pass through the roof of the house at the moment that the soul leaves the body. These “corpse-lights,” as the Irish call them, are frequently to be noticed drifting about burial-grounds at night.

Short of meeting an actual wraith, the Tokyo Ghost Exhibition is the severest trial for one’s nerves imaginable. It is held in a huge amphitheatre, the inside of which has been cut up into rooms connected by dimly-lighted passages. Each of these rooms is furnished to represent the scene of some historic Japanese ghost-story. Life-size wax images in natural attitudes represent the human beings concerned, but the ghost is a mechanical figure which suddenly appears while you watch. Sometimes it glides out from behind a screen with a red light glowing inside the eye-sockets of its gibbering skull; or it may swoop down from the ceiling kith dishevelled, trailing hair and clawing, bony fingers. Every one of the phantoms reproduced has its place in Japanese legend. Japan is a country which until sixty-five years ago had been completely cut off from the rest of the world for three centuries. There is no possibility of these spook-tales having been borrowed or adapted from, other countries. Yet their character is exactly similar to that of the ghost-stories of Europe, as if the incidents they commemorate had their origin in identical but independent experience.

Grimmest of all the horrors shown at the Tokyo Ghost Exhibition are the representations of the banshees and evil spirits that infest desolate and inaccessible places. You enter a reproduction of bamboo thicket and find gnome-like figures lurking in its depths, while hairy, snatching hands shoot out from among the leaves as you pass through.

The original newspaper clipping:

newspaper article

28 thoughts on “The rivalry between British and Japanese ghosts

  1. King Henry the VIII should have had a few of those ghosts hanging around his bedroom, especially if they had the appearnce of some of the more famous people ha had beheaded. Iit might have cured him of his evil ways.

  2. Japanese ghosts and ghoulies are cool. I didn’t know about the hitodama (so thank you for that); they sound like an explanation for the phosphorus from buried bodies, don’t you think?

    I did know about the yurei: ghosts of murder victims, suicides, and those who died with unresolved issues. Andrew Kincaid has a nice post about them:
    “in their traditional depiction they are shown hovering over the ground, with only their hands and face visible.”

    And Lafcadio Hearn had a story called “Rokuro-kubi”, about monsters that look human, but can detach their heads from their bodies so that the heads can fly around eating people. Rokuro-kubi (or nukekubi) are probably a borrowing from Chinese folklore. I have an old (and somewhat rambling — sorry) post about them here:
    There are also southeast asian monsters with similar qualities.

    • Nzumel, thank you for such a fascinating and enlightening response. I’ve just read your article and am now very keen to get hold of a copy of ‘Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things’. These spectres appear far more metamorphic and disembodied than traditional western spirits, and add such peculiarity and flavour to the spectrum of phantoms. I’ll continue to follow your wonderful blog. Regards, Paul

      • Glad you enjoyed it. Kwaidan is available as an ebook from Project Gutenberg, as are several of Hearn’s books (Some Chinese Ghosts is also very nice). You should also find the movie Kwaidan (directed by Masaki Kobayashi, 1965). It’s based on Hearn’s book, and it’s incredibly beautiful.

  3. I think the power behind the Japanese depiction of their spirit world is that they never lost connection with it as fully as we have. Whilst our ancestral spirits have become caricatures theirs are living presences, hence their inspiration of fear and awe.

    • I couldn’t agree more Lorna! The power of oral storytelling is still very much alive in the east – as opposed to the west where ‘we’ have lost the potency and value in telling such tales. Hopefully I am but one of many authors hoping to rejuvenate this dormant legacy…

    • Hi Lorna,

      I am delighted to announce the launch of my first collection of ghost stories:


      P. J. Hodge spins rich, spine-chilling and beautifully written tales that tell of haunted ancestral homes, supernaturally-possessed objects and revengeful spectres that will not rest until their work is done.

      Mesmerising, understated, and convincingly Victorian in tone, this is a frighteningly good collection of stories. Purchase at your own risk!

      Please share and pass this on to fellow ghost story fans. Also, if you read the book and have the time, would you be so kind as to write a review for the Amazon book page and Goodreads. Thank you!

      Available for Kindle ebook here
      US –
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      and all other Amazon international sites.

      If you enjoy period ghost tales of that bygone England of country house gatherings, servants and hansom cabs, with smog-filled days and sinister churchyard nights, you’ll love this varied and entertaining collection of chillers.

      An Amazon review:

      ‘I rarely get time to read so I always look for books containing short stories so I can finish them in a single reading session. Once I started reading it however I couldn’t put it down! It is superbly written and you immediately get drawn into it. One of the best short story book I have read to date. Looking forward to the next book already.’ Richie

      Kind regards, Paul

  4. Fascinating article – thanks for putting it out there! Interesting that it mentions ghosts that vanish below the waist, because one certainly features in the Hong Kong horror movie The Eye. Perhaps the concept is found more widely in Asia?

    • I think so David. It’s the sheer unfamiliarity I have with such spectres, equally with the orientation of Japanese buildings and households, that creates the unknown quality my fear breeds upon. I have long been fascinated with Asian cinema, especially the Japanese and Korean film industry.

  5. Interesting article and some great responses! Just when you think the ghost story has been done to death you get a group of bloggers to come along and blow that out of the water 🙂

  6. I agree with Lorna that since the Japanese and other oriental cultures have such a deep history of ancestor worship the ghosts of the dead are more welcome. As a Buddhist i can tell you that the Japanese have more scary bizarre torturous hells than any other religion. Of course in Buddhism all heavens and hells after death are temporary and eventually one burns out one’s good or bad karma and is reincarnated, but sometimes their ghosts get stuck. I think the scariest depiction i have seen in film is in “The Grudge” series with those floating dark haired ghosts coming out of the ceiling, lol.

  7. Do we have any idea what specifically was on display at the “Tokio Ghost Exhibition”? Would be great if there was a record of some kind, because it sounds great.

  8. I remember watching a Japenese ghost film in the late 1980’s. I can’t remember its title but it was very scary. Would love to read future posts about ghost lore from around the globe.

  9. Hi, I’m a Japanese and I likes JP ghosts(Yuurei) and monsters(Youkai). I think “Typical” Yuurei and Youkai images that so many modarn ppl knowing are made from Noh and Kabuki and Ukiyoe. Because more old times in JP,Yuurei having legs and Youkai’s roots are spirits of nature.*like a “fairy”*. I think all JP folklores are came from Animism. Animism still living in JP and that’s why we having so many gods.
    I reported about few Youkais in my blog before, If you interested in roots of some youkais then search my blog archives 🙂

  10. Pingback: A-Yokai-A-Day: Tatarigami |

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