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Yokai: tradition, folklore and art in Japan

Japanese folklore is the result of an amalgamation of different traditions rooted in the folk religions of the isolated tribes inhabiting the Japanese islands. These are traditions heavily influenced by Shintō and Buddhism, while also incorporating elements of Chinese and Indian folklore and mythology. In this article we will explore some of the most iconic creatures in Japanese mythology and their lasting impact on the art and culture of Japan: the Yokai.

These mysterious monsters and spirits, known precisely as Yokai, have been celebrated in Japanese art through numerous artistic forms. Paintings, prints, and sculptures have featured these fascinating and sometimes eerie beings. Their long history is rooted in Japanese tradition. On the other hand, as recounted in our previous articles, Japanese art is imbued with a deep connection to the supernatural.

Yokai: what are they?

The term yokai (妖怪) comes from the combination of the characters yō (妖), fascinating, bewitching, but also calamity, and kai (怪), wonder or mystery. They are basically strange creatures and supernatural phenomena. The counterpart of yokai is monster, spirit, or goblin. The definition, however, embraces a wide range of transcendent beings. Ghosts, various deities, transformed humans and animals, spirit possessions, urban legends and other arcane phenomena.

The history of these monstrous figures goes back to ancient times that featured them in numerous legends. As time went on, these legends became increasingly popular, and in the Edo period yokai began to be depicted by well-known artists.

The types

There are an estimated 400 types of Japanese spirits with ancient illustrations and representations. The number rises to nearly 1,000 if those mentioned in books and historical manuscripts are also considered. 

Yokai can be grouped into categories based on several factors. Their likeness, benevolent or malevolent nature, origins, and more. 

One of the most common classifications includes four types:

Yurei Yokai, deceased human spirits who return from the afterlife to pursue specific purposes, often revenge;

Kaiju Yokai, animals and insects with unique magical powers;

Henge Yokai, spirits that can change shape and adopt various appearances;

Choshizen Yokai, mysterious and unexplained phenomena resulting from supernatural activities.

A famous example of Yokai is the “Kappa,” a peculiar-looking child-like aquatic creature. Kappa are known for their strength in the water and clumsiness on land. They are cucumber lovers and even inspired the name of “kappa maki,” a type of sushi.

“Kitsune” are foxes with the ability to transform into human beings and are often associated with magic and deception. In contrast, “Noppera-bo” are faceless creatures that appear as human beings without facial features, arousing fear and bewilderment.

“Tengu” are generally wise and tranquil spirits, but if provoked they can unleash calamity. They have red faces with thin, long noses and are often the inspiration for Japanese masks.

Wooden inro entirely carved in relief

“Oni,” known to be harbingers of misfortune, are evil demons with humanoid features but often animalistic faces.

Oni No Nembutsu – Bronze okimono on a wooden base

The “Kirin” is a creature with the body of a horse and the face of a dragon that can live up to 2,000 years and is associated with events of great importance.

Silk tapestry with Phoenix and Kirin

There is then a subcategory of Yokai. These are creatures or objects that have undergone a transformation or possession due to supernatural events or curses. These are the Bakemono, literally “transformed things” or “monsters.”

Finally, there are the “Tsukumogami.” These are objects that, reaching one hundred years of age, harbor a benevolent or malevolent spirit, depending on their own condition.

Yokai in art

As we know Japanese art almost always takes its cues from both real and legendary characters, events, and situations. Yokai are no exception. Indeed, we find representations of these figures in numerous Japanese artistic expressions. 

Famous, for example, are the ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period with their depictions of yokai. Both the appearance of the creatures and their eerie aura of mystery are artfully realized in these prints.

In sculptural works and ceramics, depictions of the mythological creatures bring a touch of superstition and mystery to everyday art.

There is no shortage of references to yokai in theater and literature either. Often in traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater, yokai characters are incorporated with actors using elaborate masks and detailed costumes.

In literature we find their stories in works such as “Konjaku Monogatari” and Toriyama Sekien’s “Gazu Hyakki Yagyo.”

As evidence of the great importance of these figures in Japanese folklore, festivals dedicated to the Yokai are organized. Such as the “Tengu Matsuri,” which celebrates the Tengu with parades and theatrical performances.

In addition, Yokai-inspired characters continue to be popular in contemporary Japanese pop culture, with examples such as Studio Ghibli’s film “Spirited Away.”

We have come to the end of this journey into Japanese folklore. Once again we have seen how closely intertwined art and legend are elements. But not only that, once again we have learned how much the visible world and the invisible, floating world are inextricably fused with each other. Merit also goes to art, which continues to exert its fascinating, timeless influence.