The Yokai of Japan

Yokai is an umbrella term for the supernatural creatures of Japan. I find them endlessly fascinating and much of what I share on this blog is yokai related. In this post I will provide a quick introduction to some of the most well-known yokai, as well as a linked index to all the yokai posts on this site. I've also included a selection of artwork featuring yokai, and some external links to information that may be of interest to those wanting to learn more.


Night Parade of 100 Demons (Hyakki Yagyo) - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1865.


The Yokai

Yokai is a difficult term to translate into English and you will sometimes see it as demon, monster or goblin. However, yokai is much broader than that and encompass all manner of supernatural phenomena. You will see in the artworks both above and below the represention of what is known as the Night Parade of 100 Demons. If you are curious about this, I've written about it here. 
 
'Night Procession of the Hundred Demons (Hyakki Yagyo)' - Hiroharu Itaya, ca. 1860.


Kitsune

Foxes in Japan are known as kitsune and they play a significant role in folklore. They manifest in a range of forms from evil shape-shifting yokai who trick helpless victims, to heavenly messengers and servants of the kami Inari. In Japanese folklore the role of kitsune is underpinned by a belief that the fox has an extraordinarilyly long life span and is incredibly intelligent.

'The Fox Demon' - Gekko Ogata, 1893.

Many tales of kitsune involve them reaching advanced age and developing the ability to transform into a supernatural spirt, or yokai. Often they grow additional tails, and the nine-tailed fox features prominantly. If you visit Japan you will see that many shrines are dedicated to the deity Inari and will have representation of kitsune, usually in the form of stone statues.

Tea Fox Illustrations


Tanuki

Tanuki are real animals and are often referred to in the west as racoon dogs. They also play a significant part in Japanese folklore and have magical shape-shifting abilities. Once feared, they are now more likely to be seen in statue form outside restaurants as a sign of good fortune.


Along with kitsune, tanuki are the tricksters of Japanese folklore. In many cases, when supernatural phenomena cannot be explained, the tanuki is usually blamed. I have written more about tanuki along with their representations in are at the link below.
 

Tanuki by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1881.


Kaibyo (Supernatural cats)

Japan seems to be a nation of cat-lovers and when I visited I seemed to see them everywhere, from cat cafes to Hello Kitty, the country seems to be besotted by felines. In folklore, cats are not always so loveable, as you will discover in the tales of bakeneko and nekomata.

'Nekomata' - Sawaki Suushi
 
As with kitsune, cats are believed to gain supernatural powers as they age and there is always a possiblity that they will transform into a yokai. You can read more about cats as yokai at the links below.
My post about Cat Witches of Japan on this blog

'Nekomata' - Utagawa Kunisada, 1847.


Tengu

Another yokai that has made its way into popular culture is the tengu. Sometimes considered a yokai or demon, and other times revered as a demi-god, they are fascinating creatures, but be sure to keep your distance. There are two types of tengu, the karasu or crow tengu and the hanadaka or long-nosed tengu.

 
In folklore tengu take can appear as viscious monsters but there are also tales of them training warriors in martial arts and being associated with Buddhist sects. They are known to inhabit forests and mountainous areas.

My Tengu post on this blog


Tengu - Matthew Meyer (yokai.com)


Kappa

Kappa are an example of a yokai that has been transformed in modern times. Today kappa appear as cute and loveable, often seen as stickers or soft toys, but in folklore it's a very different story. These viscious water-dwelling creatures will tear out your insides if you give them half a chance.

'An Illustrated Guide to Twelve Types of Kappa' - ca.1850.

Like may water-dwelling monsters in folklore around the world, the kappa may have been a way of keeping children safe near lakes and rivers. If you encounter a kapper it is a good idea to know how to avoid an attack and I've written more about this in my kappa post.
 



Yama Uba

Yama uba is a mountain witch in Japanese folklore. Some believe the tales arose during a time when during food shortages the oldest family members were abandoned in the mountains and left to die. The haunting spirits of the old women became yama uba.

My Yama Uba post on this blog



Tsukumogami

In Japanese folklore there is a common theme that as things age they develop supernatural powers. This is also the case for household objects which, after dutifully serving their owners for 100 years, can animate and become yokai.



Yurei (Ghosts)

Yurei are Japanese ghosts. Sometimes these spirits are known as onryo, or vengeful ghosts, and they return seeking revenge for a wrongful death.

My post about the yurei Kasane on this blog

'Portrait of Oiwa' - Utagawa Kuniyoshi

 
Index of Yokai Posts on This Site  
 
It is impossible to accurately categorise all yokai, and some may actually belong under several different headings, but for simplicity I've grouped them as best I can just as a starting point. If you would prefer an alphabetical list, you will find this on the Index page.
 
Animal Yokai
    Baku
    Bat Yokai (nobusuma, yamachichi, nodeppo)
    Hihi 
    Kaibyo - Yokai Cats (bakeneko, nekomata, kasha) 
    Maneki Neko  
    Minogame
 
Yokai as Supernatural Creatures or Monsters
    Gangi Kozo  
    Kappa
    Kawa Akago 
    Kotobuki 
    Nigawarai
    Oni - Japanese demons
    Tanuki  
 
 Yokai in the form of Humans or Ghosts
    Ame Onna 
    Azuki Arai 
    Child Yokai (tofu kozu, amefuri kozo, zashiki warashi)
    Kuchisake Onna   
    Tsurara Onna  
    Yama Uba
    Yanari
 
 Yokai as Strange Phenomena
    Haka No Hi 
    Kitsunebi
    Nurikabe
    Todaiki 
    Trees in Japanese Folklore (including kodama, ninmenju, jubokko, tsubaki, hoko, bashonosei, tengu daoshi, akateko) 
    Umi Bozo

Yokai as Objects (Tsukumogami)
    Hahakigami
    Hinnagami
    Musical Yokai (biwa bokuboku, koto furunushi) 
  
 
'Dreaming of the Earth-Spider with Demons (ghost army)' - Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1843.
 
 
Yokai on Twitter

I often post about yokai on Twitter. To get a quick taste of yokai you can check my latest tweets about yokai at this link.

 
For More Information

The best place on the Internet to start learning more about yokai is yokai.com. This phenomenal website has information and art by Matthew Meyer, also known as 'The Yokai Guy.' You can also visit Matthew at matthewmeyer.net

If you want books about yokai, I would highly recommend The Book of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster, or for lighter reading Yokai Attack by Hiroko Yoda & Matt Alt. 

For general information about Japanese folklore I have a separate post here with additional links.  

'Shoki Riding on a Tiger Chasing Demons Away' - Kawanabe Kyosai, 1887

 
Further Information on the Web

Kitsune

Kitsune: The Divine/Evil Fox Yokai
Beware the Kitsune, The Shapeshifting Fox of Japanese Folklore
Yokai.com - foxes/kitsune
Kitsune
Kitsune (Mythology Wiki)
Kitsune: The Foxy Side of Japanese Mythology
Kitsune (Mythical Creatures Guide)
Looking At The Importance Of Kitsune In Japanese Folklore
6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore
The Enchanting Vixens of Japanese Folklore  

Tanuki

My tanuki post on this blog
Tanuki: Mischief, Magic and Change in the Japanese Countryside
Tanuki: The Canine Yokai with Gigantic Balls
Tanuki (onmarkproductions)
Tanuki (yokai.com)
Tanuki: Real and Magical
Tales of the Tanuki: what exactly are they, anyway?
Tanuki no Kintama – Tanuki’s Giant Balls
Tanuki the Tipsy Trickster: Why a Well-Endowed Raccoon Dog Is Big in Japan
The legend of the tanuki: the big bellied magical Japanese raccoon dog
Pom Poko (Studio Ghibli) Trailer 

Kaibyo - Supernatural Cats

Beware of the Cat: Tales of the Wicked Japanese Bakeneko and Nekomata – Part 1
Beware of Cat: Tales of the Wicked Japanese Bakeneko and Nekomata – Part Two
Nekomata: An Evil Cat in Japanese Folklore
Nekomata, cat myths and cat shrines of Japan
Why the Maneki Neko beckons to you…
The Legend of the Japanese Lucky Cat
Feline Folklore: Decoding the Lucky Cat
Kasha the Corpse-Eating Cat and Friends: Meet the Creepy Kitties of Japan
Yokai.com - Cat Yokai

Tengu

Tengu: The Japanese Demon That's Basically a Mini-God
Daitengu (Greater Tengu) (yokai.com)
Kotengu (lesser Tengu) (yokai.com)
Tengu (mythology.net)
Tengu: The Slayer of Vanity
The Dogs of Heaven - Tengu and the Secret Practice of Buddhism
Magic and Mayhem of Japanese Legend: Don’t Try To Out-Trick A Tengu!
Mt. Takao & the Tengu (Donny Kimball)
Tengu: The Supernatural Spirit of Japanese Folklore - YouTube
Tengu: The Bird Demons Of Japanese Mythology - (Japanese Mythology & Folklore Explained)  (YouTube)

 Kappa

Kappa: Japan's Aquatic, Cucumber-loving, Booty-obsessed Yokai
Are mummified remains of unidentified creature proof of the mythological Kappa?
How a Mythical Imp that Snuck Up People’s Large Intestines Became a Symbol of Japan
Kappa (onmarkproductions)
Kappa (mythology.net)
Kappa (mythology wika)
Kappa and Japanese Folklore
The Mysterious Kappa of Japan

Yama Uba

Yokai.com - Yama Uba
Yama-uba
Discovering the universality of Baba yaga and Yama-uba, the old mountain crone

Tsukumogami

Tsukumogami: Japan’s Household Spirits
Tsukumogami – Japanese “Tool” Ghosts and Monsters
Types of Yokai: Tsukumogami
Haunted Artifacts (Tsukumogami) - Uncanny Japan

Yurei (Ghosts)

Japan's Three Great Ghost Stories
Ghosts on the Shore
Ghosts in Ancient Japan
Yurei: The Ghosts of Japan


If you'd like to just browse the most recent yokai posts on this site, you can do so here.

'The Ghost of Kasane' - Utagawa Kunisada, 1852.  

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