What are Yokai?

The goal of this blog is to educate readers about the existence of the yokai in a poetic fashion.  This blog consists of poetry, momentary tales of flash-fiction, and extended short story narratives, each piece dedicated to a particular yokai that currently exists in Japanese mythology.  What is more, at some point in time, I will upload short pieces in which I create my own yokai, because the yokai are essentially the products of fiction and the imagination.

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
  • The unknowable part of the land
  • Creatures derived from neglectful behavior and improper actions

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 I’m not a Psychologist nor will I ever be one.

The extreme variety displayed in these creatures is just one of the reason I am so attracted to them, and is perhaps the main reason the yokai are growing to be more and more popular.  In short, yokai, using the simplest definition, are an extensive class of Japanese supernatural monsters derived from oral folktales and ancient illustrations.  This class includes animals that have acquired magic through ageing, inanimate objects that have gained souls, the spirits of humans lingering on the earth, creatures that can disguise themselves to look like humans, and so on.  The term “yokai” can be actually be used to describe any mysterious force or creature, such as Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle, but the term is commonly used to describe monsters exclusive to Japan.  It is difficult to discern as being examples of personification or anthropomorphism.  I, personally, view them as exaggerations of things that already exist in the world and the way of the ancient Japanese people to explain things.

I see the yokai as an aspect of Japanese culture that constantly goes unnoticed in Western studies of Japan.  While the yokai do have some influence on the modern media culture (e.g. a small sum Pokémon are based on yōkai.), the yokai seem to be merely the subject of footnotes, and it is sad that most people do not take the time to appreciate the source material.  I would like, through literary means to be able to use yokai as a means of teaching Japanese culture, not just the using the yokai that already exist, but also making yokai that embody the many different aspects and things Japan has to offer.  Hopefully in the future, I will have the opportunity to expose the yokai to a wider audience.

I personally feel that being influenced by these specific cultural artifacts that are the yokai suggests something universal about how the Japanese imagination can connect with other cultures’ imaginative forms.  What is specifically being suggested is up to the imagination.

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