• Denholm Hewlett

[Art/Culture/Spirituality] Yokai - Fantastic Beasts of Japan

Welcome to Psychic Garden's crash course on YOKAI (妖怪)

Yokai (妖怪) is the collective name for all of the bizarre supernatural monsters, spirits, ghosts, demons & unexplained phenomenon in Japanese folklore, encircled by rich spiritual traditions, legends and mythology.

In ancient times, the Japanese people imagined that all of the inexplicable or unaccountable phenomenon in the natural world were the deeds of "Yokai". Over time, these Yokai were given shapes and names and many came to be venerated. These bizarre creatures come in all shapes and sizes from the mountains, caves, forests, rivers and shadow lands of Japan.

From the ancient past, to the present day, Yokai have been immensely popular in Japanese culture. The term "Yokai" originated from the 8th century, but did not become synonymous with "strange, supernatural creatures and occurrences" until the 19th century "Yokai boom" during Japan's Meiji Period. Many legends about the existence of these creatures persist to this day, the culture of Yokai and it's huge variety and plethora of uncanny creatures provides a unique window into the Japanese mind.

Before the term "Yokai" became common in Meiji era Japan, these invisible shapeshifting monsters were referred to as Mononoke (物の怪; something spooky or unexplainable), Oni (鬼; demons, ogres and trolls) or bakemono (化け物; goblin, ghost, phantom, monster). All of these thousands of diverse Yokai creatures range from being mischievous to malevolent and some can even bring good fortune to those who encounter them in the world.

Every country, every culture, every ethnic group, have something that corresponds to what Yokai represent in Japan; their own manifestations of the spiritual, the supernatural, the unaccountable, but since every culture and country are different, the Yokai number equivalents vary drastically.

One of the most famous Yokai legends in Japanese folklore history is The Extermination of Shuten-doji at Oeyama, (depicted below) in an incredible woodblock print masterpiece from by artist Utagawa Yoshitsuya. It portrays the hero Minamoto Raiko and his four samurai swordsman attacking the dreaded demon king Shuten-doji in his secret lair at Mt. Oeyama.

Shuten-doji is among the most monstrously evil and dangerous of all Yokai in Japanese folklore, he is the mystical Oni leader of the underworld and his origins date back to the 8th century. The legend states that although Raiko decapitated and ultimately killed the beast, the demon's detached head still took a bite at the hero, who incredibly managed to survive the ordeal.

If you've ever been exposed to any Japanese culture, whether it's literature, cinema, painting, manga or anime, you've likely seen some form of Yokai creature. The most famous and obvious examples would be the Pokemon franchise. One of my personal favourite Yokai are the Kodama tree spirits from Hayao Miyazaki's epic masterpiece Princess Mononoke (1997).

Easily the most famous Yokai is the KAPPA, one of the many Suijin 水神 (water deities) in Japanese mythology. These supernatural water sprites are humanoid creatures with tortoise shells on their backs and dishes of water on their heads, often depicted as a hybrid of turtle, snake, dragon, eel and fish. They are typically found near ponds, lakes, rivers, wells and swamplands.

Kappa drawings from mid-19th century

The ancient Japanese people believed that Kappa would snatch and drag unsuspecting people deep into the water to devour them. Drownings were often seen as the result of a Kappa attack. There are also legends of Kappa who help people, not just hurt them. These contrasting characteristic are common of other Yokai as well, many inhabit a spiritual grey area as endearing yet fearsome creatures, the dichotomy between the dark and light. Kappa are said to enjoy sumo wrestling and munching cucumbers. There is even a Kappa Temple of worship in Tokyo, where you can arrange to visit and look at the supposed mummified arm of a Kappa in the flesh.

There are countless examples of Yokai in modern Japanese culture, the affinity for these ancient characters is stronger than ever. They are seen by many as the loveable, invisible spirits of the natural world who protect Japan. There is a long history behind the origins of Yokai and their status in Japanese culture. The Japanese are polytheistic and they believe in a multitude of deities, this belief is underpinned by an ancient religious tradition of animist, whereby all things, animals, insects, natural phenomenon, even things that you may not consider to be alive, like rocks, mountains and rivers, have spirits inhabiting them, all these things around us are sentient beings, just like how humans are sentient beings, that's the basic concept for Yokai. Everything around us has the potential to be a Yokai, even man-made objects like chairs, tables, lamps, computers and musical instruments. There are even legends of Yokai that represent the five human senses.

The majority of Japanese people don't view themselves as acting as purely autonomous beings, they believe that they are always under the influence of elemental forces, context and circumstances, so when somebody does something that is unusual and out of the ordinary, they will tend to place the blame on Yokai, or if someone is having a period of bad luck, failure or depression, they may assume they're being haunted by evil spirits.

In the 13th century, a trend of medieval Yokai picture scrolls began to emerge in Japanese culture, it was about this time that Yokai inspired by household items appeared. In these early scrolls, the images tell tales of household objects that come alive as Yokai after long years of use, discarded implements, footwear and furniture gather together and complain of how Humans have ungratefully throw them out, mistreating and abandoning them, and so they begin planning a way to get revenge back at the jaded humans.

This way of thinking and supernatural storytelling marked a real turning point and a true watershed moment for Japanese Yokai culture. In old Japan, when a common person wanted to discard of an object, they brought it to a temple or shrine and held a ritual to appease it's spirits and to give thanks for all it's years of service, while the wealthy members of society would typically just throw out objects carelessly without a second thought. The moral of the story, take care of your possessions, don't take them for granted, treat them with the respect they deserve or they may take revenge on you! Like in the superb image below, drawn by Shigeru Mizuki, which shows an old Sandal returning to surprise his former owner's household in the dead of night.

The ancient Japanese used to fear the existence of Yokai, but this started to change when artisans started drawing pictures and giving physical shapes to these invisible folklore entities. The artists began taking control of the Yokai hysteria, they stretched their imaginations and tried to tame these mystical creatures through the power of visual arts. The more pictures that were made of Yokai, the less frightening these creatures appeared to be as they were suddenly no longer invisible, they were re-contextualised from their origin stories and became loveable. Even many famous woodblock print artists became fascinated with these supernatural creatures and wound up creating some true masterpieces, they relished creating pictures of these mysterious and curious entities and being immersed in the vast cataloging process.

In 18th century, a huge craze for Yokai culture swept over Japan, kickstarted by Toriyama Sekien's 1776 book, "The illustrated night parade of 100 demons", this project depicted more than fifty Yokai creatures in concrete form and began to stir the imaginations of other artists. One of the most popular and foundational idioms of Yokai in Japanese folklore and culture is Hyakki Yakō, (百鬼夜行, "Night Parade of One Hundred Demons").

Hyakki Yakō (Night parades) can be orderly ceremonial processions, other times a full scale riot, with hordes of supernatural creatures (Yokai and Oni) running wild and wreaking havoc on civilisation. The Yokai take out revenge on mankind by emulating, replicating and parodying human lifestyles, they have wicked parties and ceremonies to their deities, just like humans do.

I cannot discuss the history of Yokai without mentioning the vital work of Shigeru Mizuki (1922 - 2015), the legendary Japanese manga artist, historian and verified "professor" of Yokai. The flourishing Yokai phenomenon in modern Japan owes a huge debt to the contributions and creative influence of Shigeru Mizuki, whose fascinating life-long research into the origins, identification, and categorisation of these creatures played a massive role in popularising Yokai in modern Japanese society. Shigeru Mizuki illustrated over 2000 Yokai creatures during his epic career, and most of them can be traced back to existing Yokai legends and traditions.

Shigeru Mizuki is best known for his striking Yokai manga and anime series Gegege no Kitaro, which first appeared more than fifty years ago. The hero of the series, Kitaro, is a half human, half Yokai boy with a strong sense of justice and helps mankind to fight against the forces of evil Yokai. In Mizuki's hometown of Sakaiminato, statues of his iconic Yokai manga characters inhabit the streets as a testament to how beloved his work is.

Shigeru Mizuki started drawing Yokai because of an experience he had as a soldier during the WW2. He was caught up in an intense and ferocious conflict in the south pacific, he managed to survive the onslaught but was forced to flee into the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea. Alone and wandering in the darkness, Mizuki suddenly found himself unable to move forward, his path was blocked by an invisible force. Mizuki felt as thought a Yokai was standing in his way, a Yokai shaped like a wall. He stopped walking and went to sleep for the night. When he awoke in the morning, he saw that he was just one step away from the edge of a cliff. Mizuki believed that the spectral wall, a yōkai called Nurikabe, had saved his life. He subsequently devoted his life to the power of Yokai.

Mizuki's jungle encounter with life saving Nurikabe
"It's the unusual sensory feeling that there's something behind you, maybe there really is, something like ancestral spirits, also it seems, all kind of invisible truths are presented - like the truth about life. If the Nurikabe hadn’t been there, I would have run straight off into the darkness and died.” ~ Shigeru Mizuki

~ There are literally hundreds upon thousands of these diverse and fascinating Yokai creatures. Here are some of my favourites ~

Chochin Obake - The mischievous paper lantern ghost

Chochin Obake is a type of haunted Lantern Yurei (ghost), it isn't a malevolent entity like other Yokai, he's more of a trickster that relishes the chance to give humans a scare. This ghost will appear suddenly, flicking out its large tongue, rolling its eyes and laughing in a loud, deranged fashion to frighten passers-by. Ancient Shinto religious beliefs dictate that all objects, even inanimate ones, are believed to have a soul. The legends say that regular lanterns transform into this Yokai after 100 years of use.

Nuribotoke - The Buddhist statue of Hell

Nuribotoke are a type of supernatural Japanese zombie, an evil Yokai. A disturbing buddhist statue crafted by a disgraced priest, painted in sacred black paint. The hellish statue is cursed and has the power to curse others, it moves and acts as the creator wants it to as a mindless and indestructible zombie puppet that goes straight to hell once he finally curses someone.

Rokurokubi - Long necked Japanese vampires

According to legend, these blood sucking demons are always female, and often beautiful. Rokurokubi appear human in the daytime, but in the dead of night these fiendish creatures can grow their snake-like necks horrifyingly long and can exploring. These human women were cursed for a previous sin and can pass this curse down through generations via their children.

The Gashadokuro / Odokuro

The Odokuro, the giant, blood-drinking skull overlords of the night. These monstrous creatures are birthed on mass grave sites or the aftermath of a blood soaked battlefield, built from the bones of thousands of famine and war victims that all join together into one humungous skeleton demon king powered by the ghosts of the undead whose souls are stuck in purgatory.

Ushi-Oni - The terrifying 6-legged "Ox Water Demon"

Ushi-Oni are terrifying and hellish creatures, bovine headed, man-eating giants that stalk the beaches and rocky coastlines of western Japan. These poisonous, acid-spitting water demons resemble a gigantic Arachnid with the head and horns of an enraged OX. These aggressive monsters are typically cruel, savage and breath toxic fumes, they attack people who trespass on their territory. Many reside docile in their lairs and others are more active hunters who stalk and track down fearful human prey.

Nurarihyon (first) & Mehitotsubou (second)

Ancient Okayama legends describe Nurarihyon as "slippery strange", a marine creature found in the Seto Inland Sea, often seen bobbing around on the surface of the water like a giant jellyfish or octopus. In the Edo period, Nurarihyon became known as a well-dressed, mysterious old man with an elongated bald head with the uncanny ability to sneak into homes and "take over." When residents encounter him sitting around drinking tea, they are put under a spell and are unable to throw him out and treat him as the head of the household. Mehitotsubou (below), is a large monk with a cyclopean eye and is one of the many shape-shifting monks in Japanese folklore tales. These early depictions of these otherworldly creatures greatly inspired the future Yōkai works of artist Toriyama Sekien.

This is only the beginning on your journey into the world of Yokai culture and history. We will be returning with more articles on the subject in the future, but for now, please check out a gallery of incredible Yokai artwork below.


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