"I’ve heard that the rooster awakens the god of day with its trumpetlike crowing, and makes all wandering ghosts, wherever they are, hurry back to their hiding places." William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 1
August is the time when ghosts particularly stir about in Japan. On Aug 15, spirits return to the family home for the O-Bon festival to be lovingly feted and just as lovingly returned to the other world. But what about the spirits with no homes to go to? The ones who met cruel, untimely or deliberate deaths? Where do they go? Are they doomed to be restless forever, yet somehow never able to wander far from where the spirit left the body? Are they the reason that we might pass a certain street corner and feel a chill?
While Tokyo has a number of well-known ghosts from the Edo period (mostly women who met a tragic end), there are also many lesser known spots where ghosts may be found or felt, some of them more modern.
Here are four such places -- four just because the word for four in Japanese is a homonym for the word for death.
1. Suzugamori Execution Ground
While this spot is now just a small triangular patch of greenery along Highway 15 (aka Dai-ichi Keihin) near Omori Kaigan station, during the Edo Period when this was the outskirts of the city for travelers on the Tokaido approaching from the south (see photo below), it was a perfect place to execute prisoners and put their heads on pikes, a ghoulish warning to visitors of what happens to miscreants. Decapitation by sword was the official means of execution in Japan until 1873, although a number of other means of execution were also used at Suzugamori, depending on the crime.
It's traditional in Japan to try to exorcise restless spirits by having a shrine or temple nearby. At Suzugamori it is Daikyoji temple, a modern structure with a long history of shepherding souls to eternal rest (and a billboard advertising the fact that it is on the site of the former execution grounds). There are also a number of “jizo” statues and other monuments to the same purpose. Judging from the fact that some are old and quite worn while others are newer -- including one erected earlier this year -- there are definitely spirits haunting this place. Also interesting to observe is the well, a ready source of water so that the severed heads could be cleaned before being placed on display.
Linger at your own peril!
2. Omori POW Camp
Until the recent book and movie "Unbroken" -- about the war-time experiences of Olympic athlete Lou Zamperini -- even many locals had forgotten that there had ever been a POW camp on what is now known as Heiwajima (Peace Island) in Ota Ward. The expansion and renaming of this landfill area before the Tokyo Olympics aided in the amnesia. Wander past the entrance to the boat races and you will find a small fenced-off area of greenery featuring a statue of Kannon (the goddess of mercy) and a signboard in Japanese with some euphemistic references to the brutal history of this spot. Among the information not provided by the signboard are 1) how many POWs perished here, 2) that wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo was briefly held here when he was first arrested as a war criminal, and 3) whether anyone has ever been haunted here.
3. Site of Sugamo Prison (now Sunshine 60 Building)
Sugamo Prison was built in 1895, a monument to the modernization of Japan's criminal justice system. Comprising six cell blocks, work halls and administrative buildings as well as outdoor exercise yards, the compound occupied nearly 5 hectares of Ikebukuro. Executions, when they took place, were by hanging. During World War II, this is where captured Allied spies were executed.
Lucky to survive the World War II bombing of Tokyo, during the early years of the occupation, the prison was used to incarcerate as many as 2,000 suspected war criminals. Following the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, the convicted Class A war criminals, including Tojo, were hung here. The prison was closed in 1962; its buildings were torn down in 1971 to make room for the Sunshine 60 Building, a 60-story tower which, when completed in 1978, was the tallest building in Japan. Superstitious locals say the building looks too much like a gravestone for their liking.
Some visitors to this site report feeling spirits, notwithstanding the fact that the Class A war criminals have been enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine, so their spirits should be at rest. In Higashi Ikebukuro Park that occupies one corner of the complex, now known as Sunshine City, there is also a large stone monument to "eternal peace", intended to commemorate the prison and to help quell any remaining restless spirits.
4. Shiba Park
In mid-August 1946, the bodies of two murdered women were found in Shiba Park on the hillside behind Zojoji temple (below the current site of Tokyo Tower). These were just two of at least a dozen victims of Yoshio Kodaira, arguably Japan's most famous serial killer and the inspiration for David Peace's 2007 novel, "Tokyo Year Zero." One body was never identified.
Kodaira, who is said to have acquired his bloodlust while serving in the Japanese military in Manchuria in the 1930s, took advantage of disorganization in the city in the early postwar period to lure unsuspecting young women to remote locations -- as this area was at the time -- to rape and kill them. No other bodies have been found here, although the area was subject to an intense search.
These days, this part of Shiba Park is lush and green, with a pleasant waterway and well-groomed walkways. Among the greenery on the side hill above the stream is a small shrine that may serve to quiet the ghosts of Kodaira's victims. Walking here at night is still a spooky experience.
Many Japanese believe that certain people are more susceptible to sensing ghosts or spirits. But in places like these, the ghosts are so strong that even without "the gift", their presence may be felt, especially during this haunted season. So get out there and find those ghosts.© Japan Today