Yokai: No Zombies or Jack-o-Lanterns, Unique Supernatural Creatures of Japan
In Japan, there is a tradition of telling “Kaidan” stories about scary ghosts and “yokai” (supernatural beings) in the summer time. As introduced in other articles, similar to obake-yashiki (haunted houses) which is also a summertime tradition, it is said that when you hear spooky stories and feel chills down your spine, it can help you beat the heat. In other parts of the world, ghosts or supernatural beings can be floating creatures in sheets, zombies, Frankenstein…etc but in Japan, there are very unique folklore about yokai that differs by the regions.
Many of you may have already heard or may be interested in yokai through the popular Gegege no Kitaro or Yokai Watch. Stories and depictions of yokai have inspired Japanese creativity and have become the subject of many tales and illustrations. Not only are there scary looking ones, but unique ones or ones that don’t even cause any harm. Actually, there are hundreds of different kind of yokai and stories, but today I want to introduce some of the most well-known yokai in Japan.
The oni is a yokai that appears in traditional Japanese tales and is a yokai that is representative of Japan. Descriptions on how they look can vary by region but generally, they take on a human form, have a horn on their head and have tiger fur wrapped around their waist. The color of their skin is red, with some variations that have blue skin or green skin. They often appear in folk tales as the antagonist figure against a hero.
In a traditional festival called “Setsubun” which is held in February, we throw dried soy beans at the oni to fight them off. It is symbolic of “getting rid of evil” so in this case, the oni is an expression of “evil” in human form. On Setsubun, usually the father or a male teacher at school would wear an oni mask, put on tiger-print underwear and runs around trying to get away while the children chase after and throw soybeans at them. Lol. It’s fun for the kids, but I think it can be really painful for the person playing the oni-part.
The tengu is the spirit of the mountain with many magical powers. There are various stories on how the tengu legend was established so there are different versions of the tengu’s shapes and form. Generally, they live in the mountains, have abnormally long noses, have red skin, hold a fan in their hand and wear very tall geta-sandals on their feet. There are some that have wings and fly in the sky. There is the o-tengu which is considered to be a deity and an object of worship. There are also those that are depicted as a bird of prey or in avian form as a mountain god. Some of you may have an idea of how they can look from Yokai Watch.
When someone is arrogant, haughty or is conceited, it is said they are “Tengu ni naru (they have become a tengu). It is said that this expression originated because the nose of the tengu is abnormally long. In Japan, to say “hana ga takai (tall nose)” means that someone is proud. Remind you a little bit of Pinocchio?
Another theory is that when someone brags when they don’t even have skills or monks become corrupt through grudge or resentment, it is said they fall through to the path of evil called the tengu-do (tengu-path). From there, it is said that to be arrogant or to brag has developed to be called “to become a tengu”.
Hitodama is said to be the flying form of the human soul which escaped the human body. It is a substance that emits blue, red or yellow light and often-ties, it is said to fly with a long tail. In pictures, it looks like a tadpole made out of a ball of fire that floats around the air.
There are theories about how their existence is scientifically proven or not… some that say they have seen them around graveyards… Luckily, I haven’t seen one yet.
Chochin Obake (Lantern Ghost)
The standard appearance of the Chochin Obake is that of an old lantern split horizontally in two. The opening is a mouth where a long tongue sticks out. There usually is one eye or two eyes which are illuminated. We often see them in pictures or at haunted houses but it’s not that they cause much harm.
In a folk tale from Yamagata Prefecture, it is said that a Chochin Obake appeared from an old lantern in a shrine and scared people. Once the old lantern was thrown away, the obake (ghost) no longer appeared. When a lantern is ripped or split, you can kind of see how it resembles a face. People in the old days have very vivid imaginations!
I assume many of you may have an idea of what the Ittan Momen looks like from the cartoons of Shigeru Mizuki. Ittan, or 1-tan is a unit equivalent to about 10.6 meters long (about 35 feet) and about 30 cm (1 ft) wide. Momen is the Japanese word for cotton.
It is said that a long cloth like thing would fly in the air around dusk, wrap around people’s necks or around people’s faces to suffocate them. There are also stories where a roll of cloth quickly flies around, wrapping and spinning around a person and flies off into the sky.
Ittan Momen is a yokai that became very famous from Mizuki Shigeru’s cartoon. Since the tale came about in Kagoshima area, the Ittan Momen speaks in a Kyushu dialect in the anime. Lol.
Kappa is a type of yokai that lives by the water, such as rivers and streams. The build of their body is like that of a child and they are green all over. They often have a dish on the top of the head. The dish is circular in shape and is flat. The kappa is usually bald in this area. The dish is said to always have to be wet. If the dish dries or cracks, it is said that the kappa loses its powers or dies. Its mouth is a short beak and it has a turtle-like shell on its back. They are said to have webbed fingers. Some tales say that this is how the water god looks when it takes the form of a living creature and so there are shrines in various regions that worship the kappa.
This is a yokai that looks like an old man but at night, in the dark roads, he cries like a baby. The most well-known story goes that a passerby who sees the crying Konaki Jiji mistakes him for a baby and picks him up. Then, the weight of the Konaki Jiji gets heavier and heavier. Even if the passerby tries to set the Konaki Jiji down, he clings on and does not let go. Finally, the Konaki Jiji will take their life. In the cartoon Gegege no Kitaro, he seems to be a gooseems to be a good yokai acting almost like a parent to Kitaro.on and does not let go. a baby. e are shrines that worship kapd yokai acting almost like a parent to Kitaro.
Kitsune (Fox), Tanuki (Raccoon dog), Neko (cat)
In Japan, these animals are said to have supernatural powers. Particularly the kitsune and tanuki are said to take on human form, perform acts of mischief… there are different stories that are passed down the generations. If you have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Pom Poko, you may have some idea of their powers? FYI these animals’ powers are not always malicious. They are sometimes deified in shrines as creatures of worship.
Related: A Mystical May Festival That Lets You Experience Japanese Tradition: Fox’s Wedding Parade
In fact the cute Japanese rock band, baby metal has a background story that their activities are based on the “prophecy of the kitsune”. Did you know that their hand gesture is not the usual metal fingers, but one that symbolizes the “fox”?
Related: Learn from BABYMETAL, Japan’s First on the Cover of METAL HAMMER
One Additional Tip: Shigeru Mizuki
If you are someone who is interested in yokai and also the yokai depicted by Shigeru Mizuki, we definitely want you to try visiting Tottori Prefecture. Sakaiminato-shi of Tottori is Shigeru Mizuki’s hometown. There is the Mizuki Shigeru Museum, Mizuki Shigeru Road, and all kinds of characters from Gegege no Kitaro throughout the area.
Information: Mizuki Shigeru Kinenkan
So, I hope you see that Japanese yokai are not only scary but there are ones that help people, are kind of cute or even those that are funny. Watching Yokai Watch, Gegege no Kitaro, or Pom Poko knowing that they are based on old Japanese tales may give an added sense of enjoyment and appreciation for these modern works! We were only able to introduce a very few of the major yokai in this article, but there are many tales of super natural creatures that are passed on in various regions of Japan. If you have a chance to visit different areas of Japan, do find out about the strange tales of the region!