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Ghostly Tales of Japan Q&A

Since publishing Ghostly Tales of Japan, readers have been contacting me with questions about the book and myself. Here are a selection of questions I have received and answered compiled into similar topics.

I love the cover of your book. Is the image long black hair, like Sadako?

Some people have said it looks like Sadako’s hair. Other people said that it looks like claw marks. Long black disheveled hair was a staple of the depiction of female ghosts long before Sadako. Traditionally, Japanese women grew their hair long and wore it pinned up in elaborate styles. When they died, it was let down for the funeral and burial. So, is it hair or claw marks? For me, definitely hair.

Why are there blank pages between each story? Did the publisher forget to include illustrations?

With the exception of Yoshiko Yatsuda’s kanji at the beginning of the book, no illustrations were prepared. With collections of short stories, it is often tempting to go straight from one story to the next. Most of the stories in my book are very short, so I was worried that they would be read in quick succession. I inserted the blank pages to encourage the reader to pause after each story and think about it before moving on the next one. I don’t know if that idea was successful or not.

The stories in Ghostly Tales of Japan are very visual. Why didn’t you illustrate them?

Illustrations were definitely on my mind while I was preparing the book, but without the backing of a publisher, it was a luxury I simply couldn’t afford. Hopefully a later edition may one day be illustrated.

What does the Japanese ink writing mean at the beginning of the book?

It says “kaidan”, which is often incorrectly translated as “horror stories”. The first character, 怪 (kai), can be translated as “strange” or “mysterious” and the second character, 談 (dan), can translated as “talk” or “discuss”. As in my book, some kaidan are scary, some are funny, some are just strange or unusual. I guess, strange tales or weird tales would be a good translation. The wonderful rendering of “kaidan” in my book was specially created by Yoshiko Yatsuda, a shodō (Japanese calligraphy) teacher and artist based in Tokyo. She teaches in English and Japanese and accepts commissions. You can find more details at

I am Japanese. I am trying to read your book, but there are many unknown and difficult words. I use a dictionary. It is very slow. Will there be a Japanese version?

Yes, there will. We are working on the translation now. I can’t say exactly when it will be ready, but hopefully sometime next year. It is a very interesting process. It involves thinking about details of the stories which were not necessary to explain in English, but which need clarifying in Japanese. For example, in English, my characters can speak to each other without reference to age, sex or relative social position, but we must use keigo (honorific speech), which makes these things clear in Japanese. My translator said that it was an interesting challenge to convert a western interpretation of Japanese culture and ideas into Japanese. It isn’t always straightforward and involves a lot of discussion. It was always my intention to have the stories translated into Japanese. When I wrote them, I tried to make them as Japanese as possible within the limitations of them being written in English. I thought I had done quite well, but now I’m not so sure.

In the introduction to the book, you said that you wrote the stories for your son’s bedtime reading. Didn’t they give him nightmares?

No, they didn’t. Like his father, he was a rather morbid child who loved scary stories. We read the whole of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan before I started to create similar stories for him. Of course, he would find some of the stories scary, but what child, or adult for that matter, doesn’t delight in being scared by a story? We would talk about the stories before he went to sleep, so he was never disturbed by nightmares. I only wrote a handful of the stories in the book for bedtime reading before he moved on to Dr. Seuss, who became a big favourite for several years.

Which of the stories is your son’s favourite?

I have no idea because he hasn’t read the book yet! He told me that he didn’t need to read it because he already knew all of the stories as I shared my ideas with him as I was writing them. He has a copy on his bookshelf, but he has never opened it!

Do you have a favourite story?

It’s hard to read your own writing without being overly critical of it, but there are a few stories of which I am fond because I became so involved in them during the writing. The Homecoming was a story which I worked particularly hard on. My wife, who is not a great fan of horror, said that I should try writing a heartwarming story. The idea didn’t initially appeal to me, but several story ideas eventually came together and morphed into what I suppose is indeed a heartwarming story. As writing progressed, I felt that it would only work if I could try to make a strong emotional connection with the reader. From responses I have received to the story, I think that I was in some degree successful, which is very gratifying. Other favourites are The Hunter’s Wife, because that started the whole project, and the final story, The Shoe, which was the final story I wrote for the collection.

What was in the box in the story A House-Warming Gift?

I have been asked that question quite a few times. To be honest, I have no idea! I didn’t think about it at all. I wanted the readers to decide for themselves. Whatever you think is in the box is correct. Perhaps I should run a competition for people to make suggestions and publish a whole volume of variations of the story as a free download?.

I like the story called The Unfaithful Priest. Where is the shrine in Kyoto? I want to visit it, but I can’t find any mention of it or the priest online.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but neither the shrine nor the priest ever existed. Although I use historical and geographical details as background for my stories, like the story itself, both the priest and the shrine are mere figments of my imagination.

The Shoe is a disgusting story. How can you write something so unpleasant?

To paraphrase the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol, the story contains the shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me! Life is often unpleasant and the actions of people disgusting. The attitude and thoughts of the main character are taken directly from what has been said to me over the years when attempting to discuss the problem of homelessness in Tokyo. The homeless lady is based on a real person I met in Tokyo and the attitudes of other people who encountered her. I make no apology for highlighting the cruel and uncaring nature of many of my fellow human beings.

There is so much historical detail in your stories. You must have studied the subject for many years to such a deep knowledge of Japanese history.

When you live in a country for a long time it is impossible not to learn something of its history. I do enjoy reading about history and visiting the many historical museums in Tokyo, but my knowledge of Japanese history is very selective. The historical details in the book are a mixture of what I already knew and research I conducted specifically for each story. Sometimes I would write a story to fit some aspect of history which I already knew, other times I would write a story first and then find the correct historical context in which to frame it. Unfortunately, I have a dreadful memory, so I hope no one asks me about specific details as I have probably already forgotten them 🙂

Where do your ideas for stories come from?

Anywhere and everywhere. I am a keen observer of people and my environment. Even the most mundane element of daily life can suggest a story. Whenever I visit somewhere new, I am always on the alert for something which will ignite the spark. The stories A Night in Nijo Castle and Muchi no Ike were inspired by visits to the settings. Sometimes someone will say something innocuous to me which sets me thinking about story ideas. I also read a lot of Japanese ghost and folklore stories, not so much to be inspired by existing stories, but to immerse myself in the atmosphere, which I hope to capture in my own stories. However, like most creative endeavors, many of my ideas seem to simply fall out of the sky.

Have you ever seen a ghost?

I don’t know. Ghosts aren’t all long hair and white funeral clothes. Most, if you believe in them, would be dressed in their daily clothes, perhaps those they died in, and repeating the familiar actions of their lives. Passing among the almost 37 and a half million people crammed into Tokyo, it would be easy for them to go unnoticed. Maybe that person sitting next to you on the train right now with their head bowed down isn’t what they seem!

Who are your favourite writers?

Writers in the genre of Japanese supernatural/horror/folktales are Lafcadio Hearn, of course, Ueda Akinari, Dazai Osamu, Edogawa Rampo, Suzuki Koji and Ito Junji. Other writers whose works are particular favourites are Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Dr. Seuss, John Wyndham and Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

What is your favourite Japanese ghost story?

It is difficult to choose just one from such a rich field, but I have a soft spot for Yotsuya Kaidan, the story of a cruelly betrayed wife who gets revenge from beyond the grave because I saw a very good kabuki performance of the story at the Kabuki-za theatre in Tokyo many years ago. Another classic which I also like very much is Botan Dōrō, a warning of the perils of ghostly love affairs.


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