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Yokai (Japanese Monsters): Mystic Beings Known to Japanese Since Old Times

Do you know that there have been beings called “yokai” in Japan since long ago? They are neither humans nor ghosts. They are, not strictly, but somewhat equivalent to what is called “monsters” in the West. For those of you who don’t know about yokai, let us give you some ideas of what they are.

Yokai are said to be what people have sanctified or embodied mysterious phenomenon occurring in their everyday lives yet beyond their understanding. As every day phenomenon can be very varied, there is an unlimited variety of yokai. Also referred to by the name of “ayakashi” or “mononoke,” they can sometimes scare and harm people while some yokai are believed to be beneficial to humans. Photo: https://www.flickr.com

 

3 Most Famous Yokai in Japan

Among many other yokai, here we will focus on some of the most famous ones that have been especially well known to Japanese people since old times.

1. Kappa (河童)

yokai-kappa
https://www.flickr.com

Kappa are often depicted as creatures small in stature, with all body surface green-colored, wearing a wet dish on top of the head, having webs between fingers and toes and wearing carapaces on their backs. There are very much fond of cucumbers.

As they are made into characters everywhere today, you may think they are merely adorable creatures. But they have been believed to inhabit the water of rivers and swamps and pull humans, horses or cows passing nearby into the water to drawn them and also do other bad things such as wasting crop fields. At the same time, though, they have often been worshipped as the embodiment of the god of water.

2. Tengu (天狗)

yokai-tengu
https://www.flickr.com

Tengu is believed to be yokai residing in mountains who have a red face with a tall nose, bird wings on the back and fly in the sky wearing a costume of yamabushi (mountain priest). They were feared because people believed they carry mystic tools such as a spikenard-shaped fan and attack humans and cause fires with their super natural power.

While they are often associated with the evil, they are also worshipped as the god of mountain in some areas. You can find many areas around Japan each with its own unique legend related to Tengu.

The origin of the word “Tengu” can be traced back to an ancient word meaning “shooting star,” which originally appeared in an Indian Buddhist literature. It was then translated into Chinese by using two Chinese characters, which are today pronounced as “Tengu” in Japan and has been established as the name of the yokai.
Related: 8 Scenic Routes for Mount Takao to Enjoy the Fall Foliage

3. Oni (鬼)

yokai-oni
https://www.flickr.com

Oni is often depicted as a hugely statured and super strong male yokai with two horns on the head, curled hairs, fangs sticking out of the mouth, wearing a tiger-patterned loincloth and carrying an iron club. While their skin can be either red, blue, green or other color, they are most often pictured with red skin. Onis have been feared as cruel monsters who disguise themselves as humans and attack people. Many old stories in Japan end in happiness only when they are exterminated as the symbol of the evil.
Related: 8 FolkTales of Japan: Momotaro “The Peach Boy” and More

 

Famous Japanese Manga Cartoon and Anime Featuring Yokai

1. GeGeGe No Kitaro: the Earliest Trailblazer of Yokai Manga Genre

yokai-Gegege-no-Kitaro2
https://www.flickr.com

“GeGeGe No Kitaro” is Japan’s most representative yokai manga and you can never talk about yokai manga without knowing this masterpiece.

In the stories of this manga, Kitaro, the leading character, leads his friend yokai to fight bad yokai, corrects selfish humans sometimes and acts as a mediator between humans and yokai at other times, in a struggle to facilitate their peaceful coexistence. The manga was also made into an anime series and loved by generations of Japanese fans. Today, it has been established as the most famous yokai manga in Japan.

Great news: an exhibition titled “Yokai Adventure GeGeGe – The Mysterious Yokai World of Shigeru Mizuki” is going to be held from July 26th until August 29th in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. The exhibition gained high reputation when it was held before in Taiwan and Osaka, Japan. So if you happen to be in Tokyo around the period, make sure to check out this yokai event!

2. Yokai Watch: Booming Popularity Among Kids!

yokai-watch
https://www.flickr.com

Yokai Watch was launched originally as a game software for Nintendo 3DS but later made into comic and anime, all of which have become insanely popular among children of both Japan and other countries.

The storyline goes like this; one day the leading character got himself a “yokai watch,” with which he could see ghosts. He started to make friends with those ghosts he met and tackled a variety of troubles for other people with help from his friendly ghosts. The ghosts, or yokai characters, in the series are designed adorably and created based on interesting ideas conceived from various phenomenons in our everyday lives, so not only children but even adults can find the series quite entertaining.

 

You can often find such mysterious existences as yokai in the folklores and legends around the world. They can sometimes serve as valuable windows through which we can learn the deep-rooted spiritual and cultural background of each country or region.

Related:
3 Best Yokai Spots in Chofu, Tokyo: Encounter the Supernatural
Yokai: No Zombies or Jack-o-Lanterns, Unique Supernatural Creatures of Japan

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KAWATA

About the author

I'm interested in general in all things related to culture and fine arts with a focus on movies, art, and design. I hope to introduce to many people all the different sides to Japan in regards to Japanese culture.

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