Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

Yokai are something you hope you’ll never see in Japan, but they can sometimes bring good luck as well as bad.

What are Yokai?

Meaning strange apparition, yokai are Japan’s supernatural ghosts, demons and spirits. Taking countless unusual forms, they range from harmless animals to horror-film-esque wandering women, not to mention wooden sandals, lanterns and even parasols. The creatures usually have supernatural abilities and while some are particularly malevolent, many are simply known to cause mischief and some are even thought to bring good luck. Yokai have long been the sources of haunting tales in Japan and were often depicted in literature and art, with new additions imagined over the years.

What is the History of Yokai?

Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

A key part of Japanese folklore, yokai have evolved and changed over the centuries. Originally used to explain unaccountable phenomena, they were perceived as powerful, but as more of the earth’s mysteries came to be understood, the powers of yokai were reduced to inconveniences or grotesque appearances. The focus on spiritual presence is drawn from Japan’s history of animism: the belief that spiritual entities reside in all things, from mountains to animals to objects. This concept is the base of Shintoism and has remained in the shared Japanese conscience, leading to the creation of a vast selection of unruly spirit-led creatures.

The original chronicles of Japan, the Kojiki (古事記) and the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) bore the first appearances of yokai in the folktales and myths. In the Heian period (794 - 1185) more detailed tales emerged, albeit without any accompanying drawings. These came in medieval times, as yokai became a source of entertainment in emaki (絵巻, illustrated scrolls) and otogi-zoshi (御伽草子, illustrated short stories). Processions of yokai and talkies of vengeful discarded items being exorcised were particularly popular. There were no major changes to yokai tales until the Edo period, when publishing culture developed and Ukiyoe (浮世絵) art featured many yokai. In addition to the original folklore creatures, new yokai based on word-play and inventions of pure imagination were created to feed an audience hungry for new and unheard yokai stories.

Yokai in Japanese Popular Culture

Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

Since the 1970s, more contemporary yokai have been added to the supernatural worlds, largely taking human forms. Believed to have been started by Kuchisake-onna (口裂け女, the slit-mouthed woman), the trend saw a reflection of the new styles of horror and creativity of the new generations of storytellers and illustrators. As well as being bolstered by the growing adoption of Halloween in Japan, the idea of yokai have also been taken into animation and manga. One of the most popular examples is in the work of Miyazaki (宫崎骏), who’s films feature a variety of yokai-like creatures, from the bathing-characters of spirited away (千と千尋の神隠し) to the soot-sprites of Totoro (となりのトトロ) (not to mention the cuddly creature himself).

Different Kinds of Yokai

Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

There are countless yokai to choose from, and they can be categorized in many different ways. The most simple is by their true form: are they humans, animals, plants, inanimate objects or a natural element such as water. Alternatively, they can be divided by the form they choose to take, which has similar options along with buildings multiple objects. A more interesting categorization is the source of their mutation. Were they turned into a yokai by a strong human emotion such as greed or jealousy, was it an afterworld mutation or was it an object which mutated? There are many options for this category, or you can choose to separate by location or chronological appearance.

As mentioned previously, most yokai are mischievous and only some are truly malicious. There are a handful that offer good luck, but these are harder to find. Exploring the many encyclopedias of yokai is a fun way to learn about them and their different ways.

The Most Well-Known Yokai

Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

While there are hundreds of yokai to choose from, these are some of the ones you may have seen in Japan:

Tengu (天狗)

Meaning ‘heavenly dog’ tengu are part of the Shinto religion and can often be found in mountain shrines like those of Mt Takao in Tokyo. Their haunting beaked faces are often paired down to humans with long noses, but traditional statues retain the creepy combination of bird and man. Once considered harbingers of war by Buddhism, they have now become less feared, and are more closely associated with asceticism.

Kappa (河童)

Translating to ‘river child’ kappa are an amphibious yokai which have long existed in Japanese folklore. While mischievous, they have a reputation as lovers of cucumber and sumo wrestling and are small but strong. Kappa are generally green and have small indents on their heads which hold water vital to retaining their strength.

Oni (鬼)

Known as demons, ogres or trolls, Oni are possibly the most common yokai of Japan. Appearing in winter festivals, local traditions and even in the hot springs of Beppu, their horned faces are a scary sight. They are usually red, blue or white and often have a club in their hand, wearing little more than loin-clothes and angry expressions.

Unusual Yokai of Japan

Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

If you’re looking for something a little more obscure then here are some of the more unique yokai of Japan:

Bakezori (化け草履, ghost sandal)A wandering one-eyed sandal who runs through houses at night chanting. As a discarded artifact yokai, he is merely a pest.
Funayurei (船幽霊, ship ghosts)
The ghosts of those who died at sea, these are more dangerous as they seek out former friends and sailors to drown.
Futakuchi-Onna (二口女, two-mouthed woman)
A woman with a second mouth on the back of her head, this is thought to be the result of a miserly husband who chose a wife famous for not eating, only to discover she had a secret hidden mouth.
Nurikabe (塗壁, plaster wall spirit)
This one becomes an invisible wall that blocks the passage of a traveler at night, leaving them unable to continue on their journey, no matter how wide a berth they try to give the barrier.
Ittan-momen (一反木綿, cotton bolt)TThese are wads of cotton that fly through the air and suffocate people by attaching itself to their faces - this is local to the Kagoshima area of Japan and was used to encourage children to come home at dusk.
Kuchisake-Onna (口裂け女, Slit-mouthed woman)
A modern yokai, this woman hides her slit mouth with a mask, asking lone walkers at night if she is pretty - if they answer no they will be killed and if they answer yes, she will reveal her mouth and cut them in the same way.
Amabie (アマビエ)
A beaked mermaid, Amabie has become incredibly popular in 2020 thanks to her reputation as a plague-predictor and protector. First spotted by a government official in 1846 and predicting prosperity after a pandemic (the Spanish Flu began a year later) she has since appeared in yokai manga, as a recent twitter challenge and even on official Covid-19 posters.

Where to see Yokai in Japan

Yokai: Haunting Japanese Ghosts

While you hopefully won’t see any real yokai while in Japan, you can learn more about them through art exhibitions, festivals, films and special museums.

Kagawa’s Yokai Art Museum (妖怪美術館) - Kagawa

Here you can learn about over 800 different yokai through 3D models in five different buildings. The modern museum has multi-lingual audioguides and will teach you everything you need to know about these supernatural beings, from their origins to their many forms - even letting you climb inside some of them! Benevolent yokai will remove your misfortune, you can witness a yokai meeting and leave your bad habits behind by adopting a yokai and writing its name on an ema.

Kyoto’s Yokai Street and Yokai Parade

Kyoto has long associated itself with yokai thanks to the city’s long history and has an entire street dedicated to them. Also known as Taishogun shopping street, Ichijo Yokai Street (大将軍商店街 一条妖怪ストリート) was once filled with abandoned antiques which transformed into yokai to seek revenge. The monsters marched along the street to thank the god who transformed them, forming the story of the ancient Hyakki Yakou (百鬼夜行) legend of a night parade of yokai. This parade is recreated on the 3rd Saturday of October each year and coincides nicely with Halloween. There is also a yokai flea market (モノノケ市) with unique items that make unusual souvenirs and gifts.

Ukiyoe Art Exhibitions

Yokai were a popular feature of Edo-era printing and it is a great way to see the unusual creatures. Famous artists such as Toriyama Sekien (鳥山 石燕), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳) and even Hokusai (葛飾北斎) depicted many yokai in their work. Keep an eye out for dedicated exhibitions exploring their popularity as they are held every few years in Tokyo’s galleries.