Yokai (II): Japanese Supernatural Creatures | Shotengai Skip to main content

Yokai (II): Japanese Supernatural Creatures

Yokai (II): Japanese Supernatural Creatures

In Japanese, Yokai is a broad and vague term that covers almost all monsters, supernatural beings, ghosts, gods, possessed spirits, urban legends, and other strange phenomena. It encompasses a broad range: from animal-like Yokai to human-like Yokai, from creatures to spirits, from malicious to benevolent. Since the medieval period (1185-1603 CE), Japanese Yokai have been the subject of entertainment. As mass media technology develops, Yokai are widely portrayed in Japanese anime, games, and movies. Here are some of the most common Yokai.



Tengu is a legendary creature in Japanese folk religion. They are considered to be a Yokai and a Shinto Kami (god). Its name literally means sky dog. However, its appearance has nothing to do with dogs. It’s a fat human-like creature with a red face, long nose, and wings. In pop culture, the appearance of the Tengu is varied and no longer stuck to the traditional image. For example, the prototype of the Yubaba in Spirited Away is a Tengu.

The legend of the Tengu is very old, therefore, there are many stories about it. According to Buddhist stories, Tengu is a destructive demon and omen of war. After centuries of evolution, Tengu gradually became protection and a deity of Buddhism. In Shintoism, Tengu is the spirit of the mountains. The Tengu lives in the mountain and can move deftly through it. It terrifies and kidnaps humans. They are especially dangerous to the elderly and children because they are the most defenseless people. Nevertheless, it’s confusing that some shrines enshrine and worship Tengu. They regard Tengu as the messenger of Kami and believe that Tengu has the power of defeating evils and protecting the believers. The fear and the worship of humans toward Tengu can both be attributed to the mighty power of Tengu - it is a master of magic, flying, and combating.



The kappa (river child) is a Yokai of water. Though his image looks cute today, he has a dark history. They are usually depicted as small, green, humanoid creatures with scaly arms, webbed hands and feet, and turtle-like armor on their backs. Kappa has a plate full of water on his head, which is the source of his power. Its power will be weakened if the water is spilled. Therefore, there is a convenient way to deal with a dangerous Kappa: bow to them, because they must bow backward, and as a result, they will spill water.

Similar to the folklore of the Tengu, Kappa is harmful to the human when it is not regarded as a Kami. These water demons lurk in the water and harass passersby, kidnap children, and attack livestock. However, according to Shintoism, they are considered to be the good-will Kami of rivers and lakes. Kappa love to eat cucumbers and are fond of Sumo wrestling. If you feed him cucumbers and become friends with them, they will be nice to you, share their knowledge with you, and help you with problems, for example, irrigating your farmland.



Zashiki-Warashi (parlor child) is the spirit of house and storehouse. They look like children around six years old with a flush on their cheeks. The boys wear samurai armor and the girls wear kimonos. They are mischievous but friendly. Zashiki-Warashi liked playing pranks, such as leaving small footprints around the house, making noise, spinning gyroscopes, and taking away small items. However, they will bring wealth and good luck to the house.

They live in the reception room of a traditional Japanese house, and only the people who live in the house can see them. They will make friends with the children and accompany elderly or infertile couples living in the house. Once the presence of Zashiki-Warashi is confirmed, they should be taken care of very carefully. Driving away them or their voluntary departure will cause misfortune to the house and its inhabitants. The desire to attract and keep these friendly Yokai leads to some customs, such as preparing food in the reception room and placing coins on the foundation when building a new house.