Yōkai: Fantastic Creatures of Japanese Folklore

Yōkai: Fantastic Creatures of Japanese Folklore

Japanese monsters have invaded the world. Through anime and manga, film and television, video and computer games, they have infiltrated the lives of children (and a great many adults). We have seen them for years in Pokémon, and more recently (since 2015 in the US) they have insinuated themselves into our lives through Yo-kai Watch, an explosively popular franchise of video games, manga, anime, and all sorts of merchandise called. These various media are chock full of fantastic creatures and characters—from the mischievous to the murderous, from the fun to the frightening, from the humorous to the horrifying. But where do these monsters come from? Are they part of the traditional folklore of Japan, or are they recent creations—made to sell as part of Japan’s “soft power”? And most importantly, what can these Japanese monsters teach us? In this short essay, I address these questions by exploring how monstrous and strange beings reflect important trends in Japanese history. By looking at the fantastic beasts of Japan (and, for that matter, any culture) we can learn a lot about the people who create them, tell stories about them, play with them, and send them out into the world.

What are Yōkai?

Every culture has its monsters. In Japan the creatures and strange phenomena of folklore have been known historically by a variety of terms, including mononoke, bakemono and obake, but most commonly today they are called yōkai, a word that has become a catchall for everything spooky—from creepy monster, to ghostly spirit, to mysterious phenomenon. Historically yōkai were associated with folk narratives—such as myths, folktales, and legends—and were also part of local belief systems in villages and cities throughout Japan.

The concept of yōkai, and the word itself, is broader than the English-language monster or spirit. In theory, it can indicate any unexplainable phenomenon, such as eerie sounds in the night or fireballs flitting around a graveyard. In practice though, especially in recent years, the word tends to refer to something more corporeal. It might indicate a slimy river creature, such as the froglike kappa. Or it might refer to the long-nosed mountain goblin known as the tengu. In addition to these allusive and fantastic beings, it can also refer to real animals—such as kitsune (foxes), tanuki (raccoon dogs), and even cats. Many of these animals were said to have the ability to shift their shape, taking on the form of a person or another animal or object in order to cause trouble in the human world. Some yōkai assume humanlike appearances, and others look like sprites or weird beings, akin to the trolls, elves and fairies found in European lore. And with regard to behavior, too, yōkai run the gamut from mischievous and murderous, to benign and protective—and everything in between.

Another important thing to remember about the yōkai of folklore is that they are not always completely bad: the line between demon and deity is a fuzzy one. At the heart of this connection is the idea that any object might possess an animating spirit. Such an animistic worldview has traditionally informed Japanese religious conceptions in which all sorts of things—including trees, stones, mountains and other natural features—can be inhabited by deities or kami-sama. One set of yōkai, broadly known as tsukumogami, beautifully embodies this dynamic. They are old household objects—brooms, umbrellas, musical instruments—that have been neglected or unceremoniously discarded, and now have sprouted arms and legs and come to life.

Not surprisingly, many a yōkai walks the razor’s edge between monstrous and godly. Take the kappa (literally, “river-child”), an exceedingly common water sprite, found in legends throughout Japan. These impish creatures enjoy challenging passersby to sumo wrestling, but they can also be vicious and deadly, notorious for drowning livestock and even children—a pretty effective warning for kids to stay away from the water! At the same time, a kappa might be worshipped as a powerful and protective water deity, perhaps appeased with an offering of a cucumber, one of its favorite foods (hence the “kappa roll” on the menu at sushi shops around the world). In some farming communities there were traditions whereby the kappa—after living in the river and irrigating the rice fields all summer—was ceremoniously sent off to the mountains at the end of harvest. There it would transform into another fantastic being, known as the yamawaro, or child of the mountains.

Similarly, there is a yōkai called the zashiki-warashi most commonly associated with the Tōhoku region. A small, childlike spirit, the zashiki-warashi inhabits a house unseen, causing all sorts of minor mischief, like flipping over pillows, spilling things and shifting furniture around. Despite this troublemaking behavior, however, it was considered good fortune to have one of these invisible familiars lurking about. On the other hand, if one day you happened to catch a glimpse of your resident zashiki-warashi, this might be a sign that it would soon depart for another home, and your family fortunes would begin to decline.

Why Yōkai?

But why are there yōkai in the first place? In one sense, perhaps, they are simply a method by which humans discover causality and agency in the natural world. We can think of the creation of yōkai as an inventive way of interpreting or explaining the otherwise mysterious things we observe around us. When you hear strange sounds at night, for example, it is not difficult to imagine that some sort of creature or spirit is making them. Or when a tree falls in the woods for no apparent reason, it is not unreasonable to imagine it was felled for a particular purpose by a particular force/thing.

Often, it is with the attribution of a specific name that an invisible force or strange phenomenon comes to life as a creature with a body and will of its own. Take the azuki-arai: we can imagine that to some creative individuals long ago, the burbling of water over stones in a brook sounded like a person washing dried adzuki (azuki) beans, and thus, the azuki-arai, or “bean washer,” was born. And with the name, an appropriate image also comes into focus: in this case, a somewhat crazed and awkward figure of a man obsessed with scrubbing beans.

Sometimes a mysterious creature may be born of nothing more than a feeling. There is, for example, a yōkai called mokumokuren, portrayed as a shōji screen or the wall or a house with dozens of eyes. Of course, nobody knows how such an image came about, but we can certainly imagine somebody spending the night alone in an abandoned house in the forest, and having the creepy feeling that they were being watched. The mokumokuren becomes the architectural embodiment of this feeling—and perhaps a perfect metaphor for a surveillance society!

People, History, Discourse

Most of the yōkai I have mentioned here could be labeled “folkloric,” by which I mean that they are found in narratives and belief systems that, generally speaking, circulated on a local level, from person to person, and very often by word of mouth. But almost as long as yōkai have been part of folk culture, they have been part of artistic, dramatic and commercial cultures as well. That is, in addition to their word-of-mouth circulation in local communities throughout Japan, they also appear on a much larger stage, in dramatic and artistic forms of expression and in widely circulated printed texts. Indeed, all these different spheres of cultural production are so deeply intertwined and symbiotic it is impossible (and not really necessary) to sort out the “folk” from the “commercial.”

We can particularly see the way these two cultural spheres mutually influence each other during the Edo period (c. 1600-1868). This long, relatively peaceful (and relatively authoritarian) phase of Japanese history is famous in part for the development of a sophisticated and literate urban populace who enjoyed entertainments such as kabuki drama, ningyō jōruri (puppet theater), woodblock prints, and all sorts of inexpensive, often highly illustrated works of fiction. Legends of yōkai were reproduced and modified in these forms, and traditional images were redrawn on a grand scale by famous woodblock print artists. These new creations in turn must have had an effect on the more localized folk versions of the same creatures.

The Edo period witnessed the emergence of two approaches to yōkai that still resonate today. One of these is what we might call encyclopedic: with so many yōkai of all different sizes and shapes and behaviors, it is not surprising that scholars included them in books of natural history, and compendia of knowledge such as the Wakansansaizue (c.1712). That is, yōkai became a part of the encyclopedias of the day—listed and described along with other animals, like dogs, mice, insects, elephants, and monkeys. This encyclopedic approach represented an attempt to organize, classify, and compartmentalize everything found in the world—including mysterious creatures.

The other approach to yōkai is one of playfulness, a kind of ludic sensibility. This is where these same mysterious creatures became characters in drama, pictures, books, and especially in the short manga-like works known as kibyōshi. In these media, yōkai were not always very scary: more often, they were comical, invoked for parody and satire, or even just for silliness and fun. But we can see here the way in which specific yōkai born of the imagination of local communities are incorporated into the imagination of the nation. In a sense, yōkai were becoming communally shared ideas, words in a language that could be spoken by people throughout the country.

The most important works to reflect both the encyclopedic and the ludic approaches to yōkai were the catalogs created by an artist named Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788) who illustrated over two hundred distinct yōkai. Each page of his catalogs contains a line drawing of a particular creature—some from Japanese folklore, some from Chinese literature, and some seemingly invented from whole cloth by the artist himself. Significantly, many of his catalog entries are replete with plays on words, with all manner of sophisticated symbolism and tricky puzzles embedded in the images. The result was an exceedingly playful encyclopedia of the Japanese otherworld.

With the advent of the Meiji period (1868-1912) a different attitude with regard to yōkai began to emerge. Particularly important was a man named Inoue Enryō (1858-1919), a Buddhist priest, philosopher, and prominent educator who founded a university (current-day Tōyō University) and also created a brand new academic field of study called yōkai-gaku (or yōkai-ology). Inoue felt that for Japan to become a modern nation state, equal with its counterparts in the West, it would have to transcend what he reckoned were superstitious and errant beliefs in yōkai. Accordingly, he set out to banish them, as it were, to explain them away by employing scientific and rationalist logic imported from the West. But in the process Inoue also collected yōkai descriptions and narratives from all over the country, lecturing and writing so prolifically that he was nicknamed “Professor Yōkai.”

In the early twentieth century, scholarly attitudes changed again and this time yōkai came to be studied within a burgeoning academic discipline known as minzokugaku, or folklore studies. The progenitor of the field, Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), was interested in collecting yōkai narratives, names, and descriptions not because he wanted to debunk them as superstitions but because he felt they provided vital insight into the lives and beliefs of people in different regions of the country. And he felt that with the spread of modernity, yōkai were disappearing—it was important to collect them before they were forgotten completely.

It turns out, though, that yōkai were more resilient than Yanagita (and Inoue before him) could have predicted. Indeed, after World War II, they became more popular than ever when manga artist Mizuki Shigeru (1922-2015) reinvented them as a panoply of dynamic characters for his long running manga and anime series GeGeGe no Kitarō. Mizuki plumbed the folkloric records for his creations—using work by Yanagita and others, and even directly modeling yōkai on the images of Toriyama Sekien from two centuries earlier. Yōkai may have had their roots in the local folk beliefs of rural communities in the Edo period and earlier, but now they were becoming popular culture characters—television stars—known by children (and their parents) throughout the nation. In Mizuki’s hands, yōkai are rendered as mystical nostalgic icons of an older more innocent Japan—representing a sort of longing for a time before the tragedy of war and the landscape-altering industrialization and urbanization of the postwar period. As always, then, yōkai reflect the concerns of the particular historical moment and they are, fittingly, very much at home within whatever form of media is most popular (in this case, manga and anime).

In large part due to Mizuki’s ongoing popularity, from the late twentieth century through the present there has been a surge of interest in yōkai—a veritable “yōkai boom,” as it has been called. Following in the footsteps of Inoue and Yanagita, more and more scholars have taken a serious interest in the subject. Most notable and influential has been Komatsu Kazuhiko (b. 1947) and his students and colleagues. Komatsu is a scholar of folklore and anthropology who has written extensively on yōkai and has also been instrumental in encouraging their study across disciplines. In 2016 he was named by the Japanese government as a Bunka kōrōsha, a person who has made distinguished cultural contributions—acknowledgement not only of Komatsu’s own work on yōkai but also of the increasingly recognized role of yōkai in Japanese culture and history.

Even as the yōkai of tradition are the subject of serious academic study, their presence in literary works, films, video games, and other forms of popular culture popular has continued to steadily increase. Best-selling novelist Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (b.1963) is particularly well known for his focus on historically traceable yōkai (e.g., yōkai found in the work of Toriyama Sekien), but other authors and creators use yōkai in a wide variety of ways, and they are finding new fans both in Japan and elsewhere with manga/anime such as Nurarihyon no mago (Eng: Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan). Even on a vernacular level, there is a world of yōkai lovers, what I have called “yōkai aficionados.” These individuals from all walks of life are deeply immersed in the folklore of yōkai and also often involved in producing yōkai related goods—everything from manga and short stories to yōkai figurines and songs—that they sell at small conventions and gatherings of friends and fans. And this is to say nothing of the Pokémon and Yo-kai Watch franchises that are inspired by the culture and folklore of yōkai but take them creatively and commercially (and very lucratively) in new directions and to new places.

Hopefully this very brief outline shows how yōkai (and the discourses surrounding them) are still alive, always changing, and also profoundly linked to the concerns of people living at any historical moment. As we have seen, during the Edo period, yōkai were the object of encyclopedic projects to record the natural (and supernatural) world, and at the same time they also thrived as characters in a culture of play and entertainment made possible by new print technologies and urbanization. During the Meiji period, reformers and intellectuals employed scientific knowledge to debunk yōkai as errant beliefs—a reflection of the drive to modernize Japan in accordance with Western standards. And in the early twentieth century, concomitant with the momentous changes brought on by modernity, folklorists began to recognize yōkai as fading icons of a disappearing world. The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a resurgence of interest in yōkai as objects of entertainment as well as study. And in the early twenty-first century, yōkai continue to proliferate. As always they use the media of the given moment—everything from oral narratives, line drawings and woodblock prints in the Edo period, to the anime, video games and other digital technology of the contemporary global cultural arena.

Abundance, Variety, Creativity

Throughout this long history, then, what commonalities and consistencies can we find within the broad concept of yōkai? What is the link, for example, between a mischievous tanuki raccoon dog found in a local village legend and a video game avatar played with by people all around the world? While these are surprisingly difficult questions to answer, I would suggest that at least with regard to the broader concept of yōkai we can identify several key characteristics that are consistent over time.

The first is simply the related notions of variety and abundance. As I hope I have demonstrated, whether in folk belief or popular cultural texts, there are hundreds and hundreds of different yōkai. When we say the word tengu, for example, many Japanese will imagine a red-faced long-nosed priest-like figure, perhaps carrying a walking stick. But this is just a single genericized image, made popular through advertising and other mass media conduits. In local communities throughout Japan, there are different images of the tengu—sometimes he can fly, often he is figured with a birdlike nose as a kind of raptor human. And there are also thousands of different stories associated with tengu—some famous and used in kabuki drama and other forms of cultural production, and some known only to the residents of a particular village.

Another good example is the kappa mentioned above. Although the name kappa has become the most common label for this river sprite, there are literally hundreds of local names for such nasty water goblins—including, kawatarō, garappa, enkō, mintsuchi, gameshiro, komahiki, etc. All this to say that even within a particular type or “species” of yōkai, the variety is endless.

And similarly, there is an endless abundance of different types and species. I have only mentioned a few of the more common ones here, but I could also have included, for example, the tenjō-name (ceiling-licker), the aka-name (scum licker), the nopperabō (a monster with no face), the te-no-me (a being with eyes in its hands), the nurikabe (a wall that blocks your forward progress), kamaitachi (sickle weasel) and so on and so on.

The fact that Toriyama Sekien’s catalogs contain hundreds of these creatures and phenomena reflects this overwhelming abundance. And both variety and abundance is also reflected in the way we handle monsters to this day: the conceit of both Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch is that there are hundreds of creatures out there waiting to be found, an entire otherworld coexisting with our own. And similar to our own world, we can approach it as we do nature itself—through observation, collection, and documentation. Just as with the Edo period, the attitude toward yōkai is both playful and encyclopedic: one motivating objective of these games is to capture and catalog (to put into your pokedex!) all these things that animate the (un) natural (other) world.

Finally, perhaps the primary driving factor behind yōkai then and now is simply the power of human creativity. Despite the fact that they have been around for centuries, yōkai always reflect a spirit of imagination, inventiveness, change and, ultimately, possibility. I have suggested that yōkai are born from the human need to explain the unexplainable, and in this context they are nothing more than highly creative metaphors for things for which we have no words. They come about through human interpretation, through the intellectual drive to find causality and agency in the signs we see around us. The natural corollary of this impulse to read and interpret is an impulse to create: to embody some aspect of our world in the form of a yōkai of some sort. We can see this expressed in a phenomenon found all over Japan today known as yuru-kyara (“loose characters”). These days almost every city or town, and a lot of private companies and organizations, has its own yuru-kyara or mascot character. Sometimes it is just an icon or mark, but often there is also a “live” version with a person dressed up in a character costume.

On occasion these yuru-kyara assume the form of a specific yōkai, based directly on old legends or folktales associated with the region in question. In many cases, however, village leaders fashion unique yuru-kyara by combining local characteristics—a particular landscape feature here, a famous product there—into a hybrid creature/being that reflects community identity and distinctiveness, and is also cute and memorable. In a way, this creation of a local representative icon is a conscious version of the same processes that went into the imagining of more traditional yōkai.


So what are the lessons learned through this brief and blustery excursion through the history of yōkai? First: yōkai always reflect the historical moment, whether the sophisticated playfulness of the Edo period, the scientific rationality of the Meiji period, or the mixed media global consciousness of today. Even though many yōkai may have been born in Japan, with the current worldwide popularity of anime, manga, and games of all sorts, it is difficult these days to claim that yōkai are still just Japanese. Second: yōkai are characterized by abundance and variety. This is not only because of their roots in diverse small communities throughout Japan but because of their ability to transcend these roots and proliferate within urban centers and through popular media. And third, and perhaps most important, the history of yōkai is no more or less than the history of the people who tell their stories, who collect them, who play with them, who create them; that is to say, without people yōkai could not exist (and perhaps also, without yōkai, people could not exist). So finally, to return to the question with which I started this essay: What can these Japanese monsters teach us? The answer is, of course, they teach us about ourselves.

For Further Reading

A great deal has been written on yōkai and related subjects in Japanese, and my essay above is informed by this extensive research; for an extensive bibliography, please see The Book of Yōkai noted below. In recent years, there has also been more and more English-language literature on these subjects as well as translations of relevant material from Japanese. The following is just a small sampling of relatively accessible works in English:

Addiss, Stephen, ed. Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural. George Braziller, 2005.

Davisson, Zack. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost. Seattle: Chin Music Press, 2015.

de Visser, M.W. “The Fox and Badger in Japanese Folklore,” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 36, no. 3 (1908): 1-159

--------. “The Tengu.” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 36, no. 2 (1908): 25-99.

Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

--------. “The Metamorphosis of the Kappa: Transformation from Folklore to Folklorism in Japan.” Asian Folklore Studies 57 (Fall 1998): 1-24.

--------. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

--------. “Yōkai and Yanagita Kunio Viewed from the 21st Century.” In Ronald A. Morse ed., Yanagita Kunio and Japanese Folklore Studies in the 21st Century, 20-35. Tokyo/San Francisco: Japanime.

Kyōgoku Natsuhiko. The Summer of the Ubume. Translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander. New York: Vertical, 2009.

Meyer, Matthew. The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits: An Encyclopedia of Mononoke and Magic. Self-published, 2012.

--------. The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: a Field Guide to Japanese Yokai. Self-published, 2012.

Mizuki Shigeru. Kitaro. Translated by Zack Davisson. Drawn and Quarterly, 2013.

Reider, Noriko T. Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010.

Shiibashi Hiroshi. Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (Book 1). VIZ Media, 2011.

Yanagita Kunio. The Legends of Tono: 100th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lexington Books, 2008.

Yanagita Kunio and Sasaki Kizen. Folk Legends from Tono: Japan’s Spirits, Deities, and Phantastic Creatures. Translated and edited by Ronald A. Morse. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Yoda, Hiroko and Matt Alt, trans. Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien. Dover Publications, 2017.

--------. Yōkai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, revised edition. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2012.