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Japan Life!
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Chapter: 10 Lesson: 0 - What are Yokai – Introduction to Japanese Yokai
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Lesson added on: January 1, 1970 12:00am
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The Japanese culture is vast and exciting, and without Yokai 妖怪 influences, Japan would be very different than it is today. In this editorial, we will be discussing the Yokai, its history, lost history, and how it has changed Japan. For the sake of convention, Youkai (as correctly spelled with our romaji type) will be written as Yokai as it is most commonly written on the Internet.

What are Yokai and Storytelling

In Western folklore there are Trolls, Goblins, Ghouls, Ghosts and Witches all of which have sets of personalities, traits, and moral stories associated to them. The Japanese culture has their own set of folklore beliefs that originated in the 1st century when it was described as a supernatural phenomenon that surpasses human beliefs. It would be a few hundred years later in the Heian era (794-1185/1192) before Yokai received more spiritual recognition as Mononoke, which was described as in the Pillow Book (Makura no Soushi 枕草子).

At the time, picture scrolls depicted stories of Yokai and most were depicted through word of mouth rather than drawings. At about the 13th century, Yokai were manifested into household objects. Later in the 17th century, Yokai was given more form when the Printing Press was introduced. Many more stories were written and what was once a frightening folktale started to become more of a form of entertainment for both children and adults. Storytelling was a popular pastime, and would often be held around a kotatsu.

One of the early stories from the Tsukumogami picture scroll involves a group of personal belongings were tossed away by their owners. As Yokai (objects with souls) they were very upset and conspired revenge. They went and talked to other discarded Yokai and built a Shinto shrine exactly like the humans would. They then had their own festival praying to their own deities and sacrificing objects like humans would.

To them, they were having their revenge because they were mocking humans and their lifestyle. It is believed that from this event, Yokai continue to mock the lifestyles of humans, living life as a parody and thus giving example that human behavior is often wasteful.
Are Yokai real?
Yokai manifestations like in the movies have been said to be real, many believe it, and some have experienced it such as testimonial accounts of wrestling with Kappa, and there have been supposed evidence of dead Yokai.

The Neko Musume (Cat Girl) has been said to exist in the Edo period and while there are no photographic evidence of her existence, legend has it that she was born in our world as both cat and human. Scientifically speaking she may have been born with Hypertrichosis (Ambras Syndrome) where an abnormal amount of hair is grown all around the body.

Regardless, there are no scientific evidence of Yokai’s existence however there are various shrines in Japan that have what they claim to be body parts or whole bodies of Yokai such as the Sougenji Kappa-Dera Temple in Taito Japan.
Yokai Fashion and Entertainment
Around the 17th century, Yokai became a popular form of entertainment, from storytelling to children games, Yokai was everywhere. The more popular games played were Sugoroku, Karuta, and Menko.

Fun fact: Menko is what inspired the popular 90s game POGs.

Yokai was often placed on doors, inside clothes, and decorations indoors and out. Today, Yokai continues to be popular among both children and adults across Japan spanning across many Anime, Manga, Drama, and Movies. One of the most popular Manga and Anime series of all time is called GeGeGe no Kitarou which involves a half-human-half-yokai character named Kitarou whom fights for peace between Human and Yokai worlds.

This series was created in 1960 by war veteran and artist Shigeru Mizuki. The folklore depicted in this series was meticulously researched throughout Japan and revived the Yokai culture. Modern Yokai culture is attributed to Mizuki’s work.

The almost lost history of Yokai
Japan has faced some dark times; one of those moments was during the Meiji era when Japan was adopting scientific thinking in lieu to traditional beliefs, this period was known as the modernization of Japan or the Meiji Restoration period. This period involved the denouncement of Yokai and book burnings of supernatural history. It was an embarrassment at the time to admit to believing in the supernatural and as a result very few documents survived the book burnings. The stories were kept and spread only by word of mouth until the Showa period (1926-1989).
Differences Between Yokai and Ghosts
There’s a misconception that Yokai and Ghosts are the same thing but there are many differences between the two. Anything can be a Yokai, they are inanimate objects with a “soul” therefore a lamp, a drape, and even a computer can be considered a Yokai. Yokai embodies everything but Ghosts are spiritual remnants of the living.
The differences between the Tanuki and the Kitsune
Not all Yokai are based on inanimate objects, in fact both the Tanuki and Kitsune are real but are thought to have mystical god-like abilities. The Tanuki is a (real) raccoon dog but in folklore they are thought to have the ability to shape-shift into objects, other animals and humans. They are cunning and deceiving, but their malicious deeds are more mischievous than actual harm. The Tanuki is often portrayed with a hat, sandals, and very big testicles and as shape shifters they can pretend to be almost anything even a Fox.

The Kitsune (Fox) is also a K9 thought to have magical powers. The Kitsune comes in many forms from a simple ordinary Fox to a nine tailed fox called Kyuubi no Kitsune. They are thought to be very sly, cunning, and very good at deceit but are also regarded as powerful gods.

Legend has it that when a Kitsune reaches the age of 100, they acquire the ability to shape shift into human form and gain more tails. While it may not be easily possible to discern humans from Kitsune in the form of fellow Humans, it is said that when they encounter dogs, they get frightened and thus, turn back into their fox form. The Kitsune can be either benevolent or malicious depending on their personality. They may bring blessings to villages and rice fields, or they may bring powerful curses and possess humans.

All of the Yokai Imagined
It would be unbelievably difficult to write about every Yokai ever imagined, however common Yokai can be categorized into different classes. Here are the different classes to get readers started.

Animal Type

These Yokai are based off of actual animals such as a Fox (Kitsune), Racoon Dog (Tanuki), Dogs (Inugami), Snakes (Hebi), and so forth… Animal based Yokai tend to be the most powerful of all Yokai and demonstrate powerful abilities. The Maneki Neko can be a Yokai and if it is, it's refereed to as a Bakeneko (化け猫).

Humanoid Type
Yokai can also come in Humanoid variety where they look very similar to a human to pass off as a human. Rokuro-kubi for instance looks like an ordinary woman but at night time she elongates her head like a worm to feast on human blood. Yuki Onna is another popular human type Yokai as she is thought to be an elder snow witch.

These Yokai are low-level entities stemming from ordinary household objects such as a paper lantern (Burabura), old umbrellas (Karakasa), Paper Screens (Mokumokuren) and so forth... Just about anything can be a Tsukumogami.

There aren’t specific classes for other types of Yokai however there are many other Yokai in Japanese folktale. For instance, the Tengu are thought to be very powerful with legendary powers often surpassing any other Yokai. Traditionally they were thought as evil demons but now they are depicted as defenders of Dharma. Tengu are often depicted as a powerful guardian with a red face, long nose, and wings.

There is also the Oni, which in western folktales; they are more or less like an Ogre or an Orc. They are portrayed as evil in different colors, and have a horn or two at the top of their head. For some reason or another, the Oni seems to enjoy wearing a loincloth.

The Kodama are spirits of the tree as seen in Princess Mononoke. They exist to protect surrounding villages but if the tree contains a Kodama and is cut down, the logger is cursed. Traditionally loggers would pray to the spirit before the tree in hopes to not get cursed.

End of Introduction to Yokai
It was a great pleasure to research and write about Yokai in this long editorial. Unfortunately there are so many different types of common Yokai that it would require entire books dedicated to it. However, I believe that this editorial will provide enough of an introduction to the subject to become familiar enough with the Yokai culture. Please be sure to comment below to add any corrections, request any new addition and discuss what your favorite Yokai is.

Thank you for reading!

Would you like to learn about the Urban Legends of Hanako-san?
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