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Chizuko Mifune and the Practice of Psychic Photography

Mifune was the inspiration for one of Ringu's main characters.

Chizuko Mifune psychic photograpyy
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  • Still from 'Ringu'.Photo Credit: Basara Pictures

First published in 1991, Koji Suzuki's Ring introduced readers to a cursed videotape that would kill anyone who watched it after seven days. The creator of the videotape was a powerful psychic named Sadako, who had many abilities but of which the most notable involved burning images onto photographic film. Thanks to multiple movie adaptations, she would join the ranks of unforgettable horror villains.

Less remembered is the tragic story of Sadako's mother, Shizuko. A renowned psychic herself within the original books, Shizuko's story eerily mirrors the real-life experiences of Chizuko Mifune and other alleged psychics who lived during the end of Japan’s Meiji Era—a time noted for its renewed interest in spiritualism and paranormal phenomenon.

Born in 1886, Chizuko Mifune grew up in a family of Japanese healers. She would marry a lieutenant colonel at the age of 22 and would likely have gone on to live an otherwise unremarkable existence had her new husband not lost 50 yen. Chizuko claimed the 50 yen was actually in the drawer of the Buddhist altar used by her in-laws. To everyone’s shock, her mother-in-law found the misplaced money exactly where Chizuko had said it was.

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In disbelief, her in-laws accused Chizuko of stealing and hiding the money herself. No matter how much she denied these claims, her new family refused to believe her innocence. As a result, the marriage dissolved and Chizuko returned to her family home after the divorce.

Interested in the circumstances that led to the marital conflict, Chizuko's brother-in-law thought she might have some psychic ability and decided to help her train it. Through a combination of hypnosis, breathing, and meditation exercises, she strengthened her clairvoyant skills.

The most famous demonstrations of her skills included pinpointing the location of a disease or ailment in the human body, allowing for prompt and effective treatment, and locating coal mines for wealthy merchants. As her notoriety grew, more people sought out her help. Eventually, stories of her exploits would be covered in local newspapers. Unfortunately, the burgeoning fame would ultimately lead to her downfall.

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Chizuko Mifune
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  • Chizuko Mifune, circa 1910.

    Photo Credit: 松岡明芳 via Wikimedia Commons

The media coverage drew the attention of the scientific community. Among them was Tomokichi Fukurai, a psychology professor from Tokyo University. Together, they would conduct many experiments confirming her clairvoyant abilities. Believing in her talents, Fukurai would even go on to present his findings at a scientific meeting.

People remained skeptical. In 1910, Tokyo University invited Chizuko to conduct a public experiment. The demonstration involved writing three kanji characters on a piece of paper and sealing it in a metal pipe. To confirm her clairvoyant abilities, Chizuko needed to divine what was written on the paper without opening the sealed pipes.

Chizuko correctly identified the characters. Unwilling to accept the results, the experiment was repeated. And again, she correctly named the characters.

That would have been the end of it except for an unlucky revelation. The pieces of paper sealed in the tubes weren't the ones prepared by Baron Yamanaka Kenjiro, the Tokyo University President who’d invited Chizuko to conduct the public experiment in the first place. The slips of paper came from Tomokichi Fukurai, with whom Chizuko had practiced for this test.

The backlash came swift and fierce. Newspapers labeled her a charlatan and a fraud. The public condemnation ultimately proved too much for Chizuko. The following year, she died by suicide via taking potassiium dichromate.

Chizuko Mifune was not the only purported psychic who worked with Tomokichi Fukurai. Around the same time he conducted experiments studying clairvoyance with Chizuko, he also studied nensha with Ikuko Nagao. Nensha is the psychic ability to telepathically burn images onto solid surfaces. In Ring, Shizuko used nensha on paper while her daughter could use nensha on photographic film. Nagao allegedly could use nensha on photo plates.

Nensha goes by many other names throughout the world: thoughtography, psychic photography, and projected thermography. No matter the term, however, psychic photography remains a hotly debated topic. Most skeptics dismiss its validity. According to them, even if the alleged psychic photographs themselves aren't faked, they’re likely the result of flaws in the camera or film, errors created during processing, lens flares, or chemical reactions.

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Because of the pervasive skepticisms toward the practice of nensha, Nagao suffered a similar fate to her peer, Chizuko. The media found irregularities with the photo plates she'd used for her nensha. She, too, was attacked, and she, too, could not weather the negative public attention. The stress brought on a fever that later would lead to her death.

Although two psychics he'd worked with had died, Fukurai remained determined to prove the existence of clairvoyance and nensha. He worked with other psychics but met with little success. Among these psychics was a woman who bore a now-familiar name, Sadako Takahashi.

Regardless of these seemingly fruitless efforts, Fukurai would publish a book outlining his theories. Clairvoyance and Thoughtography had a poor reception, to put it mildly. His colleagues criticized the poor scientific method displayed throughout the book—comments that should not have been surprising given they’d been common accusations from journalists during his experiments with Chizuko Mifune. The book was so controversial that even Tokyo University disavowed his work.

Tomokichi Fukurai
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  • Tomokichi Fukurai, 1912.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fukurai resigned from his post shortly after Clairvoyance and Thoughtography was published. The move was hardly surprising given the reaction of his peers and the University that employed him. Even so, he refused to discontinue his psychic experiments and would found the Fukurai Institute of Psychology. Despite the name, the organization does not focus on classical psychology but rather studies paranormal activity. The organization still exists and continues its investigations to this day.

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With the advent of digital technology, psychic photography has been relegated to obscure corners of parapsychology. Regardless of its validity as an actual psychic phenomenon, the comparative rarity of film-based photography has made it more a modern curiosity rather than an area of major interest—even though nensha, as defined by Fukurai, cans involve solid surfaces beyond photographic film.

But perhaps what's most memorable about Fukurai’s work was his use of female psychics and their subsequent poor treatment. No wonder these tragic women inspired the doomed character of Shizuko, whose own poor treatment would later partially fuel the relentless rage that drove Sadako.