Japan loves its supernatural creatures. If you are a fan of Japanese manga and anime, you must have heard the name of yōkai. These monsters, ghosts, and goblins are out there to entertain or scare with their sinister and mischievous acts.
Yōkai (妖怪) is a Japanese term that incorporates all kinds of unearthly and ghostly entities that originated from traditional art forms, such as literary pieces and folklores. The broadness of this category has made it so fun. Their stories are a great example of how wild and detailed human imagination can be. These interesting anecdotes range from destructive demigods to mischievous reptiles that love to prank.
What is Yōkai?
The word “yōkai” does not have any English synonym. It’s an all-encompassing term that refers to all kinds of otherworldly beings, from monsters to demigods and spirits. According to Japanese historians and folklorists, they are the personifications of extraterrestrial phenomena.
These spirits are mischievous, but not all of them have ill intentions. Some just want to give you a shock or throw into a panic. They can take many shapes, from animals to deformed humans, and a handful have the ability to shapeshift.
The concept of yōkai has come from Japanese ideas of animism that believe in the presence of spirit-like entities, which hold unique personalities and emotions. Peaceful spirits are nigi-mitama while the violent ones are ara-mitama. There’s even a ritual called chinkon (calming of the spirits) for transforming a bad spirit into a good one.
The yōkai stories have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. In ancient times, word of mouth was the only medium for the circulation of those anecdotes, which later made their way into literary work and theaters. A good deal of anime, manga, video games and movies have adapted and taken inspiration from various yōkai stories.
Types of Yōkai
Considering the folklore studies, these spirits have been divided into eight categories. The writer of Sogo Nihon Minzoku Goi puts all yōkai under eight types:
- Doubutsu no ke (imaginary or real animals)
- Yama no ke (mountains)
- Ki no ke (plants)
- Yuki no ke (snow)
- Umi no ke (sea)
- Mizu no ke (water)
- Michi no ke (paths)
- Oto no ke (sound)
Folklorist Tsutomu Ema made a different grouping in his two famous books: Nihon Yōkai Henge Shi and Obake no Rekishi. According to them, the types of these spirits are based on their:
- Natural phenomena
Source of Mutation
- Related to this world
- Associated with materials
- Next world/reincarnation related
- Connected with spiritual/mental states
- Natural objects
- Inanimate structures
A List of Known Yōkai
You will get the reference of this demon cat in many ancient fables and myths. When an ordinary house cat lives for years, it starts to develop mystical powers and transforms into a bake-neko. It grows to the size of an adult human with the increase of powers. With the ability to shapeshift, a bake-neko can take the identity of humans after devouring them. Look around! You can be living among these monster felines and not knowing it!
A highly-intelligent fox with shape-shifting ability. It can take the form of a human and fool you by looking like a person close to you. However, it loves to take the shape of beautiful women. A kitsune can have up to nine tails, and each one grows every 100 years. This fox spirit can be a zenko that is pious and loving or a yako that harbors malicious intentions.
A mischievous yōkai that lives in rivers and swamps and loves to pull down swimmers by legs. This reptile-like creature has green scales and fins for hands and feet. Kappa has a plate on its head that is supposed to hold its life force. It loses power and dies eventually when the plate dries up or breaks down. This yōkai is so popular that there are cucumber sushi rolls named kappamaki because kappa’s favorite food is cucumber.
Dressed as an ascetic monk, these fearful creatures can bring adversity to people. They look angry because of their red face and a long nose. Buddhism depicts them as harbingers of war, something that brings only disruptions to human life. However, their demonic image has been softened gradually over time and people in many Japanese areas worship them as spirits of the mountains and forests.
Similar to an ogre, these giant demons have red, green, or blue skin color with horns, fangs, and claws. Living in hell, their main task is to punish sinful spirits with an iron club. These ferocious demons are believed to spread diseases and cause calamities. Oni is a highly popular yōkai in Japan and people wear oni masks during the Namahage festival.
What about meeting a yōkai that washes azuki (red mung) beans on a riverside? Why does it do so? No reason, apparently. If you see one, don’t go too near as it can abduct or do other bad things to you. However, people in some areas in Japan believe it to be a symbol of good fortune.
A creature comes straight out of classical Japanese literature and kaidan (spirit tales). It looks like a normal human being but can stretch its neck long, like really long. There is another version named nukekubi whose head detaches from the body and floats around. In some versions, these creatures are painted as evil spirits that attack people at night and drink their blood.
Jorogumo: The carnivorous spider
This is a bewitching spider ghost that loves to eat men instead of insects. Japanese believe that female golden orb weaver spiders transform into a jorogumo when they reach 400 years. Posing as a beautiful woman with legs of spiders, she entraps young men into her web and devours them slowly.
Japanese people have a thing for old things. According to them, anything that lives too long turns into something mysterious. Tsukumogami are regular household items that become an animate entity after surviving for 100 years. They are mostly harmless and protective of the household but some may take revenge on the owner for dumping them. Wanna throw that old umbrella or frying pan into the trash? Think twice!
Having no willpower of their own, shikigami are like zombies in the spirit world. Only an onmyoji (Japanese magician) can summon them and their sole purpose is to serve their master’s commands. They complete simple to dangerous tasks for their owners while taking the form of various things, from inanimate objects to living beings. A popular representation of shikigami in pop culture is paper dolls or winged origami.
Nure-onna: The snake woman
With the head of a woman, this snake-bodied monster kills people who fall for her tricks. You will usually find her on the riverbank carrying up a bundle looking like a baby. She sucks the blood out of her victims by using her snake-like tongue. In some tales, these snake women are described as nureyomejo, a mystic phenomenon that lives at sea.
This harmless yōkai will appear behind you when you are walking alone on a dark road. It wears wooden clog shoes that create a “beto beto” sound when stepping on concrete surfaces. Betobeto-san is invisible and its only shtick is to give you company. Don’t want that? Just request betobeto-san politely to pass you and it will leave you alone.
Just like kitsune, these raccoon dogs can shape-shift along with showing a few other magical powers. In ancient literary works, they were respectable figures as guardians of the natural world. With time, that revered image has been transformed into comical tricksters. They appear as comic figures in pop culture (Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko, for example) due to their huge testicles.
An elusive snow yōkai depicted in many literary works, films, and anime. This beautiful woman has icy white skin and wears a white kimono while waiting for her victims on snowy mountain roads. Her freezing breaths can frost a human within moments, and touching her ice-cold body will make anyone shiver uncontrollably.
A faceless ghost that likes to give unsuspecting people a good scare. Looking like a human but without a face, these creatures approach a person walking alone on a lonely street. They will hide their face away only to turn around on a sudden and startle with their faceless appearance.
Yōkai can not only be mischievous or bad, but they can also be downright bloodthirsty. Tenome is a blind, angry spirit that wanders with two unblinking eyes on its hands. Looking like an old man, these violent creatures feed off humans by eating their flesh.
Nurikabe, which literally means “plaster wall”, is probably the most frustrating yōkai to deal with. These invisible walls stretch to an indefinite length, giving no chance to climb over or walk around them. Going out at night, they try to disorient travelers by blocking their paths or trapping inside a small enclosure. According to some tales, they disappear if you tap on the bottom left side with a stick.
These dog spirits are more like shikigami because they don’t have their own will and serve their master’s purposes. The process of making an inugami is cruel and inhuman, as it involves killing a dog by starving and inflicting other abuses. An inugami is used for doing all sorts of nefarious deeds. However, they are loyal to their masters, who can pass the spirit down to the next generation.
This name literally translates into “starving skeleton”, so it’s obvious that these spirits look like a giant skeleton. According to various yōkai works, a gashadokuro is made of the collective bones of people who died of starvation or of soldiers who did not get a burial after getting killed on a battlefield. Human blood is their food, which they collect by biting off the head of their victims.
Beware of an old lady standing on the side of a lonely road and asking for help. She could be a kurozuka! Also known as onibaba, this wild-haired lady dons a maniacal look and lures her victims to her mountain cave. She kills people in their sleep and eats their flesh and organs.
An orphan child who turned into a vengeful oni due to rearing anger and hatred toward the world. He became quite powerful and formed an army of demons like him. They terrorized over the areas nearby Mount Ōe with abduction and murder and used to attack the capital. Emperor Ichijō sent an army to suppress these miscreants. The warriors killed these demons by poisoning their sake.
Somewhat similar to kurozuka, yama-uba are also old women who live deep in the mountains. However, their appearance is hideous, like a monster, featuring the mouth on top of the head. They disguise themselves as kind, old women to trick their victims.
A snake-like yōkai that has scaly skin and a stumpy body looking like a hammer. It has deadly venom in its fangs but does not attack humans. According to some folktales, some of these demonic creatures can speak and have a penchant for lying.
Yōkai in Popular Culture
Being a significant element in Japanese culture, yōkai figures regularly appear in literary, visual, and performing art forms in Japan. Upon paying attention, you will see that movies, anime, and video games feature chock-full of yōkai characters. Some of them have been inspired by the classic folktales, while others have been created based on traditional concepts.
In Video Games
Two highly popular video game series, Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, have several yōkai characters.
For example, Exeggutor, a multi-faced palm tree in Pokémon, is based on a yōkai mentioned in the Wakan Sansai Zue encyclopedia in 1712. Also, there is a kitsune creature named Ninetails, Whiscash (based on the giant mythical catfish namazu), and more.
Yōkai takes the center-stage in Yo-Kai Watch, which started as a video game, but the sky-high popularity has prompted separate manga and anime series. Some yōkai-inspired characters are Jibanyan, Usapyon, Komasan, Komajiro, Whisper, and others.
Kitsune, a fox yōkai, is a popular character in video games. So, you will find its rendition in Ninetails from Okami, Ahri from League of Legends, and Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog.
Whomps, a species of enemies in the Super Mario series, is a rendition of nurikabe yōkai. Having arms and legless feet, these big, grey stones try to crush Mario whenever he gets near.
In Anime and Manga
Inuyasha (a manga series and anime adaptation) features hybrid human Inuyasha and dog-yokai Inugami, Rosario + Vampire (manga and anime series) has Moka Akashiya, and Demon Prince Enma (anime and manga series) tells the stories of four demons and their mission.
A famous manga/anime series Naruto also depicts kitsune, a shapeshifting fox yōkai. Naruto became extremely powerful when a formidable nine-tailed fox had sealed within him.
In fact, these supernatural creatures are so popular that two Harry Potter franchise films have featured Kappa, a reptile yōkai.
Studio Ghibli is known for its several popular animated feature films. Two of its productions My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke have shown a tree spirit yōkai named Kodama. From the same studio comes Spirited Away where paper shikigami spirits do the bidding of their master onmyoji (magician).
Apart from these examples, you will find numerous references to demons, spirits, and ghostly characters in visual media productions and other literary forms.
The Origin of Yōkai
When Izanagi (a creator deity) took a purification bath after returning from the Yomi-no-kuni (the land of the dead), each water drop falling from his body suffused the ground with supernatural potential.
The yōkai were born from that latent magical energy. This story has come from the 8th century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the oldest Japanese literary work.
That energy incarnates in the form of a monster or spirit through a forceful natural disaster or powerful negative human emotions. Some spirits may also come to the earth through fearful beasts and long-lived trees.
In fact, yōkai stories were ancient people’s way of getting a grasp of things that they could not explain with their knowledge. So, it’s no surprise that the older the time period, the more is the number of supernatural phenomena and beings.
Before becoming a single nation, Japan was inhabited by various isolated small tribes and kingdoms who had their own stories of gods and monsters.
The golden age of yōkai storytelling was the Edo Period (1603–1868) when numerous stories were circulated through art, literature, and drama. Later, a folklorist named Toriyama Sekien (1712–1788) collected these stories by traveling across Japan. He then cataloged each story with an illustration, thereby conserving those half-whispered tales from extinction.
A cultural shift then almost eradicated the yōkai storytelling, which revived only after WWII at the hands of academics like Yanagita Kunio (1875–1962) and comic artists such as Mizuki Shigeru (1922–2015). In modern times, yōkai narratives are highly popular and have numerous representations in popular culture.