Yokai (I): Japanese Supernatural Creatures

Yokai (I): Japanese Supernatural Creatures

Ghost stories are indispensable in cultures around the world. Japan is no exception. People around the world enjoy the chill of scary stories on summer nights. Many of these stories are about yokai. Yokai are monsters and fairies that appear in Japanese folk tales. They come in varieties: some are scary and some are cute. In recent years, people have developed a fondness for yokai because of fiction, films, anime, and games. Especially in Japanese ACG (anime, comic, game) culture, yokai becomes a symbol bound up with hopes and sometimes even romance.

What is Yokai?


Yokai refers to supernatural entities and spirits in Japanese folklore. In Japanese, the word consists of two parts: “yō” meaning attractive, bewitching, calamity, and “kai” meaning mysterious, apparition, and suspicious. Although yokai is often translated as "demon", it is not literally a demon in the Western sense. Yokai are not entirely evil, and their behavior toward humans ranges from malicious, and mischievous to benevolent.

Monsters, spirits, and goblins are also the words used to translate yokai. However, yokai encompasses a much broader range. In general, it’s a broad and vague term that covers almost all monsters and supernatural beings, ghosts, gods, possessed spirits, urban legends, and other strange phenomena.

The ancient lore of yokai is part of Japanese tradition and culture, especially rooted in small towns and villages where they have been passed down for generations. Artistic creations about yokai have appeared constantly throughout Japanese history and have deeply influenced Japanese art. The unique appeal of the famous Ghibli movies, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, comes from these originally more eerie and more grotesque Japanese supernatural creatures.

A Brief History of Yokai


Japanese folklorists and historians regard yokai as a personification of supernatural or unexplained phenomena. The earliest record of yokai in Japan appears in 772. The Shoku Nihongi stated that the reason why Shintoism was indispensable was the necessity of purifying the yokai, which refers to strange phenomena rather than specific supernatural creatures.

In Japan, it's possible to major in the study of yokai at some universities. In 2008, Professor Kazuhiko Komatsu led the creation of a yokai database containing 16,000 entries. However, the record of yokai began in the Heian period (794-1185). In the Heian period, a bunch of story periodicals about supernatural phenomena was published. These publications, such as Nihon Ryoiki and Konjaku Monogatarishu, mentioned the yokai that we are now familiar with.

Yokai were not only recorded but also created. During the Edo period (1603-1867), many artists, such as Toriyama Sekien, invented new yokai, based on folk tales or inspired by their own imaginations. By the Taisho period (1912-1926) when Western culture began to be introduced to Japan, Western folklore was adapted into Japanese stories. The creation did not stop there. In modern times, manga artists, such as Arifumi Sato, still continue to create new yokai in their compositions.

Types of Yokai


The origin of yokai is rooted in Shintoism, which beliefs in animism. According to Shintoism, supernatural beings and spirits are everywhere. Yokai usually have animal features and some also look like a human in appearance. Some yokai are inanimate objects, while others have no discernible shape. Classification of demons can be based on three factors: the true appearance of yokai (since many yokai master shapeshifting), the origin of yokai, and the habitat of yokai.

1. Classification by appearance:

  • Human-like
  • Animal-like
  • Plant-like
  • Artifacts
  • Structures or buildings
  • Natural objects or phenomena
2. Classification by origin
  • Mutations related to this world
  • Spiritual-related mutations
  • Reincarnation/afterlife-related mutations
  • Material-related mutations
3. Classification by habitat:
  • Mountain
  • Water / Sea
  • Village
  • House
  • Path
  • Forest
  • Snow
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