Japanese history is steeped in legendary myths and folklore that, even to this day, creep into and shape modern life and culture throughout the country. Among them are yōkai, mischievous mythological beings that for centuries were believed to be the cause of everyday misfortunes and incidents. Did you trip over your own feet today? Did your umbrella catch in the wind? According to Japanese superstition, that’s not bad luck, that’s the yōkai at play. Join us as we explore their history, the forms they take, what they can do and their effects on modern Japanese society.
The supernatural origins of yōkai, before they became the stuff of legends and storybooks, lie in the animistic belief that a spiritual energy can exist in anything. The Japanese believed that spiritual beings called mononoke filled everything from objects that occur in nature, to those that are inanimate or manmade. Some had peaceful spirits; they were called nigi-mitama and brought good fortune, including favorable weather and harvests. When ancestors died, they were believed to become nigi-mitama, and were worshipped – unlike the spirits with troublesome or violent energies, known as ara-mitama. These brought misfortune, illness and even natural disasters, and had to be calmed with a ritual called chinkon. Yōkai mostly fall into the ara-mitama category and, over time, as belief systems developed in Japan and their supernatural counterparts became less and less deified, these impish spirits remained. Gradually their fearsome natures were diminished, and they became figures of folklore and stories.
From the middle ages, when publications began to be created and circulated for reasons of religion as well as entertainment, yōkai began to be more frequently depicted. By the Edo period, during which the printing press was developed and many collections of stories were published, yōkai forms, characters and behaviors had become solidified and codified; each became more recognizable and more specifically responsible for this or that occurrence.
Many were thought to be the instigators of misfortune:
- Did the handle on your door break when you opened it? That could be the influence of an Oni. Translated as “demon,” “troll” or “devil,” an Oni is a class of yōkai usually depicted with sharp claws, long hair and horns. Those portrayed carrying an iron club were thought to be invincible and exceptionally powerful, with the ability to make you abnormally strong.
- Got a paper cut opening your mail? Maybe you were attacked by Kamaitachi, a cat-like creature that rides on the back of a devilish wind, whose sharp claws can cause deep gashes but no pain.
- Did you burn your dinner? Blame Nekomata, another catlike yōkai with a split tail, who is known for starting fires.
- You could have sworn you saw your best friend in the street when you know he’s out of town? Maybe Mujina, the shape-shifting badger yōkai is playing games with you; he’s renowned for his skill at taking the form of, and impersonating, humans.
- If you are in real trouble, you could try to blame Inugami, the dog-like yōkai with the power to possess victims and make them commit crimes.
Others, though, were considered responsible for more happy occurrences:
- Got lost hiking in the mountains only to miraculously find the path again? Ōkami yōkai may be at work. Taking the form of wolves, these protective spirits are said to keep mountain travelers from danger.
- Received an unexpected windfall lately? It could be thanks to Tanuki, a creature resembling a cross between a raccoon and a dog, which can transform leaves into money.
As time has moved on, with the advent of modern media, and with mass movement from the countryside to the cities, yōkai’s place in Japanese life has shifted again. While the classic storytelling traditions have faded, yōkai are still still ingrained in culture, just in different ways. Some of the objects yōkai traditionally inhabited may not be integral to most people’s daily lives anymore – items like inkstones, which were once used for calligraphy, and even equipment used in farming, but they have have found new platforms.
The belief in, and everyday acknowledgement of yōkai has eventually given way to more of a national fondness. These fascinating creatures have taken their place as the equivalent in Japanese culture of “things that go bump in the night” and their influence can be found in pop culture from videogames to internet memes. The work of manga author Shigeru Mizuki is filled with characters based on classic yōkai. In the cartoon for which he is most famous, GeGeGe No Kitarō, the lead character is based on an Oni yōkai. Among Kitarō’s companions are Sunakake Babaa, based on a yōkai of the same name, who was traditionally known as an invisible sand-throwing spirit, and Nurikabe – a wall-shaped character based on a spirit that blocks the passage of people walking at night. Comparisons can also be drawn between characters and imagery from traditional yōkai and the books of Haruki Murakami, whose characters include a mysterious “Sheep Man”, and “yamikuro” (translated as Infra-Nocturnal Kappa in the English version) – troublesome, crawling creatures that infest the sewers. The movies of Hayao Miyazaki are also filled with yōkai-inspired themes, including international hit Spirited Away and, very obviously, The Princess Mononoke. Even younger generations are still being hit with the yōkai effect, notably by Youkai Watch, a series of popular role-playing video games in which the players have to capture yōkai-like spirit creatures and summon them to battle on their behalf. The concept may sound familiar to fans of Pokémon, and indeed featured in that international phenomenon are a number of characters that bear a close resemblance to creatures from the yōkai canon. For example, Vulpix – the fox-like Pokemon who evolves upon growing more tails and changing color – is very clearly based on the shape shifting yōkai, Kitsune that, according to legend, grows a new tail every 100 years and upon growing nine, changes color and gains infinite wisdom.
So, while the Japanese are not as genuinely superstitious regarding yōkai as they once were, even today, the legends and characters hold a cultural resonance that is distinctly Japanese. Yōkai occupy a unique place in the heart of modern Japan, and a working knowledge of their history and evolution allows a little insight into what initially seems like a mystifying culture. Next time you suffer some small inconvenience then, you might consider the idea that forces other than bad luck might be at play.
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