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Culture : In Japan, It's Time to Celebrate the Dead : * Tales of ghosts and goblins have a strong impact on the country during the O-bon festival.

August 27, 1991|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — In 17th-Century Edo, as Tokyo was once known, it is said that the kind and wealthy but pox-scarred daughter from the samurai house of Tamiya married a handsome but penniless and unscrupulous drifter.

In an elaborate scheme to chase away his ugly new wife and marry his beautiful lover, the young man reduced the family to poverty through a series of trumped-up gambling losses. Much of the town's rich joined in the scheme, under which the supposedly debt-laden husband's honor was at stake. The ever dutiful wife, to pay her husband's imaginary debts and save his honor, agreed to be sold off to a cheap brothel, where she was chained down and tortured for refusing to serve customers.

When she learned of her husband's betrayal, the Lady Tamiya, in a fury, cursed all those involved and threw herself into a nearby canal. Soon the community was haunted by images of the woman, her long black hair only partially concealing her disfigured face. And one after another the schemers went mad, mistakenly decapitating their wives and children with their swords and otherwise dying horrible and mysterious deaths.

A shrine later dedicated to Lady Tamiya substantiates the basic facts of this tale, which is dramatized here each summer in Kabuki plays and television dramas--part of a Japanese tradition of telling horror stories guaranteed to send chills down your spine on a hot summer night.

The stories have a powerful impact on a society where tradition, religion and modern ritual have created a national psyche in which the world of the dead--of spirits--meshes with the world of the living.

Throughout July and August, towns all over Japan celebrate O-bon, the festival of the dead. The Japanese light candles around the home to welcome ancestral spirits, and place food on family altars to feed them. After a few days' visit, the spirits are sent on their way--symbolized in the countryside by thousands of lanterns that are left to float on rivers or lakes.

In urban Japan, O-bon also means traffic jams as families clog the highways returning to their hometowns. But many Japanese remain fervent believers in the world of spirits. All year round, fortune tellers huddle around small lamps on nearly every block in popular night districts, predicting horrible fates as often as happy tidings.

Dempo-in, a pseudo-religious group, recently sent out flyers in the fold of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's largest dailies, reminding readers that it was time for spirits to be arriving home. "The spirits may be getting in the way of your good luck," said the flyer, which offered consultations and cures for everything from bad grades in school to bad bosses at work.

"The World of the Unknown," a midsummer television series watched each day by millions, dramatizes "real life" stories of the supernatural, picked from a pool of hundreds of samples submitted by loyal viewers. In one, a woman possessed by the vengeful spirit of a dead acquaintance tried to kill her husband with a butcher knife. She suddenly returned to normal when an ancestral tablet from the family "kamidana" or altar, fell between them.

"The ancestral spirits intervened just in time to rid the woman of the evil spirit," explained Iwao Niikura, director of the Japan Psychic Science Assn. and a regular panelist on the show who frequently reminds viewers of the importance of taking good care of ancestral spirits. He appears along with two actors, a novelist and a singer seated behind a rounded counter that floats above a cloud of dry ice. The backdrop depicts a dungeon in a cave.

The setting may seem overdone, but the show's producer, Ikuo Nagasawa, says: "Once you report on these events, you come to believe them." He says his camera crew constantly finds its equipment malfunctioning mysteriously, or its film recording strange, unidentifiable shadows when it travels to graveyards and "suicide forests" where ghosts have been seen.

Nagasawa says he and the 40 to 50 reporters, cameramen and panelists who work on the show visit a shrine at the beginning of each season to ask the gods' forgiveness for "interfering in the world of the dead." After the season, they return to the shrine to cleanse themselves.

Niikura, the psychic, says he suffered a high fever when he failed to cleanse himself after a trip to a suicide site. Doctors couldn't seem to cure him, but a medium, who said he was infected by the spirit of the victim, brought him back to health with appropriate prayers, Niikura adds.

Japanese tradition is steeped in spirit myths and legends. Carpenters believe wood spirits will rebel unless their orientation in a cabinet or piece of furniture remains the same as it was in the tree from which they came. Construction workers won't lift a hammer until the site of a new skyscraper is blessed by Shinto priests.

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