Possessed by Demons, Animals, and Nonsense

Green Snake hand art

“Japan doesn’t have that stuff. That’s more of a Western thing.” Just like I constantly have to remind Westerners how they’re horribly wrong about the bizarre and ridiculous stereotypes of Japan, I had to show my Japanese friend that she was totally wrong in her idea about “us” and “them.” The notion that only Westerners believe in exorcisms and demonic possessions is simply wrong. In addition to the many stories I mentioned in an earlier post about exorcisms in Japan, yet another case occurred recently in Japan where the belief in possessions reared its ugly head.

The story in Japan came just around the time a 27-year-old man in a zoo in China decided to end his own life by picking a fight he knew he couldn’t win. He attacked an ostrich. With his teeth. But unfortunately, he won.

The man ended up biting the ostrich to death – probably one of the more agonizing ways to die – and therefore failed his “attempt at suicide.” Was he “possessed,” though? Probably not. The man claims to have attempted to take his own life, as he was carrying a suicide note addressed to his parents. He began slashing his wrists as police were called, but did not resist when they took him away.

Then in February there was a story out of America where 25-year-old Chelsea Booth killed her own 2-year-old daughter. She believed that her toddler was suffering from a “Muslim curse” that her father put on her, so she killed her and tossed her corpse into the garbage. Unless the curse was “the shittiest mother in America,” I’m guessing Booth was wrong. She said her child was “possessed by an evil spirit,” which is the only thing she was right about: herself.

When talking about these kinds of stories to my Japanese friend, she was shocked to hear how foreigners have such crazy beliefs. I share her dismay, but not her lack of reference. In fact, this last story from Japan is like the product of the first two stories combined.

One father and son in Japan had a fatal interaction that baffles the mind, even for a skeptic like myself, who has seen a lot of foolish behavior and plenty of absurd beliefs.

The reporting on this story is considerably lax, but from I have gathered, it appears as though a 23-year-old was basically acting like a snake. Whether or not he actually believed that he was a snake was not reported, but I have a feeling he wasn’t just “playing around.” You may think you know where this story is going. You do not.

He began head-butting his 53-year-old father, slithering around, and making snapping sounds. It was obviously a scary thing for the father to experience, so he did what any terrified parent would do. He bit his son back. And then he bit him again.

And again. And again…

He was trying to literally bite the snake out of his son. Because… evidently he believed that snakes can possess humans – a belief I have never heard of from any culture. Demonic and spirit possessions are one thing, but a relatively regular and simple animal?

Well that’s the end of the story, because the son was bitten to death.

Without knowing more of the context, the only way I can wrap my head around this is by assuming that both the father and son had some sort of bizarre mental illnesses. Presumably, a 23-year-old would be able to fight off his 53-year-old father; or failing that, would stop acting like a snake, which may have stopped the biting altogether… but who knows?

All we can say is that Japan is not immune to such beliefs. Perhaps they’re more common in the West because of a longer history of such beliefs in Western culture; but Japanese people have a long history of various unique beliefs of their own, such as blood-type and personality connections, as well as various quasi-religious superstitions. The point is, every culture has people who believe in things that make no sense, and there will always be people who think things that cannot be substantiated by any form of scientific rigor – we can make this more and more scarce, by doing things like educating people in critical thinking and the scientific method, but we’ll never be able to bring the number of such believers down to zero.

I believe this inevitability comes from a mix of culture, history, and mental illness. Stress, genetic mutations and anomalies, and neurotoxic environmental factors have always been affecting people’s brains. Some people believe absurd things because they have such mental disorders (e.g., people with paranoid schizophrenia) but there are also those who look at cases of mentally ill people (whether they were diagnosed or not) and use those as examples of demonic possessions. This only feeds the problem – and the problem is the belief itself.

As I said, the belief is inevitable because you can’t get rid of mental illness. This is the same reason why you’ll never get rid of murders, or even serial killers. Unfortunately, unless we invent some probably terribly invasive brain-scanning techniques to identify what “causes” people to want to kill in the future (note: I highly doubt this will ever happen, even if we had the technology, which we probably never will), unpredictable neurological factors will be with us forever. After all, no one expects to get a tumor; but they can cause complete personality changes and affect every aspect of an individual’s experience of the world.

Ultimately, my point is that every culture has their own odd beliefs. Lots of people think others’ are unique (“We would never fall for that”).

I have found in my travels around the world, however, that they’re not so different after all. They’re usually almost the same thing, just packaged in a different way. But a lump of coal is still a lump of coal if it’s in a gift-wrapped box.

So don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re somehow “special,” like my friend did the other day. Japan’s not special. It’s just as crazy as everywhere else.

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