The Etymology of Yōkai

I know what you’re asking yourself; what are yōkai?  The answer is both easy and difficult.  The first thing to do tackling this question is to examine the etymology behind the word in its native language:

妖怪 = ghost, phantom, apparition, demon, spectre, monster

Now let’s break down the two kanji that make up the word:

妖 = Yō (よう) = Strange; bewitching

怪 = Kai (かい)Apparition; mystery

As you can see, the combination of these two kanji creates the word, 妖怪, which therefore translates to mean “strange apparition.  These links do a good job of explaining the basics of the yōkai.

In general terms, yōkai is an extremely broad term and can be used to encompass all of the monsters and supernatural beings that inhabit Japan.  Yōkai are essentially monsters; nocturnal mischief-causing monsters.   They’re not malevolent beings, but at the same time, they’re not very benevolent either.  They’re mainly mischievous creatures, and there are a lot of them.  In Japan, yōkai can be . . . .

  • Animals with magical powers and intelligence
  • Inanimate objects that have come to life,
  • Vengeful or lingering ghosts of the dead
  • Creatures that can change from one form to another
  • Creatures that look like humans but have incredible differences in anatomy.
  • Beings that look like women, but take delight in scaring people.
  • Beings responsible for puzzling and supernatural phenomena
  • Mischief-makers
  • Cruel murderers
  • Occasionally those that bring good luck.
  • Creatures responsible for events in nature, such as natural disasters.
  • Creatures designed to scare disobedient children
  • Beings derived from jokes, sayings, and proverbs

Don’t let these ponts fool you.  In Japan, there’s no real method of putting yōkai into specific categories or classes.  From what I’ve seen, they seem to be categorized by region. I’ll get more into the categorical mode of identifying yōkai another time, but for now, as you can see, there is no one, set definition for the word.  I personally see them as beings manifested through the fear of an ambiguous world only found at night.  I could go into further detail about the psychology behind yōkai, but unfortunately, I’m an English major.

The extreme variety displayed in these creatures is just one of the reason I am so attracted to them, but more on that another time.

Until next time, see ya!

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2 Responses to The Etymology of Yōkai

  1. Jonathan says:

    That’s great. I understand a little more each time

  2. lisa says:

    Very interesting. it’s always great to learn a new subject!

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