“Halloween” in Japan

In Japan, this article would already be two months late. The thing about Halloween being on October 31 started out as a European tradition and just gradually spread throughout the world. In Japan, the real ghost season is during the summer. Here are a few important things to know about the Japanese “Halloween”:

1. Yuurei

Japanese ghosts are called “yuurei” (faint spirits). They traditionally wear a kyoukatabira (white burial kimono) with a triangular forehead cloth. The usual question here is “What’s the forehead thing?” well, to start, there is no specific name for this cloth.


© Daume, 2010
Japanese refer to it as “boshi” (hat) or “nuno” (cloth). There’s no specific history to it either. There are two theories though: one, the sharp point of the triangle keeps away evil spirits who would want to possess the now-empty body or prevent the spirit from leaving the body. Another is that the dead are on a higher level already, and that the cloth is a “tenkan” (heaven’s crown) that represents the dead being on the other level.

2.Obon Festival

So it’s been mentioned that summer is Japan’s ghost season. That’s because mid-August (about August 12-16, depending on the region) is when the Obon Festival is. During this time, it is believed that the ancestors’ spirits come back home.


© OLM, Inc., 1997
The Japanese clean their houses and the graves of their ancestors, and put food offerings in front of a butsudan (altar) for the dead that will visit. Lanterns are lit to guide the spirits home and back to the grave. Bon odori, a folk dance, is done as well. These are held in temples, parks, and shrines, usually around a yagura (a raised central platform) with the participants wearing yukatas (summer kimonos). Sometimes, the dancers are scattered around the city with their own smaller circles. These dances last the whole night, so some actually believe that this is a great way to do match-making.


(c) Sunrise, 2004

3. Non-Japanese Ghosts vs. Japanese Ghosts

The belief that ghosts are lost souls is a general one. But different backgrounds in religion are what make things different. Monotheistic religions believe in only one deity, and Western ghosts are simply an extension of the self. The Japanese believe in and worship multiple kami, some of which are spirits of the dead. These creatures in Japan are sometimes seen as without legs to show that they are different from when they were alive.

4. Vengeful Ghosts

Yuurei were harmless. But when Buddhism came into Japan, they started to have grudges and became visually scary. They became spirits who seek vengeance, unable to leave the physical earth because of strong feelings. If a dead person feels anger, jealousy, or sadness very strongly, they may be able to cross back to the physical world to become a yuurei. These kinds of spirits usually come from people who were killed. Ever wondered why yuurei are more often female than male in the movies? You know, the ones in white garments and long black hair covering their faces? Well, it’s believed that women are more emotional than men, so it’s likely that women would get to experience emotion strong enough to become this kind of yuurei.

5. Ofuda and Harae

© Daume, 2010
If holy water wards off evil for Christians, in the Buddhist tradition, Buddhist sutras written in ofuda strips (paper tags that act as amulets or talismans) have the same effect. In some Shinto shrines, harae, a purification ritual is offered. It wards off evil using chants and wooden wands. This is also used as an ablution, by purifying one’s body and mind from defilement.