The Cthulhu Mythos in Japan

(The following essay is by Justin Mullis.)

This article marks the beginning of a short series of essays illuminating the connection between author H.P. Lovecraft and the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan, both of which have been nearly life-long obsessions of mine. Also please bear in mind that in Japan family names precede personal names. So director Akira Kurosawa would actually be Kurosawa, Akira over there. However for the convenience of the reader I have rendered all names as they would be in English.    

Origins and Literature

It should be no surprise that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories would have become popular in Japan long before they were recognized in America.[1] Why? Well for starters at least in Japanese, which is a phonetic language, one can pronounce Cthulhu. “Katulf’ is how they say it.

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Lovecraft’s stories began appearing in Japanese publications as early as the 1940s, with “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919) being amongst the first when it was translated by Nishio Tadashi and serialized in Hakaba (“Graveyard”) Magazine.

However, as was the case in America, it was the popularity of Sandy Peterson’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game that truly brought Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos into Japanese mainstream otaku or geek culture. The first Japanese translations of the Call of Cthulhu game appeared in Hobby Japan magazine in 1986 (at the height of the 80s Japanese horror boom) and were later reprinted by Enterbrain.  As a result of the popularity of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, Hobby Japan – in a move similar to that of American RPG publisher Chaosium – began commissioning original Lovecraft inspired manga and short stories to be printed in their various sister publications including RPG Magazine and Comic Master magazine.

As in the States and elsewhere, many prominent Japanese fantasy, sci-fi, and horror writers were soon dabbling in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos. Some of the more recognizable include Kaoru Kurimoto (creator of the Guin Saga novels), Jun Hazami (the Japanese translator of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books), Vampire Hunter D creator Hideyuki Kikuchi, acclaimed horror manga writer and artist Junji Ito (Tomie, Uzumaki, Gyo) as well as the renowned manga-ka Shigeru Mizuki; creator of the celebrated children’s horror manga GeGeGe no Kitaro (1956 to Present) the premises of which is akin to a cross between Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo’s Casper the Friendly Ghost and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. In 1963 Mizuki penned a manga adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” titled “Chitei no Ashioto” (“Footsteps of the Underworld”) which kept the plot exactly the same but changed the character’s names and moved the story to rural Japan.

However, amongst the numerous Japanese writers who have been influenced by Lovecraft’s Legacy two in particular rise above the rest: Chiaki J. Konaka (b. 1961) and Ken Asamatsu (b. 1956).

Chiaki J. Konaka is a prolific writer who has worked in print as well as in film, television, anime and tokusatsu. For anime fans some of Konaka’s best known works include; Armitage III (1995), Serial Experiments Lain (1998), BIG O (1999-2003), Digimon Tamers (2001), RahXephon (2002), Texhnolyze (2003), and Ghost Hound (2007), just to name a few. Konaka is also well known to fans of the long running and much beloved tokusatsu superhero series Ultraman having worked on several different incarnations including Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Gaia, Ultraman Max, and Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy. In a future post we will look more closely at Lovecraft’s influence within the anime and tokusatsu genres including the shows written by Konaka.

Konaka, as life-long fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, has admitted to frequently borrowing “elements of H.P.L. and other authors of the Cthulhu Saga for my scenarios.”[2] The Lovecraftian and Cthulhu Mythos related elements which Konaka places in his work range from the obscure (the name of the android title character in Armitage III is taken from the heroic professor of the same name in “The Dunwich Horror”) to the overt, including his 1992 screenplay Innsmouth wo ô Kage, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, which was turned into a made for TV movie.

Konaka has said that as a writer for TV, where deadlines are often very short, one of the major benefits of borrowing from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos universe is that it saves time in fleshing out a story. “I don’t have the desire to create an original world for each new production”, notes Konaka, “So when it’s effective, I use [Lovecraft’s] elements.” In addition to Lovecraft, Konaka is also a big fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and will also borrow elements from there as well.

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When it comes to original Mythos fiction, very little of Konaka’s output is currently available for an English audience. To my knowledge his short stories “Those Who Walk in the Abyss” (1994), “Dagon, Uchusen 88” (1999) and “Shiny [A Little Help from the Gods]” (1999) have never been translated into English. For Japanese readers however, all of them can be found in the collection Those Who Walk in the Abyss (2001) available from publishing company Tokuma Dual Bunko.

An English translation of Konaka’s short story “Terror Rate” (2002) does appear in The Inverted Kingdom; the second volume of Ken Asamatsu’s Lair of the Hidden Gods anthology series. “Terror Rate” is about a young woman named Inami Yoshie who is offered a sizeable sum of money to spend the night in an allegedly haunted house as part of an experiment being conducted by a scientist who is interested in measuring the escalation of fear in humans. Inami doesn’t believe in ghosts but does believe herself to be fearless and intends to last the whole night. However like the protagonist in Stephen King’s “1408”, Inami quickly discovers that ghosts are not what she needs to be worried about. The Mythos elements in this story are actually rather subdued with the most overt nod being in the form of a record that Inami finds and plays. Rather than music the record is filled with a familiar chant: ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn…

An interesting take on the ‘evil house’ story, “Terror Rate” is recommended if for no other reason than it being the only literary example of Konaka’s excellent work that English readers can currently get their hands on.

The reason why non-Japanese audiences now have stories like Konaka’s “Terror Rate” available in English is in part thanks to one man; Ken Asamatsu who could probably be called Lovecraft’s Official Japanese Ambassador. I say this with little to no hyperbole involved since any attempt to list Asamatsu’s lengthy Mythos related bibliography would undoubtedly end up occupying the rest of this article.

Asamatsu first encountered Lovecraft as a teenager while visiting Lovecraft’s home turf of Providence, RI and reading the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. “I was stunned by the way it pulled me in, and its superb structure.” Reports Asamatsu in an interview with James Grainger, “I felt that Lovecraft would be my mentor and guide in literature for the rest of my life.”

At that time there was no translation of Lovecraft’s complete works available in Japanese, so Asamatsu, along with several likeminded friends, started translating the missing works themselves while in high school. They also started a Lovecraft-themed fanzine in which they published original horror fiction, criticism, and essays on the occult.

Later Asamatsu got a job working for publishing company Kokusho Kankokai and helped to oversee an official translation and release of Lovecraft’s complete works in Japanese. It was also at this time, 1986, that Asamatsu released his debut work; Makyo no Gen’ei (trans. Echoes of Ancient Cults or Phantom of the Devil Cult). This original Mythos-based horror novel tells the story of an aristocratic family who comes to ruin due to a pact made by an ancestor five-centuries earlier with an evil god named Kushiruu (who turns out is Cthulhu under a Japanese alias). “The work itself was very Lovecraftian in nature,” explains Asamatsu, “such as in the way the viscount’s youth is gradually taken over by something inhuman, and the cult itself.”

In 1998, Asamatsu set out to publish an anthology of Mythos fiction by Japanese authors. The stories were to all be set in the fictional town of Yotoura; Asamatsu’s idea for a Japanese equivalent of Lovecraft’s own Arkham. The anthology, titled Hishin (trans. “The Hidden Gods”), was published in 1999 and, unfortunately, was a bomb. Asamatsu blames the anthology’s failure on the publisher and also the cultural climate in Japan at the time. In March of 1995, a Japanese based doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo had attacked the Tokyo Metro subway line, releasing sarin gas into the air. The attack killed thirteen people, injured fifty and resulted in permanent neurological damage in thousands more. Though it may seem small in comparison this attack was essentially Japan’s version of 9/11 and resulted in a dislike for horror media amongst the Japanese public for years afterwards. In particular, stories about evil cults trying to end the world seemed to be in particularly poor taste.

Not all was lost howevehttp://www.fright.com/edge/LairsHiddenGods2.jpgr. Asamatsu continued writing and eventually decided to put together a second Cthulhu Mythos anthology. This became the two-volume Lairs of the Hidden Gods which collected short Mythos fiction from many of Japan’s top horror writers as well as several essays on Mythos by Japanese writers.  Lairs of the Hidden Gods was published by Tokyo Sogensha and proved to be a huge hit with the Japanese public. The success attracted the attention of Kurodahan Press, a publishing house which translates Japanese works into English. Kurodahan Press contacted Asamatsu and got permission to translate and reissue the collection. For the American edition, Kurodahan kept the title Lairs of the Hidden Gods but split the anthology into four smaller volumes: Vol. 1 Night Voice, Night Journeys (2005), Vol. 2 The Inverted Kingdom (2005), Vol. 3 Straight to Darkness (2006), and Vol. 4 The Dreaming God (2007).Also Asamatsu wrote new introductions for each volume while renowned Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price contributed essays and notes for each volume as well.

The stories collected in Lairs of the Hidden Gods span a wide variety from straight Lovecraftian horror to unique fusions of genres including noir, historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and eroticism. A personal favorite of mine is Tanaka Hirofumi’s “The Secret Memoir of the Missionary (Prologue)” translated by Daniel K. Day. Set in the 17th-Century and based around the very real tension that arose in Japan at that time in reaction to Christian missionaries coming to the country to try and convert the populace. Here Hirofumi reimagines the historical figure of St. Francisco Xavier, the “Apostle to the Far East”, as a covert Cthulhu cultist bringing his poisonous new faith to Japan. Fortunately a samurai named Yoshitaka recognizes Xavier’s religion for what it is and steps forth to oppose him. So yes, you eventually get samurai verses Cthulhu spawn. Awesome!

Lairs of the Hidden Gods is a great four volume anthology and worth the time of any fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, especially those who may think they’ve read it all.

Of course, as in America, Lovecraft’s eldritch influence quickly spread in Japan beyond the world of horror literature and tabletop gaming infecting the medium of anime, tokustasu and film. As we continue with this series of articles throughout the rest of December and into January we will look at some of those other mediums and how the Mythos have affected them as well.

About the Author:

Justin Mullis is a M.A. Candidate at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte enrolled in the Religious Studies program. His B.A. thesis “Playing Games with the Great Old Ones: Ritual, Play, and Joking within the Cthulhu Mythos Fandom” was selected and presented at the 2010 North Carolina Religious Studies Association and will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. He has written on Japanese science-fiction for G-Fan magazine and is a guest on the podcast Under the Stairs DCU where he speaks about Lovecraft and Cthulhu’s connection to DC Comics. You can find more of his writing at his blog Of Epic Proportions: A Blog on Myth and Mankind.

Sources for this Article:

Ken Asamatsu. Lairs of the Hidden Gods Vol. 1: Night Voices, Night Journeys, Edited by Ken Asamatsu, Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2005.

- Vol. 2: The Inverted Kingdom, Edited by Ken Asamatsu, Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2005.

- Vol. 3: Straight to Darkness, Edited by Ken Asamatsu, Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2006.

- Vol. 4: The Dreaming God, Edited by Ken Asamatsu, Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2007.

James Grainger. “Unleashed in the East: Lovecraft in Japanese Literature” in Rue Morgue no. 60, Sept. 2006. Pages 38-39.

Jason Thompson. “The Long Tentacle of H.P. Lovecraft in Manga.” at iO9.com (Pub. Jan. 4th, 2010).

Erik Davis. “Calling Cthulhu: H.P. Lovecraft’s Magick Realism” at TechGnosis.com (Pub. Fall 1995).

Chiaki J. Konaka Interview” at cjs.org (conducted June 2001, last updated June 2002)

Alice 6: Chiaki J. Konaka’s Web, official website for Chiaki J. Konaka (in Japanese and English)

Uncle Dagon Temple, official website for Ken Asamatsu (in Japanese only)

Kurodahan Press: East Asian Literature in Translation, official website (in English)


[1] Erik Davis, “Calling Cthulhu”

[2] “Chiaki J. Konaka Interview” at cjs.org (conducted June 2001, last updated June 2002)

11 responses to “The Cthulhu Mythos in Japan

  1. Loved the essay! Night Voices, Night Journeys is fantastic- highly recommended. I’m also a big fan of Junji Ito. Uzumaki and The Thing That Drifted Ashore are two of my favorites. Uzumaki in particular is a nightmarish and absurd descent into Lovecraftian weirdness. It’s a masterpiece. The Thing That Drifted Ashore can be read here: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2010/12/junji-ito-thing-that-drifted-ashore.html

    And since I’m here I have to post this pic of H.P.: http://natalie.mu/comic/gallery/show/news_id/48890/image_id/74708

  2. Thank you – this is great! I have Night Voices, Night Journeys, but other than that I have not heard or seen much about the Japanese perspective on the Mythos. I find it fascinating to see wholly different perspectives on things, and the Japanese settings and tropes applied to the Mythos is a perfect example of what can be learned in the difference between the two culture’s treatments.

    Thanks to Mike as well for publishing this article. The eZine is great fun for just the stories and weekly video chats. Add such informative scholarship and it’s headed to a new level.

  3. Thanks for the comments Christopher, and thanks for the link to Ito’s “The Thing That Drifted Ashore”. A quick note for anyone whose not familiar with manga, the Japanese read right to left so you’ll need to start with the word balloons on the right side of the page. A little confusing at first but you quickly get the hang of it.

  4. I enjoy anime and could see many of the connections to Lovecraft’s work and did some research and found many of the same influences. At the same I also found some horrible stories, much like what many writers, just because you invoke the mythos elements dose not make it a mythos story.
    I will say that many of the Japanese writers do treat Lovecraft’s story’s with respect and use the elements of of work well, better than many writers.
    I did enjoy the article and show that Lovecraft was and still is a force in today’s writers.

  5. When I was teaching in Japan, I mentioned to one of my students that I liked Lovecraft. Next week, he shows up to class with a book. I’m not sure who all was involved, but I imagine Asamatsu was, but it was a book all of short fiction based around “At The Mountains Of Madness,” all by Japanese writers. He read it and never forgave me. “That was too scary! I’ll never listen to your suggestion again!” Good times. Good times.

  6. “It should be no surprise that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories would have become popular in Japan long before they were recognized in America.” That’s an odd statement. Lovecraft’s stories had fans among the Weird Tales readers. I don’t know when HPL’s stories were translated into Japanese, but it was surely after Arkham House started to reprint them in the US. The footnote given to support this claim points to an essay about magickal practice and HPL’s fiction. The only reference to Japan in it is a statement that the stories are popular there.

    • While Lovecraft’s stories were certainly a highlight for many pulp readers and did attract some hardcore fans – like August Derleth or Willis Conover – they were hardly what one might call popular, either with the masses or critics. It’s really only been in the last 10-years that Lovecraft has become recognized by American literary critics as an important figure and it has likewise only been in the last 10-years that Lovecraft’s reputation has risen to such an extent that it’s possible for someone to know who he is without having read one of his stories.

      In Japan (and France) on the other hand, Lovecraft’s work has been recognized critically since the early 1940s and has been well infused into mainstream pop-culture for some time now. In future installments of this series we will be exploring some of that Japanese popular culture that Lovecraft and the Mythos have seeped into.

  7. As a longtime Lovecraftian and Japanophile, I loved this essay! Japan’s own tradition of the spooky and weird is deep and marvellous, and it’s not surprising that the Japanese should have such an affinity for Lovecraft.

  8. Pingback: Cthulhu Mythos In Japan « Echoes From R'lyeh·

  9. Asamatsu’s Lairs of the Hidden Gods is a fantastic collection. As an enthusiast of Japanese literature with an affection for Lovecraft, this series is a winning combination.

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