Magical concepts can be found among the Japanese in their
traditional religious beliefs and rites and in their conception of
nature. According to such beliefs, all forms and objects, both
animate and inanimate, possess, equally with man, a soul with
good or evil tendencies. These forms and objects, either of
their own volition or by evocation, come into close touch with
humans either to their advantage or detriment. Much of Japanese
folklore and tradition is permeated with a belief in the supernatural.
Shinto Religion and Ancestor-Worship
A prominent feature of the Japanese religion Shintoism is
the worship of ancestors, allied to the worship of nature. Each
of the main sects of Shintoism includes the veneration of one’s
ancestors as a cardinal principle. According to that belief, the
disembodied spirits acquire the powers of deities and possess
supernatural attributes. They become potential for good or evil
and exercise their potentialities in the same mundane sphere
upon which their interests and affections centered during life.
Consequently they become guardian divinities and the object
of ceremonies to honor them, to show gratitude for their services
while upon earth, and to solicit a continuance of these services
beyond the grave.
On this point, Lafcadio Hearn writes
An intimate sense of relation between the visible and
invisible worlds is the special religious characteristic of
Japan among all civilized countries. To Japanese thought
the dead are not less real than the living. They take part
in the daily life of the people—sharing the humblest sorrows
and the humblest joys. They attend the family repasts,
watch over the well-being of the household, assist
and rejoice in the prosperity of their descendants. They
are present at the public pageants, at all the sacred festivals
of Shinto, at the military games, and at all the entertainments
especially provided for them. And they are
universally thought of as finding pleasure in the offerings
made to them or the honors conferred upon them.
Every morning, while ancient prayers are repeated, one
member of the family places flowers and food-emblems as offerings
of pious affection before the shrine to be found in most
Japanese homes. On the shrine, beside the symbols of the sungoddess
and the tutelary god of the family, one finds the memorial
tablets containing names, ages, and dates of death of
members of the household. Stories circulate through the villages
of the souls of ancestors taking material form and remaining
visible through centuries.
In the month of July three days are set apart for the celebration
of the Festival of the Dead. At this time it is thought that
the disembodied souls return from the dismal region of the
Shades to gaze for a while upon the beauty of their country and
to visit their people. On the first morning, new mats are placed
upon all altars and on the household shrine, while in the
homes, tiny meals are prepared in readiness for the ghostly
guests. The streets at night are brilliant with many torches. In
front of the houses gaily-colored lanterns are lit in welcome.
Those who have recently lost a relative go to the cemeteries to
pray, burn incense, and leave offerings of water and flowers set
in bamboo vases.
On the third day, the souls of those who are undergoing
penance are fed, as are the souls of those who have no friends
among the living to care for them. The evening of this day is
the time of the ghosts’ departure, and for this, thousands of little
boats are fashioned and laden with food-offerings and tender
messages of farewell. When the night falls, tiny lanterns are
lit and hung at the miniature prows and the ghosts are supposed
to step aboard. Then the craft are set free upon rivers,
lakes, and seas, the water gleaming with the glow of thousands
of lights. On this day no sailor dreams of going out to sea—for
this one night belongs to the dead. It was believed that if a ship
failed to come to port before the sailing of the ghost-fleet the
dead arose from the deep and the sailors could hear their
mournful whispering, while the white breakers were dead
hands clutching the shores, vainly trying to return.
For the Japanese, land and life is sacred. In the Shinto pantheon,
deities represent almost everything in heaven and earth,
from the mountain of Fujiyama to the household kitchen.
When infants were a week old they were taken to the temple
and placed under the protection of some god chosen by the
parents. In later years the child might choose a patron god for
him or herself beside the tutelary one.
In remote parts of Japan traces may be found of an older
form of Shinto in which phallic symbols represented life-giving
power and therefore were used as a magical exorcism of evil influences,
especially that of disease. In this connection a dwarfgod
appears who is said to have first taught humankind the art
of magic and medicine.
In Shinto there are no idols, their place being taken by shintia,
god-bodies, concrete objects in which the divine spirit is
supposed to dwell, such as the mirror, jewel, and sword of the
sun-goddess, worshiped at the famous Ise shrine. Pilgrims from
all parts of Japan made their way to this shrine, acquiring merit
and purification thereby. These pilgrims received from the
priests objects of talismanic properties called harai that also
served as evidence of having been at the holy place. In former
days they were recognized as passports.
The term harai signifies to ‘‘drive out’’ or ‘‘sweep away,’’ and
had reference to the purification of the individual from his sins.
These objects were in the form of small envelopes or paper
boxes, each containing shavings of the wands used by the Ise
priests at the festivals held twice a year to purify the nation in
general from the consequences of the sins of the preceding six
months. The list of sins included witchcraft, wounding, and
homicide, these latter being regarded more as uncleanness
than as a moral stigma. On the pilgrim’s return home, the harai
were placed upon the ‘‘god’s-shelf.’’
On certain festival days the ancient ordeals were practiced.
These were three in number the Kugadachi, in which priests,
wrought to ecstatic frenzy by participation in a rhythmic dance,
poured boiling water upon their bodies without receiving harm
from the process; the Hiwatari, a fire ordeal consisting of walking
barefoot over a bed of live coals in which both priests and
people alike participated; and Tsurugiwatari, the climbing of a
ladder of sword-blades. The tests were regarded as tests of purity
of character-purity thought to confer an immunity from hurt
in these ordeals. The attendant rites consisted of exorcism of
evil spirits by the waving of wands and magical finger-knots,
and invocation of the gods who were then believed to be actually
Possession by Divinities
In connection with some of the Shinto sects, occult rites were
practiced to bring about possession of a selected person by the
actual spirits of the gods. Priests and laymen alike developed
and practiced this art, undergoing a period of purification by
means of various austerities. Prophecy, divination, and the
cure of disease were the objects of these rites. The ceremony
took place in a temple or ordinary house where the ‘‘gods’
shelf’’ made the shrine. In the rites, the gohei, Shinto symbols
of consecration, were used; the pendant form was utilized for
purification and exorcism of evil influences; an upright gohei afEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. JAPAN
fixed to a wand signifying the shintai, or god-body, was the central
The medium, called nakaza, took his seat in the midst. Next
to him in importance was the functionary, the maeza, who presided
over the ceremony. It was he who built the magical pyre
in a brass bowl and burned in the flames strips of paper inscribed
with characters, effigies of disease and trouble. There
was a clapping of hands to call attention to the gods, and chants
were intoned, accompanied by the shaking of metal-ringed crosiers
and the tinkle of pilgrim bells.
After the fire burned out, the bowl was removed and sheets
of paper placed in symbolic form, upon which was then put the
upright gohei wand. There was further chanting. The medium
closed his eyes and clasped his hands, into which the maeza
thrust the wand. All awaited the advent of the god, which was
indicated by the violent shaking of the wand and convulsive
throes on the part of the medium, who was now considered to
have become the god. The maeza reverently prostrated himself
before the entranced nakaza, and asked the name of the god
who had deigned to come. This done and answered, he next
offered his petitions, to which the god replied. The ceremony
concluded with a prayer and the medium was awakened by
beating his back and massaging his limbs out of their cataleptic
contraction. These possession rites were also conducted by the
pilgrims who ascended the mountain of Ontaké.
Buddhist Sects
Buddhism shared with Shinto the devotions of Japan, enjoining
meditation as a means of attaining supernatural knowledge
and occult power. It was said that to those who in truth
and constancy put into force the doctrines of Buddha the following
ten powers would be granted (1) They know the
thoughts of others. (2) Their sight, piercing as that of the celestials,
beholds without mist all that happens in the Earth. (3)
They know the past and present. (4) They perceive the uninterrupted
succession of the ages of the world. (5) Their hearing
is so fine that they perceive and can interpret all the harmonies
of the three worlds and the ten divisions of the universe. (6)
They are not subject to bodily conditions and can assume any
appearance at will. (7) They distinguish the shadowing of lucky
or unlucky words, whether they are near or far away. (8) They
possess the knowledge of all forms, and knowing that form is
void, they can assume every sort or form; and knowing that vacancy
is form, they can annihilate and render nought all forms.
(9) They possess a knowledge of all laws. (10) They possess the
perfect science of contemplation.
Methods were known by which it was possible to so radically
change the psychological condition of the individual that he or
she would be enabled to recognize the character of the opposition
between subjective and objective. These two extremes were
reconciled in a higher condition of consciousness, a higher
form of life, and a more profound and complete activity that
concerns the inmost depths of the self. Such beliefs parallel
Hindu yoga philosophy, and may have been imported into
Japan from India by Buddhist influence during the twelfth and
fourteenth centuries C.E. Early Buddhist influence in Japan
from the sixth century on was from China.
Zen Buddhism in Japan belongs to the later period of the
twelfth century. Zen monasteries were instituted where anyone
so inclined could retire for temporary meditation and for the
development of special faculties. These were produced by entering
a calm mental state, not exactly passive, but in which the
attention is not devoted to any one thing, distributed in all directions,
producing a sort of void and detachment. The spirit
thus obtains entire repose and a satisfaction of the thirst for the
ideal. This mystical retirement was sought by politicians and
generals, by business, scientific, and professional people, and
it was believed that the force that accumulated within them by
practicing the Zen was effective even in practical life.
Customs and Occult Lore
Many of the customs of the Japanese have a magical significance.
At the Festival of the New Year, extending over three
days, it is considered the highest importance to ensure good
luck and happiness for the coming year by means of many traditional
observances. Houses are thoroughly cleansed materially
and spiritually, and evil spirits are expelled by throwing
beans and peas out the open slides of the houses. The gateways
are decorated with straw ropes made to represent the lucky
Chinese numbers of three, five, and seven. Mirror cakes, associated
with the sun-goddess, are eaten, as are lobsters, longevity
being symbolized by their bent and ancient appearance. The
pine-tree branches used for decoration at this time also signify
long life.
Divination was performed by various methods by diviningrods,
by the reading of lines and cracks in the shoulder-blade
of a deer, and by the classical form taken from the Confucian
I Ching or Book of Changes, this involving the use of eight trigrams
and sixty-four diagrams.
One method of ‘‘raising spirits’’ used by the Japanese, especially
by girls who had lost their lovers by death, was to put into
a paper lantern a hundred rushlights and repeat an incantation
of a hundred lines. One of these rushlights was taken out at the
end of each line and the would-be ghost-seer then went out in
the dark with one light still burning and blew it out when the
ghost ought to appear.
Charms used to be popular, fashioned of all substances and
in all forms, such as strips of paper bearing magical inscriptions
to avert evil, fragments of temples, carved rice grains representing
the gods of luck, sutras (sacred texts) to frighten the demons,
and copies of Buddha’s footprint. Paper tickets bearing
the name of a god were often affixed outside the doors of houses
to combat the god of poverty.
Nature and her manifestations are the result of indwelling
soul-life. The Japanese mind, imbued with this belief, peopled
nature with multiform shapes. There were dragons with lairs in
ocean and river that could fly abroad in the air, while from their
panting breath came clouds of rain and tempests of lightning.
In the mountains and forests were bird-like gnomes who often
beset wayfaring men and women and stole away their wits.
There were also mountain men, huge hairy monkeys, who
helped the woodcutters in return for food, and mountainwomen,
ogres with bodies grown over with long white hair, who
flitted like evil moths in search of human flesh.
Legend also told of the Senrim, hermits of the mountains,
who knew all the secrets of magic. They were attended by wise
toads and flying tortoises, could conjure magical animals out of
gourds, and could project their souls into space.
Supernatural powers were also ascribed to animals. The fox
was believed to possess such gifts to an almost limitless extent,
for the animal had miraculous vision and hearing, could read
the innermost human thoughts, and could be transformed, assuming
any shape at will. He loved to delude humans and work
destruction, often taking the form of a beautiful and seductive
woman whose embrace meant madness and death. This animal
was attributed demoniacal possession.
The cat was not regarded with any kindly feeling by the Japanese,
because this animal and the serpent were the only creatures
who did not weep at Buddha’s death. Cats also had the
power of bewitchment and possessed vampire proclivities. Yet
among sailors the cat was held in high estimation, for it was
thought to possess the power of warding off the evil spirits that
haunt the sea.
The images of animals were also thought to be endowed
with life. There are tales of bronze horses and deer, huge
carved dragons, and stone tortoises wandering abroad at night,
terrorizing the people and only laid to rest by decapitation.
Butterflies were thought to be the wandering souls of the living
who might be dreaming or sunk in reverie; white butterflies
were the souls of the dead. Fireflies kept evil spirits afar, and
JAPAN Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
an ointment compounded of their delicate bodies defied any
Trees occupied a foremost place in the tradition and legends
of Japan. The people regarded them with great affection,
and there are stories of men who, seeing a tree they loved withering
and dying, committed suicide before it, praying to the
gods that their life so given might pass into the tree and give
it renewed vigor. The willow is one of the most eerie of trees;
the willow-spirit often became a beautiful maiden and wedded
a human lover. The pine tree brought good fortune, especially
in the matter of happy marriage. It was also a token of longevity.
Tree spirits could sometimes be inimical to man and it is recorded
that to stay the disturbing wanderings of one it was necessary
to cut it down, at which time a stream of blood flowed
from the stump.
The element of fire figured large in the Japanese world of
marvels. It was worshiped in connection with the rites of the
sun-goddess and even the kitchen furnace became the object of
a sort of cult. There is the lamp of Buddha. Messages from
Hades came to this world in the shape of fire wheels, phantom
fires flickered about, flames burnt in the cemeteries, and there
were demon-lights, fox-flames, and dragon-torches. From the
eyes and mouths of certain birds such as the blue heron, fire
darted forth in white flames. Globes of fire, enshrining human
faces and forms, sometimes hung like fruit in the branches of
the trees.
The dolls of Japanese children were believed to be endowed
with life, deriving a soul from the love expended upon them by
their human possessors. Some of these dolls were credited with
supernatural powers. They could confer maternity upon a
childless woman, and they could bring misfortune upon any
who ill-treated them. When old and faded these dolls were dedicated
to Kojin the many-armed who dwelt in the enokie tree,
and they were reverently laid upon his shrine, bodies which
once held a tiny soul.
New Religions in Japan
The ancient beliefs and superstitions confronted the tremendous
pressures changing Japan in the decades following
World War II. Although Shinto and Buddhist religions still predominate,
an astonishing number of new religions, most variations
of the older religions, have arisen. Many combine original
Shinto andor Buddhist beliefs with elements of Christianity.
The defeat of Japan in the war was a crushing blow to national
morale and weakened belief in traditional religion, especially
Shintoism. Again, the post-war arrival of high technology and
the intensification of industrialization created further receptivity
to new directions in religious life. Many saw a need for updating
and streamlining religious belief and practice. In modern
times, hundreds of new religions have been registered
officially, two-thirds of them developments of Shinto or Buddhism,
with a combined following in the millions.
Among these sects is a group known as Omoto (Teaching of
the Great Origin), which originally began in 1892 as a Messianic
sect, founded by a farmer woman named Deguchi Nao. The
sect was developed by Deguchi Onisaburo and featured the
healing of diseases by mystical power. By 1934, it had some 2.5
million followers. Then in 1935, the Japanese government
turned on the group and imprisoned the founders and leading
followers; their headquarters were dynamited and for all practical
purposes the group was destroyed. Not until after World
War II was Omoto revived, now under the name of Aizen-en
(Garden of Divine Love). Onisaburo died in 1948, but the
movement continued to flourish and also gave rise to various
splinter sects.
Counted in the unrelated new religions is Tensho Kotai
Jingu Kyo, more generally known as Odoru Shukyo (The Dancing
Religion) founded by Kitamura Sayo, a farmer’s wife regarded
by followers as divinely inspired. She is addressed as
‘‘Goddess’’ and her son as ‘‘Young God.’’ She is believed to
have prophetic insight and power to heal diseases.
Psychical Research & Parapsychology
Although little has been published in Western countries
about Japan in relation to paranormal phenomena, Japanese
interest in the subject goes back to the last century. As already
mentioned, shamanistic techniques and mediumistic faculty
were characteristic of some Japanese religions, and from the
middle of the nineteenth century on, such phenomena began
to be studied objectively. One early investigator was Atsutane
Hirat (1776–1843) who was a pioneer in drawing attention to
reported cases of reincarnation and poltergeists.
Chikaatsu Honda (1823–1889) studied the techniques of
Chinkon, a method of meditation involving revelation through
divine possession, becoming mediumistic himself. His techniques
were later developed by Deguchi Onisaburo
(1871–1948), the leading figure of Omoto. The Chinkon Kishin
technique involved spirit communication, and Wasaburo
Asano, then a member of Omoto, perceived that this had much
in common with European Spiritualism. He subsequently became
independent of Omoto and promoted the study of Spiritualism.
A pioneer of psychical research was Enryo Inoue
(1858–1919) who founded Fushigi Kenkyukai (the Society for
Anomalous Phenomena) at the University of Tokyo in 1888.
Another early investigator was Toranosuke Oguma of Meiji
University, who studied abnormal psychology, hypnosis, and
dreams, and who began to make Western psychical research
known in Japan. Oguma published several books on psychical
Another pioneer was Tomobichi Fukurai (1869–1952) of
the University of Tokyo, whose experiments on clairvoyance
and psychic photography (which he called ‘‘thoughtography’’)
commenced in 1910. An English translation of his book Clairvoyance
and Thoughtography (1913) was published in 1921. His
experiments in thoughtography were a remarkable anticipation
of the phenomena of Ted Serios in modern times, investigated
by Jule Eisenbud. Unfortunately Fukurai’s experiments
caused dissension at Tokyo University, and he was obliged to
resign. He went to the Buddhist University of Kohyassan where
he became president of The Psychical Institute of Japan. He
also published a second book, Spirit and Mysterious World
(1932), in which he attempted to reconcile psychical phenomena
with Buddhism. Today, the Fukurai Institute of Psychology
that studies paranormal phenomena pursues their work in his
name. Fukurai died in 1952.
In 1923, the Japanese Society for Psychic Science was
founded at Tokyo, under the presidency of W. Asano. Progress
in psychical research was slow. After the war, J. B. Rhine’s book
The Reach of the Mind (1947) was translated into Japanese and
stimulated investigation of ESP. Meanwhile Fukurai, who had
removed to Sendai in Honshu, organized a research group of
psychologists and engineers for the study of parapsychology.
Another organization formed for the purpose of investigating
psychical research was the Institute for Religious Psychology,
founded by Hiroshi Motoyama.
After a visit to Japan by J. G. Pratt of Duke University Parapsychology
Laboratory in 1963, a Japanese Society for Parapsychology
was officially foudned in 1968 through the initiative of
Soji Otani, who visited Duke University and studied the techniques
of the researchers there. The previous year, in 1967, the
society held a conference of parapsychologists in Tokyo, when
Oguma lectured on the history of parapsychology in Japan.
Parapsychology has since become a recognized area for research
at various Japanese universities.
The showing of a program featuring psychic Uri Geller on
Japanese television stimulated interest in the phenomena of
psychokinesis. In 1977, experiments were reported with a 17-
year-old boy, Masuaki Kiyota, who claimed unusual faculties
in metal bending and in thoughtography (now investigated as
‘‘nengraphy’’). Some of these experiments were filmed and
shown on American television in 1977. Kiyota has since confessed
that he produced the results by fraud.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. JAPAN
Addresses for Japanese organizations concerned with
parapsychological investigations are as follows
International Association for Religion & Parapsychology,
4–11-7 Inokashira, Mitaka, Tokyo 181.
Japan Nengraphy Association, Awiji-cho 2-25, Kannda,
Chioda, Tokyo.
Japan Association for Psychotronic Research, co 284-6 Anagawa-cho.
Japanese Society for Parapsychology, 26–14 Chuo 4-
chrome, Nakano, Tokyo 164.
Psi Science Institute of Japan, Shibuya Business Hotel 6F,
12-5 Shibuya 1-chrome, Shinjuki-ku, Tokyo 150.
Anesaki, Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion. London
Kegan Paul, 1930.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Davis, F. Hadland. Myths and Legends of Japan. London Harrap,
Deguchi, Onisaburo. Memoirs. Japan Kameoka, 1957.
Fukurai, Tomokichi. Clairvoyance and Thoughtography. London
Rider, 1931. Reprint, New York Arno Press, 1975.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Kokoro Hints & Echoes of Japanese Inner
Life. Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
International Society of Life Information Science, Tokyo.
httpwwwsoc.nacsis.ac.jpislis. June 6, 2000.
Japanese Society for Parapsychology. httpwww.jspp.ne.jp.
June 6, 2000.
Lowell, Percival. Occult Japan. Boston Houghton Mifflin,
Offner, C. B., and H. van Straelen. Modern Japanese Religions.
Leyden, Netherlands E. J. Brill, 1963.
Thomsen, Harry. The New Religions of Japan. Rutland, Vt.
Charles E. Tuttle, 1963.
Uphoff, Walter, and Mary Jo Uphoff. Mind Over Matter Implications
of Masuaki Kiyota’s PK Feats with Metal and Film. Ore.
New Frontiers Center; London Colin Smythe, 1980.