Kimodameshi – The Test of Courage

Translated and sourced from Japanese wikipedia and other sources

Are you brave enough? That is the question that will be answered by playing kimodameshi, the Japanese test of courage. You will have to walk a dark, lonely path to a haunted location and set down your token to prove that you had been there.

The Meaning of Kimodameshi

Kimodameshi (肝試し) is most often translated into English as Test of Courage, which is not literally accurate. The word kimo (肝) actually refers to the liver, while dameshi (試し) does in fact mean “test.” In Japan the liver is associated with courage—for example kimo ga suwaru, or to sit on your liver, means to be brave or self-assured. So a more literal translation of kimodameshi would be to “prove your guts.”

The History of Kimodameshi

Like most folkloric practices, the factual origin of kimodameshi is lost to legend. But there are two possible beginnings, both of which could be equally true.

In the closing years of the Heian Period, during the reign of Emperor Shirakawa (1073 to 1087), the book “O-kagami” (大鏡; “Great Mirror”) was written by an unknown author. In the book was a story of three sons of Fujiwara Kaneie. One night during the Hour of the Ox (around 3 A.M.), the sons dared each other to go to a nearby house that was known to be the home of an oni. Only the son who was the leader of the martial arts school was brave enough to take up the challenge, and as proof of his courage he used his sword to slice a chip from the lintel of the house which he brought back to show the others.

Whether the story of the sons of Fujiwara Kaneie is true or not is unknown, but it is also said that kimodameshi began as a way for those of the samurai class to condition their children against fear, and that the game served as a kind of training.

During the Edo period, the 100 candles game hyakumonogatari kaidankai—which this site is based on—was a form of storytelling kimodameshi. The earliest recording of this game comes from the kaidan-shu “Tonoigusa” (1660) where a group of samurai gather to test their courage by telling ghost stories one by one.

Modern Kimodameshi

There are no set rules to kimodameshi, and there are as many variations as there are people who play it. Kimodameshi can be played impromptu, with only a few friends egging each other on to go somewhere scary or haunted, or it can be an organized event with a preset course, often inside a prepared haunted house with actors playing the roles of spooks.

In its most pure version, a group chooses a destination, one guaranteed to inspire fear. Common examples are dark forests, grave yards, Shinto shrines, abandoned buildings, or known haunted and mysterious spaces called shinrei spots. Challengers can go alone or as a duo. They go to the chosen spot at night, to ensure maximum fear, and they either bring something back to prove that they had gone the distance, or leave some sort of token that can be recovered the next day.

Like all Japanese ghost traditions, kimodameshi traditionally takes place in the summer. In Japan, summer is when the land of the living is thought to intersect with the land of the dead, and it is the time when yokai and yurei come out to play. All organized haunted house kimodameshi will take place during the summertime. It isn’t unusual to see TV celebrities during the summer being filmed walking through a haunted house or to some famous location in a game of kimodameshi.

There are some legal issues with kimodameshi. When an abandoned building becomes a popular spot, the police have been known to set up stings to arrest trespassers. Some of the locations themselves are dangerous, such as long, dark tunnels on country roads where a car can come through at any time.

School Kimodameshi

Many Japanese people experience kimodameshi when they are young, in Elementary or Junior High School. The game is played when the children go on school camping trips, or sometimes at school during school festivals. When played with school children, the game is a set-up.

In order to keep them safe, and still provide a good scare, the location is scouted before hand and scary objects like skulls and horror-props are planted along the way. Teachers and other volunteers dress in ghost costumes and hide along the path to spring out at the children. All of the students are told a scary story about that particular location, then sent off in groups to prove their guts once the Sun has gone down.

Students can also create their own kimodameshi events at school during school festivals. They dress up in costumes and turn one of the classrooms into a haunted house for other students to enter and test their courage.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. LediaR
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 03:53:05

    Reblogged this on Mysterious Japan and commented:
    An interesting Japanese game… of courage.

    Reply

  2. Bill Ellis
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 07:35:08

    Thank your for your informative survey. I’d guess this ritual is, in fact, worldwide. There are records of what folklorists call “legend-tripping” that go back as far as 1219 in Great Britain. At Wandlebury Mound (near Cambridge), a mysterious black knight was said to appear to anyone hardy enough to go there at night and challenge him to single combat. As of 2001, the place was still considered uncanny, with crop circles appearing mysteriously in the night. (A website used to give directions on how to find it.)

    Reply

  3. Zack Davisson
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 09:47:48

    Well, I would say that the average kimodameshi is very different from what you are describing.

    The point is to get kids to be brave, conditions of fear are set up to be overcome. In most cases, there is no real “legend.” Kimodameshi are usually created by teachers/parents. They might invent some story about a particular spooky shrine or location that they are sending the kids to, but it isn’t necessary.

    Kimodameshi that I have seen at my schools were often nothing more than converted classrooms that kids had to walk in one door and out the other by themselves, while the teachers dressed up in costumes and scared them.

    There are shinrei spot kimodameshi, where you have to go to some particular haunted location. But this is much less common than the safe, school-led version.

    Reply

  4. vilajunkie
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 14:23:33

    In its pure form, kimodameshi reminds me of the folktales/urban legends about kids or teens egging each other on to spend a night in the local cemetery. The boy (or girl) with the most bravado volunteers to go. He/she stays till around midnight, and then is literally scared to death because some corpse got them. When the other kids come back during the day, they find his/her body over a grave, with his/her clothes caught on a stone or tree’s root and eyes bugged-out.

    I don’t know if that tale type has a name–maybe “jump story”–but isn’t it similar to kimodameshi?

    Reply

    • Bill Ellis
      Feb 02, 2012 @ 14:36:14

      That’s Baughman Tale Type 1676B: “Clothing Caught in Graveyard,” aka “The Fork in the Grave” or simply (in Gail deVos’s nice biblioanthology of urban legends, “Tales, Rumors and Gossip,” “The Dare.” She says it’s second only to “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” in the frequency with which it shows up in collections of Anglo-American ghost stories.

      Reply

  5. Zack Davisson
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 14:33:57

    Its sounds similar, and I have heard about urban legends like that. I could see something like that showing up as kimodameshi in an anime or comic.

    The “leaving of proof” is a big part of kimodameshi. You would generally stand in a group, then go one-by-one to the spooky place and leave something to show you were there. Shrines are a great place to do it. I have been to shrines at night, and they are spooooooooky.

    I also saw one blog posting about gangs taking advantage of popular kimodameshi sites. They wait, knowing that some poor soul will come wandering up alone, then mug them. I don’t know if that has ever happened or not, since I couldn’t find an actual article …

    Reply

  6. Bill Ellis
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 14:53:21

    Lafcadio Hearn got taken on a number of “legend trips” in his day. One was to the alleged gravesite of the two main characters in especially elaborate ghost story he’d been told (details in “A Passional Karma”). His visit was at night and he confirms that it was extremely spooooooky even if he found that the marker that he’d been led to was that of a random Buddhist nun and not the too-much-in-love-to-stay-dead woman.

    An even more interesting one was to a “cave of the children’s ghosts” (along the NW coast of Honshu, near Mitsu) where the spirits of children are said to spend each night building little towers made of sea-rounded stones. His guide even showed him the prints of “tiny naked feet” in the sand around newly erected towers of stones. That interested a Texas colleague who had researched a “Crybaby Bridge” there, where the ghosts of children killed in a schoolbus wreck make sure that the tragedy doesn’t happen again by pushing cars that park on a railroad crossing off. If you dust the back bumper with talcum powder, you’ll find little handprints it after the trip.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Feb 02, 2012 @ 15:56:49

      Oh yeah, I love those Hearn tales. And going to the sites of famous ghost stories and legends is definitely popular in Japan. I have been to the Well of Okiku (well, one of many “Wells of Okiku”) as well as stones supposedly carved by oni, or other famous phenomena. Almost all major shrines have some magical object with a story or stone that cries at midnight or such.

      It is just not the same thing as kimodameshi.

      Reply

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