Ghost geeks take Japan back to its haunting roots

Miyoshi, Japan - Leaving behind their high-tech lives in the big cities, Japanese are donning their spookiest attire to celebrate ghosts, sparking a renaissance in the creatures from the nation's folklore.

More than 1,200 people from across Japan turned the secluded basin of Miyoshi into a ghost town of sorts for a late-summer weekend bash dubbed the "World Ghost Conference."

Showing up in ghost costumes, participants ranging from elderly who grew up on folk tales to young people raised on video games marched to the sound of bamboo flutes and hand drums after joining a risible but serious debate on "spectrology."

The annual conference, the 11th of its kind, came for the first time to Miyoshi, some 630 kilometers (390 miles) southwest of Tokyo, one of the birthplaces of Japanese folk myths about ghosts, or "yokai" in Japanese.

"In Japan, the characteristics of ghosts are both horrible and winsome," said Shigeru Mizuki, a veteran cartoonist and leading authority about Japanese specters.

"Ghosts are attracting Japanese people today because they can find the old days of Japan through them," said the 84-year-old founder of the conference, who has drawn a number of goblins in his cartoons.

According to Kazuhiko Komatsu, professor of folklore at International Research Center for Japanese Studies: "It is not too much to say that the legend world (of ghosts) has offered a spiritual home for Japanese."

Ghosts have played a major role in folk myths in Japan, whose indigenous Shinto religion is based on animism. Ghosts traditionally cursed people's fate, tricked farmers or kidnapped children through supernatural means.

Some of them are grotesque monsters similar to humans but with no faces or feet or with a stretching neck, a long nose, one eye, tusks, horns, a shell or wings.

Others are more like fairy-tale creatures based on animals such as foxes, cats, raccoons, fishes, frogs, snakes, lizards and birds. Or ghosts can simply be a supernatural phenomenon like a fireball.

"Talking about ghosts is a lot of fun," said Junko Tokuni, a 35-year-old corporate secretary from Chiba near Tokyo who participates in the event every year.

"Whenever I join the conference, I can forget about busy, daily life and devote myself to something mysterious," said Tokuni, who disguised herself as a creature in a Japanese kimono and fox mask.

"We are living in a high-tech society, but what science and technology cannot prove should exist, shouldn't it? At least I believe in it," she said.

A common fear among participants is that ghost legends will disappear in the modern country after being handed down for hundreds of years.

"Ghosts represent the roots of Japanese folklore," said Shinichi Matsubara, a computer instructor in his 30s from Hyogo, west of Osaka. "It's sad to see Japanese forget about it and lose nature, where ghosts used to live."

Hiroko Fukunaga, a 23-year-old restauranteur, agreed with Matsubara. "Ghosts are an important part of Japanese culture," she said. "I hope we can hand down this priceless thing to the next generations."

But while facing fears of falling into oblivion, ghosts are now winning a new wave of popularity among young generations through comic characters such as Pokemon, the global sensation developed by video-game maker Nintendo.

"Ghosts are not scary but adorable things to many young people," said Mami Ichimura, a 23-year-old museum employee from northern Japan. "To us, ghosts are not a supernatural phenomenon but simply cartoon characters."

Hiroshi Aramata, a novelist and historian, told a panel discussion at the conference that Japan has exported ghosts for longer than many people may know.

"Craftmen were making ghost dolls and exported them to Europe during the Edo era (1603-1867), and nowadays Japan is exporting Pokemon," Aramata said.

Ghosts are also a money-maker in another way -- a number of towns across Japan are eager to promote "ghost tourism."

Shinji Oda, the head conference organizer for Miyoshi, said it decided to host the event "as part of our project to boost economic development of the city."

"While the economic recovery is benefitting people in Tokyo, local regions like this city are still struggling to survive," Oda said. "I hope the event will boost our local economy."

Miyoshi is not the only city expecting a lot from ghosts.

"The impact of ghosts has been outstanding," said Junichi Fujikawa, an official of the tourism bureau in Sakaiminato, a city northeast of Miyoshi, which has used ghosts as its symbol to stimulate tourism.

The city and volunteer groups built more than 100 bronze statues of goblins along the main shopping street in cooperation with cartoonist Mizuki, who was born in the small port city.

Thanks to the campaign, annual visitors jumped from some 280,000 in 1994 to 850,000 last year.

"At first, some residents joked the project may turn the city into a ghost town. But now people understand that ghosts can be a valuable brand."