A Guide Book to Japanese Supernatural Creatures: Everything You Need to Know About Yokai!
Every country has something in their history, culture, or traditions that gives birth to tales of ghosts and monsters. Japan, in particular, has a wide variety of what are called “yokai,” a category of supernatural creatures that encompasses spirits, monsters, demons, and many other entities. These extra-dimensional beings, as you might also call them, have become a very popular theme worldwide as of late due to their presence in famous anime series and video games. Continue reading this article to learn more about the history and some of the most famous characters in the deep world of yokai!
About Japanese Yokai
Human fears are at the core of every ghost and monster story out there, or so it is said. People came to believe that gods, evil spirits, or other sorts of unidentifiable entities were the cause of something “incomprehensible” or “unnatural” that would occur in their daily lives. Delusions and erroneous assumptions also helped to spread these beliefs and make ghosts a part of life for people in the old days.
Nevertheless, ghosts have different shapes and forms depending on the region and country they are originally from, and people say that it is possible to get a glimpse of the culture and national character of a region by learning about their supernatural beings. For example, did you know that Japanese ghosts are usually drawn without their feet?
Japan, as you would expect, has its own body of supernatural beings in which are included the yokai, as well as many others, such as “mononoke” (vengeful spirits) and “obake” (monsters or shapeshifting ghosts). This diversity is probably due to the fact that, despite having a rather small territory, Japan has four well-defined seasons and a rich geography with a wide variety of regions by the mountains as well as the sea where the Japanese lived.
Ancient Japanese books narrating the history of the country, such as the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, depict demons, a giant eight-headed serpent called Orochi, and other invisible creatures as the cause behind people’s fears. People of the past were terrified of such entities and considered them to be a manifestation of the power of the gods. Later, however, these fears came to be perceived by local folklore as ominous powers and punishments from evil spirits, and it is under these circumstances that the concept of yokai is believed to have developed.
Scholars consider that the appearance of the many yokai we know today was largely established already back in the year 800.
Difference Between Yokai and Ghosts
At first sight, yokai and ghosts might seem to be the same thing, but the word yokai is generally used to describe non-human animals and inanimate objects that can change form.
Ghosts, on the other hand, are apparitions of the dead. But, in the end, both yokai and ghosts fall under the umbrella of “obake” which, as explained before, is the Japanese word for monsters and shapeshifting creatures.
Top 3 Most Famous Humanoid Yokai
The next 3 yokai described below have a human form.
1. Yuki-Onna (Snow Woman)
Yuki-onna is a yokai resembling a beautiful woman that freezes her victims with her icy breath in cold nights. This entity has been a part of the Japanese folklore since ancient times, but people nowadays probably know more about this character because of anime and manga rather than old stories. Just as the British fairy tale of Jack Frost, yuki-onna is said to represent the cold, harsh environment of winter in Japan.
2. Rokurokubi (Potter’s Wheel Neck)
In Japan, there is an expression to describe a person who is eagerly expecting for something to happen or someone to come; it is said that the person is “stretching his or her neck in anticipation.” This expression is the origin for the curious story of Rokurokubi, a funny tale told for centuries by rakugo artists (comic story-tellers) about a woman who waited so long and with such eagerness that her neck truly stretched much more than it should.
Although being nothing but a comic relief at first, this character was later introduced to the yokai universe probably due to its eerie appearance.
Tengu is a red-faced long-nosed goblin. As explained before, people in the old days believed that any unexplainable phenomenon or incident that happened was a display of the power of demons or the great serpent Orochi; tengu were also believed to have a mysterious power.
Depending on the region in Japan, this mystical creature is described as a god that protects the mountain forests or, on the other hand, a hermit who changed into a monster. It is quite interesting that this creature can be seen in such different lights.
3 Yokai That Manifest in Inanimate Objects
Here are 3 yokai that were nothing more than objects before gaining life!
1. Chochin Obake (Paper Lantern Ghost)
People used to use lamps lit by candle or oil at night before electricity became an intrinsic part of our daily lives. When walking outside at night, people would often carry round paper lanterns called “chochin.” Chochin obake is when these paper lanterns suddenly came alive when they were used outside.
2. Ittan Momen (Sheet of Cloth)
Ittan momen is a yokai originally from the town of Kimotsuki in Kagoshima Prefecture. This sheet of cloth comes to life and flies through the skies at night, sometimes attacking people! In Kagoshima, people even say to children when they are being naughty, "you better behave or ittan momen will come!”
3. Nurikabe (Painted Wall)
Nurikabe is an ancient yokai from the district of Onga in Fukuoka. This curious creature has the appearance of a huge stone wall and blocks the way of people walking the streets at night. Nurikabe is a well-known character depicted as having great physical strength in GeGeGe no Kitarou, a very popular children’s anime series about yokai.
Worldwide Famous Anime Series That Feature Yokai
Yokai don’t appear only in old books and classical rakugo, they are also a constant in Japanese animation. Two of the most famous examples are Yokai Watch and GeGeGe no Kitaro.
Many of the yokai introduced above appear as characters in GeGeGe no Kitaro, including ittan momen, yuki-onna, tengu, and nurikabe. This anime series hit TV screens in the mid-60s and its characters continue to enjoy popularity even to this day, being loved by children and adults of all ages not only in Japan but around the world as well.
As you can see, these terrifying beings can sometimes be depicted in a very cute and charming manner in recent anime and manga.
A Yokai Theme Park
If you go to the city of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture, you will encounter an incredible array of goods and displays related to the manga works of Shigeru Mizuki, creator of GeGeGe no Kitarou. At the Mizuki Shigeru Museum, there is an exhibition with original artworks and murals by the author and a gallery introducing the different yokai found throughout Japan.
Neighboring the museum is the GeGeGe no Yokai Rakuen, a small theme park with different attractions, games, and an area where you can sit and eat.
The Mizuki Shigeru Road, located in the same city, is a street dedicated to the world of yokai. The street hosts a range of different shops selling “yokai souvenirs” and more than 200 bronze statues depicting the most unusual supernatural creatures! The street also has special attractions at night so you should definitely extend your stay a little to check them out!
Yokai is one of the many subjects regarding Japan and Japanese culture that is booming on the internet right now! Now that you know some more about their background and history, you'll probably start appreciating yokai characters in Japanese video games and animations with a different eye!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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