Japanese Patterns of Design
Mitsukuni_defying_the_skeleton_spectre_invoked_by_princess_Takiyasha by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, it isn't originally drawn to depict Gasyadokuro, but its image has been used as Gashadokuro due to its large size

Japanese Yokai: Types of Ghosts and Supernatural Monsters

Shirime shoing his butt with a large eye in it to a man by Mizuki Shigeru
Shirime by Mizuki Shigeru (google.com)

Japanese Yokai consists of ghosts and supernatural monsters which have been used as an explanation for the phenomena which can’t be accounted scientifically. Numerous Japanese Yokai from the ancient period has dreadful features as they needed the darkness to exist. The darkness stimulates the fear and the imagination at the same time, that produced countless Yokai. Let’s take a look at some famous and funny Yokai!

1. Brief Introduction of Japanese Yokai

Japanese Yokai, also known as “Monono-ke” – spirits, “Ayakashi” – beings that do supernatural things, and “Mamono” – demons, is a general name for the supernatural phenomena in Japan from the ancient times.

In the beliefs of Animism, spirits dwell in all kinds of phenomena and have their emotions as well. If they are calm, they are called Nigi-Mitama, which brings a good fortune like a good harvest, if they are wrathful, they would bring a disaster or a plague, called Ara-Mitama. The means to convert Ara-Mitama to Nigi-Mitama is the rituals of calming souls, which is a basic way of Shinto.

Shinto Beliefs: 5 Core Values of Japanese Indigenous Religion

The boundary between Yokai and Kami – deities are sometimes very vague since they both have supernatural power and can be positive or negative depending on the emotion they possess. For instance, a part of nature such as the weather and climate, appropriate amount of sunny days and rainy days are welcome which bring a good harvest, but an excess amount of them could bring a drought and water damage. This type of belief is seen as nature worship which is a primordial form of Animism.

How Yokai-like being can be born, it’s because of the grudge of people, which turned to be Ara-Mitama that weren’t enshrined, failed to be enshrined or stopped to be enshrined. Ara-Mitama can be produced in nature as well when people fail to take care of them with respect.

However, in the course of time, fewer and fewer phenomena which people recognize as supernatural, Japanese Yokai became the subjects of entertainment as they lessened their fearful nature.

Below are notable picture books of Japanese Yokai which you can see varieties of them.

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: A Field Guide to Japanese Yokai
Get your copy on Amazon!: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: A Field Guide to Japanese Yokai by Matthew Meyer

This field guide contains over 100 illustrated entries covering a wide variety of Japanese Yokai such as elephant-dragons which feed solely on bad dreams and baby zombies, and fire-breathing chickens. Each Japanese Yokai is described in detail—including its habitat, diet, origin, and legends—based on translations from centuries-old Japanese texts.

Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien by Toriyama Sekien (Author), Matt Alt (Editor, Translator), Hiroko Yoda (Editor, Translator)
Get your copy on Amazon!: Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien by Toriyama Sekien (Author)

This historically groundbreaking compilation includes complete translations of all four of Sekien’s Yokai masterworks: the 1776 Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (The Illustrated Demon Horde’s Night Parade), the 1779 Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hyakki (The Illustrated Demon Horde from Past and Present, Continued), the 1781 Konjaku Hyakki Shū (More of the Demon Horde from Past and Present), and the 1784 Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (A Horde of Haunted Housewares). The collection is complemented by a detailed introduction and helpful annotations for modern-day readers.

2. Dreadful Yokai

Gashadokuro

Mitsukuni_defying_the_skeleton_spectre_invoked_by_princess_Takiyasha by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, it isn't originally drawn to depict Gasyadokuro, but its image has been used as Gashadokuro due to its large size
Mitsukuni_defying_the_skeleton_spectre_invoked_by_princess_Takiyasha by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, it isn’t originally drawn to depict Gasyadokuro, but its image has been used as Gashadokuro due to its large size (Wikipedia)

Gashadokuro is said to be a giant skeleton which incorporated of the war dead, people who died in a ditch, not buried, skeletons and grudge. It wanders around at night shaking his bones, making loud rattling noise, and whenever he finds a man alive, he makes an assault, crushes him and finally eats him.

Akkorokamui

Fishermen are fighting against a large octopus
Bussan Zue, Product Painting by Ando Tokubei, this octopus is in Namekawa, Toyama, but its image should be close to Akkoro-Kamui (www.city.namerikawa.toyama.jp)

Akkorokamui, at kor kamuy in Ainu, is a huge octopus which resides in the bay of volcano in Hokkaido. When Akkorokamui spreads his legs, it can reach up to 2 miles and devours a ship or a whale in a swallow. His whole body is red, and its color reflects not just the sea around him, but also the reflection painted the sky red.

If a ship comes close to Akkorokamui carelessly, people knew he would kill them, so they don’t sail to the area which looks red both the sea and the sky, made sure to carry a scythe.

There is a folklore of Akkoro-Kamui’s origin.

A huge spider monster “Yaukeshipu” used to appear in Rebunge, destroyed numerous houses, and devastated the lands. People got scared and prayed for kami to solve this problem, and their prayers are heard. “Rebunkamui”, the kami of the sea accepted to take charge of him in the sea. Drawn into the sea, “Yaushikebu” was forced to change its figure to an octopus, and became a raging Yokai “Akkorokamui”.

Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
Get your copy on Amazon!: Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide

It brings you detailed information on almost 50 of these amazing creatures for the first time in English by illustrations detail the potential appearance of each Yokai with each Yokai’s important features at a glance.

Nuribotoke

Nuribotoke, a balck Buddhist statue with his eyes hanging out drawn by Sawaki Suushi
Nuribotoke by Sawaki Suushi

Nuribotoke is considered to be a kind of Japanese zombie, evil Yokai. It’s a hideous statue made by a fallen priest sealed off his grudge by applying black paint on the brand-new Buddhist statue. Its black paint is called “Chigote”, which is believed to be made by newborn baby heals any kind of wound.

It moves as the creator wants it to and has the power to curse, but he goes to the hell once he curses somebody. It is why it’s also called “the Buddhist statue of the hell”. It’s considered that all Nuribotoke was destroyed at the time of an anti-Buddhist movement, but be careful when you happen to find a black Buddhist statue somewhere…

3. Spooky Yokai

Nurarihyon

Nurarihyon by Kawanabe Gyosai 1890
Nurarihyon by Kawanabe Gyosai 1890 (www.nichibun.ac.jp)

Generally, Nurarihyon is slippery like an eel, we have no clue what he thinks or does the next. There is a lot of drawings of Nurarihyon in scrolls in the Edo period, yet no further details are provided. It’s hard to read his true feelings from his facial expression whether he is grinning or being puzzled.

In the picture books of Japanese Yokai for children which published in the Showa and the Heisei period, there’s an explanation of Nurarihyon. It enters the house without getting noticed, the time people get busy in the evening preparing dinner, it drinks green tea smoking tobacco as if it were its own home. Even people see Nurarihyon in their homes, somehow they take it as their owner of the houses, they don’t make it leave.

Rokurokubi

Rokurokubi in Hokusai Manga by Katsushika Hokusai
Rokurokubi in “Hokusai Manga” by Katsushika Hokusai (Wikipedia)

There are two types of Rokurokubi, one is a flying head and another is an unusually extended neck. We will introduce you a story of the latter one.

A maid was suspected as a “Rokurokubi”, the head of the maids comes at night to see this maid found something eerie. There was rising steam from around her chest, while it thickened up, her head was gone, and her neck extended in no time. The chief maid gasped at the scene, and the sleeping maid rolled over in bed and her neck was back into the original position.

This maid is nothing different but her face is always pale. The chief maid let her take a break taking this incident eerie. She can’t stay any workplace for long because of this.

Some researchers say this could be “ectoplasm” in the field of spiritual science, that the spirit comes out from the body and can be seen visually, physically.

Makuragaeshi

Makura-Gaeshi having a pillow in his hands, by Mizuki Shigeru
Makura-Gaeshi by Mizuki Shigeru (Pinterest)

Makuragaeshi appears in a bedroom where a man sleeps and puts his pillow upside down. Some of them even change the position of his bedding. And that’s all that they do.

However, there are some awful Makura-Gaeshi as well. A famous story of them comes from Wakayama and they used to be spirits of a large fir tree. Eight woodcutters were working on the tree to cut it down, once they cut it half the way, then the next day there was no cutting mark and the tree was complete in the original state.

They came to realize that spirits of the tree mend the cutting with the sawdust, they burned them, and finished the job cutting down the tree. The night they cut down the tree, Makuragaeshi appeared in their bedroom and began putting the woodcutter’s pillows upside down one by one…

The next morning, seven of them found dead and only one survived miraculously. The spirits let the one who chanted the Heart Sutra alive because they thought this man should be faithful.

There are some thoughts on this story. In folklore, a pillow is symbolized as a border between the physical world and the dream world. It stems from the thought that Japanese people believed that people go to another world while they sleep and dream is what they see and hear in that world.

So that once the position of a pillow changed while one sleeps, a man’s soul cannot come back to the physical world correctly and that can cause death. Changing the position of the pillow can mean the reverse of the order, there would be no more physical world where the soul has to be, and a soul would be flown somewhere into another world. Quite a pillow.

4. Instructive Yokai

Dorotabo

Yokai, Dorota-Bo emerges from the rice field to urge farmers to take care of the field well
Yokai, Dorota-Bo emerges from the rice field to urge farmers to take care of the field well (www.youkaiwiki.com)

Dorotabo appears in the rice fields. There’s an anecdote about the rice fields which a grandfather handed over to his grandson. This grandson was a big drinker, hadn’t take care of the rice fields which he was given at all, and top it all he sold them to somebody.

After that, Dorotabo appears there night by night kept cussing him out “Give me back the rice fields, give it back to me …”

Kappa

Kappa by Hokusai, how to catch Kappa
” How to catch a Kappa” by Hokusai, 河童を釣ルの法

Kappa might be the most popular Japanese Yokai now and then, the story cited as an instructive lesson to have not children get close to the water side since in the old times there was a lot of water accidents. So the adult told kids if they get close to the water or the pond, Kappa would attack you…

The drawing above shows how to catch a Kappa. People believe cucumber is their most favorite, but actually “shirikodama” can top it. What’s that? It’s considered to be an organ which is a part of man’s anus, so exposing one’s butt to allure a Kappa should be the most effective way to catch it while risking one’s life. Because a man who was robbed of his”shirikodama” by a Kappa lost his soul, became gutless and would be no use.

Kappa is believed to be a fallen kami (deity) of water, and there is a custom to dedicate cucumber to the kami of water, so it’s Kappa’s another favorite.

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michæl Dylan Foster (Author), Shinonome Kijin (Illustrator)

You’ll definitely find fastinating of the stories of Japanese Yokai which rages from tengu (mountain goblins) and kappa (water spirits), to shape-shifting foxes and long-tongued ceiling-lickers.

5. Comforting Yokai

Hitotsume Kozo

Hitotsume-Kozo, one-eyed boy yokai carrying a lamp
Hitotsume-Kozo (http://youkaiwiki.hateblo.jp)

Hitotsume Kozo does no harm, just appears out of a sudden to surprise people. It is often times depicted as a humorous and relatively lovely figure due to its personality.

Tofu Kozo, a boy wearing a large hat carrying a piece of tofu on a tray
Tofu Kozo (blog.goo.ne.jp)

There is some similar yokai such as Tofu Kozo, Amefuri Kozo. Both of them are maids, Tofu Kozo, it wears a bamboo hat, holds a round tray, and there’s a piece of tofu with a maple mark on it.

Another one, Amefuri Kozo wears a Japanese traditional umbrella holding a lantern. Amefuri Kozo sometimes stalks people at night with the rain, but it does nothing more than that. It’s depicted as a bit too naive, shy, and funny character. Some other Yokai finds it weak, they pick on it.

Nuppeppo

Nuppeppo by Toriyama Sekien
Nuppeppo by Toriyama Sekien (Wikipedia)

Nuppebo has no eyes, no nose, no lips. It comes close to a passerby pretending as if it were one of them, starts a small talk with him, and exposes his white self (kind of white-powdered skin) when he lets his guard off.

In 1609, the early Edo period, a piece of meat-like-looking thing appeared in the middle court of Suruga Castle. Its shape was a boy’s, it has hands but no fingers. Samurai tried to catch him but no luck since it moved so fast. Ieyasu Tokugawa who resided in Suruga Castle at the time told his retainers to make it leave instead of catching it, so they chased it away from the castle to the mountains. Sometime later, a man who is an expert on medicine heard this story bit his lip since it could have been “Hou” which is written in the ancient Chinese book, the medicine which would amazingly energize a man.

Nyoijizai

Nyoijizai by Toriyama Sekien
Nyoijizai by Toriyama Sekien (Wikipedia)

“Nyoi” is one of the Buddhist objects which a priest has, also used was a back-scratcher. Nyoijizai is considered to be a Yokai which was born from the objects, Nyoi. Just like a back-scratcher, it scratches where itchy. It can come in pretty handy if you treat it right, otherwise, you would be scratched pretty badly.

6. Funny Yokai

Shirime

Shirime shoing his butt with a large eye in it to a man by Mizuki Shigeru
Shirime by Mizuki Shigeru (google.com)

Shirime used to appear on Kagtabira street in Kyoto. When it sees a man, takes its clothes off, sticking his butt up to a man and its eye gleaming to surprise a man. There’s nothing on its face, but why it got an eye on his butt, nobody knows.

Tenjo-Name

Tenjo-Name licking on the ceiling using his long tongue
Tenjo-Name in 『百器徒然袋』 (www.youkaiwiki.com)

In old times, they used to have a high ceiling and there would be some spot where the light can’t reach. Sekien, an Ukiyo-e Artist explained that’s the dark spot Tenjo-Name makes.

In the documents from the Showa and the Heisei period, Tenjo-Name is described as a yokai which licks the dust on the ceiling using his long tongue, the spots you find on the ceilings are the marks of this action. Those marks can look like a monster or a frightening look of a man, it’s said that some people look at them from their bedding went mad, lost their mind and end up dead.

Haradashi

Haradashi, dancing to make people laugh if they offer sake
Haradashi, dancing to make people laugh if they offer sake (moon.ap.teacup.com)

Haradashi appears at the evening, once it’s offered sake, it accepts it with great pleasure and begins funny dancing. Anyone who sees the dance is said to have a good fortune.

It never does anything to give trouble to a man. It has basically a cheerful personality, sometimes comforts a man who is in sorrow. A man’s anxiety would be gone once he sees its dance and even start to have a hope for the future.

…Having seen a lot of Japanese Yokai, some fearful, some funny, and some still unknown. But we understand we should keep our promise of whether it’s with people or Yokai and treat them nicely they would even reward you.

Either Yokai which has its origin in the ancient times or the modern times, as long as we have an uncharted territory or new darkness which stimulates our imagination for the unknown, new Yokai would be born in every corner.

Well, let’s be nice to them when we happen to see one of them (except the dreadful ones)!

References

妖怪の歴史 (妖怪日本紀行)
怪異・妖怪伝承データベース (International Research Center for Japanese Studies)

Related Articles

Japanese Mythology: Creation of the Universe and Kami
Shinto: Introduction of “Way of the Kami”
Mizuki Shigeru: Bio, Yokai Art, and the Road

Hiroko Matsuyama

Add comment

Most popular

Most discussed