In Japanese folklore, spirits take on the form of Hitodama (人魂) which are floating orbs of a fire-like material. I think the concept of spirit orbs are somewhat universal such as ghost lights like will’o the wisp and spheres of lights showing up in photographs here and there. For Japanese people, the hitodama have a longer history with details that make them pretty unique.
After talking to a few Japanese folk, I was told that hitodama are usually spotted at night but can be seen in the daytime as well. You also have a higher chance of seeing one in a (surprise) cemetery. Recently, a middle-aged Japanese man told me about his experience spotting one while driving not too long ago. He was passing by a nearby cemetery when he spotted it. Following this story, he told me they are shaped like orbs because it is formed in the image of a person’s brain and essentially it is like the consciousness that gets set free after death. It is also believed that the more “good” a person does in her or his lifetime their orb/sphere will be much smoother. A perfectly round, marble like hitodama is the most desired — and when a person does something “bad” or “evil” cracks begin to form on the surface. As he explained he drew pictures at the same time to help me imagine what he was talking about.
In Japan, the Obon holiday is approaching (In Tokyo, the date is a bit different and has just passed) which is usually in the middle of August. During these few days spirits come back to the world of the living and enjoy the offerings their descendants have left for them. Ghost stories are commonplace in the summer thanks to Obon and also because of the belief that getting “the chills” from a ghost story keeps you cool in the summer. Even in book stores they have special sections set up stacked with horror books and manga for the summer holiday.
I’m finishing this rather short entry off with another first hand account told to me this past month by a Japanese man who turned 90 years old this year. He was eager to share the story, while still somewhat speculative of the topic of the paranormal, he said he remembers this very clearly. The time frame of this story is pre-World War II Japan.
Let me tell you about a story that I heard when I was still 10 years old. I was enjoying a cool evening with my younger brother, two years younger than me, sitting outside our house. It happened around 1935 when we were living in Omori, Tokyo. If I remember it correctly, it was around the time of the Obon festival When I happened to look up at the roof of an old two-storied house located about 50 meters from my house, to my disbelief, I saw two spirit orbs, hitodama, that emitted pale blue and purple lights as they moved. They seemed to intertwine around each other and had tails of fire-like lights behind them. They measured about 50 centimeters in length. My brother must have seen them as well. The two of us jumped into our house. Our mother was surprised at seeing us. When I shared with her what we had just seen, she told us the following story: a mother and her two young daughers used to live in that house. The mother had already died three years before I saw the spirits and one of the daughters had been suffering from tuberculosis and was in critical condition. I heard that five days after I saw the spirits, that daughter had died. Even now, eighty years since then, I still recall vividly those intertwined spirits around the time of the Obon festival.