A Gathering of 100 Ghostly Tales

by M-Gillies

As candles were extinguished tale by tale, the room became dark. Most players in the Gathering of 100 Ghostly Tales would stop at the 99th story afraid of invoking the spirits they had been summoning.

From the folkloric tales of the Germanic Brothers Grimm to contemporary legends of the Western culture, the world is known for revelling in the mysterious and often horrific portrayals of the supernatural. With narratives like Bloody Mary, Red Riding Hood and The Spider Bite transcending their cult status as the primary leaders of folkloric legends and myths, the Japanese for centuries have built their traditions and way of life around ghosts and the supernatural.

Across the sprawling landscapes of Japan, ubiquitous burial mounds, Shinto shrines and festivals celebrating the dead have dominated the cultural traditions of the Japanese. Since the early eighth century, spirits have been discussed in the literary records of the Japanese, with the oldest known text coming from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters). And while the Japanese have pledged themselves as spiritually based, it was in Edo era (1603-1868) Japan, that the didactic Buddhist-inspired folklore of the spirits were given true life and notoriety.

As night fell upon the region with many citizens celebrating the Obon Festival, the more daring of the populace would gather together in preparations for a custom parlor game. Using two to three rooms, participants would gather in the first room, completely void of light. Seated in a circle, the participants began Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai or A Gathering of 100 Ghostly Tales with their anecdotes of ghoulish tales.

For their part, each participant would tell an orated tale, whether it be a folkloric story passed on by a villager or a personal experience. At the end of each person’s story, the storyteller would walk into the third room, a room lit with a hundred andon (Japanese paper shade lanterns) and a single mirror on a table. It would be the task of the former storyteller to extinguish one lantern, look into the mirror and then return to the first room.

As the stories neared the one-hundredth tale, the room filled with andon would slowly become a dim haven for the evocation of spirits. However, as game neared the end, many participants would stop at the ninety-ninth story, fearful of the invoked spirits they had been summoning.

Though the exact origins of Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai are unknown, it is believed the game was created by samurai in an attempt to test their courage in seeing who was brave enough to withstand the gruesome tales that would send shivers down a person’s spine.

In 1660, a version of the game was described in a nursery tale (otogi monogatari) by Ogita Ansei, in which the narrative tells a tale of several young samurai playing Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai. As they came to the final story, with one candle remaining, a giant hand descended upon them from above. While some cowered in fear, the quick swipe of a sword revealed the hand to be the shadow of a spider.

Quickly Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai garnered a favorable reputation, at first within the aristocratic warrior class and then to the working class peasants and townspeople. With increasing popularity, people were on the lookout for newer kaidan (strange, mysterious narrative) to tell at the next Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai gathering.

Through a mixture of ghostly vengeance and elements of Buddhist karma, the following of Kaiden boomed, influencing the specialized kaidan-shu publications to assist participants with stories for the game. However, many of these published titles were of varying quality in order to meet the demand of the growing market.

It was in 1677 that the first kaidan-shu was published using the title Shokoku Hyakumonogatari or 100 Tales of Many Countries. In this book, the tales were collected from people residing in several countries and to further appeal to the masses held a claim that each story was true.

While many writers scoured Japan for the rarest, most grisly legends and folktales in search of an original story, yurei (faint/dim spirit) artists supplied the illustrations to coincide with the tales, with the first yurei painting appearing in 1750 by Maruyama Okyo founder of the Maruyama-Shijo School of Painting. To this day, the vast majority of stories and images of yurei and yokai (demon spirit) and Japanese horror storytelling, find their roots traced back to the Golden Age of kaidan.

Read more:

100 Ghost Tales | Saya in Underworld

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