Bibliotheca August: Spooky Summer!

August 2022: How to Dress a Ghost


Maruyama Ōkyo’s
 The Ghost of Oyuki circa 1750.

Welcome back to Mukashi no Sewing! Or, if you’re here for the first time from the Bay Area Kei Bibliotheca blog circle – then just plain welcome! ❤ This month’s theme for the Bibliotheca bloggers was actually suggested by me – “spooky summer.” Now, if you live in the United States, you probably associate spookiness more with October – autumn leaves, chilly nights, headless horsemen… Maybe if you’re a Traditional Witch or a fan of H.P. Lovecraft you might aim for Walpurgisnacht at the end of April, or Beltane at the beginning of May for some spooky revels! But if you lived in Japan in the Edo period, you were much more likely to think of summer as the best time for spooky stories.

Do not stay the night in this house! Image by Hokusai circa 1790, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This tradition is known as Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会), which literally means “A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales.” Kaidan (怪談), or “bewitching tales,” would be told over the course of a summer night. With each story, one of a hundred lanterns would be extinguished, eventually leaving the group of storytellers in haunting darkness. It was played in the summer for many reasons – one of which is that Japan’s festival of the returning dead, Obon, is a summer event (it’s very similar to Halloween or Samhain in the West), and another is that the shivering from hearing the scary stories was considered a way to cool down in the oppressive Japanese summer heat! It was also a way for samurai to show off their bravery – although reportedly many groups who played this parlor game stopped at the 99th story to avoid actually summoning the ghosts they’d been speaking of.

Pictured: lanterns, but probably not ghost-summoning ones. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But if you’re here at Mukashi no Sewing, you’re here for fashion – so just how did Edo-period ghosts dress?

I recently finished a tremendous book called The Catalpa Bow, by Carmen Blacker, and the author was able to interview many mediums and shamans in the 1950s-70s regarding their practices. She reported that, “Mrs. Hiroshima…declared that to her dead spirits differed in the form they manifested according to their kurai or rank. The higher they advanced, and the nearer they drew towards salvation, the more they tended to resemble shining balls. Miss Ishida [on the other hand] told me in 1972 that to her they usually appeared in the likeness of the person they had been while alive, though frequently they wore an archaic form of dress of pale green or white.”

Yurei (ghost) in a graveyard; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

White is the color of purity, and “…in Buddhism, death is not the ending but just the beginning of another cycle. Appropriately, Japanese Buddhist dressed corpses as pilgrims going on their final journey, called the shidenotabi (死出の旅) meaning ‘the final trip to death.’ The full costume for a corpse is called shinishozoku (死に装束),which means roughly ‘the costume for one going to death.'” (Hyakumonogatari.com) The kimono is crossed right over left for the dead, which is why you’ll see ghosts dressed this way. Western ghosts are often depicted wearing sheets because that’s what they were buried in (as coffins were not readily available for the masses until comparatively recently) – so Japanese ghosts also appear in the garments their former body was dressed in.

Japanese ghosts traditionally don’t have feet, so they don’t get to wear special shoes! But their faces in Noh and Kabuki theater are often depicted with wide eyes and markings showing that they are supernatural in nature. Their hair is often long and disheveled, and their hands may hang limply at the wrists similar to Chinese jiāngshī. However, their appearance is strongly dependent on where and how they died, and the state of their emotions at death.

“Funayūrei” from the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari by Takehara Shunsen. Ship ghosts just wanna have fun!

Just like in the West, many Japanese ghosts can be appeased or released by helping them with an unfinished duty from life, or banished with the assistance of a priest (both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have historically had rites for this function). No matter the era or country, it’s a common human belief that something of us persists after death, and that those who die angry or before their time may rise up to haunt the living. We all wish to know that our loved ones have passed in peace, and that even if that’s not the case that there is hope for redemption after death. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief overview of ghosts and their fashion sense (or lack thereof!) in the Edo period, and I look forward to seeing you back here next week on Mukashi no Sewing! ❤

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