A-Z of Japan: Y is for…

This is the penultimate post in my A-Z of Japan series, so it’s time for Y. Y could be for a lot of things, such as the beautiful city Yokohama (横浜) in Kanagawa Prefecture, the amazing island Yakushima (屋久島) which I would love to visit one day, or the citrus fruit yuzu (ゆず). I also considered writing about yaoi (やおい) (boys’ love), Yasaka-jinja (八坂神社) (a famous shrine in Kyoto), or yakitori (焼き鳥) (grilled chicken).

However, in the end, I decided that…

Y is for… Yokai!

Yokai (妖怪) are Japanese monsters or supernatural beings. Just like ghosts and ghoulies in the Western world, they come in all manner of shapes and sizes, and varying degrees of scariness. According to Wikipedia, the main types are: shapeshifters, oni (ogres or demons), tsukumogami (ordinary household items which have come to life) and human transformations.

(Image source)

Shapeshifters often come in the form of animals, such as tanuki (racoondogs), kitsune (foxes), and okami (wolves). These animals are thought to have magical qualities. Indeed, I have read a number of stories in which foxes ‘bewitch’ people and put them into a sort of trance (and these are stories based on real life, not fantasy stories).


Tanuki (above) are something you will see a lot of in Japan – at least in their statue form. They are often outside restaurants, temples, or lurking in bushes. The tanuki of folklore is thought to be “mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absentminded” (Wikipedia). Ghibli fans – you’ve all seen Pom Poko, right? If you haven’t, it’s all about tanuki, so go and find a copy now! 😉

As you will know if you’re a regular reader of Haikugirl’s Japan, I’ve had a few encounters with oni (demons or ogres). There is a yearly festival in Toyohashi called the Oni Matsuri, which I have enjoyed attending. In the festival, there are a few demons which run about the town and have a fight at a shrine. It’s very fun!

Oni Matsuri (鬼祭り), Toyohashi, 11th February 2011

February 3rd in Japan is Setsubun, and this is also a time when the demons come out. Setsubun is a time for welcoming spring, and driving away evil spirits – by throwing beans at them.

Setsubun goods

‘Tsukumogami’ are not something I know much about but, according to Wikipedia, “the term is generally understood to be applied to virtually any object, ‘that has reached their 100th birthday and thus become alive and self-aware‘”, although there is no citation for that. The concept of tsukumogami makes me think of the dancing candlestick in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, or perhaps Disney’s Fantasia, in which broomsticks come to life. However, according to some sources, it may all be a bit more sinister than that. “Tsukumogami are tools and utensils that were thrown away, only to come to life as vengeful spirits after a certain period of time.” (Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 54, 1995, 7-34) I’m not sure I like the idea of a vengeful utensil!

(Image source)

The final main kind of yokai is ‘human transformation’. I guess these are the yokai which are most like our ghosts and zombies. Wikipedia describes a few kinds of humanoid yokai, such as: rokuro-kubi (humans able to elongate their necks during the night); ohaguro-bettari (a figure, usually female, that turns to reveal a face with only a blackened mouth); futakuchi-onna (a woman with a voracious extra mouth on the back of her head) and dorotabō (the risen corpse of a farmer, who haunts his abused land). Scary!

(Ryo Arai  “Nozarashi” 2011 papier mache, Paris white, colour paint 91×30×10cm, at the ICN gallery)

Naturally, yokai crop up all the time in popular culture, especially in manga, anime and movies. One famous manga featuring yokai, which I’ve mentioned before, is GeGeGe no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki.

GeGeGe no Kitaro

If you’d like to see some monsters while you’re in Tokyo, the best place is Jindaiji near Kichijoji. There, you can see characters from GeGeGe no Kitaro and buy lots of yokai goods, too. More about my Tokyo yokai hunt here.

As I’ve been writing this post I’ve realised how interesting the world of Japanese folklore is. I think it’s safe to say this is a topic I will be revisiting at some point. Perhaps I should add The Great Yokai Encyclopaedia to my Christmas list (although it has received mixed reviews and I’d like to see a copy before rushing out to buy it!).

I’ll leave you with one final spooky image tonight – but try not to have any nightmares!

(Image source)

If you want to know more about yokai or obakemono (‘changed things’), check out the Obakemono Project, which seems to be a comprehensive site for Japanese ghouls and ghosties: www.obakemono.com.

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