Yōkai: An Introduction

Yōkai, (妖怪) is a broad and vague term, and nothing exists in the English language that quite describes it. They can best be understood as supernatural creatures and phenomena from Japanese folklore. The word is a combination of the characters 妖(yō–attractive, bewitching, calamity) and 怪 (kai–mystery, wonder). Many English words have been used in translations. Yōkai can be translated as monster, demon, spirit, or goblin, but it encompasses all of that and more. The world of yōkai also includes ghosts, gods, transformed humans and animals, spirit possession, urban legends, and other strange phenomena. Even in Japanese, the term is difficult to define. The broadest possible definition of yōkai includes all supernatural creatures and phenomena from all parts of the world. On my site I narrow Yōkai to all supernatural creatures and phenomena which are found in Japanese folklore.

Japanese folklore is an amalgamation of different traditions, with its foundation in the folk religions of isolated tribes living on the Japanese isles. These traditions were modified by Shintō and later Buddhism, incorporating elements from Chinese and Indian folklore and mythology as well.

In ancient Japan, spirits were thought to be formless and invisible to the human eye. However, as artistic traditions developed, it became necessary to visually depict the spirits and monsters from stories. These begun as painted scrolls, and later expanded into multi-volume illustrated encyclopedias of strange tales and supernatural stories.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), there was an unprecedented flourishing of culture and art in Japan. Ghost stories and stories about monsters and strange phenomena from the all over Japan experienced a huge surge in popularity. The very first mythical bestiaries were put together by folklorists and artists like Toriyama Sekien, who collected the oral traditions of rural Japan for consumption by the growing urban population.  Sekien’s yōkai encyclopedias set the stage for other artists. It quickly expanded into every aspect of Japanese culture, from fine art to high theater, from aristocratic ghost story-telling parties to low class bawdlery, and so on.

Yōkai fell out of popularity during the Meiji restoration, when Japan modernized its society and culture. They were all but abandoned as a relic of a superstitious and past. After World War II, manga artist Shigeru Mizuki reintroduced them to a modern Japan. His series “GeGeGe no Kitaro” caused a second explosion of interest in the supernatural. Today, the influence of yōkai can again be seen in all aspects of Japanese culture, from manga and anime, to video games, brand labels, and even on Japanese currency.

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