A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Ghost(s) in the Machine: a true story for Halloween

By Avi Landau

Living in Japan, one hears a lot of ghost stories-  the type told from personal experience ! I have had a surprising number of friends, acquaintances and students describe to me their encounters with the LOGICALLY UNEXPLAINABLE, with this often resulting in my having chills sent up my spine. Some of these tales would raise goose bumps on the skin of even the most stubborn skeptic ( among whose ranks I would include myself).
Last year, around Halloween time, I posted one of my favorite ‘TRUE’ ghost stories on Tsukublog. Do you rememeber? It was told to me by my friend and student, a woman in her early seventies. And just in case you have no recollection ( though I cant believe that you would forget THIS one if you have read it) I will sum it again in a few words.
One Sunday morning, at around 5:30, Mrs. T ( as I will call her) and her husband were awakened from a weekend slumber by the ringing of their door-bell. Grudgingly and grumblingly getting up, she got out of bed, put on her robe and went to the house-phone with which she could communicate to anyone at the front gate. She picked up the receiver and  gruffly asked:’ Who is it?’. The answer came back: ’ Its Yamamoto’. This being a very common family name in Japan, Mrs. T querried further: ‘ Which Yamamoto?’ , to which the answer was: ‘ the Yamamoto from Katsushika’.
Realizing that this was her husband’s regular golf partner, she called out to her surprised spouse: ‘ Honey!, Yamamoto-San is here!’- the reason for his surprise being that on that day he had no appointment with his old friend.
Going downstairs and opening the door, Mr. T found no one. He then walked out to the front gate and out to the street. No people, no car. Annoyed, he went back inside and phoned Mr. Yamamoto. Nobody answered.
He went back upstairs and went back to sleep.
Later that day, Mr. and Mrs. T remembered the incident and called Yamamoto-San again.
This time they got through, and found out that ( you have probably guessed it):  Mr. Yamamoto had passed away the night before.
Pretty creepy, eh?
And while at the time of my first hearing this story I tried to come up with an alternate theory to explain what had happened ( the best of these was the possibility that someone was playing a very sick prank at 5:30 in the morning), most of the Japanese people who were with us at the time took what they had heard to be completely natural ( though they did feel spooked, as well). For them it was the story of a friend dropping by to say thanks for the good times and GOOD BYE.
And as for spirits using electronic or electrical devices to communicate with the living, I found out that this is so common a phenomenon that there was a name for that particular genre of ghost story- SHINREI HO-SO, which could be translated as BROADCASTS FROM BEYOND or SPIRIT BROADCASTS.
Over the years, I have heard many such tales ( and seen then put on screen, in such movies as Ring, etc.), though I had never had any ghostly experiences of my own- of any genre ( though almost everyday it seems I encounter uncanny coicidences which stop me in my tracks or make my mouth drop).
Never had such an experience- until this past October, that is.
Let me tell you what happened Maybe after you read it and think about it, you can convince me that what happened did NOT involve a spirit or spirits.
It all started with an extremely rare occurence in Japan- ROBBERY and MURDER! That`s right, you have read correctly. There ARE such cases in this country, and when they do occur, they tend to make the national news and stay there for days. And that is exactly what happened when my wife`s uncle, aged 75, was beaten to death with a fire-extinguisher by a couple of hoodlums in Tokyo. So not only did the family have to deal with the  grief of sudden and violent death, but there was the media circus to deal, and that asted until a few days after the culprits were arrested- after the funeral had finished.
Not only did I attend the funeral, but I was asked to stay at the funeral parlor overnight with the body, as part of the traditional all-night vigil to keep the funerary incense burning. I was, however, able to catch a couple of hours sleep in the tatami room directly above where the deceased lay and woke up just as all the mourners were arriving for the Buddhist services which were about to take place.
My wife and two small children got there a little late, and we soon realized that the kids would not be able to stay in the room where the funeral was being held. They were just too restless, fidgety, and NOISY. So I took them both up to the tatami room directly above (where I had slept), and took out some books and toys from their little backpacks so as to keep them entertained.
Only a few minutes had passed and my little one was playing with a talking book. You might know the type of thing Im talking about- a book with buttons, which when pressed emit sounds- words, animal sounds, the sounds of motor vehicles, songs, etc.
The book my son was playing with was called DENWA ( Telephone) and when you press its buttons it says things like HELLO and WHAT`S YOUR NAME and HOW ARE YOU, all in a very cute voice.
But suddenly, as the funeral service was going on directly below, just as the book was cutely saying WHAT`S YOUR NAME?, there came an extremely loud and startling CHSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
I immediately, grabbed the book and tried to stop the sound, which was so loud that it must surely have been disturbing one of the other funeral parties gathered at this large Memorial Hall ( as such places are called in Japanese). I could not.
I then realized that there was more to the sound coming out of the little speaker than a mere loud hiss.
There was a complex, multi-layered, soundscape which listened to closely could only be described as unearthly. Beneath the hiss, various throbbings, pulsings, beatings, dronings, and most distinctively: A MAN`S VOICE! Just what language he was speaking I could not say ( and neither could anyone else who later listened) but he just kept babbling ( or even RANTING) on.
Freaked out ( to say the least), I took the book over to some of the funeral hall`s staff and asked them what they thought I should do. They couldnt get the noise to stop either, and they told me, nonchalantly that it must be the spirits who were now being sent off to the next world in the various funeral ceremonies which were going on around us in that building at that time.
On and off for more than 40 minutes, I listened to the man, as accompanied by all the other sounds coming out of the little book. When I wasn`t listening I was trying to muffle the sound with cushions or coats. I even thought of submerging the book in water.
Suddenly the funeral party came upstairs to the room. Food would be served. I had various people listen to the book, including the Buddhist priest ( who seemed quite shaken by it- he was in fact the person to show the most surprise on his face!).
Finally, someone was able to come up with a special miniature screw-driver ( the type used for eyeglasses) and we were able to open the book up and remove the batteries.
The sounds stopped.
But the story continues.
A while later, my son, the same boy who had been playing with the book as it went haywire, stood up next to my wife`s cousin ( a man in his thirties), who was seated on the floor ( Japanese style) and touched his shoulder.
To everyone`s surprise, especially his mother`s, this young man suddenly had some sort of a seizure. He convulsed violently and was banging his head repeatedly and forcefully on the floor ( which luckilly was tatami). The mother was screaming, my son screeching, and pandemonium ensued. Someone called an ambulance which was slow to arrive, and he was eventually taken to the emergency room.
Doctors didnt know what to say. It could be epilepsy, they suggested, but more tests would have to be done.
After these exams were were carried out, it turned out that my wife`s cousin did NOT have epilepsy.
After the alleged culprits to the murder/robbery were arrested, however, we found out that the one who struck the fatal blow to my wife`s uncle DID have that rare disease!
Now for many Japanese who have heard this story, it seemed once again, to be only natural. The dead man wanted to communicate something about the circumstances of his death. Several people I spoke to insisted that spirits can most easilly GET IN TOUCH WITH little children, especially if they are relatives.
Most of the people who attended the funeral and heard the sounds coming out of the little toy book, were also quite certain ( though unfazed) that those noises and voices were comong from the OTHER WORLD. Strangely, however, they all insisted ( or wanted to believe) that it was probably another, or several other spirits ( as there were several funerals going on simultaneously) which were broadcasting, and NOT the spirit of my wife`s uncle.

I have tried to capture a bit of what I heard on that day in the B section of this song which I recorded with the Tengooz:




And it doesn`t have to be Halloween when it comes to telling ghost stories in Japan. Here a review I once wrote about an exhibition focusing on Japanese painting of ghosts


  • dimaks says:

    it’s cool and funny at the same time. almost all Japanese celebrate Christmas though they are not Christians. I was able to join a number of it but just for the sake of being in a research laboratory.

  • Martin Pauly says:

    Another story on the same theme, if I may, Avi.
    During the construction of the Mito Kita Interchange a worker was injured. He died and his head rolled down the hill. After that many auto accidents happened at the spot so local people advised extreme caution when passing.