Kanashibari -There's a Demon on my Chest!
Last month during my first week in Japan, I experienced something strange. I was tired and still suffering from jet lag. I was having a hard time sleeping and having strange dreams. Then, I suddenly woke up and could not move at all for what seemed like a minute or so. My Japanese friends I mentioned this to said I had suffered from an attack of Kanashibari. It was scary to say the least. I did a web search and came up with a possible explanation for this:
"When I woke up it was the middle of the night, and pitch dark. I could hear voices, someone in the room with me, so I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn't. I couldn't move any part of my body either. I tried to call out to someone for help, but I couldn't make a sound, or even move my lips. The voices grew louder and louder, and they were very close to me, screaming in my ears. I had a kind of certainty that the voices belonged to the spirits of my ancestors, and that they were scolding me for something I had or had not done that had offended them. And then, I felt like my body was floating upwards off the bed. I was hovering on the ceiling, unable to move or speak or do anything, and the screaming voices went on and on. I thought I was going mad?cI thought I was going to die..."
To a western reader, what does such an account sound like? An encounter with the spirit world? An out of body experience? An alien abduction? A near-death experience? Or nothing more than a very bad dream? We might try to explain it in any of these ways. But if you described the same experience to a Japanese person, he or she would most likely be able to tell you straight away what it was.
The word literally means to be "tightly bound" or "tied down", and it is an old Japanese folk expression for what in English is called "sleep paralysis". If you ask an English speaker to explain "sleep paralysis" to you, you'd probably be met only with a blank stare. Kanashibari, on the other hand, is part of the general Japanese consciousness.
Kanashibari, or sleep paralysis, usually happens when the sleeper is either entering or coming out of REM sleep. When we enter REM sleep, the brain and body "disconnect", and the body is effectively paralysed so that we don't act out our dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when the body's transition to or from REM sleep is "out of time" with that of the brain, that is, the body is asleep while the brain is either awake or half-awake. The sleeper feels that he or she is awake, but is completely unable to move or speak. Some sufferers report that their eyes are open and that they can look around but cannot do anything else, while others cannot even open their eyes. Often, the paralysis is accompanied by auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations. The sufferer may hear strange humming noises or voices, see lights, sense a strange and often malevolent presence in the room, feel pressure on the chest, have difficulty breathing, and sometimes have feelings of floating above the bed. Understandably, most sufferers experience extreme terror during these episodes, and often believe they are about to die.
The terror is magnified, and the experience is much more likely to be believed supernatural if the sufferer, like many people in the West, does not know what is happening to him or her. Japanese researchers believe that reports of alien abductions in the U.S., which have been increasing in recent years, could be explained by kanashibari. People who wake up paralysed, hear strange noises, see lights, and feel like they are floating off their bed may recall images of alien encounters seen or heard in the mass media, and conclude that that is what is happening to them.
But alien abduction is just the most modern in a long list of supernatural explanations for sleep paralysis. In China, it is called "gui ya", or "ghost oppression", and references to the phenomenon have been found dating from as far back as 30 A.D.
The European myths of the incubus - a male demon that lies on female sleepers and tries to have sex with them = and the succubus, it's female equivalent, are also thought to have arisen from the experience of sleep paralysis.
In ancient England, it was called "witch riding", because people believed that witches descended upon the helpless sleepers and carried them off on their broomsticks. In Newfoundland, Canada, it is called "Old Hag", because it is thought to be a witch who sits on the chests of sleepers and grips their throats in her hands. In the West Indies, it is "Kokma", a baby ghost who jumps on sleepers' chests and attempts to strangle them. In ancient Japan, it was a giant devil who stepped on people's chests as they slept.
Modern Japan, however, is the leader of scientific research in the field of sleep paralysis. Several studies have been conducted, most using university students as subjects, and, while researchers agree that no definitive explanation has yet been found, and that there is a need for much further research, several interesting discoveries have been made about the nature of kanashibari.
Firstly, kanashibari is not caused by a disease. While it is one of the symptoms of narcolepsy, it is also quite common for normal, healthy people to experience isolated episodes of sleep paralysis.
Secondly, attacks of kanashibari are probably related to anxiety and stress levels, and to a person's sleep patterns. That is, you are more likely to suffer an episode of kanashibari if you are stressed, or if your normal sleep cycle has recently been interrupted. Japanese studies have shown that the most common age for the onset of kanashibari is the mid-teens for girls and the late teens for boys, that is, puberty, which on its own can be extremely stressful. Add to that that this is a time when young people are experiencing the pressure of entrance examinations, and when sleep patterns are often interrupted due to long hours of study.
Thirdly, you are also more likely to experience kanashibari if you have a greater death anxiety and a greater external locus of control, that is, you believe that the majority of the things that determine what happens to you are outside of your control. A correlation between experiencing kanashibari and being female could be explained by the fact that women tend to have both a greater death anxiety and a greater external locus of control than men.
Despite the research that is being done, however, most people in the English-speaking world are still pretty much in the dark about kanashibari. So, just remember next time the ghosties and goblins, or giant Japanese devils come visiting unexpectedly in the middle of the night, or when the mothership interrupts your well-earned rest to levitate your body above your futon, it's nothing to worry about, just a normal, healthy little episode of kanashibari.
Oderint, dum metuant-Let them hate, so long as they fear.