May 31, 2024

Haunting Tales: Japanese Spirits and Yokai with Thersa Matsuura

Haunting Tales: Japanese Spirits and Yokai with Thersa Matsuura

Join author and host Thersa Matsuura on a fascinating journey into the world of Japanese spirits, monsters, and yokai. This episode delves into how these supernatural beings are deeply embedded in Japanese culture, art, and storytelling. Discover the eerie yet captivating tales that have inspired countless sculptures, paintings, and modern media. Thersa will also explore intriguing similarities and differences between Japanese and Western supernatural traditions. Tune in for an enlightening discussion that bridges cultural divides and brings ancient myths to life. Perfect for enthusiasts of folklore, art, and the mysterious realms of the supernatural.

My Special Guest Is Thersa Matsuura

After a childhood living all over the U.S. — as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Jacksonville, Florida, Thersa Matsuura settled down in the far, far east.

She’s now an American expat who has lived over half her life in a fishing town in Japan. Her fluency in Japanese allows her to do research into parts of the culture – legends, folktales, and superstitions – that are little known to western audiences. A lot of what she digs up informs her short stories or becomes fodder for her podcast: Uncanny Japan.

Thersa is a graduate of Clarion West (2015), a recipient of HWA’s Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship, and the author of two collections, A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories (Counterpoint LLC, 2009) and The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales (Independent Regions Publishing, 2017). The latter was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® (2017). She’s had stories published in various magazines, anthologies and serialised in the Asahi English Newspaper. Her most recent book is The Book of Japanese Folklore: An Encyclopedia of the Spirits, Monsters, and Yokai of Japanese Myth (Spring, 2024; Adams Media).

In this episode, you will be able to:

1. Explore concepts of Japanese Spirits, Monsters and Yokai.

2. Explore how embedded supernatural belief and spirits exist in Japanese culture, art, ritual and life.

3. Discover examples of Japanese spirits and how these can be similar and different to examples in the West.

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Michelle: Welcome to Haunted History Chronicles, the podcast where we unravel the mysteries of the past one ghostly tale at a time. I'm your host, Michelle, and I'm thrilled to be your guide on this eerie journey through the pages of history. Picture this a realm where the supernatural intertwines with the annals of time, where the echoes of the past reverberate through haunted corridors and forgotten landscapes. That's the realm we invite you to explore with us. Each episode will unearth stories, long buried secrets, dark folklore, tales of the macabre, and discuss parapsychology topics from ancient legends to more recent enigmas. We're delving deep into locations and accounts all around the globe, with guests joining me along the way. But this podcast is also about building a community of curious minds like you. Join the podcast on social media, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share your own ghostly encounters, theories, and historical curiosities. Feel free to share with friends and family. The links are conveniently placed in the description for easy access. So whether you're a history buff with a taste for the supernatural or a paranormal enthusiast with a thirst for knowledge, haunted history chronicles is your passport to the other side. Get ready for a ride through the corridors of time where history and the supernatural converge, because every ghost has a story, and every story has a history. And now let's introduce today's podcast or guest.

Michelle: Welcome to another episode of Haunted History Chronicles, where we journey into the shadows of folklore and myth to uncover the mysteries that lurk within. Today, we're venturing into the heart of japanese folklore, guided by an expert in the field. Joining me is Teresa Matsura, the captivating host behind the podcast uncanny Japan and.

Michelle: The author of the book of Japanese.

Michelle: Folklore, an encyclopedia of the spirit, spirits, monsters, and Yokai japanese myth. With her profound knowledge and immersive storytelling, Theresa leads us through the labyrinthine realms of spirits, ghosts, and mythical creatures that populate the rich tapestry of japanese culture. Together, well unravel the threads of japanese folklore, exploring its haunting accounts and deeply rooted beliefs in the ghostly and the otherworldly. From ancient traditions and art to sculptures and rituals, well delve into how these spectral entities manifest in the diverse facets of japanese life.

Michelle: But it's not just the ghosts of.

Michelle: The departed that haunt these tales. In japanese folklore, the line between the living and the dead blurs as jealousy and rage can birth malevolent spirits seeking vengeance from beyond the grave. Teresa guides us through well known and infamous folk tales of japanese history, from the mischievous antics of yokai to the solemn guardians of the afterlife well uncover the connections between mythical creatures and the mysteries of death. But amidst the darkness, there is also light. In japanese lore, not all spirits are malevolent. Some are benevolent, offering guidance and protection to those in need. Will encounter mysterious phenomena akin to the western will o'the, wisp illuminating the path with ghostly flames and sparking wonder and fear in equal measure. So gather close and brace yourselves for a journey into the unknown. For in the shadows of japanese folklore, the spirits of the past whisper their secrets, waiting to be discovered. Thank you so much for joining me this evening.

Thersa Matsuura: Thank you so much for having me.

Michelle: Do you want to start by just introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about yourself and your background with the people listening to the podcast?

Thersa Matsuura: My name is Theresa Matsura, and I am an American who came to Japan first in 1990. So I came as an exchange student and studied for two years. And after the two year mark, I kind of was faced with the decision, do I go back home and really didn't know what to do with my life? Or do I stay in Japan and kind of don't know what I want to do with my life? I was a senior in university and I was trying to figure things out, really loved the language, really loved the culture, and decided to stay on. So I have been here ever since I moved from a city. It wasn't a huge city, but it was an okay sized city to kind of rural fishing town, and got married. And that's what kind of opened me up more into like the superstitions and the folklore and all the history and how things were done much differently than even I thought it had been when I first came to Japan.

Michelle: Well, I can't wait to kind of dive into some of that with you, especially on the back of the book that you've written. And, you know, you've published several books, including recently the Book of Japanese Folklore, an encyclopedia of the spirits, monsters and Yoki. Am I saying that right?

Thersa Matsuura: Yokai, yes, Yokai.

Michelle: So the Yokai, a japanese myth. What can you kind of share with people in terms of what they can expect from that book? And what inspired you to want to share those stories?

Thersa Matsuura: Really, what inspired me was funny is I consider myself a fiction writer. Not, I'm not an academic or a scholar or anything, although I do. For 30 years, I've been studying this and researching and writing about all these creatures and these stories. And I was approached by an acquisitions editor from Adams Media, and she asked if I'd like to pitch the idea. And I thought about it, and I'm like, well, there are a bunch of Yokai books out there, and do I have something different to offer? So I really, like, just spent a day thinking about what could I do differently? And I came up with, you know what? I just love these so much. And I can do. I can make it more. Since I can read Japanese and all that, I can. Maybe I could bring in some new stuff people haven't read before and also add some Japanese because there's a lot of language learners out there and that would help them, too. So I kind of got my own take on it, and I said, yes, I would like to pitch that idea. And that's where it came from. That's how that happened. And, yeah, I was very, very excited to do that. The book itself is. It's 45 chapters, and each chapter covers at least one creature or historical, mythical person kind of thing. They're usually, like heroes. And so there's 45 chapters in each chapter. We'll have, like, kind of a brief overview. What is it called? What does it look like? What does it do? Then there's some background and a popular story, or sometimes it's more of an obscure story. Like, I kind of went for the stories I liked best about this one entity. And so then there's the story with it, and then there's a little bit of back modern stories, like, where you can find these things. Now, a lot of these historical creatures, Youkai are in games and anime and movies and everything. They're just everywhere. So just a very brief. You can find it here, here, here. And then on some of them, there's a now, you know, section which is. Didn't fit in anywhere else, but it was kind of a neat trivia that I really, really enjoyed about whatever it was, and added that. And then there's the artwork. I think there's 35 original pieces of art. So you can kind of go along and look at it and say, oh, that's what it looks like. And, yeah, so that's the whole book. And in the back, there's a bunch of sources and stuff. You can go and read more books if you want, about them.

Michelle: I thought it was incredible. Just an incredibly immersive section each time. So each chapter that you came to, just this wonderful experience whereby you didn't just get the story, but you did get the artwork, as you mentioned. And then on top of that, you could see those crossovers and connections with modern culture, but at the same time, you were giving that historical nod. So you were referencing pieces of art, how it's appeared in other types of stories. So for someone who also loves history, I found myself going away and trying to find that piece of artwork and, you know, trying to find those reference points that you mentioned or if there was a particular ritual or culture, you know, cultural ritual, trying to find out more about that, because I just found it so incredible that you made those. Those points and those reference points that that's really helped to enrich each chapter and bring it alive.

Thersa Matsuura: Oh, that's wonderful. Yeah, it was funny because we had to cut, like, 10,020. I mean, it was so huge. Cause there was so much to put in each one. And I really just tried to, like, make it packed, like, each chapter as packed as possible because there's just so much to say. And again, you know, a lot got cut, too. But I was hoping people would do that, would find, like, jumping off points and say, wait a minute, what does that look like? That sounds really weird. Go find it. Or, you know, places on the map, too. Temples are mentioned in there, which give a nice atmosphere to some of these. Some are like statues in this one temple or something. So, yeah, thank you. I was really hoping people would do.

Michelle: That, but I think you just mentioned exactly what I was going to say next.

Michelle: It's this.

Michelle: You know, you really do help to capture some of that atmosphere. How rich this is and how embedded this is in the culture and how you can really see how this has been something that has been part of the culture for so long and how it's filtered out into ritual and sculpture and art and storytelling and just so many aspects of life. And, you know, I wonder if you could try and, you know, go into that in a little bit more detail to give people a flavor as to just how extensive the folklore around ghosts and the belief in the supernatural and the otherworldly Israeli for you, do you think?

Thersa Matsuura: I personally think that Japan is. I've heard other places claim this as their own, and maybe it's true, but it is the most ghostly country place in the world or I've ever been to because the stories are everywhere. Like, everyone has a ghost story. And what I really love about the ghosts here, too, is it's not, there's no stigma attached. It's not like, oh, well, that person believes in ghost. Ha ha. It's like, yeah, of course you have a ghost story. Yeah, of course your dead cousin came back and did something right. It's just, we say a tarima in Japanese, but it's just like, it's just the way it is. And no one questions it. And even now in everyday living, you'll find if you're looking, lots of, I won't say references to ghosts, but lots of our spirits. For example, if you go to a funeral in Japan, you will always be given a small packet of salt. At the end of the funeral. It'll be part of something that you're given, like an envelope or something. And that is so that when you go back, before you go into your home again, you open it and you put it on your shoulders. You sprinkle it on your shoulders. You can, you know, if you're a family, you take everyone, sprinkles it on each other's shoulders, and that's to get rid of any clinging ghosts from the crematorium or the funeral. And just something like that. It's done. And no one. It's just done. You'll find piles, like little cones of salt sometimes in certain restaurants or businesses or outside gates. And that's also like a purification thing to keep, you know, bad spirits away and to make the area clean. I was telling a story a while ago about, I guess I'd been in Japan a couple years. I was married, and in the summer, there is a festival called Obon, and it's kind of a festival for the dead. And it's the time of year when all the ancestors come back. And it's like three days, usually depends on where you are in Japan. But three days, middle of August, all the ancestors come back and they visit the family shrine. They hang out with the family, and then they go back. And it's a big, depending on the family, huge. It could be a huge ritual, the welcoming them, the hanging out with them, and then the sending them back. And personally, my story was that, yes, I've been married a couple years. We had my mother in law and then her mother, and we went over to the great grandmother's house, and we're sitting around, and I'd been there many, many times. She had an old grandfather clock that didn't work, and I thought, you know, oh, you know, you should fix that. But she loved it. She didn't want to fix it. That's fine. But this one time I went back, it was actually working, and it was obon. And I said, oh, he fixed the clock. It's so lovely. And she's like, no, no, no, that's grandpa. And I said, oh, grandpa. And she's like, oh, yeah, yeah. When he comes back every year, the clock starts working or something weird happens, and it's usually the clock. And I'm taken aback. And this. Whoa. And everyone else is like, yeah, yeah, yeah, that happens. And I was like, okay, I was gonna investigate the clock or anything, but no, it's just lovely. And how intertwined, I often say this side, our hard reality and an other side or the spirit world or something, is very. The line that divides them is very blurred, I think, here.

Michelle: I just love some of the symbolism of it all. And one of the stories that I just found so fascinating that I think, highlights some of this. And again, also, it really points out, I think, just how enriching each chapter and section was for the other nods. And the reference points that. That you brought in was the story about how the belief around haunted objects and the fact that if you throw away and cast out your objects and just leave them as rubbish, the object itself can become a spirit that it feels that maligned nature because it's been cast out. And then drawing in that ritual, the kind of the giving away, the. The handing over of these objects to try and prevent objects coming back and haunting, I just found that so fascinating. And that was one of those ones where I just had to go, go away and try and find out more about that myself. Because, again, there's just so much symbolism to an account like that to show just how very much part of everyday life and experience and thought patterns this clearly is in comparison maybe to the west. Just absolutely fascinating. The symbolism, the richness of just that one account alone, for me, just, I think, really highlights just how everyday this is. How ordinary this is in many ways.

Thersa Matsuura: Yes, that one. Yeah. Even today, we have every neighborhood. There's neighborhoods and you have a. It's called the Kaidanban, and it's kind of this message board that comes around and it says, you know, something about some message with the neighbor. You know, the garbage day is changing or something. And invariably we'll get one. It's called Harikuyo, and it's the needles or the pins that women use for sewing. And you don't just throw them away. You have to, because the women, and this is the one I think I mentioned in the book was, you know, it's lovingly. You use these needles and for how many years? Years and years and years, and then one breaks or bends or something, and then you have to get rid of it. So there's this ritual and the whole neighborhood, you know, if you have any, you go to a certain temple or a shrine, and there you bring your broken tools, whatever they are, usually needles and pins, and you stick it in a block of tofu. Usually in our area, it was tofu. I heard there's other things, too, and the priest prays over it and over the spirits and kind of thank you. We appreciate, you know, your long service. And they're disposed of properly, and there's lots of examples like that here that they are. They're very sweet, and I just love the attention and the care. I had one with my mother in law, again, my mother in law, we were sitting around drinking tea or something, and there was, like, a placemat, but it was homemade. It was very, very, very old, and I had moved it a certain way, or. I don't know, I did something, and she told me. She kind of said, you have to be careful because, you know, that's over 100 years old, and it's already got a spirit, and you have to take care of it. So, you know, thank it and, you know, apologize for if I spilled something on it or something. And I think that was the first time I ever heard about this whole idea of reaching 100 years old and gaining a spirit. So, yeah, even today, you can find that way of thinking. I just love it.

Michelle: It's just magical. And I think, again, it's that. It's that element that just sets it apart that really just shows how ingrained this is in culture. You know, having been to Japan many, many, many years ago when I was much younger, you know, even I can remember from that very small, young, tender age the statues of various mythical monsters and creatures. And they could be really tiny and small in just out of the way kind of places that you wouldn't expect, but the significance of them and people just telling you about them. And, again, it's just. I think it's just woven into so many parts of the everyday experience that just makes it magical, makes it a little bit different.

Thersa Matsuura: Yes, yes. Living closer to nature and living closer to, like, the ancestors. And it just feels. I don't even know how to say it, but, yeah, just closer to life. Cause when I go back home, everything's just this high keening. You know, everyone's on their. I mean, everyone's on the phone here, too, but it's. There's a big separation from maybe life and death. I don't know. But here it kind of calms me, actually. And magical is a great word to describe it, too.

Michelle: So something that I think, for me is particularly intriguing are those cultural depictions of ghosts and manifestations and how they can be similar or different across cultures. In japanese folklore, for example, again, one of the stories that really intrigued me was the story of the woman whose feet you don't see. And that's, isn't it, that ghosts can be represented without their feet. But, you know, it's fascinating to have those depictions and to see the similarities and the differences. And, you know, another one was the idea of that when a person themselves can be so enraged or jealous that actually they can physically release a spirit. So almost a living spirit, as opposed to our notion of a spirit as being someone who has crossed over, who has passed away. You know, those are just some of the differences that I. That I kind of picked out reading the book. And I don't know if you want to go into some of that in terms of what you think are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of representations and understandings of ghosts that come through or manifest, that come through in japanese folklore and stories to help people understand just how, again, how magical they can be, but also the connections that we can have with maybe stories in the west and likewise, some of those key differences.

Thersa Matsuura: So the no feet thing is kind of like the number one in Japan. It's like if you see something weird or someone strange at night, usually under, like, a willow tree or something, you look for the feet. If there's no feet, that would be a ghost in art, and I think probably in games and manga and anime, too, you'll often find the ghost in Japan represented in all white, in a white kimono. And that would be the old fashioned burial kimono. Now they don't do it so much, but back in the day, it was always a white kimono, and there's, like a white triangle on the forehead. So that's another, like, queue in if you're looking at art or anything. But a lot of times, the spurned or jealous or some kind of female ghost who has died a very emotional, horrible. Usually death will come back as the onyo, which would be the vengeful ghost. And that's in the ring. And juon, like japanese J horror has those because they're so powerful. And the emotion can be. It could be anger or, you know, jealousy or rage or it could be love or anything. So any kind of strong emotion, if someone dies, and even now, again, if anyone dies from a strong emotion, then the possibility of them coming back as an onyo or a vengeful ghost is high, and they'll usually do something called oharae, and it's kind of an example, and you kind of calm down the ghost. So always, always, if you find suddenly, and they probably do it in the west, too. But bouquets of flowers at any place there's been an accident, especially car accidents, or if there's ever been. Yeah, like a fire, anything. Whether someone has passed away. And it was a tragic passing, you'll find that for sometimes years and years and years, there will be flowers put out and refreshed, like, all the time. Because to appease the ghost and not to have him come back as an onyo, there's one thing here, and I think you might have mentioned it, which I thought was interesting, is called. Sounds similar. Ikiryo and iki means to live, and it means the living ghost. So a person can be alive, actually, and not so much a ghost, but a spirit. And if they have a charged emotion, it's usually jealousy towards somebody that their spirit can actually go and harm that person. And the first time I learned about this was I was. I learned. I learned I was pregnant. I hadn't. I couldn't get pregnant for a while. And then I learned I was pregnant. I was so excited. And I told my mother in law, and she said, don't tell anybody. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I want to tell everybody. This is great. And she's like, no, no, no, you can't. And she made me wait for, like, middle of the second trimester or something. Like I was starting to show. And she's like, okay, now you can tell people because she said that if anyone is jealous and, like, maybe they want to have children and they can't, or maybe for some reason, they're jealous of you. And, you know, you don't know it because everyone's so polite and nice that even if they don't know it, that. That jealousy can actually come out and hurt you or the baby. So she was extremely superstitious and had these kind of old wives tales that she believed. And she was always telling me stories of that, of people who were bragged. Cause Japanese are very humble, right? So people who have bragged or kind of just been full of themselves and had something bad happen. And the bad thing that happened was usually because Ikiryo or one of these living spirits came and hurt the person for, you know, for showing off.

Michelle: It's fascinating. I mean, like I said, I just think it's so interesting to be able to dive into some of those. And I think when you start to understand some of the story and the folklore and the, you know, the cultural representations of these things, you then you then do start to see how it crosses over into popular film, popular kind of media representations of it. And again, you start to understand why that then is something that you see represented in those types of films, etcetera. And that's not something I was necessarily aware of until actually I'd read your book. You know, having having watched those types of films before, you kind of had that sense of that type of character creation in telling those haunting ghost stories. But actually to understand that it goes much deeper than that, and actually it's there as part of the rich storytelling, as part of the rich folklore and the belief systems. To make that connection was really quite fascinating to me. To understand it further, if you've been.

Michelle: Enraptured by the chilling tales and in enigmas unveiled throughout our podcast spectral journey, now's your chance to become an integral part of our ghostly congregation. You see, as we delve deeper into.

Michelle: The mysteries of the past, we need.

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Michelle: Are there any well known or famous or infamous folklore folklore about ghosts in japanese history?

Thersa Matsuura: There are three. They're called the Sandai Kaidan. But these three female ghosts that I absolutely adore, and they, their stories have been told and retold in art, of course, in just regular folklore and storytelling. In N. Kabuki plays music just everywhere. And one of them is called, there's Otsuyu, which is, she's a ghost who kind of has a romantic relationship with a man, and he ends up passing away. There's one called Oiwa, who was married, and her husband kind of found somebody else and she got poisoned, and she came back for revenge. Well, hers is a revenge story. Otsu is the first one. Isn't revenge so much as just a guy kind of getting caught up? So the revenge stories owe was very, very popular here. And then Okiku would be, okiku of the nine plates is another. Like a maid in a castle. A samurai said, would you be my lover? And she said, no. And he kept, you know, approaching her and, no, no, no. And then she was taking care of some plates. She had nine plates. She had to, they're very expensive, and she had to count them and get them ready for some banquet or something. And he took one, and he either broke it or he hid it, because there's so many different versions. They're quite wonderful stories because there's so many different versions, and they're all really, really good. But anyway, one plate disappears, and he says, I'll, you know, tell you where the plate is if you become my lover. And she's like, nope, sorry. And he ends up throwing her down a well and killing her. And her ghost comes back at night and walks the halls, and she counts the plates and one. And when she gets to nine, she screams because she can't find ten. And that castle is Himeji Castle. It's still here. And the well is actually still there. It's kind of fenced off, so you can't get into it. But they say that even now, some people can actually hear her counting at night and stuff. So those three are just. They're just brilliant. They're wonderful, and they're still being retold, which I think is pretty cool in.

Michelle: The book, obviously, we've got lots of mythical creatures and yokai. Do any of them have any particular connection with death or with the afterlife?

Thersa Matsuura: There are some that, at first, people probably don't think they are. Yuki onna is the snow maiden or the snow woman, and she, because she's all white and she's everything. White kimono. Again, the white kimono would signify death, and she was probably someone who died in the snow, but she comes back, and she sweeps people away and freezes them to death. So she would be a ghost. The doro tabo is a mudfield monk or a mudfield spirit or ghost, and he's just. This lives in rice fields. He's kind of made of muck and everything. And he's also kind of the spirit or the ghost of an old farmer who wants his rice fields back because his children sold them. Umibozu, the ocean. So lots of sea or water related ghosts. And there's. Umibozu is like a giant thing that comes up, but it's also probably like, people who have died at sea. There are ghosts that come and use, like, a ladle and fill your boat with water to sink you. Those are also ghosts. And whenever you see pictures of those, they'll have the white kimonos and this triangle on their forehead, too. And I think another would be Zashiki, whereas she was probably. They're good ghosts. They're like children, and they visit you at night, and they kind of play around and giggle and walk on you and stuff. But they're just like little children, but they're also. The original story was the ghost of a little boy. So, yeah, also, people just think of it as a yokai, but originally a ghost or a spirit.

Michelle: We obviously tend to think of ghosts or spirits as malevolent. Are there any in japanese folklore that are particularly helpful or kind?

Thersa Matsuura: That would be. I just mentioned that zashiki wa rashi would probably be the kindest. I had a story. I have a story again when I first got married, and we moved into a new house, and I was quite close with my mother in law. She used to come and go all the time. And one night I had a dream, or I was woken up, and it felt like someone was stepping on me. And I told her because it was very uncomfortable, and I was kind of scared. And she's like, oh, no, no, that's good. That's a zashiki wadashi. So like I just said, the children, children's spirits, and she said, if your house, then, you know, the new house has one, that's really, really good luck. So the Zashiki Arashi, if they visit you, something good is supposed to happen. It could be monetary, it could be, you know, finding your perfect partner or something good is supposed to happen to you. Even though I didn't feel that it was a very good thing, those would probably be considered the, the luckiest ones. And people actually find hotels or inns where they're rumored to be and will, like, you know, book way in advance just so they can go. And hopefully, you know, if they're down on their luck or something, they'll hopefully have one come into their room at night and they'll bring dolls and candy and stuff and put it out to lure or to tempt them to come. And then, you know, if something happens, if something moves or there's a footprint on the floor, they're woken up by giggling. Then they're like, oh, Dezashiki Wadashi came, and something good will happen to me. So that's still a thing, too, even today.

Michelle: And again, comes back to what we were saying earlier about there's something very ritualistic about it, that the offerings that can be given to try and entice them to come out, these to come out just, again, just wonderful. I mean, it's, again, just very immersive, isn't it?

Thersa Matsuura: Yes. Yes. And the offerings is just such, such a big thing here. It's done all the time. Yes.

Michelle: And likewise with reference to what you were saying earlier about, you know, placing bouquets of flowers, for example, at places where there's been death, again, just to appease as part of some of that ritualistic aspect, you just see little nods to it in so many different. In so many different ways, which, again, is just, it's beautiful. And there's something very magical and spiritual and connective about the whole process.

Thersa Matsuura: My great, so my mother in law and the great grandmother, if I'm not sure so much. I live kind of in an older place, and there's a lot of elderly around here, but I love visiting them because invariably they'll have one of the family altars. It's a but Sudan. It's called a butsudan. It's a family altar. And that is where this ancestor spirits reside again. In Au Bon in the summer. They actually come back, but some believe that they're there all the time. And I really loved my great, the great grandmother would. She would talk to her husband, who passed away, if anyone ever gave her, came and said, oh, I got some oranges or I got some cakes or something. She would first put them on the butsudam, put them on the altar and say, know, grandpa, take what you want. And he would, she told me, take out the essence of whatever, the fruit or whatever. And then after a couple hours, she'd take it, and then she'd, you know, divide it up between us or whatever. So always this, like you said, like, nod, like always this. Always this appreciation and recognizing of the spirits or the ancestors. You see it all the time, and I just love it. I just really like it.

Michelle: So something that you've already kind of touched upon briefly is this idea of the, you know, the vengeful spirit. Do you want to just explain that concept a little bit further?

Thersa Matsuura: There's different kinds of vengeful spirits, and they can either be, like I mentioned, like, if you're alive and you have some kind of jealousy or something, and then your spirit can go. There's also, at the moment of death, having that overwhelming emotion and then passing away, and that whatever that emotion or that energy just goes out. And it can be directed towards someone. Sometimes it's direct or just area. This is where you find in Japan almost every tunnel or bridge, graveyard, of course, lonely bus stop. If something has happened there, that energy or that ghost or that spirit or that bad presence will be there.

Michelle: Are there particular ritual kind of offerings that are made for vengeful spirits? You know, is there similar types of custom built into this aspect of the storytelling as well?

Thersa Matsuura: Yes, there is. It's called oharai. So it's kind of a cleansing or an exorcism. These two are done very frequently. If I had one actually done to me, my mother in law was convinced that I. People are considered. You can see ghosts or you're. Or you can't. Everyone believes there are, but you can see them or you can't. Some people are more sticky than others. My mother in law was convinced that I was sticky and that spirits liked me and liked to attach to me, and that could be good or bad. So if they're bad, that's not good. So she was worried that I had some kind of onyo or bad, maybe ikido can't really tell, but something kind of bad spirit or ghost on me and. Yeah, went to a priest, a shinto priest, and had a ceremony also. One came to the house once, and we did a ceremony at the house to cleanse the house. These kinds of things are, I'm thinking about back home. Like, I don't ever remember anything like that ever being done, really. But here, if you're gonna start a new job or you're gonna. If people get new cars, get a new, again, a new house, anything new, you're going to do a new venture, you'll. A lot of times people will go to the shrine, the shinto shrine, and have some kind of cleansing to just like, yeah, just shun to get rid of all those. Any bad spurs might be hanging around. So that whatever you do, if it's, you know, if you have a new car, you don't want any accidents. Make all the bad spirits go away. If you're going to start a new job and a new prefecture, you know, just cleanse yourself so that when you go, everything's going to be fine. If you go to a shrine, oftentimes you'll find, like, people, you know, lined up to get these things done. So that, too, is. It's very, very interesting. Different.

Michelle: Kind of reminds me of the, kind of the symbolic ritual of sweeping out bad energy. So, you know, that time of the year where the idea is that you take your sweeping brush and you brush whatever may be lingering in your home that has that bad energy or that bad spirit or just things that have happened negatively throughout the course of the previous year. You know, you sweep it out, you start afresh. And it kind of reminds me a little bit of that. It's that ritual cleansing that trying to start anew, to start positively again in some manner. And there's that aspect then that helps to bring about that change. I mean, again, it's just fascinating to see where there are similarities and differences across cultures and how they manifest in terms of what people do. And the significance that people still place on those things is fascinating to me.

Thersa Matsuura: And I think that's because Japan's old, and when I lived in the states, you know, it's not a long history. So living here and seeing these just, yeah, traditions hundreds and hundreds of years old that are still being followed just gave me a really deep respect for the culture and the way things are done. It was hard at first getting used to it, like, because I was doing so many things wrong. But then when I kind of got, you know, studied more and like, okay, this is why this is done. It just became totally fascinating. And even now, I just enjoy learning more and more about it.

Michelle: Obviously, in western culture, we have things like the will o the wisp, you know, the ghostly flames seen at night and thought to be mischievous spirits or supernatural fires, etcetera. Is there anything similar in japanese culture?

Thersa Matsuura: We do. We have. It's called a hito dhamma, or it could be called an onibi or a kitsunebi. So a hito dama would be like a person's soul. Onibi. Oni is the ogre. So, like, ogre fire and kitsunebi would be fox fire. And they're very similar. A little bit different. There's overlapping things. It depends on where it is in Japan and what time of, you know, in history. But in general. Yes, exactly. There are these little ghostly orbs. They can burn blue or orange or red or yellow or white. And you find them either in graveyards. You can find them forests. Some are said to actually have the face of the person who passed away. Depends on what. There's a lot of overlap in what the different ones mean. But, yeah, you still hear people talking about seeing a kitsune bee or a foxfire at night or something. So I thought that was. That was actually interesting to me when I first learned about them because I was thinking about the will o wisps, and I was like, oh, my gosh, it's the same thing. And, yeah, totally different culture.

Michelle: Yeah, and totally different names all across the globe for them, which is, again, just a fascinating, fascinating kind of study in itself. Just to realize that around every culture, around every part of the globe, there are similar stories to try and explore, explain this particular phenomena. And the attribution that people have attached to them being spirits, whether they are spirits that are helping people, you know, in mines or in marshes or in forests or friendly ghosts and spirits in cemeteries. You know, there's just so many different accounts of them. Being likened to those types of manifestations, again, is just fascinating. To kind of see that thread across every part of the world is just amazing to me.

Thersa Matsuura: Yes. Yes, me too. I love that. I always say if I had another life to live, I would start much, much earlier, and I would do that. I'd be Joseph Campbell again. I'd just go through and just study all the different cultures and just line all this up and see the overlaps and the similarities, and it's very fascinating.

Michelle: Well, I think it's so fascinating because I think oftentimes we see the differences before we see the similarities. But actually, there are some threads that really do bring that unity across cultures. And the belief around the afterlife and death and what happens to us in death is one of those unifying bonds, those unifying threads that I do think unites us in terms of. In every part of the world, we have these types of stories that date back a millennia that really show that connection with the spirit world, spirituality, and these very deep questions. And then to see them and how they play into different cultures and how they have been understood and passed down through previous centuries again, is just a fascinating study. And I just think it's brilliant when you can start to make those types of connections, because not only does it connect us to our past, but I do think it connects us to each other around the world. That this is a question and something that intrigues us all, no matter where we are in the world. So do you have a particular favorite japanese mythical creature or ghost story?

Thersa Matsuura: It's funny. I change depending on my mood or the year or whatever. Writing this book. There was one that struck me because I had always been afraid of her. I knew about her story. Her name is Hashime, or the bridge maiden or the bridge princess. Those different stories. Hashime was again a kind of a spurned lover. She visited a temple. She walked all night long, and she went to this temple way up in the mountain, and she begged the God of this temple or the shrine to turn her into an oni or an ogre so she could get her revenge. And it's just, at first, when you first hear about it, it's such a. Like a curse. Like, she curses this man and his lover, and it always kind of frightened me. But the more I studied her story, she was. I kind of rooted for her. I was like, oh, this. This woman, she. She's so determined, and she ends up going. And God finally tells her to put vermilion all over her face and her body and to dress in a red kimono and to put torches in her hair and to go into the water and to pray. And then she will finally be turned into this demoness and be able to exact her revenge, which, in, again, her story is like. So we're almost like 2000 years old. It's so old, and it's still told, and it's still a good story, and there's different versions of it, and each version is just as good as the other versions. It's so fascinating. And Kabuki and no play as well. And she doesn't actually get her revenge. But even today, you know, hashime, there are bridges in Japan, like, kind of dedicated to her. And she's taken. So she's gone from being this. This woman who's turned into a demon oni ogre full of rage. And anger and jealousy to kind of a protector spirit of sorts. And she can actually protect bridges, too. So, but just her history is so long and so layered that I want to go back. The book was a really tight deadline, and I couldn't spend a lot of time as much as I wanted, on all the different chapters, but there was quite a few that I'm gonna go back and I'm gonna really study this. And hers was one like, I wanna go back and find some japanese material and just read it and see all the different versions of her story.

Michelle: Honestly, it's so fascinating to talk to you and tease apart some of, you know, the questions that we've been thinking about. I will make sure to put into the podcast description notes and on the website all of your links, because, you know, obviously you have your podcast, Uncanny Japan. You know, there are the various different books that you've authored, including the book that we've been talking about, the book of japanese folklore today. And I mean, just as I said right at the very start, it's just such a wonderfully immersive book for anybody who has an interest in the culture, the story, the folklore, the history, the art, the connections with anime, with movies, those, I mean, you do touch upon all of those. It's wonderful to see things coming together in this very comprehensive.

Thersa Matsuura: Thank you so much.

Michelle: I just, it was such a joy. I really cannot stress that enough. It was such a joy. And I found there were just some that I just loved because of the time of year and the reference to certain times of the year, and others where I just loved. Wonderful, kind of ritualistic aspect. And then others I just enjoyed so much because of the playfulness of the spirit. And then, you know, the magical creature, the mythical creature. I mean, there was just so many different elements. Every single section, every new chapter was just a joy in its own right, for whatever reason. It was just wonderful. So it's definitely a book I hope people dive into, because I think they will find it fascinating. Depending on all of these different, you know, things that I've mentioned, they're going to love a different aspect each time. The history, the art, the ritual, the story, there's just so much there that I think people will appreciate as much as I did. So thank you.

Thersa Matsuura: Thank you so much. Gosh, it was wonderful to talk to you.

Michelle: And honestly, on the back of that, I've been just enjoying your podcast. It's just wonderful to hear you sharing these stories again, just to kind of get that sense of how they're told orally. How they're told. And again, there's just something very magical, I think, in being able to hear them spoken out loud. So again, I will make sure that your links to your podcast, etc, are there, because I think, again, it's just a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this type of culture and the stories and the rich folklore that comes out of Japan.

Thersa Matsuura: It's very rich. Yes. Thank you so much.

Michelle: Honestly, it's been such a pleasure to chat with you this evening. Thank you so much for giving up your time at 05:00 a.m. your time, no less.

Michelle: I appreciate it.

Michelle: Honestly, it's been such a joy. And I will say goodbye to everybody listening. Bye, everybody.

Thersa Matsuura Profile Photo

Thersa Matsuura

Author, Podcast Host

After a childhood living all over the U.S. — as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Jacksonville, Florida, Thersa Matsuura settled down in the far, far east.
She’s now an American expat who has lived over half her life in a fishing town in Japan. Her fluency in Japanese allows her to do research into parts of the culture – legends, folktales, and superstitions – that are little known to western audiences. A lot of what she digs up informs her short stories or becomes fodder for her podcast: Uncanny Japan.
Thersa is a graduate of Clarion West (2015), a recipient of HWA’s Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship, and the author of two collections, A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories (Counterpoint LLC, 2009) and The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales (Independent Regions Publishing, 2017). The latter was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® (2017). She’s had stories published in various magazines, anthologies and serialised in the Asahi English Newspaper. Her most recent book is The Book of Japanese Folklore: An Encyclopedia of the Spirits, Monsters, and Yokai of Japanese Myth (Spring, 2024; Adams Media).