Ghosts, Demons, and Shapeshifters: An Introduction to Japanese Yokai Culture

illustration of japanese yokai

TripSavvy / Joshua Seong 

Japan offers a rich tapestry of folklore, inspired by Shinto myths and traditions, and with that folklore come tales of ghosts and creatures—known in Japan as yokai—who play tricks on or help humans who cross their paths. These yokai have been around for centuries, and their stories are often told to children and frequently pop up in literature and cartoons. Even in this modern world, they're still deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

The rise of Amabie, a mythical sea yokai which has become strongly associated with the recent pandemic in Japan, shows how relevant these stories are to the public discourse even today. Learn more about the fascinating world of yokai, their appearances in popular culture, and where you can go to visit and learn more about these mythical creatures.

yokai ghost bothering humans
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What Are Yokai?

Often associated with monsters and ghosts, yokai can encompass anything beguiling, mysterious, and strange. They can be a force for good, neutral, indifferent, and even benevolent. Popularized in the Edo period (1603 to 1868), you could once find newspaper reports of local hauntings and sightings which were treated as major events. Artists like Toriyama Sekien and various writers of the time began collecting the stories and legends from across the land, preserving them for future generations. The world of yokai is a fascinating one; they are a combination of traditions founded in the original folk tribes of Japan, dating back to the eighth century, which later amalgamated with Chinese and Indian folklore, Shintoism, and Buddhism. A common plot device in anime and manga, yokai also appear in national and international films and video games.

Amabie, the Pandemic-Fighting Yokai

Yokai once again made international news recently when a cute monster of Japanese folklore, long associated with epidemics and warding off plagues, started going viral on Japanese Twitter.

First documented in 1846, the story of Amabie centers around a government official who meets the yokai while documenting a mysterious green light in the sea. Amabie, resembling a scaly mermaid with long hair, three legs, and the features of a small bird, warns of an epidemic that will strike Japan after six years of good harvest. The yokai advised the man to draw an image of itself and share it with as many people as possible in order to suppress the epidemic.

The story and image of Amabie was then printed in the local newspaper and distributed across Japan. Despite Amabie being a largely forgotten yokai compared to its other, more famous brethren, it's not surprising that it's making a strong reappearance now to provide comfort during these unusual times. International hashtags, facemasks, and hand sanitizers all bearing the image of Amabie have taken over Japanese internet in 2020.

Kappa Yokai Statue
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Yokai in Popular Culture

Yokai are Japan’s equivalent of Europe’s fairy tale creatures, and they are so prevalent in Japanese media that even western readers of Japanese books and viewers of Japanese film and TV will know of one or two, at least. Here are some of the creatures who are frequently mentioned in popular culture.

Kappa

These lurking water demons cause trouble for unsuspecting passers-by by playing tricks, assaulting people, pulling livestock into the water, and even kidnapping children. They often appear small and scaly, and they have a small dent on their head containing a pool of water called "sara," the source of the kappa’s power. Despite their malevolence, they’re incredibly intelligent and are traditionally connected to certain medical advances in Japan, on the occasions when kappas have decided to share their knowledge with humans.

Even today, you’ll find signs in small villages in rural Japan near bodies of freshwater warning people to be wary of the kappa yokai inside. To visit somewhere associated strongly with the kappa legend, head to Jozankei Onsen where you’ll see many different kappa statues dotted around and hear stories of children who’ve been stolen by the yokai.

Kodama

If you venture deep into one of the ancient forests of Japan, you’re sure to be arriving in Kodama territory before very long. These forest spirits resemble orbs of lights when seen by human eyes, and so have been represented in a number of different ways by writers and artists. Most commonly, they are depicted as tiny glowing green or white creatures. The kodama inhabit trees and are said to take their life force from the tree to which they are connected.

One of the more friendly yokai, they aim to keep the balance in nature and bless the land around their home. They are content unless disturbed. Trees that are thought to hold a kodama are marked by locals with a rope known as "shimenawa" so that they’re protected; cutting down a tree housing a kodama can bring a curse down on the community. They’ve most recently been featured in popular culture as friendly and cute guiding spirits, such as in the Nioh samurai video games by Team Ninja and the Studio Ghibli film "Princess Mononoke."

Kitsune

Commonly seen throughout Japan, especially around Shinto shrines, the shapeshifting foxes are thought to be the messengers of the Shinto god Inari. Inari shrines, quickly recognized by multiple red torii gates, are commonly associated with the home, rice, and prosperity. Together, they make up more than a third of the shrines across Japan. The most famous one being the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto where you’ll find a kitsune holding a giant stone key in its mouth. The foxes would eat the rodents that would steal and spoil rice, growing the connection with the Inari god.

It’s common to leave fried tofu, a supposed favorite food of foxes, as an offering. This connection has even permeated food culture with stuffed tofu pockets being known as Inari-zushi and udon with fried tofu topping becoming known as kitsune-udon. As the shape-shifting fox can be a mischief-maker, there are many stories of the kitsune causing trouble for humans, possessing them, and even taking the shape of women, getting married, and bearing children. Visitors to Tokyo can also take part in the Oji Fox Parade where you can dress up as a fox or simply wear a mask. If there’s one yokai that dominates Japanese culture, it’s the kitsune.

Yurei

One of the most prevalent yokai in modern culture, especially in film, is the creepy female ghost who has, sadly, been unable to pass on from this realm. Yurei are ghosts that always desire something and cannot be sated, haunting anywhere from bathhouses to taxis. While there are actually several sub-categories of yurei ghost, this popular interpretation will have the ghost resembling her former self but shown as corpse-like and dressed in her funeral gown.

Yurei can be traced in literature as far back as the world's first novel: Murasaki Shikibu’s "The Tale of Genji." In the novel, Prince Genji is haunted by the ghost of Lady Rokujō. Films like "The Grudge" and "The Ring" have even managed to popularize this Japanese yokai internationally. One of the most famous (and most haunted) spots you can visit in Japan is Okiku’s Well within Himeji Castle. The spirit of Okiku, a young girl who served the Samurai Aoyama, haunts the well after she was thrown in by her master when she refused his advances.

Kitsune Fox Yokai Statue
Yiming Chen / Getty Images 

6 Places to Visit to Learn More About Yokai

Aside from the locations mentioned above, there are several places you can visit in Japan if you’d like to learn more about yokai. Here are some of the best museums and shops to delve into the world of the supernatural.

Yokai Art Museum: The newly restored three-story drapers warehouse turned Yokai Art Museum is one of the best places to visit for yokai fans. With more than 800 pieces by contemporary artists demonstrating the hundreds of years of yokai culture, this is a fascinating place and well worth the journey to Shodo Island.

Mizuki Shigeru Road: A perfect place to cycle around—just pick up your yokai spotting guide first! This street is dedicated to Mizuki Shigeru, the comic artist and creator of the yokai-centric manga "GeGeGe no Kitarō," and you can find 153 bronze statues of his fantasy creatures dotted around. There are also yokai benches and plenty of yokai-themed souvenir shops and baked goods to be found. This a must-stop for any yokai or comic fan.

Japanese Oni Exchange Museum: The oni is another kind of yokai that is often described as a demon or devil, but they aren’t always evil. The quaint Japanese Oni Exchange Museum can be found at the foot of Mount Oe, which is the setting of many oni legends, in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto. The museum has a large collection of oni-related art, masks, and figures from around the world with bilingual signs.

Yokai Street Kyoto: Ichijo-Dori Street, an unassuming shopping street in Kyoto, has become quite a tourist attraction thanks to the 30 yokai that line the streets created by the shop owners. You’ll see everything from monsters to clothing and household objects—discarded items can become possessed by spirits. The street also hosts fun events throughout the year like the yokai flea market and the most exciting event, the yokai costume parade, which is held every summer.

Zenshoan Temple Ghost Art: Zenshoan Temple in Yanka, Tokyo is the burial site of the storyteller and writer Sanyutei Encho who famously collected Edo and Meiji period paintings of ghosts or artwork thought to be haunted. It’s a relatively unknown spot for yokai lovers until August (Encho’s death month) when they annually open their doors and display the collection to the public. Paintings of ghosts are rarely displayed and haunted works are generally kept safe in Buddhist temples, so this is a rare chance to see this vast collection.

Miyoshi Mononoke Museum: This collection of 5,000 pieces is courtesy of 68-year-old ethnologist and yokai researcher, Koichi Yumoto. Found in Miyoshi city in Hiroshima, the collection at Miyoshi Mononoke Museum features everything from art to digital books and figures. It’s a perfect place to learn more about the world of yokai.

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