Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui

Yōkai (妖怪, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity;" and "spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious".[1] They can also be called ayakashi (), mononoke (物の怪), or mamono (魔物). Yōkai range eclectically from the malevolent to the mischievous, or occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Often they possess animal features (such as the Kappa, which is similar to a turtle, or the Tengu which has wings), other times they can appear mostly human, some look like inanimate objects and others have no discernible shape. Yōkai usually have a spiritual supernatural power, with shapeshifting being one of the most common. Yōkai that have the ability to shapeshift are called bakemono (化物)/ obake (お化け).

Japanese folklorists and historians use yōkai as "supernatural or unaccountable phenomena to their informants". In the Edo period, many artists, such as Toriyama Sekien, created yōkai inspired by folklore or their own ideas, and in the present, several yōkai created by them (e.g. Kameosa and Amikiri, see below) are wrongly considered as being of legendary origin.[2]


Gama Yokai from the Saigama to Ukiyo Soushi Kenkyu Volume 2, special issue "Kaii"』[3] Tamababaki

What is thought of as supernatural depends on the time period, but generally it is considered that the older the time period, the more phenomena were considered supernatural.[4]

According to the ancient ideas of animism, a spirit-like being called a "mononoke" among other things was thought to reside in all things.[5] It was believed that these spirits possessed various kinds of emotions, and if the spirit was peaceful, it was a nigi-mitama that brought about good fortune such as a good harvest, and if the spirit was violent, it was an ara-mitama that brought about ill fortune such as natural disasters and illness, and the ritual for converting ara-mitama into nigi-mitama was called the chinkon ("the calming of the spirits").[6] One's ancestors, other well-respected people, and sometimes even nature and animals depending on the area were considered nigi-mitama that became protective gods that received worship. At the same time, people also tried performing chinkon rituals in order to quell the misfortune-making beings from making any more misfortune and fear, the misfortunes and fears that were still unexplained in those eras.[7] In other words, yokai-like beings can be said to be from the ara-mitama that weren't deified, failed to be deified, or stopped being deified.[8]

As time went on, the things that were thought of as supernatural became fewer and fewer. At the same time, yokai became depicted in emaki and paintings that stabilized how appeared, turned them into characters, lessened their fearful nature, and became subjects of entertainment as time went on. The tendency to use yokai as objects of entertainment can be seen starting from the middle ages,[9] and becoming definitive in the Edo periods and beyond.[10]


The folkloricist Tsutomu Ema looked at various literature on legends, folklore, and paintings and divided yokai and henge (変化, or "mutants") into various categories, which was presented in the Nihon Yokai Henge Shi and the Obake no Rekishi.

In Japanese folkloristics, yokai are divided into categories depending on where they reportedly appear, and they are indexed as follows in the book Sogo Nihon Minzoku Goi (綜合日本民俗語彙, "A Complete Dictionary of Japanese Folklore"):[11]


Ancient times

"Yamata no Orochi" from the Nihon-ryakushi: Susanoo" by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

The ancient times were a period abundant in literature and folktales mentioning and explaining yokai. Literature such as the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and various Fudoki expositioned on legends from the ancient past, and mentions of oni, orochi, among other kinds of mysterious phenomena can already be seen in them.[12] In the Heian period, collections of stories about youkai and other supernatural phenomena were published in multiple volumes, starting with publications such as the Nihon Ryōiki and the Konjaku Monogatarishū, and in these publications, mentions of phenomena such as Hyakki Yagyō can be seen.[13] The yokai that appear in these literature were passed on to later generations.[14] However, despite the literature mentioning and explaining these yokai, they were never given any visual depictions. In Buddhist paintings such as the Hell Scroll (Nara National Museum), which came from the later Heian period, there are visual expressions of the idea of oni, but actual visual depictions would only come later in the middle ages, from the Kamakura period and beyond.[15]

Yamata no Orochi was originally a local god but turned into a youkai that was slain by Susanoo.[16] Yasaburo was originally a bandit whose vengeful spirit (onryo) turned into a poisonous snake upon death and plagued the water in a paddy, but eventually became deified as the "wisdom god of the well (井の明神)."[17] Kappa and inugami are sometimes treated as gods in one area and youkai in other areas. From these examples, it can be seen that among Japanese gods, there are some beings that can go from god to youkai and vice versa.[18]

Middle ages

The Hyakki Yagyo Emaki, author unknown. It comes from the Muromachi period

Medieval Japan was a time period where publications such as Emakimono, Otogizōshi, and other visual depictions of yokai started to appear. While there were religious publications such as the Jisha Engi (寺社縁起), others, such as the Otogizōshi, were intended more for entertainment, starting the trend where yokai became more and more seen as subjects of entertainment. For examples, tales of yokai extermination could be said to be a result of emphasizing the superior status of human society over yokai.[9] Publications included:

In this way, yokai that were mentioned only in writing were given a visual appearance in the middle ages. In the Otogizōshi, familiar tales such as Urashima Tarō and Issun-bōshi also appeared.

The next major change in yokai came after the period of warring states, in the Edo period.

Edo period

"The Heavy Basket" from the Shinkei Sanjurokkei Sen by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Meiji 25)

It was in this era that the technology of the printing press and publication was first started to be widely used, that a publishing culture developed, and was frequently a subject of kibyoshi[22] and other publications.

As a result, kashi-hon shops that handled such books spread and became widely used, making the general public's impression of each yokai fixed, spreading throughout all of Japan. For example, before the Edo period, there were plenty of interpretations about what the yokai that were classified as "kappa," but because of books and publishing, the notion of "kappa" became anchored to what is now the modern notion of kappa. Also, including other kinds of publications, other than yokai born from folk legend, there were also many newly created yokai that were created through puns or word plays, and the Gazu Hyakki Hagyo by Sekien Toriyama is one example of that. Also, when the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai became popular in the Edo period, it is thought that one reason for the appearance of new yokai was that since there was demand for the story-tellers to tell about yokai that were not yet known to society, there were cases where individuals simply made up new yokai, and it is known that the kasa-obake and the tōfu-kozō are examples of these.[23]

They are also frequently depicted in ukiyo-e, and there are artists that have drawn famous yokai like Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and Hokusai, and there are also Hyakki Yagyō books made by artists of the Kanō school.

In this period, toys and games like karuta, sugoroku, pogs frequently used yokai as characters. Thus, with the development of a publishing culture, yokai depictions that were treasured in temples and shrines were able to become something more familiar to people, and it is thought that this is the reason that even though yokai were originally things to be feared, they have then became characters that people feel close to.[24]

Meiji and afterwards

A poster relating the spread of Cholera a shinigami. From Le Petit Journal. The image and idea of shinigami were imported from European depictions like these in the Meiji period.

With the Meiji Restoration, Western ideas and translated western publications began to make an impact, and western tales were particularly sought after. Things like binbogami, yakubyogami, and shinigami were talked about, and shinigami were even depicted in classical rakugo, and although the shinigami were misunderstood as a kind of Japanese yokai or kami, they actually became well-known among the populace through a rakugo called "Shinigami" in San'yūtei Enchō, which were adoptions of European tales such as the Grimm fairy tale "Godfather Death" and the Italian opera "Crispino" (1850). Also, in Meiji 41 (1908), Kyōka Izumi and Tobari Chikufuu jointedly translated Gerhart Hauptmann's play "The Sunken Bell. Later works of Kyōka such as Yasha ga Ike were influenced by The Sunken Bell, and so it can be seen that folktales that come from the West became adapted into Japanese tales of yokai.

Modern times

From modern times until the present, since yokai are introduced in various kinds of media, they have become well-known among the old, young, men and women. The kamishibai from before the war, and the manga industry, as well as the kashi-hon shops that continued to exist until around Showa 40 (the 1970s), as well as television contributed to the public knowledge and familiarity with yokai. Nowadays, yokai plays a role in attracting tourism revitalizing local regions, like the places depicted in the Tono Monogatari like Tono, Iwate, Iwate Prefecture and the Tottori Prefecture, which is Shigeru Mizuki's place of birth. In Kyoto, there is a store called Yokaido, which is a renovated machiya (traditional Kyoto-style house), and the owner gives a guided yokai tour of Kyoto.

In this way, Yokai are told about in legends in various forms, but traditional oral story telling by the elders and the older people is rare, and regionally unique situations and background in oral story telling are not easily conveyed. For example, the classical yokai represented by tsukumogami can only be felt as something realistic by living close to nature, such as with tanuki (Japanese racoon dogs), foxes and weasels. Furthermore, in the suburbs, and other regions, even when living in a primary-sector environment, there are tools that are no longer seen, such as the inkstone, the kama (a large cooking pot), or the tsurube (a bucket used for getting water from a well), and there exist yokai that are reminiscent of old lifestyles such as the azukiarai and the dorotabo. As a result, even for those born in the first decade of the Showa period (1925-1935), except for some who were evacuated to the countryside, they would feel that those things that become yokai are "not familiar" are "not very understandable." For example, in classical rakugo, even though people understand the words and what they refer to, they are not able to imagine it as something that could be realistic. Thus, the modernization of society has had a negative effect on the place of yokai in classical Japanese culture.

On the other hand, the yokai introduced through mass media are not limited to only those that come from classical sources like folklore, and just like in the Edo period, new fictional yokai continue to be invented, such as scary school stories and other urban legends like kuchisake-onna and Hanako-san, giving birth to new yokai. From 1975 onwards, starting with the popularity of kuchisake-onna, these urban legends began to be referred to in mass media as "modern yokai."[25] This terminology was also used in recent publications dealing with urban legends,[26] and the researcher on yokai, Bintarō Yamaguchi, used this especially frequently.[25]

During the 1970s, many books were published that introduced yokai through encyclopaedias, illustrated reference books, and dictionaries as a part of children's horror books, but along with the yokai that come from classics like folklore, kaidan, and essays, it has been pointed out by modern research that there are some mixed in that do not come from classics, but were newly created. Some well-known examples of these are the gashadokuro and the jubokko. For example, Arifumi Sato is known to be a creator of modern yokai, and Shigeru Mizuki, a manga artist for yokai, in writings concerning research about yokai, pointed out that newly created yokai do exist,[27][28] and Mizuki himself, through GeGeGe no Kitaro, created about 30 new yokai.[29] There has been much criticism that this mixing of classical yokai with newly created yokai is making light of tradition and legends.[27][28] However, since there have already been those from the Edo period like Sekien Toriyama who created many new yokai, there is also the opinion that it is unreasonable to criticize modern creations without doing the same for classical creations too.[27] Furthermore, there is a favorable view that says that introducing various yokai characters through these books nurtured creativity and emotional development of young readers of the time.[28]

In media

Various kinds of yōkai are encountered in folklore and folklore-inspired art and literature.

Famous works and authors

Lafcadio Hearn's collection of Japanese ghost stories entitled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things includes stories of yūrei and yōkai such as Yuki-onna, and is one of the first Western publications of its kind.

Yōkai remain prevalent in modern works of fiction. Shigeru Mizuki, the manga creator of such series as GeGeGe no Kitaro and Kappa no Sanpei, keeps yōkai in the popular imagination. Other popular works focusing on yōkai include the Nurarihyon no Mago series, Yu Yu Hakusho, Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale, Yo-kai Watch and the 1960s Yokai Monsters film series, which was loosely remade in 2005 as Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War. They often play major roles in Japanese fiction.

Synonyms to yōkai

Instead of yōkai, sometimes the word mononoke (written 物の怪) is used. It carries the meanings of "monster", "ghost", or "spirit", and the literal meaning is "the spirit of a thing" or "strange thing".[30] This word is used to blame any unexplainable event on, and both inanimate objects and spirits of humans and other creatures can be called mononoke. Several anime have dealt with mononoke, perhaps most famously Princess Mononoke (where the spelling of the word is simplified as もののけ).

See also


  1. Youkai Kanji and Youkai Definition via Denshi Jisho at jisho.org Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  2. "Toriyama Sekien ~ 鳥山石燕 (とりやませきえん) ~ part of The Obakemono Project: An Online Encyclopedia of Yōkai and Bakemono". Obakemono.com. Archived from the original on 26 July 2013. Retrieved 2013-04-30.
  3. 近藤瑞木・佐伯 孝弘 2007
  4. 小松和彦 2015, p. 24
  5. 小松和彦 2011, p. 16
  6. 小松和彦 2011, pp. 16–18
  7. 宮田登 2002, p. 14小松和彦 2015, pp. 201–204
  8. 宮田登 2002, pp. 12–14小松和彦 2015, pp. 205–207
  9. 1 2 3 小松和彦 2011, pp. 21–22
  10. 小松和彦 2011, pp. 188–189
  11. 民俗学研究所『綜合日本民俗語彙』第5巻 平凡社 1956年 403-407頁 索引では「霊怪」という部門の中に「霊怪」「妖怪」「憑物」が小部門として存在している。
  12. 小松和彦 2011, p. 20
  13. 『今昔物語集』巻14の42「尊勝陀羅尼の験力によりて鬼の難を遁るる事」
  14. 小松和彦 2011, p. 78
  15. 小松和彦 2011, p. 21
  16. 小松和彦 2015, p. 46
  17. 小松和彦 2015, p. 213
  18. 宮田登 2002, p. 12小松和彦 2015, p. 200
  19. 太刀川清 (1987). 百物語怪談集成. 国書刊行会. pp. 365–367.
  20. "世説故事苑 3巻". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  21. 江戸化物草紙. アダム・カバット校注・編. 小学館. February 1999. p. 29. ISBN 978-4-09-362111-3.
  22. 草双紙 といわれる 絵本 で、ジャンルごとにより表紙が色分けされていた。黄表紙は大人向けのもので、その他に赤や青がある。
  23. 多田克己 (2008). "『妖怪画本・狂歌百物語』妖怪総覧". In 京極夏彦 ・多田克己編. 妖怪画本 狂歌百物語. 国書刊行会. pp. 272–273頁. ISBN 978-4-3360-5055-7.
  24. 湯本豪一 (2008). "遊びのなかの妖怪". In 講談社コミッククリエイト編. DISCOVER妖怪 日本妖怪大百科. KODANSHA Official File Magazine. VOL.10. 講談社. pp. 30–31頁. ISBN 978-4-06-370040-4.
  25. 1 2 山口敏太郎 (2007). 本当にいる日本の「現代妖怪」図鑑. 笠倉出版社. pp. 9頁. ISBN 978-4-7730-0365-9.
  26. "都市伝説と妖怪". DISCOVER妖怪 日本妖怪大百科. VOL.10. pp. 2頁.
  27. 1 2 3 と学会 (2007). トンデモ本の世界U. 楽工社. pp. 226–231. ISBN 978-4-903063-14-0.
  28. 1 2 3 妖怪王(山口敏太郎)グループ (2003). 昭和の子供 懐しの妖怪図鑑. コスモブックス. アートブック本の森. pp. 16–19. ISBN 978-4-7747-0635-1.
  29. 水木しげる (1974). 妖怪なんでも入門. 小学館入門百科シリーズ. 小学館. p. 17. ISBN 978-4-092-20032-6.
  30. Toyama, Ryoko: "FAQ – What does 'Mononoke Hime' mean?." Nausicaa.net. Retrieved 2012-08-16.

Further reading

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