Why Ghosts Appear by Todd Shimoda

A Tokyo detective is possessed by the impossible task of tracking down a missing artist … or his tortured spirit.

Author info

Todd Shimoda, winner of the 2010 Elliot Cades Award for Literature, is the author of five novels that have been translated into six languages.

L.J.C. Shimoda is an accomplished artist, illustrator and book designer. Her artwork and illustrations have appeared in numerous books and venues.

In late 1980s Tokyo, a fortune teller hires a detective to find her missing son, an entomological illustrator who has failed to visit her as he had every year during Obon, the annual festival honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. As the detective begins to follow the case’s meagre threads, he finds himself questioning the mother’s story. Deciding to investigate his own client as well as her son, he stumbles into a black hole of tenuous associations and illicit activities. With the help of an enterprising sidekick—a bored bureaucrat with romantic ideas about the life of a detective—he discovers a complicated family drama, an empire built on fortune-telling fraud and an international web of sexual exploitation.

As he falls deeper into the case, he begins to wonder if the fortune teller’s son is missing, or dead, as some people claim. Despite his view that fortune-telling is more of a con than a metaphysical art, the detective is increasingly overtaken by surreal experiences, his senses contracting with a strange, shimmering dizziness that occurs with troubling frequency as he becomes entangled in the lives of the missing. He’s also haunted by the ghost of a decades-old failed case, one that ended in death and left him secretly pining for the young woman who’d hired him. Something about the ongoing case reminds him of that old longing, and it compels him to hunt for her in the midst of his investigation.

These surreal and vaguely supernatural events are curiously paired with the detective’s active internal world, which is lonely and philosophical. On the surface he’s a logical man defeated by life, but it soon becomes clear that his interest in spirits has a lot to do with finding his own will to live. While wandering the fortune teller’s house, he finds a handbook that says: “Not everyone can become a ghost. It has to be someone who has extra psychological strength.” He’s convinced he lacks that strength, though the reason remains a mystery. His forlorn reveries on the otherworldly are juxtaposed by moments of scientific exactitude, like his reaction to the strange shimmering in his vision. Trying to explain it away, he thinks, “It’s a biological fact that sounds below twenty hertz are detected by the eye… The shimmering made me dizzy so I closed my eyes for a moment then turned away.”

Todd Shimoda’s novel is a genre mash-up that defies easy categorization, all the more so because it’s accompanied by L.J.C. Shimoda’s bold illustrations. Colourful, often abstract images burst into the text at unexpected moments, and with no straight- forward relationship to the story. Like the spirits hovering at the detective’s periphery, the images ask us to puzzle things out through instinct and feeling rather than logic and objectivity. The novel’s conclusion is similarly ambiguous, letting some mysteries remain where they belong, in the realm of the unknown. The surreal narrative and playful visuals will remind readers of early Murakami, though Shimoda’s work is more vulnerable.

Shimoda’s story also carefully takes on difficult topics, shedding a faint but sympathetic beam of light on those who struggle in society’s darker corners. In the course of his investigation, the detective encounters a man who lost his entire life savings to a manipulative fortune teller who promised to contact the ghost of his dead wife. The widower’s information takes the detective to a series of increasingly dangerous leads, from child prostitutes, to shadow bosses, to violent thugs who kill on command. When the case threatens to swallow him whole, the detective even finds himself searching for meaning among the “box people,” a homeless community that struggles unnoticed at the edges of Japan, at the top of the bubble economy. By novel’s end we, as readers, are left to wonder whether this story is our own ghostly handbook, a curious guide to the spirits that animate both our living and dead selves.


More by Todd and L.J.C. Shimoda


Oh! A mystery of ‘mono no aware’

A Japanese American is swept up in a mystery of suicide cults, underground poetry societies and a quest to understand the “impermanence of things.”



A young physician is banished to a remote island, where residents are violently suspicious of outsiders. He discovers the root of their mistrust just as a massive earthquake strikes.