Ghosts Rumored to Haunt the Japan Prime Minister's Official Residence

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The story about Dublin invokes their past residents, but not their ghosts. For our final story today though, we're definitely talking ghosts. The ones supposedly lurking in the residence of Japan's prime minister. Shinzo Abe came to power five months ago, yet he has not moved into his country's equivalent of the White House. Some suspect it's because the place has a reputation for being haunted. The government says that Abe simply prefers to live and work elsewhere, but the supernatural is on the minds of many Japanese, says Roland Kelts. He writes about Japanese pop culture.

Roland Kelts: Probably a lot of traditions to cite here, one is Shinto, which is the Japanese National faith. One of the tenants of Shinto is that every object has a spirit. Something as simple as a pen as a spirit within it, or a rock. So, this idea that the world is in fact animated around you runs through Japanese culture to some degree. If you add to that Japan's ongoing anxieties of WWII and what happened there, the ghosts that have been referenced in the prime minister's residence are almost always described as soldiers in military uniform.

Werman: When I was in Japan a couple years ago, I became fascinated with this manga illustration writer, Shiguro Mizuki , who has published this two volume encyclopedia called Yokai, which is a whole catalog of ghosts, almost like they're catholic saints. Talk about how Japanese attach themselves to these ideas of ghosts, and associate them with different objects.

Kelts: You mentioned Shiguro-san's work, and how ghosts are described in very, very meticulous detail. They have personal histories, they have quirks. Y'know, Japan is not what we in the West would think of as a religious culture, but in many respects it's a very spiritual culture.

Werman: What about the Japanese kids? Do they sit around if at sleepovers were camps telling ghost stories?

Kelts: I can be the authority on that, because I haven't hung around with many Japanese children recently, but I'm sure they do. I think was interesting historically about this if story about the prime minister's residence on the one hand, Japan is currently undergoing something of an identity crisis in its post-war incarnation, heading for so many years followed the lead of the United States and coming up now against a rising Asia. And so Japan in the postwar years, is suddenly looking away from America for new partners. So, with it's identity crisis is going on, and there are these ghosts haunting Japan related to its experiences in World War Two. So, this notion that these ghosts and the prime minister's residence are disgruntled soldiers is quite compelling historically at the very moment of Japan's identity crisis.

Werman: So, Roland, I guess the question I have for you is does Prime Minister Abe believe in this ghost story about the prime minister's residence?

Kelts: [laughs] well, he certainly doesn't officially. The statement from his office is quite vague, sort of a, "We don't know what you're talking about". But it's important to look at his own past. Abe was Prime Minister quite recently in 2007. His term was cut short because he actually complained of a stomach illness, and more or less resigned amid some charges of corruption. Maybe he got his stomach illness when he was in the prime minister's residence, and whatever caused it wasn't something he wanted to repeat.

Werman: Ghost anxiety, maybe?

Kelts: It could be.

[Laughter]

Werman: Have either seen a ghost in Japan, Roland?

Kelts: Actually, I can say that I felt a ghost. And it was when I was in Tohoku, the region in Northern Japan that was hit hardest by the tsunami and earthquake in 2011. And I was actually visiting a school where a lot of the refugees were housed immediately after the disaster, and there were a couple of children's slippers on the floor next to me. And I stood there in the silence and the wind blew, and I felt like something passed through me or past me in the hallway of that school.

Werman: Y'know, I was also in Tohoku two months after the tsunami, and I didn't have that sensation but we did have the GPS line in the car and it said 'up ahead on your right is a 7-11' and it wasn't there. So y'know there are a lot of ghosts in Japan.

Kelts: There are. And certainly in that region, the sheer number of dead and the absences you feel when you look around and you see these hollowed out portions of towns and cities, it's easy to feel something else in the air.

Werman: Roland Kelts writes about pop culture in Japan. Roland, good to speak with you, thanks a lot.

Kelts: Thank you.

Werman: And we end the program to date with A ghostly Japanese ditty: Kagome Kagome a traditional children's game and the song that goes along with it.

[Japanese children singing]

Werman: In the game, one kid is chosen to be the Oni, or demon, and stands in the middle of a circle as the other children walk around and sing. Not ghost spooky but spooky the same. From the Nan and Bill Harris studios in WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman, thank you for being with us.