FRIENDLY GHOULS AND GOBLINS
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.
Yokai Gain Popularity
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
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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