‘Yōkai’ are supernatural beings that derive from myths, legends and the unknowable folk history of Japan.
Like many Japanese words, the term ‘Yōkai’ doesn't translate easily into English. It means far more than just ghosts or demons, it embodies a moment of feeling; suspicion, dread, mystery and awe.
Each Yōkai comes in different form and can represent stories, scenarios, or even the five senses, such as an unusual smell or sound. Some are used to explain natural disasters, such as ‘Namazu’; a giant catfish believed to lie under Japan and cause earthquakes when it wriggles.
(Print of Namazu, titled “The Cause of The Great Catfish at Shin Yoshiwara”.)
Others are more specific, such as the Yōkai ‘Uma-no-ashi’; a horse’s leg that dangles from a tree and kicks passers-by.
The Japanese spiritualist belief of ‘animism’ is that all things are sentient; everything from the water in the river to the shoes on your feet. Many Yōkai also have religious influences from Shintoism and share many traits with their gods; ‘kami’. So not all Yōkai are spooky spirits that haunt or kill, some are allegorical characters and can even bring good fortune.
The best way to describe Yōkai is individually, as each of the hundreds of Yōkai have their own varying names and attributes. In an attempt to organise the chaotic world of supernatural beings, we’ll look at 8 different types: ‘Obake’, ‘Tengu’, ‘Kappa’, “Tsukumogami’, ‘Yamauba’, ‘Kintarō’, ‘Rokurokubi’ and ‘Yurei’.
Obake are shapeshifting Yōkai that can switch between creature and human form. They are masters of trickery and might appear as a seductive woman but turn into a demon or a vicious animal. Often Obake could also be humans that have turned into creatures after they died, as a spirit trapped in an alternate form.
Hokusai's example of an Obake is titled "The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji". Obake literally means "thing that changes"; here a human has transformed into a ghostly creature:
"The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji" - Hokusai, 1831
Tengu are bird-monsters, sometimes portrayed with human forms and very large beak-like noses. Tengu have complex characters - both good and bad. Originally they were terrible creatures to be feared, but over time they came to be considered as protectors of cosmic law and order and are even part of some Shinto shrine rituals.
At the bottom of this Kuniyoshi print you can see the wise Tengu, pictured here in their bird forms:
"Kido Maru Learning Magic from the Tengu" - Kuniyoshi, 1840
Kappa are river monsters and probably the most commonly depicted Yōkai of all. They were believed to drown people in rivers and were known to love sumo wrestling… and cucumbers. Kappa have webbed feet, green skin and a flat disk shape on their heads filled with water. They share many attributes with the Japanese salamander, but had one weakness - when the water tipped from their heads, they died.
(An illustrated guide to some of the different types of Kappa)
Tsukumogami are ordinary objects, usually from the household, that come to life on their 100th birthday. They are tool ‘deities’ that were known to play pranks on humans and could also shapeshift into human form.
(Hokusai's depiction of a Tsukumogami, here in the story of Oiwa, who commit suicide after her face was disfigured. She then returned to haunt her husband as a lantern.)
Yamauba are witch-like old women who live in the mountains. They were believed to have mouths on their heads in order to eat their prey: humans. Sometimes they shapeshifted, to appear as young beautiful women to seduce and entice their victims.
(A depiction of a Yamauba from the Hyakkai Zukan, by Sawaki Suushi)
Kintarō is a child raised by a Yamauba in the forest. His name translates literally as “golden boy”, fitting for an immortal child born with superhuman strength. He also had many animal-like traits, such as being able to breathe underwater and speak to animals.
In Kuniyoshi’s depiction of Kintarō he's named “Sakata Kaido-maru” and is pictured wrestling a giant carp in a waterfall:
"Sakata Kaido-maru Wrestling the Giant Carp" - Kuniyoshi, 1836
Rokurokubi are apparitions; appearing as normal humans whose necks stretch and stretch so that their heads can float from their bodies. They often attacked at night and drank the blood of humans - much like vampires.
(This is from Hokusai's manga, or "sketches" published in 1814, a fine example of two Rokurokubi with their long necks.)
Yurei are what we might consider to be ghosts, as the word translates to mean “faint spirit”. They are trapped spirits that are unable to pass into the afterlife due to the extreme emotions they held at death: such as jealousy, love, anger or sorrow. They were the most-feared Yōkai of all, believed to be the cause of disasters and famines. Many expensive shinto shrines were built in an effort to appease and assist the Yurei spirits.
Here's Kuniyoshi’s depiction of a Yurei - the vengeful Yoshihira - who is depicted in black and white on a cloud of flames. Often artists would portray Yurei in muted tones or see-through, as “faint spirits”:
"Taira no Kiyomori Encountering the Ghost of Yoshihira at Nunobiki Falls" - Kuniyoshi, 1843
Amongst these Yōkai are hundreds of others, in the form of demons, animal hybrids, goblins, and phantoms.
Perhaps the first depictions of death, demons and the supernatural come from Heian-period depictions of hell: chaotic worlds of blood and fire.
(A section from a "Hell Scroll” displayed in the Nara National Museum, from the 12th century Heian period of Japan)
While the hell scroll was certainly a large inspiration, the majority of Yōkai as we know them come from ancient Japanese folklore; stories passed down by word of mouth over generations. It wasn’t until the 16th century, coinciding with the invention of the printing process, that these eerie beings were given the faces to their names. Their were first illustrated in the scroll titled the “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons”.
(A small section from the scroll "The Night Parade of 100 Demons"
(A close-up of some of the demons in the scroll)
The scroll is bursting with Yōkai ominously revelling through the night, only to disappear at the first beams of sunlight. Yōkai were feared creatures for most of history, but once they began to be illustrated, their mystery was lost and they appeared harmless. Soon they were to even be parodied.
In the Edo period the wild and wondrous stories of Yōkai were taken on by the greats of ukiyo-e, as well as many lesser-known artists, who won fame due to their Yōkai prints. Their fantastical imaginations brought the classic Japanese ghost stories to life, subsequently shifting opinions of Yōkai themselves.
Although ukiyo-e prints were widely owned (owing to the fact that a print cost the equivalent to a bowl of noodles), they were generally aimed at the low-born merchant classes - and nothing defined their class more than the purchase of Yōkai prints. Yōkai were urban legends that appealed to urban society, and the prints were exciting to see and were bought to be displayed on the walls of their homes.
But to the higher classes - the samurai and aristocracy - Yōkai prints were low-brow and would not appear anywhere near the imperial courts. As they defied aristocracy, the artists had free reign to give the people what they wanted: blood, gore and the paranormal.
The increase of interest in the macabre weren’t only a social commentary, but also a political one. During the strict reforms of the shogunate, there were many bans on subject matter that ukiyo-e artists were allowed to portray, causing much frustration. Often they’d think of creative ways to curb the censorship laws and Yōkai was one of them. Many prints are considered to be a thinly veiled satire on the political environment of the time, a criticism that undermined their power.
Three of the leading artists in Yōkai prints were Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi and Hokusai:
Kuniyoshi had one of the wildest imaginations for a ukiyo-e artist, often challenging public taste with his ‘in your face’ approach to designing. His work is recognisably bright, as he never held back with the palette of his dramatically detailed scenes.
"In the Ruined Palace at Sôma, Masakado's Daughter Takiyasha uses Sorcery to Gather Allies" - Kuniyoshi, 1844
Yoshitoshi was extravagant in his designs, often even disturbing, which was popular in wartime Japan. Many of his prints contained blood and death, perhaps as a way to exorcise the death he and many others were witnessing in such a harrowing time of conflict.
The celebrity ukiyo-e artist himself didn’t shy away from Yōkai, instead embracing the supernatural for his eerie and atmospheric designs. His Yōkai were often based around ghost stories of intense emotion, such as a jealous lover seeking their haunting revenge, perhaps in the form of a household object or a ghostly creature.
Throughout the Edo period the notion of Yōkai changed, becoming forms of entertainment rather than fear. After the Meiji restoration, when Edo became Tokyo, Yōkai were forgotten as they were considered to be superstitious tales from an embarrassing past. It wasn’t until after WWII that Yōkai were rediscovered, by Manga artist ShigeruMizuki.
Yōkai are now a beloved part of Japanese history and inspired much of its popular culture, such as manga and anime. Many of the characters from Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’ derived from these ancient spiritual beings. Yōkai are even used in common sayings, branded products and have made their way onto Japanese currency. Much like the Edo period, the tales are told and sold again purely for entertainment.