• ArtsandLectures twitter avatar
    RT @brainpicker: So looking forward to my conversation with the wonderful @PicoIyer at the University of Santa Barbara @ArtsandLectures ser…
    1 hour 10 min ago
  • UCSBgauchos twitter avatar
    Andrew Martinez (3-5, 4 RBI), Ben Brecht (5 IP, 1 H, 0 K), and Armani Smith (3-5, 3 RBI) team up to take down Sac S… https://t.co/uaCjUxpsEc
    2 hours 44 min ago
  • ucsantabarbara twitter avatar
    Current #UCSB physicist Gary Horowitz got to experience Stephen Hawking’s brilliance firsthand, and recalls Hawking… https://t.co/c19uuFTXbK
    3 hours 47 min ago
  • ucsantabarbara twitter avatar
    The 19th Annual UC LEADS Research and Leadership Symposium brought together undergraduates from across the… https://t.co/1gfuDbw8xd
    11 hours 46 min ago
  • UCSBgauchos twitter avatar
    UCSB MVB became just the second team this year to take a lead on No. 1 and undefeated Long Beach State, but the Gau… https://t.co/faB34xJskD
    22 hours 48 min ago
  • UCSBgauchos twitter avatar
    Women's Tennis: Harvard at UC Santa Barb. (3/16/2018 2:00 PM EDT) Rain Day Leads to Cancellation of UCSB vs Harvard https://t.co/K0rSjkMka2
    23 hours 33 min ago
  • UCSBgauchos twitter avatar
    .@UCSB_Baseball opener vs. Sac St suspended due to rain. Gauchos and Hornets to play two tomorrow. https://t.co/JpJxFxXmbV
    1 day 3 hours ago
  • ucsantabarbara twitter avatar
    Here’s the problem: the bigger the parts in a satellite, the more expensive it is to build, launch, and operate. Lu… https://t.co/KLmIBg84Rb
    1 day 3 hours ago
  • ArtsandLectures twitter avatar
    Considered the world's greatest mezzo-soprano, @JoyceDiDonato entrances audiences across the globe with “a warmth i… https://t.co/L3YuZv7m88
    1 day 5 hours ago
  • brenucsb twitter avatar
    Protecting marine mammals, turtles, and birds by rebuilding global fisheries: #BrenUCSB and @sfgucsb post-docs rele… https://t.co/0HTXyi7Mjg
    1 day 6 hours ago
  • UCSBgauchos twitter avatar
    Logan Hotchkiss and Billy Mullis will represent @UCSBSwimming at the 2018 NCAA Division I Men's Swimming Championsh… https://t.co/e92apKJm4f
    1 day 8 hours ago
  • UCSBLibrary twitter avatar
    #deadweek means you'll have to wait just a bit longer to celebrate #worldsleepday. You're almost there, Gauchos!
    1 day 8 hours ago

Spiritual World

UCSB scholars will explore an elusive phenomenon: the prevalence of ghosts in Japanese culture
Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 11:15
Santa Barbara, CA


Photo Credit: 

Courtesy photo

Some relatives never leave. In Japan, they hang around even after they’ve passed away.

Called “tama” or “tamashii,” spirits of deceased ancestors are considered very real in contemporary Japanese culture — a belief that goes back centuries. According to Fabio Rambelli, a professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, they are part of an invisible realm populated by ghosts, spirits, gods and cult figures that has played a central role in Japanese culture and religion.

Hoping to trace cultural genealogies of these attitudes and produce conceptual maps of this striking aspect of Japanese life, Rambelli organized “Invisible Empire: Spirits and Animism in Contemporary Japan,” an international conference slated for Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 25-26. It is free and open to the public.

“It sounds strange … but ghosts, spirits in Japan are everywhere, or at least people think they are everywhere,” said Rambelli, the International Shinto Foundation Chair in Shinto Studies in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies. “It’s really an important part of the culture.  … We think that spirits and ghosts are kind of eerie and dangerous. But for many Japanese, basically the idea is when people die they become invisible and stay around.”

Rambelli believes scholars can better understand this phenomenon by discussing what kind of research is going on in different fields. “I’ve been working on Japan for many years, but this has been kind of strange — always in the back of my mind,” said Rambelli, who specializes in religious theories but noted there is no theology for spirits. “It’s something people kind of make up.”   

Today, a lot of the Japanese spiritual lore is spread through video games, films, literature, visual arts, architecture, popular religion, science and technology. It’s so widespread that the study of spirits (yōkai) is now a flourishing academic field and a successful publishing genre; and numerous religious organizations focus their teachings and ritual systems on interactions with and control of ghosts.

Many scholars, especially in the west, tend to explain away this interest in spiritual beings as metaphors for tradition, cultural identity, and social and personal anxiety, according to Rambelli. While this is a viable interpretive key, he added, it ignores the fact that many Japanese people typically treat spirits as potentially real presences. Some don’t subscribe to the existence of these spiritual entities, he continued, but many would be reluctant to simply discard the possibility of their existence.

Carina Roth, a UCSB visiting professor from the University of Geneva and one of the conference speakers, doesn’t dismiss the idea of an invisible realm. “I believe that there are many levels of perception and transmission of information most of us are hardly aware of, and that terms such as ‘ghosts’ or ‘spirits’ are names given to what cannot be fully apprehended with our normal day-to-day baggage or tools,” she said. “Whether they describe actual entities, I have no idea.”

Roth noted the conference topics are not often addressed in an academic environment. “They tend to be considered antithetical to scientific discourse and I am very curious to see how we will all tackle this problem,” she added.

What’s especially surprising about spiritual beliefs being so deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of Japan, Rambelli noted, is that the country is known for its high degree of secularization, technological advancement and social development. Very few comprehensive studies exist on the metaphysical foundations, theological implications, historical roots, and connections with present cultural formations and concerns.

 Asked if he’s ever seen a spirit, Rambelli replied with a laugh: “No. No, that would be really scary. I don’t have the cultural background.”

Other conference participants are: Andrea Castiglioni, a UCSB visiting postdoctoral researcher of religious studies; and Ellen Van Goethem, a UCSB visiting professor from Kyushu University; Mauro Arrighi, a digital art professor from the Art Academy of Verona; Jason Josephson-Storm, a religion professor from Williams College; Rebecca Suter, a comparative literary studies professor from the University of Sydney; and Jolyon Thomas, a Japanese culture professor from the University of Pennsylvania.

The conference will take place in 2135 Social Sciences and Media Studies Building. More information, including a complete schedule, can be found at http://www.ihc.ucsb.edu/invisible-empire

Contact Info: 

Jim Medina
(805) 893-5446