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), 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 bound to its original traditional image. For example, the prototype for Yubaba in Spirited Away was actually a tengu.

The legend of the tengu is very old, therefore, there are many stories about it. According to Buddhist stories, a tengu is a destructive and war-like demon. After centuries of evolution, tengu gradually became a sign of protection and even 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 surprising that some shrines enshrine and worship tengu. They regard tengu as the messenger for the gods and believe that tengu has the power to defeat evils and protect its believers. The reverence and the worship of tengu can both be attributed to the mighty power of tengu - it is a master of magic, flying, and combat.



The kappa (literally "river child") is a yokai related to water. Though they are usually depicted as a cute creature these days, 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 it carries is spilled. Therefore, there is a convenient way to deal with a dangerous kappa: bow to them, because they must bow, and as a result, they will spill water.

Similar to the folklore of the tengu, kappa are harmful to humans when they are not revered. 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 the gods 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, they will irrigate your farmland.

Thanks to artists like Shigeru Mizuki, the kappa has become much cuter. The top of its head has even changed in some depictions to where it looks more like it is wearing a dish upside-down on its head like a hat.



Zashiki-Warashi is a yokai that protects people's houses and storehouses. 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 toy tops, and taking away small items. However, they ultimately 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 them away 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 when building a new house placing coins on the foundation.

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