University of Bath

The status of Rei (spirits) of the dead in Japanese society

This talk explores how The Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 changed attitudes towards the spirits of the dead in Japanese society.

23 Oct 20181.15pm
23 Oct 20182.30pm
Lanterns on a lake
Japanese lanterns floating on a lake. Photo by Richard Riley used under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence

Japanese people’s wariness of religious groups increased in 1995 after Aum Shinrikyō’s sarin gas attack on subway stations in Tokyo. It seemingly led to a suspicion against discourses that presuppose the reality of spirits or ghosts.

And yet, according to surveys, more than half of Japanese people believe in spirits or ghosts of the dead. Contemporary Japanese belief in spirits is informed by Japanese folk religion (including influences of Buddhism and Shinto) and vocabularies appropriated from British spiritualism and American New Age.

In the 2000s, a spiritual boom happened, with mediums (or spiritual counsellors) attracting people both through the mass-media and the spiritual marketplace. Its popularity, however, led to strong opposition from sceptics, and media exposure started to fade.

The Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 changed this. NHK, Japan’s public service television, showed a documentary that reported people bereaved by the Earthquake sensing the presence of the dead. Viewers were generally supportive of the programme’s contents.

In this seminar, we'll examine the contents and viewers’ reactions, showing that Japanese people’s attitudes toward spirits of the dead changed from pejorative to sympathetic.