Japanese Culture in New York - Chopsticks NY

HOMEFeatureFoodBeautyShopSchoolTravelJapanese Forum
Celebrity Talk

Obake in J-pop Culture

Every culture has its own folklore, myths and traditions that are spooky and haunting, while some festivals worship the deceased.  In Japan, one such tradition is the O-Bon Festival that takes place in the middle of August and honors the deceased spirits of one’s ancestors.  Naturally, this is the season when the Japanese enjoy talking about “obake” (ghosts/spirits/monsters/goblins) and holding obake-related activities. So Chopsticks NY decided to explore more about Japan’s obake and introduce how they are received and enjoyed in popular culture.


The Origins of Obake Culture
There are countless obake stories in Japan, probably much more than in any other country.  Etymologically “obake” comes from the word  “bakeru” (to transform), and it refers to something that is different to a great degree from how it should look.  Ghosts, monsters, fairies, goblins and ogres are all considered obake in Japanese culture.  Since nature worship and animism are deeply embedded in their culture, for good or bad the Japanese often think that natural transformation is some kind of sign, such as a rainbow after the rain, foliage in the woods, metamorphosis of insects and amphibians, etc.

Belief in Buddhism, which is prevalent in Japan, also contributed to the development of obake culture.  The o-bon customs in Japan based on Buddhism are a good example.  During the o-bon period over a few days in mid-August, usually from the 13th to 16th, it is believed that the spirits of the deceased visit the earth and stay with the living.  In order to welcome and bid farewell to the spirits, people burn bonfires which work as guiding lights for the spirits visiting the earth.  Customarily people go to their family graveyards and offer foods during o-bon.   This tradition is one of the reasons that obake-related activities take place during this period more than any other season.

Obake and Pop Culture
One of the most common obake-related activities during the summer is “kimodameshi.”  Directly translated as “test of your gut”, this is a type of outdoor game that challenges participants’ degree of endurance toward fear.  Usually held in graveyards, scary places like haunted mansions, or simply dark places, a group or pair of people walk a certain route and come back to the starting point.  It’s a common summer camp activity.

“Obake yashiki” (fake haunted houses) are another common attraction.   This haunted house attraction is especially set in festivals or theme parks, and participants enjoy thrills and chills while walking through the spookily decorated obake yashiki.  There are a variety of tricks and gimmicks hidden inside that scare participants.  This walk-through type of obake yashiki is the most traditional, but in modern days there are more types such as rides, theaters and closed rooms with 3D images and surround sound.

Rakugo, Japanese traditional comic story-telling performing arts, also has standard pieces maximizing the essence of obake. Obake themes are seasonal in rakugo, and they are usually performed in summer. There are various types of stories from truly scary ones to ones with comic relief. The most popular pieces are the latter type, which include Obake Nagaya (Haunted Tenement), Oukyo no Yurei (A Ghost in Oukyo’s Painting),  Sarayashiki a.k.a. Okiku no Sara (Haunted Plate Mansion a.k.a. Plates of Okiku), and Hettsui Yurei (Haunted Oven). There is no visual aid during the performance, so it is solely the performers’ skills of delivering lines that makes audiences feel chilled and laugh.

You can see numerous obake stories in movies, manga, and anime.   Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) are the most internationally known classic films based on ghost stories.  Even Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth includes an important segment involving ghosts.  Most people still remember the chills from the modern J-horror series Ringu (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), and One Missed Call (2003).

Manga and anime are full of obake characters, but the most influential one is Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki.  Originally created in 1960, it’s a story about a society in the yokai (hobgoblin in Japanese folklore) world.  The protagonist is a yokai boy called Kitaro who was born in a cemetery.  Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro has been adapted for TV anime series, live action films and video games.

Obake in Kabuki and Noh
Obake stories are popular subject matter for movies, novels and even manga and anime, but they are also important in traditional “kabuki” and “noh” theater performances.  Packed with action, kabuki plays maximize visual effects, including “hayagawari,” or an instant transformation right in front of the audience.  Obake is the perfect subject matter for jaw-dropping transformations. Yotsuya Kaidan, written in 1825 as a kabuki play, is popular not only in kabuki theater but has also become one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories of all time.  It went on to be adapted for film more than 30 times.

With smooth, fluid movements and meditating music, Noh plays are quite opposite in style from kabuki, but they are inseparable from obake.  Within noh plays, there is a subgenre called “mugen noh” that deals with spirits, ghosts, phantasms, and supernatural worlds.   Usually characters from the two worlds of the living and the dead switch seamlessly in one play.

Drink up Obake!
Chiyomusubi Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro
Cup Sake Junmai Ginjo

Did you know that a sake brand with obake on its label is available in the U.S.?  Chiyomusubi Brewery’s junmai ginjo sake has characters from Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro decorating its labels.  The brewery is located in Sakaiminato City in Tottori Prefecture, hometown of the manga’s author Shigeru Mizuki.  The junmai ginjo sake bottle is also unique in shape. The 180 ml (6 oz) sake bottle has a wide opening on top sealed with a pull-top cap, which in Japan is called the “one-up” style.  Once you remove the cap the bottle turns into a glass, allowing you to drink the sake directly from the bottle.  With Chiyomusubi Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro Cup Sake Junmai Ginjo, you can drink up obake!

Info: Chiyomusubi Brewery |

Lafcadio Hearn Introducing Japanese Ghost Stories to the World

Hearn, a.k.a Yakumo Koizumi, is known for introducing Japanese ghost stories to the world for the first time at the turn of the 19th century.   Born in Greece, he built up his career in the U.S. as a journalist and then went to Japan with a commission as a newspaper correspondent.  He soon fell in love with the country’s fascinating  culture and made his home there.  He introduced Japanese culture to the world through his writings, including Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life, and most notably Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange ThingsKwaidan was later adapted into a movie by the world renowned filmmaker, Masaki Kobayashi.  If you are interested in his life, a visit to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture is recommended.  This is where he first settled in Japan and married a local woman, Setsu Koizumi.

Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum

A Comic Relief in Fear:
Obake in Standard Rakugo

Originating in the early Edo Period and now called rakugo, this is a comic story-telling performance art that was spawned and spread among commoners as pop culture. As mentioned before, there are a couple of standard obake pieces which are always performed in the summer.  Here is a synopsis of one of the most popular ones.

Sarayashiki a.k.a. Okiku no Sara
(Haunted Mansion a.k.a. Plates of Okiku)
The piece starts with a conversation between an old, retired man and a young commoner. They talk about a haunted mansion called Sarayashiki.  The old man tells what happened to the mansion and why it’s haunted.

A long time ago, there was a mansion of a samurai family in a district called Bancho.  A beautiful woman named Okiku was working there as a servant.  Since Okiku was extremely beautiful, the lord of the family naturally fell in love with her.  However, Okiku did not return the lord’s love because she was already married.  Angry at this, the lord schemed a vengeful plan.  He removed one plate from a set of 10-piece plates that were handed down as a treasure.  Since Okiku was in charge of storing the plate set, he asked her to count the plates one by one and accused her of being negligent and losing one plate.  He finally killed her and threw her body into a well.  Since then, the ghost of Okiku appears every night and counts the plates, “One, two, three….”  Haunted by Okiku’s spirit, the lord went mad and died.

One night, the young commoner who was told the story decided to go to the deserted Sarayashiki mansion with his friends to see if it’s true.  At midnight, they witness bluish white fireballs floating around the well, and following that, the ghost of Okiku appears and starts counting the plates.  “One, two, three….”  According to the old man, people who hear the count of eight will be sick with fever and ones who hear the ninth count will die.  So the young men summon up their courage until the sixth count and run.

They are relieved to have narrowly saved their own lives and begin chatting,
“That was soooo scary, but she was sooooo gorgeous.”
“I’ve never seen such a beautiful woman.”
“Would you like to go there tomorrow night, too?”

The next day, people who heard about this join the Sarayashiki visit and the number of spectators multiplies. The following day, there are even more spectators. One promoter of a performance show finds a business opportunity in this Sarayashiki visit. He negotiates with Okiku and makes a deal with her. He cleans up and decorates the Sarayashiki, and it turns out that the Ghost Okiku Show becomes a huge hit. Street stalls and vendors also start business there. The neighborhood around the Sarayashiki in Bancho thrives.