Every culture has its own take on mysterious happenings. Especially in pre-modern times when many of the subtler workings of the world were not well understood, people turned to their own traditions and imaginations to make sense of the things they experienced that just didn’t seem logical or normal. While it is maybe not the most scientific approach, this method has brought many treasured ideas, including ghosts, monsters, demons, superstitions, and even urban legends into our cultural consciousness. Japanese culture is no exception to this, possessing its own unique takes and conclusions on supernatural happenings-- takes collectively referred to as yokai.
Yokai is a notoriously difficult word to translate, as there is no exact counterpart in English to the concept. When broken down in Japanese, yokai (妖怪) is composed of the words yo (妖), which means attractive or bewitching, and kai (怪), which means mystery or wonder. Historically, western concepts like demons, ghosts, or spirits have been equated with yokai, though technically yokai are more diverse. Yokai as a group are easiest to conceive of when thought of in broad terms-- basically as any type of entity or happening that could be considered supernatural in origin.
How yokai are categorized depends largely on which source material is referencing them. Generally, yokai are categorized in a few different ways: according to their “source”, or their form prior to the event that rendered them supernatural, according to the nature of the event that changed them, according to their external appearance, or according to the place where specific yokai are found.
While their history in Japanese legends is much older, the first illustrated example of yokai appears in a 16th century picture scroll called the Hyakki Yagyo Zu, which depicted a large number of monsters and the stories associated with them. During the Edo Period (17th-19th centuries) invention of woodblock printing allowed for the mass production of books and artwork, which meant a veritable explosion of yokai depictions in Japanese media. The most famous example is Toriyama Sekien’s Gazu Hyakki Yagyo series, or Illustrated Night Parade of A Hundred Spirits. Sekien’s work, which is several volumes long, represents the first encyclopedic collection of yokai, with stories of monsters from all over Japan contained within its pages.
Despite the popularity of yokai during the Edo Period, the Meiji Restoration saw the vibrant culture around folklore and spirits wane substantially. Efforts to “modernize” Japan in the eyes of Western nations such as Great Britain and the United States meant that many provincial Japanese customs and traditions took a backseat to the cultural influence of the west. However, in the mid-20th century, following the end of World War II, yokai would make a comeback with popularization of manga. First published in 1960 by manga author Shigeru Mizuki, the series GeGeGe no Kitaro, or Kitaro of the Graveyard, drew heavily on the traditions of yokai for its characters and plot. The immense popularity of the series effectively brought yokai back into the public consciousness and worked to inspire many more creative works in Japanese media for years to come.
Today the influence of yokai can be seen all over Japanese culture. Yokai make appearances in manga, anime, books, movies, and even in advertisements and product labels. Series with worldwide popularity, such as Pokemon and Kimetsu no Yaiba, and movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away all have strong ties to and a basis in yokai folklore. In this way, even here on the other side of the planet in the USA, we have already come into contact with Japan’s rich culture surrounding these mysterious, mythical beasts.