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Discovering the Roots of Japan's Yokai
(November 5, 2007)

Japanese folklore is full of tales of supernatural creatures called yokai. These beings, also referred to as ayakashi or mononoke, are said to have mysterious powers and abilities. Yokai is often translated as "monster" or "ghost" in English, but they are actually somewhat different in nature. Yokai have some lovable characteristic that makes it difficult to hate them, and in fact, endears them to people. These kinds of characters are now enjoying a surge in popularity among young people, especially manga and anime fans.


A scene from the current animated television series Gegege no Kitaro. (C)Mizuki Production / Toei Animation

Yokai Gain Popularity
The term yokai encompasses such creatures as oni (a mountain-dwelling ogre), tengu (a long-nosed goblin-like creature with both human and avian characteristics), and kappa (a water imp). Many of the manga and anime that are popular in Japan feature yokai characters. The anime adaptation of Mizuki Shigeru's manga series Gegege no Kitaro that is currently being broadcast on Fuji TV has attracted much attention, following the release of a movie version earlier this year. Recent animated films with yokai themes include Yokai Daisenso (The Great Yokai War) (2005), Dororo (2007), and Kappa no Ku to Natsuyasumi (Summer Days with Coo) (2007). Short stories featuring yokai by popular mystery writer Kyogoku Natsuhiko have been adapted into the films Ubume no Natsu (Summer of Ubume) (2005) and Moryo no Hako (A Box of Evil Spirits) (2007). Other popular yokai-themed works include the manga Mushishi and Mokke and the horror anime Ayakashi.

From August 1 to 26, the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo hosted "AYAKASHI: Specters, Ghosts, and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e," an exhibition of ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) depicting yokai scenes. Also, around 1,000 enthusiastic fans attended the World Yokai Conference 2007 in Kyoto in August.

The Origins of Yokai
Yokai lore has existed in Japan since ancient times. The yokai of Japan are similar to the fairies, sprites, and other such creatures of Celtic myths, which are popular characters in the world of role-playing video games. While many yokai are based on Shinto gods, they also include creatures from non-Japanese folklore that have been modified from their original form with a uniquely Japanese interpretation.


Ukiyo-e print of yokai.
(C)The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

In the Edo period, ukiyo-e with yokai were all the rage. The well-known artists Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Katsushika Hokusai also drew yokai. A famous work among them is Hyakkiya Gyozu in the Kano style. In this drawing, such everyday household objects as chipped rice bowls and tea cups are portrayed as yokai who go parading through town. Ukiyo-e prints like this have greatly influenced the modern-day image of yokai.

When people in olden times witnessed a phenomenon whose cause could not be explained or understood, they always thought it was the work of yokai. If someone drowned in the river, it was the work of a kappa; if a wind blew from somewhere on the mountain, a mountain yokai had been born. People also believed that things in the natural world around them were a form of yokai, representing an ambivalent supernatural force.

In this day and age when the gravity of environmental destruction is increasingly evident, renewed interest in yokai serves as an SOS signal from the yokai that inhabit the natural world. The yokai boom is also an opportunity to reflect on how to provide yokai with the best natural environment to live in.

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