What is a Yokai? 5 Mysterious Japanese Demons


What is a Yokai? 5 Mysterious Japanese Demons

by Ahmed Juhany | ART

Gong Held by Oni in Wood an Lacquer, 19th Century, the Met Museum

Interest in Japanese yokai culture has exploded in recent years. Painting and prints of shape-shifting animals, water-spirits and city ghouls are emerging at exhibitions all around Japan, and across the world.

The eerie and strange has long influenced Japanese art. It’s a fascination that’s been enjoyed and nurtured over many centuries, and today these Japanese mythical creatures can be appreciated everywhere, from museum halls to renowned Ghibli films, like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

But what is a yokai, where are they from, and what do they do? Read on to discover more about the haunting realm of yokai.


What Does Yokai Mean?

Hyakki Yako by Kawanabe Kyosai, 19th Century

Yokai is not simply the Japanese word for demon, as is sometimes believed. They are the embodiment of a moment: a feeling of dread and bewilderment, or awe and wonder over an extraordinary event; or a strange sound or peculiar scent that demands an explanation; an ineffable phenomenon explained only by a supernatural entity. Little wonder then that the Japanese characters for Yokai are 妖怪, which taken individually could mean strange or alluring mystery!


Where Do Yokai Come From?

One Hundred Monsters by Toriyama Sekien, the Met Museum

Yokai had existed in Japanese folklore for centuries, but was during the Edo period (17th-19th centuries) that they began to be widely seen in art. It is no coincidence that their rise to the forefront of artistic culture began at a time when the printing press and publishing technology became widespread.

One of the oldest examples of yokai art was the Hyakki Yagyo Zu, a  16th century scroll that portrayed a pandemonium of Japanese monsters. This formed the basis for Japan’s first definitive encyclopedia of yokai characters through the work of 18th century printmaker Toriyama Sekien. Using the newly developed technologies of woodblock printing, Sekien was able to mass-produce yokai illustrations in his own catalogs of the monster parade. How many yokai are there? The series was known as Gazu Hyakki Yagyo series, meaning Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Spirits, although in this context, one hundred just means many! These three texts illustrate more than two hundred of these Japanese demons, each with its own brief description and commentary.

Shokuin from One Hundred Monsters by Toriyama Sekien, the Met Museum

Here, in his third book, Konjaku Hyakki Shui (Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past), Sekien finds inspiration in Chinese mythology. He details a spirit named Shokuin that haunts Nanjing’s Purple Mountain. It appears as a red, man-faced dragon, which looms over the mountain a thousand meters tall.

Kiyohime from One Hundred Monsters by Toriyama Sekien, the Met Museum

Much of Sekien’s work may seem familiar to fans of modern Japanese horror films. His illustration of the Kiyohime - a woman that fell in love with a priest and was transformed into a terrifying serpent demon through the rage of unrequited love - is a prime example of a style that would go on to inspire many artists in the horror genre.

This is not just another rendition of the old, dried-up vengeful ghost tale that we are used to seeing. It is a twisting and morphing of something once familiar to the reader, until it no longer was. By merging the natural with the unnatural, a woman and a serpent, Sekien strips away the reader’s sense of security by infecting what was previously normal.


What Are Some Famous Yokai?


1. Tengu

Tengu Masks, 18th Century, the Met Museum

The tengu is one of the best-known types of Japanese yokai, often intertwined with stories of mountain spirits and forest dwellers. The tengu has a long history, appearing in multiple ancient texts and adopting various images and representations, until it’s basic form was settled in the medieval period.

The eighteenth century iron masks above displays the most recognizable and contemporary  depiction of the Tengu on the left, beside the older, more traditional representation on the right. Contrary to its original portrayal, the new Tengu is unfeathered and unbeaked. It is no longer a monstrous bird but an almost anthropomorphic being.

Find out more in 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Traditional Japanese Masks.


2. Kappa

Kappa Netsuke, 18th Century, the Met Museum

The kappa is a green, turtle-like humanoid, with webbed hands and feet and a carapace on its back. Atop its head is a dish-like indentation filled with water, which the kappa balances carefully. It is weakened if the content of the dish is spilled.

The boundary between kappa ad other kinds of creatures is blurred. But as is the case with most Japanese yokai, its name is suggestive. Lying between the periphery of the known and unknown, a yokai is named after the impressions it leaves or after its reported characteristics. Since the kappa is child-sized and lingers around rivers, its name is a mere combination of the words child and river.

This 19th century netsuke carves out the fundamental features of the Kappa. Its scaled, short arms and its sharp long claws were once widely feared, but now, the aged kappa is viewed with a certain humor and mockery over its child-like physique.


3. Yurei

Yurei by Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1812, the Met Museum

If the realm of contemporary Japanese horror could be encapsulated by a single yokai, then that yokai would be the yurei (ghost). A yurei often resembles her former self, her living self, but in death is pale-skinned, arms dangling uselessly by her side.

A yurei is depicted in a white kimono, a burial gown used in Edo period funeral rituals. Her long, black hair is let down as tradition demands before a burial ceremony. 

When renowned woodblock artist, Utagawa Toyokuni I, illustrated this picture in 1812 to accompany the Tale of Horror from the Yotsuya Station on the Tokaido Road, he masterfully provided us with what has become the definitive depiction of a yurei.

Toyokuni’s influence can also be felt through the works of his students. In particular, Utagawa Kuniyoshi shared his master’s fascination with Japanese monsters and demons. Find out Why Utagawa Kuniyoshi Was the Most Thrilling Woodblock Print Artist.


4. Oni

Oni, 19th Century, the Met Museum

The word oni has a long history. It first appeared in the ancient, 8th century texts, the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan).

The descriptions of oni have changed dramatically over time, to the extent that scholars find it difficult to assess what constitutes as a typical depiction of the creature.

In this nineteenth century painting, the yokai is portrayed as a large, ogre-like beast with a frightening face.

Gong Held by Oni in Wood an Lacquer, 19th Century, the Met Museum

Yet here, in a sculpture from a slightly earlier time, we see a more intricate oni.

They retain their ogre-like features, and though they are pictured with horns and fangs, they have become far more anthropomorphic. Their facial expressions are no longer as brutish and they seem almost gimmicky with their over-pronounced noses and their bushy brows.


5. Ijin

Ijin are people from what is called Ikai, a world that is beyond our own. They are outsiders that have crossed the boundary that stands between two separate worlds, often to complete a task.

While there are many types of ijin, some pleasant and others malicious, most are said to be harmless. These types range from religious figures, to craftsmen, to beggars and pilgrims. The Daikokuten in this early, twentieth century painting, is an example of a benevolent ijin.

He is often described as the Japanese equivalent of the Hindu deity Mahakala, and as a god of wealth.

The painting above shows a typical expression of the Daikokuten, with his beaming smile and exaggerated, gigantic ears. He holds a golden mallet, which grants the child good fortune.

The yokai world is vast, and although it is becoming more popular than ever, it is easy to get lost in the repackaging of Japanese yokai culture to charm modern audiences. Today there is remarkable progress in the realm of yokai scholarship in Japan, so there has never been a better time to explore the history of the inexplicable and find out for yourself what really is a yokai!

May 10, 2019 | Art, Prints