Matthew Braaten spent two years in Japan as an English teacher. A Minnesota native currently living in Hollywood, he is a writer, musician, and performer in plays and films.
Not long ago, I returned home to Minnesota after working as a teacher in Japan for two years. I lived in a city surrounded by mountains located about three hours north of Tokyo, on the main island. Before going to Japan I had done a considerable amount of reading and research about the history, culture, and various other aspects of Japanese society in order to acquaint myself with some of what I thought I might experience. However, you cannot prepare for the unexpected.
My combination of patience, persistence, and luck put me in several strange situations; it also uncovered some amazing true-life paranormal accounts.
As a junior high school English teacher, I had four schools in the city under my jurisdiction. In Japan, a teacher’s duties far exceed the boundaries of the classroom as I often accompanied classes on field trips and other school excursions as part of my job. One field trip in particular stands out for not only being a lovely weekend spent camping in the mountains, but also because something bizarre occurred.
After the students and teachers had cooked the evening meal, eaten, and cleaned up, some of the teachers began piling wood to make a large fire. The notion of a campfire seemed familiar from my experience of camping in the wilderness back at home. I asked if I should bring my guitar, but the assistant principal (kyoto sensei) said it would not be needed.
As darkness fell, the students, all in ordered groups, began gathering around the fire. They seemed jovial and rambunctious as usual. However, after a few minutes of waiting around the huge bonfire, everyone suddenly grew silent. The other teachers organized the students into a tight circle and I was among them. Some of the students were handed torches which they lit from the fire. Everyone stood in silence until a small drum was struck several times by two students who stood out of the circle.
Three figures gradually emerged from the shadows. They walked in a triangle, approaching slowly, and wearing dark-colored hoods that hid their faces. They were led by one person in the center, who, as it turned out, was the kyoto sensei. The other two were students, one male and one female. Everyone was very serious; nobody even cracked a smile. The kyoto sensei, with his hood still covering his face, began chanting to the fire. After a while, he asked everyone to repeat several of the phrases. Although at the time I understood very little of the Japanese being spoken, I had one of the teachers translate it for me.
The chanting, as it was explained to me, was a call to keep evil spirits and bad luck away, and for good fortune to follow the students throughout the year. The students on the trip were just beginning their third (and final) year of middle school. The transition year between middle school and senior high school is probably the most significant year in a Japanese student’s life-the results they receive on their final middle school exams will determine which high school they attend, which in turn determines which college they will go to. Hence, there is an immense amount of pressure put on third-year middle school kids in Japan.
The bonfire ceremony was very pagan in appearance, but this should not have come as a total surprise. Japan’s national religion is Shinto, which was developed over thousands of years. Before Shinto, the Japanese followed numerous polytheistic pagan religions. There are still aspects of these in the Shinto religion today. Most notably, gods in nature are still recognized as part of Shinto. In fact, one of the four Shinto affirmations is the fervent “Love of Nature.” Shinto is a vague, hard to define religion-just like all others, I suppose.
That night, when the ceremony was finished, everything returned to “normal.” The kids went back to their cabins to sleep and the teachers and I had several good luck drinks together.
Visiting the Dead
It’s not easy to get Japanese people to discuss their views on spirituality, let alone the paranormal. It usually takes a good deal of trust, determination, and alcohol to coerce them into opening up, but when they do it can be fascinating. One night during my second year in Japan I realized perhaps the most important element in the search for paranormal events-luck.
I was attending a party hosted by a friend who lived in a small village outside of my city. Around midnight, I stepped outside for some fresh air and observed a small group of people walking past the house. They appeared to be heading towards the Shinto cemetery (bochi) which sat on a nearby hillside. I recognized one of the group as an acquaintance of mine. After a brief conversation, he asked if I wanted to join them.
Being the adventurer I am, I consented. Before I knew it I was walking up the narrow hillside path trailing behind my friend and his family. Although the purpose was still unclear to me, I jumped at the chance to experience something new. We walked silently up the path passing under several traditional Shinto archways (torii), which often line sacred or spiritual paths in Japan.
The group consisted of my friend’s wife, his teenage daughter, his younger brother, and their mother. We passed a small temple (tera) and proceeded into the heart of the well-kept graveyard aided only by the light of the moon.
When we reached the stone they were looking for, the family formed a half-circle around it. I stepped back. My friend’s mother lit an incense stick and placed it in a dish of sand on the stone. They took each other’s hands after a cue from the mother. She began to speak in a dialect which was unfamiliar to me.
Finally, she repeated the word “Otou-san” (which means father; husbands and wives in Japan often refer to each other as “father” and “mother”), calling it out several times. After a long silence, I felt a sudden chill come over my body. There was something there. I could sense activity all around us, but I couldn’t see or hear anything distinct.
The old woman asked, from what I understood, why “he” (the father, her deceased husband) had been appearing to her sister lately. At this, I began to feel dizzy and nauseous. Trying desperately not to draw attention to myself, I stepped away from the group until I felt I had to sit down. I recall them all staring at me at one point, at which time I saw my friend on his hands and knees bowing in front of the grave.
The next thing I remember is being led back down the path by my friend and his family. I reached the party again safely, but there was something different among the family. The mother, in particular, seemed to stare at me suspiciously. Then they left.
Although I saw my friend again several times over the next year or so, we never again spoke of the incident except for one time, when he told me: “You should not have come with us that night, but that was my fault.”
“Why?” I asked
“Because father said he could not speak in the presence of a stranger,” he replied.
The Honeymoon Picture
An American friend and I often hosted parties in our apartments which were attended by other foreign teachers from the area (three Americans, a Scot, an Aussie, and a Brazilian) and about half a dozen Japanese friends of ours. Late in the evening during our first annual Halloween party, the foreigners began relating ghost stories. We all took turns sharing our tales, translating them for the non-English speakers. Our Japanese friends grew more intrigued by these stories as the night progressed. The telling of “ghost stories” was a totally foreign notion to our Japanese guests. This is probably because speaking of the deceased is somewhat taboo in Japan, and the witnessing of an apparition is taken very seriously.
And so, when one of our Japanese guests, Masumi, suddenly said she had a story, it came as a big surprise. Her story remains as one of the strangest and most intriguing reports I have ever heard. She made me swear that I would never mention her full name in conjunction with the story. (The Japanese are also a modest, private people.) After another drink, she worked up the nerve to tell us. What’s interesting to point out is that while we foreigners were just telling stories, she felt that in order to share, she had to tell a dark family truth.
The story pertained to something that happened to her aunt Keiko a few years earlier. Keiko was with her husband on their honeymoon in Miyagi Prefecture. They had spent the day at the beach enjoying the summer weather. Later that afternoon, they climbed up to a scenic overlook. After enjoying the view for a while, they had someone take a photo of the two of them standing atop the steep cliff with the ocean in the background. Then Keiko wanted to take a photo of her husband alone.
He backed up near the edge of the cliff while Keiko was focusing the camera. Just as she snapped the picture, her husband screamed and fell off the edge to the rocks below. He did not survive the fall.
Keiko was utterly grief-stricken for the next several months, but gradually her state improved. At long last she took the film from the honeymoon in to get developed. She dropped the film off at her neighborhood photo shop, just as she’d always done in the past. After a few days she returned to pick up the photos. The moment she came in the door, the two young female employees began acting very strangely. When Keiko asked for her pictures, both employees went in the back to get the manager. He returned alone with an extremely disturbed expression on his face. Keiko greeted him, nonetheless, for they had known each other for years.
He made small chit-chat with her, but something seemed wrong. When at last she asked for her photos the man’s face grew even more serious. He said he could not hand over her photos. This incensed Keiko and she asked again more sternly. To this he replied that there had been a problem and he tried to dissuade her from seeing the photos. Finally, she demanded the photos as they were the last ones of her husband alive. The man burst into tears and yelled for one of the workers in back to bring the photos. As he handed Keiko the photos he said: “Please forgive me, I tried to warn you.” A chill came over her.
She waited until she got home to open the envelope. Keiko described the strange reception she received from the shopkeeper to her mother, who sat down beside her. Together they began going through the pictures, her mother looking first. There were pictures of the couple on their first day of the honeymoon, and others of them at different places they’d gone together on their trip. Then they came to the pictures taken that day at the beach. Keiko and her husband looked so happy.
Finally, they came to the picture of the two of them together on the cliff. Keiko’s mother studied the next picture, while Keiko stared longingly at the photo of her and her husband together. Suddenly, her mother gasped and dropped the picture. She said nothing, but only shook. At this, Keiko picked up the photo she had taken of her husband. She saw the horrified look on her husband’s face as dozens of hands and arms pulled him over the cliff.
Masumi later learned that the cliff has a history. It was on that spot hundreds of years before that the local Shogun falsely accused a group of young men from a nearby village of treason and forced them off the cliff to their death. I asked if it would be possible to see the photo, but Masumi said she was told that the photo was “missing,” and that her aunt remains in a state of deep depression.