Yōkai: fascinating Japanese Monsters

May 26, 2021 8 min read

yokai

Impossible to talk about Japanese folklore without mentioning yōkai. In forests, cities, homes... these spirits are just about everywhere around us. 👀

Yōkai (妖怪) are supernatural creatures that are very much present in Japanese culture. The term yōkai can be translated as "spirit, demon or ghost." They exist in many varieties, from the scary to the wacky.

Ever since the dawn of time, these malevolent or simply prankish spirits have been an inspiration to many artists in the Land of the Rising Sun. Since the Middle Ages, they can be found in paintings, sculptures, prints, and, more recently, in video games and mangas.

But who are these mysterious creatures? Where do they come from and what do they represent nowadays? 🧐

Let's find out more about what a yōkai is, followed by the top 12 most popular yōkai in the archipelago. 👇

🤔 Well, what is a yōkai?

Yōkai stands for monster, ghost, demon, or supernatural phenomenon. This term, derived from the Chinese, remains quite mysterious. Moreover, its kanji writing refers to the strange and extraordinary.

You have probably already seen the famous animation movie of Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke, with its forest spirits? Well, these are the typical yōkai! Mononoke, which can be translated as "vengeful spirit" or "strange thing".

The yōkai originate from Japanese legends, which are mainly derived from Shinto, Buddhism, Chinese history and tales from foreign countries.

Originally, these mythical creatures represented the fear of the unknown and the unexplained torments from which the Japanese suffered. As time passed, they acquired new powers, reflecting the people's growing interest in the connection with the invisible.
⚠️ We distinguish the traditional yōkai from the invented ones that were written by authors inspired by folklore, since the Japanese appreciated these strange creatures so much, especially during the Edo era.


Yōkai are an integral part of Japanese culture and traditional Japanese arts. Beliefs, traditions, superstitions, or simply objects of entertainment, they are also represented in many festivals and media. They symbolize both the inexplicable and the morality taught to children through Japanese fairy tales.  👨‍🏫

 

The Japanese anime Gegege no Kitaro (or Kitaro the repulsive) tells the story of Kitaro, a little boy-like yōkai who strives to bring peace between the world of Japanese monsters and humans. 

With human, animal, or object characteristics, each yōkai has its own particularity and story. In addition, did you know that some creatures hold magical powers such as the ability to metamorphose? These are called "obake".

If you ever meet a yōkai, before getting scared, know that there are several kinds: the dangerous, the evil, the malicious, the pranksters and the benevolent. If most of them are a sign of bad luck, some can bring you good luck. All it takes is knowing how to recognize them 😉

📜 Most famous yōkai list

Getting curious? Here is a list (far from exhaustive!) of the famous and interesting yōkai in Japan.

Oni, the Japanese demon 👹

oni demonIllustration by Matthew Meyer on www.yokai.com

A demon from Japanese mythology, the Oni represents a sub-category of yokai. This terrifying monster is often represented with horns and sharp teeth.

If this demon was particularly frightening at the time, it also became a protective spirit of the home in return for offerings. Very present in Japanese folklore, this evil Japanese demon often has a red or blue colored skin.

A particularly popular Oni in Japan is the Hannya demon. According to the legend, she is a young woman who came back from the dead to take her revenge. She unleashes her anger and jealousy on unscrupulous men.

At New Year's Eve, in the north of Japan, there is a ritual where the inhabitants wear Japanese Oni masks to scare away disobedient children.

Tengu, the long-nosed guardian of the mountains 👺

tengu demon Illustration by Ai Tatebayashi

Tengu are goblins with a red scarlet face and a typical long nose. Throughout history, this Japanese demon has changed its appearance. Its origins remain rather vague and many theories attempt to explain it. From what we know, the Tengu is said to be a half-man, half-bird creature. It has a pair of wings on its back and its long nose would be the remains of a beak.

In the past, this demon was considered to be the enemy of Buddhism. The legends told that he enjoyed diverting priests from their faith and playing tricks on pious people who were too conceited.

Nowadays, the image of Tengu has softened. From the evil demon, he became the guardian of the mountains. If you draw his good favors, he will protect your family as well as your home. But be careful not to become too proud, or you'll get a good kick in the ass. Oh, didn't we tell you? Tengu master martial arts to perfection! 😄

Yurei, the ghost worthy of horror movies 😱

yurei Illustration by Matthew Meyer on www.yokai.com

Yurei are the subcategory of Japanese ghosts. They generally appear as a corpse dressed in a kimono, with long black hair and a floating appearance.

But where do these ghosts that haunt the world of the living come from? According to the beliefs, yurei are dead people who were not able to join their ancestors. They are condemned to wander in limbo for eternity. These vengeful spectres inspired many Japanese works in the 19th century. 👻

Doesn't this remind you of a certain horror movie called The Ring? Just a word of advice: if you ever spot a yurei, move on quickly! 😨

In order to know how to recognize this ghost and how to get rid of it, check out our article dedicated to this topic.

Kappa, the sneaky boy from the river 🐢

kappaIllustration by Matthew Meyer on www.yokai.com

With its frail appearance of a young boy, the Kappa does a good job hiding its game. He is mainly found around fresh water spots. Moreover, its name stands for "child of the rivers".

Concerning its appearance, the Kappa looks like a turtle with a carapace on its back and webbed extremities. The top of its skull has a bowl filled with water that has to be balanced constantly in order to maintain its strength. It is said that the Kappa enjoys luring humans and children into the water to drown them before devouring them.

Its weak points? A great sense of politeness and an unconditional love for cucumbers. So, to escape the Kappa, there are two options: 1) make him say hello so that he''ll lean forward and empty his bowl. 2) throw him a cucumber so that he''ll first devour his favorite treat. Next... run! 😅

Akaname, the bathroom monster 🛁

akaname the bathroom monsterIllustration by Matthew Meyer on www.yokai.com

This monster feeds on dirt from poorly maintained homes with its large tongue.

You may meet him in the dark, in your bathroom or in your toilet if they are too filthy. It could even attack humans that are seriously lacking in hygiene.

So, to avoid meeting him, we suggest you to polish your tiles and to stay clean. 😜

Ashiarai yashiki, the giant foot 👣

Ashiarai yashikiIllustration by Matthew Meyer on www.yokai.com

Likewise, if you're not a cleaning pro, this monster, looking like a giant foot covered in dirt, may make an appearance in your home.

It comes straight out of the ceiling and demands to be cleaned. This is a sign that it may be time to get out the vacuum and mop the floors...

To get rid of it, you may want to consider a foot bath. Enjoy the pedicure!

Tanuki, the spirit of the forest 🐶

tanukiStatue of Tanuki. Image source Wikipédia

Many yōkai are inspired by the real animals, and the Tanuki is one such example. This Asian native canid is known as a raccoon dog, as it bears a strong resemblance to the raccoon.

The Tanuki is a forest spirit known to be good-natured and an appreciator of sake 🍶. A mischievous though not dangerous creature, it can metamorphose into a human to play tricks on them. However, if you encounter this magical animal, you can take it as an omen of luck and prosperity. 💰

One of the particularities of this yokai: to be equipped with a pair of huge testicles that can reach the size of 8 tatamis! 😆  By inflating his testicles, he can use them as a drum, a weapon, an umbrella and even as a fishing net!

 

Kitsune, the multifaceted fox 🦊

kitsuneAn Incomplete Compendium of Mythical Creatures by Edward Kwong.

This fox-like yōkai with many different tails can be benevolent, malevolent, or just downright mischievous, one thing's for sure: kitsune has more than one trick up its sleeve. 😏

Cunning and mischievous, the Kitsune has the power to metamorphose into a beautiful young woman to bewitch men and play tricks on them. If you are a good person, this yokai can protect you, while being faithful and sincere. With time, the powers of the Kitsune become more and more powerful. It may be able to read minds, manipulate minds or even predict the future! 😮

If Kitsune is that much appreciated and revered in Japan, it is also because of the fact that he is the messenger of Inari, the goddess of rice, trade and prosperity!

Bakeneko, the ghost cat 🐱

bakenekoJapanese print representing an apparition of Bakeneko.

Bakeneko can be translated as "cat-monster". This frightening creature is known to haunt its home and take possession of the humans living there.

In its most evil version, this ghost cat can devour its master to take his place in the house. What a cat!

Be careful, if you find yourself in front of a cat with two tails, this is a Nekomata, an even more evil version of Bakeneko. This one has the ability to throw fireballs as well. 🔥

Be assured, not any cat becomes Bakeneko. For this to happen, the cat must have a long tail, be over 13 years old and weigh more than 3.5kg. You will never see your cat the same way again...😅

Rokurokubi, the long-necked monster 😲

rokurokubiIllustration by tot3mica on DeviantArt.

Of human appearance during the day, the Rokurokubi turns into a monster at night. Its particularity? a neck that stretches to infinity.

Generally female, the Rokurokubi likes to attack men and suck their blood. The most dangerous version of this yokai is called nukekubi.

Once the night falls, the head of the nukekubi detaches itself from the body to freely fly around and go hunting on an extreme killer mission. Its body, left inanimate and vulnerable, is its weak point.

When waking up, the nocturnal escapade seems more like a dream than a reality. That's why there are Rokurokubi that ignore themselves and think they are totally human. Something to lose your mind🤯

Yama Uba, the witch wearing a kimono 🧟‍♀️

yama ubaIllustration by Matthew Meyer on www.yokai.com

Like the witches of fairy tales, Yama Uba is a mean and hideous old woman. 

This unkempt looking woman has long shaggy hair, a withered skin and a huge mouth. She usually wears a worn-out kimono and lives in the mountain forest.

Yama Uba can metamorphose into a young lady or a granny cake to trick the unlucky ones who happen to cross her path, lure them to her house and devour them!

So, if you are walking in the woods and you get lost, don't trust the first person who comes along to find your way back... at the risk of losing your life!

Often evil, the legend of Kintaro proves however that the Yamanba can also have a... maternal and protective side.

Kasa-obake, the prankster umbrella ⛱

kasa obakeIllustration by lylecore on DeviantArt.

In Japanese folklore, objects that are more than 100 years old also become somewhat human. These yōkai are called Tsukumogani.

Kasa-obake is an umbrella that is both cyclops and one-legged.
Don't worry if you happen to spot him, as he's pretty harmless. Nevertheless, he is a bit of a prankster.

The yōkai are just about everywhere, so keep your eyes peeled!

There are many, many, MANY, other yōkai around you, even in the most unsuspecting places so keep your eyes open. 👀

From old Japanese paintings dating back to the Middle Ages to animated movies to Edo era prints, yōkai have always fascinated the Japanese with their mystery and originality. Through today's manga and animated movies, these supernatural beings will never cease to amaze us.

If you are passionate about this strange world of Japanese folklore, we I highly recommend the website www.yokai.com, where you will find a kind of catalog listing hundreds of yōkai, each of them more zany than the other. The site is in English, and each yōkai has a description sheet as well as an illustration. You may also follow Matthew Meyer's on Instagram to get your dose of yōkai every week, enough for some great nightmares!

 

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