Other Collecting Areas

World History

Maggie Gallup Kopp, Curator
Kristi Young, Curator
Robert Maxwell, Adjunct Curator

If you have reference questions relating to this collection or questions for the curator, please contact us.

Japanese Folklore

Japanese Ghost Stories (FA 01 46)

Limbo (FA 01 46)

After a person dies, Buddhist tradition states that they do not immediately go to the afterlife. First, there is a period of limbo, where the spirit comes back to life and dies again seven times. The deaths take place at intervals of seven days, so the last death would come forty-nine days after the body has died. On each day of death, prayers are said and offerings are left for the spirit.

Each day that the spirit is in limbo, food is left on the family altar because the spirit is still considered alive, and needs food for nourishment. The Great Judge makes his verdict during this period, so the family prays fervently for a favorable verdict. After the forty-ninth day, the dead’s’ personal effects are distributed among family, friends, and servants. After that, the dead are celebrated on the third, fifth, and thirteenth anniversary of their death.

Tatari (FA 01 46)

A tatari is a visitation from a divine spirit, or, more recently, a curse visited upon a person for disobeying or slighting divine wish. A person may be cursed because they disrespected a shrine, a sacred tree, or killed an animal. Someone may purposely invoke a tatari on their enemy by taking their weapons of war and burying them.

A tatari manifests in illness, injuries, disabilities, or death. It can last several generations, or even several lifetimes. If a person had a tatari in a former life, it may affect them after reincarnation, though it is more likely that after death a tatari will affect their progeny. Unexpected deaths or sickness are often blamed on the evil conduct of ancestors.

Hitodama (FA 01 46)

A hitodama or human soul ball is a glistening blue-white ball of light that appears after certain people die. Under circumstances where a person dies with a grudge, or with strong attachment to material possessions, the hitodama will appear and float around the object of the person’s obsessive focus. Occasionally, a hitodama will be created when a person dies in unrequited love.

Shinigami (FA 01 46)

Each person’s life is said to be measured, and their time of death is predetermined, and written down in a Shinigami’s book. At a man’s time of death, the Shinigami beckons him to come, he obeys and dies. Right before he is to die, a man’s shadow fades, and people will comment that they knew his end was coming by the faintness of his shadow. A man’s manner also changes, for in his last days or hours, every man returns to the goodness and nobleness he is born with.

Migawari (FA 01 46)

There is a belief that someone can perform migawari or acting as substitute with one’s life. That is, if one chooses to die before their years have run out, they can gift those extra years to someone else. This is most often used to explain why a loyal pet dies. A faithful dog might choose to die so that his sick master will not die instead. This supreme act of love and loyalty helps assuage the grief a family may feel at their pet’s death. Occasionally, stories tell of human friends choosing to die to prolong their friend’s life. These are not common, but do exist.

Kami-Kakushi (FA 01 46)

Kami-kakushi refers to tales of people mysteriously disappearing from their homes and never being found again. Children are most often spirited away, but adult men and women also occasionally disappear without a trace.

Parents, neighbors, and friends will search the neighborhood, beating drums and ringing bells while calling the name of the lost one. Those who have been hidden by a kami are never found again, though sometimes the family is granted last glimpse of their missing child at a festival or in a crowded street before they are completely lost.

Kitsune (FA 01 46)

The kitsune is a tricky fox with a power for shape shifting. It can transform itself into the form of human or surrounding debris of nature into food or shelter. Many who have walked alone at night have found themselves tricked when they thought they were stopping by a warm home for a good meal and wake up in the morning in a muddy pool, belly full of rotten leaves. Others have brought home baskets of fish, only to discover when they reach home that they have only a pile of stones. Many men have also been led on strange adventures by foxes disguised as beautiful women.

Foxes are also said to be able to possess a person. Somewhat different than their shape shifting, a fox-possessed person suddenly acts strangely or violently. Often the one possessed will have a high fever and talk deliriously, eat strange foods, throw things around and jump into rivers or climb a steep mountain. These are usually women, and their families call in priests or witches to pray for them. After a few days, they return to normal.

The phosphorous lights often seen in forests or over fields during the night are also blamed on foxes. Stories say they use lanterns to guide wedding processions during the night or in inclement weather.

Neko (FA 01 46)

Besides foxes, cats are also the subject to much superstition. A Japanese proverb states “a cat is a witch.” Though kittens are much loved and considered innocent, older cats are thought to become possessed of an evil spirit.

After the evil spirit is within them, they cause all sorts of mischief for unsuspecting people. Sometimes they take the form of older women by killing and eating her. They use that form to get close to people and harm them, then they disappear again as a cat.

Occasionally, they also eat babies or small children, though they don’t generally take their shapes afterward. Because cats are such bad luck, if someone actually manages to kill a cat, they will be cursed through their next seven lives.

O-iwa (FA 01 46)

Another curse is that of O-iwa, wife of a samurai. Her husband poisoned her while he was having an affair with another woman, permanently disfiguring her. She killed herself then, haunting the household of her husband and his mistress, causing many other deaths and much misfortune.

A play was written about this experience, but the ghost of O-iwa is not a very happy spirit. Without prayers offered at her shrine any formal mention of her will result in badness. To this day, artists, theatrical people, and writers are constantly visiting her shrine to appease her.

One man went to the shrine to photograph it, without leaving any offering, and all of his film came out blurry. He went a second time, prayed first, and took his photographs. Every shot came out clear.

The Slope of the Province of Ki (FA 01 46)

There is an old hill in Tokyo called Kinokunizaka, or “the Slope of the Province of Ki.” Before the time of streetlights, the hill was very lonely and dark at night.

One night, a man was hurrying up the hill very late in the evening when he saw a young woman weeping by a moat. Fearing she meant to drown herself, the man ran to her and offered his assistance in any capacity she could need. She was a beautiful woman, dressed as the daughter of a good family, and he was concerned that she should not be alone at night.

She stood as he implored her to allow his help in whatever matter was ailing her. He reached for her shoulder to really get her attention because she had not stopped crying, the whole time he had been talking to her. She finally turned to him, faceless.

The man screamed and ran away from the place, and didn’t stop running until he found a light. The light belonged to a soba-seller who wondered what all the noise was about. The man was nearly incoherent, but managed to convey that he had seen some horror. He was unable to articulate exactly what he had seen, but the soba-seller knew of what he spoke. He was even able to demonstrate.

Mujina (FA 01 46)

A mujina is a badger shape shifter, much like a fox spirit in that it likes to create mischief. Unlike a fox spirit, it mostly turns into the same thing, a faceless ghost. There is no apparent malice intended beyond a simple scare, but even thirty years after the last sighting, people still avoid walking Kinokunizaka at night.

American Japanese (FA 01 1021)

Ikebana (FA 01 1021)

Flower arranging is an important art in Japan. Women are trained in ikebana or living flower arrangement. Each arrangement is meant to have three elements, heaven, earth, and people. Rather than including a large variety of flowers, ikebana is minimalistic, and contains leaves and stems with few flowers.  Various forms of flora are arranged sparsely across a shallow dish, held in place by needlepoint. With the three elements, the arrangement often takes on the shape of a scalene triangle.

Gods of Good Luck (FA 01 1021)

It is customary for a proper Japanese home to house effigies of the seven gods of good luck.  Certain gods should always be paired together, but the fat, happy god of health and abundance should stand alone.

Sashiko (FA 01 1021)

Traditional Japanese needlework depicts images from nature, especially animals. Tiny, precise stitching is used to imitate the style of painting. Often, a painting is used to inspire an embroidery pattern.

The Villainous Philanthrope: A Survey of Kappa Lore in Ancient Japan (FA 01 1388)

The kappa is a small monster, approximately four feet tall. It has wiry, clawed arms and legs, covered alternately in scales or hair, depending on the teller of the legends.  The back of the kappa is like a snapping turtle, while its face has a more simian appearance. The most distinctive portion of the kappa is its head depression, which is filled with a liquid that gives it a supernatural strength. The depression is circled about by straight black hair.

Legend puts the origin of the kappas at the blame of many different historical figures. One story tells of a master carpenter who built puppets to help him finish his project in time. After he finished, he sent the puppets away, but they wanted him to find them new work, food, clothing, and wives. He took offense to their demands and smashed their heads in with an iron hammer, sending them to live in the river and feed off people.

Other stories blame the Chinese or the Russians for kappa, or even Shinto water goddesses. Wherever they come from though, the stories of kappa are always malevolent. Because of their awesome strength, kappas are meant to be excellent wrestlers. Though there are still stories of people being challenged to wrestling matches as they pass kappa infested rivers, most are unsubstantiated. Something like a match must have happened though, because there are books with herbal remedies for kappa-madness as late as the nineteenth century. They say that those who win a fight against a kappa can go crazy, while those who lose may lose their lives. The best result against a kappa is a tie.

Most kappa stories are not about wrestling or testing strength. Kappas live in the water, so most deaths attributed to them are drownings. One such story regards Lord Kato Kiyomasa, whose horses and servants were continually being drowned by kappa. He made a vow to annihilate all kappas. He enlisted monkeys to help him and he dammed the rivers, cutting off escape routes. His servants made huge bonfires and used them to heat rocks. Throwing the red-hot rocks into the dammed up rivers, they created an unbearable heat that weakened and forced the kappa from their homes. As the kappas left the water, the monkey army lied in wait to slaughter them. The leader of the kappa begged a priest to allow them another chance, and promised they’d never hurt another person if he would allow them to live. An agreement was reached, and the kappas were allowed to return to the river. To this day, monkeys watch over the rivers to make sure the kappas keep their end of the bargain.

It seems a bit silly that anyone would come close enough to a kappa to be drowned, considering that they are so distinctive looking. Some kappas drown by trickery. They can shape shift into human forms, though they are distinguishable by their vertical striped kimonos and, like all monsters, kappas do not have shadows. They stand on bridges, calling to people passing by. When someone gets close to them, they grab them and dive into the river.

The secret to defeating kappas lies in their excessive politeness. A kappa will always keep its word, so forcing it to sign a contract will prohibit it from ever harming anyone again. If there is no way to defeat the kappa and force it to sign a contract, it can be weakened by spilling the magical liquid in its head depression. A person who happens upon a kappa may treat it as an old friend, bowing and nodding frequently while discussing polite things like the weather. The kappa is competitively polite and will match each bow and nod with one of its own, spilling a little bit of the magic liquid each time, until it has too little to be a threat, and the person may run away.

Sometimes, through its own stupidity, a kappa might even be kind. After cutting off the arm of a kappa that was living in his outhouse, one man was able to make a contract with the kappa in exchange for his arm back. The kappa offered to make the man an unguent which could heal any wound without a scar.

Occasionally, instead of eating prey itself, some kappa will attempt to send their prey to a friend. To do this, a few have written a letter to another kappa in a nearby pond, and asked the unwitting prey to deliver it. This has been largely unsuccessful, because some prey are smarter than they appear. One such man added to the letter he was to deliver to the kappa’s friend. His addition instructed the kappa to give him a gift before eating him, and after receiving his gift, he left.

Some towns have kappa festivals, where they shoot off fireworks and leave fish and vegetables in the river to appease the homicidal residents. Other towns have little boys dressed in green with kappa masks, running around with small, shoulder-mounted shrines, allowing the people of the towns to offer up pictures, ornamental paper, and vegetables.

A Collection of Customs and Traditions Her Family Brought From Japan to America (FA 01 1535)

In the early twentieth century, it was a custom for poor young men to come to America alone to make their fortune. When a young man had enough money saved for a wife, his parents and relatives in japan would seek an appropriate bride for him. Pictures of the young man and the young woman would be sent to each other. If both found each other agreeable, the young lady would cross the ocean to become a ‘picture bride’ to a young man she had never met.


Last Modified: January 15, 2014

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