Ok that title is a reference to a French-Canadian saying which actually means – what the heck is it? I may have erred on the side of way too frekin obscure there.

I have been making my way slowly through Natsume’s Book of Friends. I’m doing my best to try and truly savor the experience but the temptation to just gobble it all up and watch 20 episodes in a row is quite strong. I’m currently finishing up season 3 (I will absolutely tell you about it someday) and I have to admit, I’m pretty smitten.

Image result for i like you anime gif

But the show has also led me to realize that despite knowing the word for years now, I am not entirely certain what “yokai” means. I figured it’s about time I found out. My initial assumption was that yokai referred to some sort of Japanese folkloric spirits. I knew (thought I knew) they weren’t ghosts but beyond that I wasn’t sure if they were elemental/nature spirits like those of our first nations’ lore, lesser demon like entities which are bound to humans through some shared divine construct, like Asuras or succubi (succubuses?) or just parallel creatures sharing our world but not necessarily governed by the same physical laws, like faeries. As is the case for most things, I was almost, but not quite entirely, wrong.

Image result for anime yokai wrong
ok so no yoki here…

First, etymologically speaking, the word yokai actually means unexplained or mysterious phenomena. This encompasses all of the above, ghosts included, and much more.

The Kanji reading of the word is:


 (yo) meaning something like: mysterious, bewitching, unearthly, attractive, calamity or weird. This isn’t necessarily associated with a malicious or threatening undertone and is often used for something that is ineffably appealing; and

(kai) roughly meaning: mystery, wonder, strange, apparition, suspicious. Obviously, this one has some more sinister connotations. Complete random note, I love the sound Kai and like it a lot when used as a name. I did not realize it was supposed to be scary.

So a yokai is essentially an inexplicably appealing mystery?

no, wait, I think I might be able to explain the appeal

This is a very old word which seems to have evolved in meaning. For example, every source I found had the exact same example for the first identified usage of the word namely:

A book dating back to the first century from what is now China titled “Junshiden” 循史伝 contained the statement “the “yokai” was in the imperial court for a long time. The king asked Tui for the reason. He answered that there was great anxiety and he gave a recommendation to empty the imperial room” (久之 宮中数有妖恠(妖怪) 王以問遂 遂以為有大憂 宮室将空), In this case the word “妖恠” was used to mean “phenomenon that surpasses human knowledge.” Or a sort of unexplained foreboding atmosphere. Bad vibes….

Image result for anime scared
actually it’s food poisoning

During medieval times (why do I do that…), Japanese publication started to include not only written mentions of yokai of all kinds but for the first time visual depictions. As such, yokai started to become much more associated with tangible presences or observable phenomena, rather than just a general feeling in the air.

The Edo period was when the popularity of yokai started to really explode. The use of printing press technology became widespread in Japan and kashi-hon shops started sprouting up all over the place. These carried a great variety of books with an equality great variety of yokai illustrations. As these images started to take hold of the public’s imagination, toys and games frequently used yokai as characters. The Japanese have been collecting figures forever… The popularity of these publications is responsible for the images of many well known yokai we still recognize today, such as kappas for example.

Image result for anime kappa
he works out

As the Meiji restoration rolled in, the Japanese people got much more exposure to western and European influences. These in turn influenced local folklore and storytelling and of course yokai. This is when yokai such as binbogamiyakubyogami, and shinigami first appeared. The extremely popular Shinigami is believed to have been an appropriation of European tales such as the Grimm fairy tale “Godfather Death” and the Italian opera “Crispino” (1850), and the visual representations heavily influenced by the images of european grim reapers often used in books or even in articles on the spread of Cholera for example.

Also, in Meiji, Gerhart Hauptmann‘s play The Sunken Bell was translated to Japanese. This particular work is said to have influence Japanese authors and to have been adapted into Japanese folktales and yokai on several occasion.

Image result for shinigami soul eater
I just thought all Grim reapers looked alike cause they’re based on a real thing

Of course, as we all know, the popularity of Yokai is hardly waning and the word is now recognized pretty much universally (if not exactly understood). These days, Yokai are considered an important part of Japanese cultural heritage and even play a role in the tourism industry as a unique and defining aspect of the country.

Image result for yokai tourism
nuff said

Ok so where are we now? These days there are an almost innumerable phenomena around the world that are considered yokai. Depending on who you ask, these can fall in either 4, 5, or 7 different categories.

·  4 categories that depended on how they mutated: this-world related, spiritual/mental related, reincarnation (next-world) related, or material related.

·  5 categories that depended on what its “true form” is: a human, animal, plant, object, or natural phenomenon.

·  7 categories that depended on how they appeared: human, animal, plant, object, structure/building, thing from nature, and miscellaneous, as well as compound categories that fall into  

 The author Mizuki Shigeru, one of the greatest living specialists in stories of yokai, and guy with a fantastic smile, divides yokai as follows:

  • Kaiju –  (kai, mysterious) +  (ju; beast), i.e. monster. You guys know that one, it’s Godzilla!!!  The Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot would fall into that category too. Anything we ubernerds call cryptids really.


Related image
this Nausicaä kaiju always made me think of Dune
  • Choshizen –  (cho; super) + 自然 (shizen; natural), meaning the supernatural, including mysterious natural phenomena. Think: Bermuda triangle, the Easter Island statues and I would also say Tsukumogami. I learned about this recently and it’s awesome: In Japanese legend, all types everyday objects gain life and sentience on the 100th anniversary of their creation, and can range from harmless and friendly beings to terrifying vengeful spirits, depending on how they were treated and used. It is also said that modern electric items cannot become tsukumogami but stuff like umbrellas and shoes and dinnerware. I don’t know why but this idea makes me very happy. 
Image result for anime umbrella yokai
somehow not what I pictured
  • Henge –  (hen; strange) + (ge; to change, transform) , meaning shape-shifters like tanuki, kitsune, and old cats. This would also be your werewolves and vampires.
Related image
look it’s a basket full of henge
  • Yurei – (yu; dim) +  (rei; spirit), meaning ghosts, and spirits of the dead and also kami which can be spirits as well. I’m going to throw zombies into this one.
Image result for anime ghost
The most terrifying yokai class

So basically yokai are everything and incorporate every single legendary creature, phenomenon, idea, out there. Sure.

However, what I found most interesting and particularly unique is this:

Yokai are born from the emotions of humans.

This changes the nature of well, everything.

Most European and by extension modern American folklore is in some way influenced by the major western religions and these tend to be about the submission of man to God (capital G). Humans, cannot and should not be able to create anything lest guided by God’s will. There is also very precise notions of hierarchy, punishment and reward. As such our monsters are either some form of curse, i.e. punishment, instilled upon us for failing to follow God’s rule (ghosts, vampires, demons, zombies…) or just completely alien to us (the above-mentioned cryptids and well…aliens). The notion that we could be the actual progenitors of our nightmares is very different and gives us a much more intimate link to said monsters. They are literally part of us all.

So, do hormonal teenage girls just spawn dozens of yokai every month? 

I would like more ice cream now!

Man this is long. I should probably stop but there’s so much more interesting stuff out there. If it interests you, let me know. My takeaway from all this is: try to keep your fears and anger in check unless you want to be responsible for the disappearances of dozens of ships for the next 100 years, but make sure to spread your joy around as much as possible cause that’s literally what rainbows are made of.

I hope you got something out of this too. At the very least, you can now wow your friends with obsolete translated colloquial expressions! That’s something.

ED – Here are the original sources I used for this info and you should visit them if you want to know more:

Drink with modesty, but never drink with anger

Suggested drink: Godzilla

  • Every time you see a Kitsune – take a drink
  • Every time you see a Nekomata – take a drink
    • if it’s a boy – take another
  • Every time you see a floating blue light – take a drink
  • Every time you see a Kappa – take a drink
  • Every time you see a stringy haired ghost girl (Onryo) – run
  • Every time you see a sentient everyday object – take a drink
  • Every time you see an Oni – take a drink
  • Every time you see a Tanuki – take a drink
  • Every time you see an Inuki – take a drink
  • Every time you feel a sudden draft – be respectful
Related image
I love Okami and this is beautiful

27 thoughts

  1. I was not expecting to discover so much new information. I LOVE this post! Informative and it makes me want to watch the latest seasons as well.

    If I had unlimited internet, I would totally take you up on watching it with you online! I loved the first season, and one of the reasons I enjoy watching Kdramas so much is viewing it with others. It is kind of like a slumber party, but I can mute the conversation whenever I want.
    It would be nice to have anime viewing platforms like this too- like a live drinking with Irina anime marathon. I am soooo jealous of the rest of the world for their internet- ai!

    1. Technology moves fast, you’ll get unlimited soon! I’m rooting for it. Cause right now, we can all use a bit of entertainment

  2. I honestly used a lot of sources but admittedly they were similar so I might have ended up sounding a lot like someone else. I definitely Zack Davisson’s fantastic blog and I apologize if it seemed like stealing. I’ve added links to all the sources I remember having gone through and I’ll update it if I remember any more.

  3. Reblogged this on Merlin's Musings and commented:
    I just found this to be an excellent, informative post! I’m a bit of a monster and mythology buff, but my knowledge base is more of the Western stories. The Eastern stories have always confused me a little, but this filled in some gaps and made things make so much more sense. A good read!

  4. I liked the detailled history and etymology parts, and the specific references to follow up on. Well researched blog post, this one. 🙂

    This may have little to do with the content, but I’m struck by the images you chose, and how many of those anime loved. Let me try without googling:

    1. I’ve forgotten the exact name. Inu X Boku SS or the other way round? I thought it was a pretty cute show.

    2. Houzuki no Reitetsu. One of my favourite anime comedies out there!

    3. Looks like fan art, or official art supplement of Kamisama Hajimemashita? I’m unsure about that. I moderately enjoyed the first season; the second one was better. (Ignore if I got this wrong.)

    4. That’s… Emily from Dansai Bunri no Crime Edge. One of my favourite shows out there, and nobody ever talks about it.

    5. Namiuchigiwa no Muromi-san, no? Another underappreciated show.

    6. Soul Eater. Great Shounen show with lots of David Lynch references.

    7. Youkai Watch. Never seen, never played any of it, but it’s *everywhere*.

    8. Nausica. (I know I’m right, because it’s right there under the picture… Also, I have the Dvd.)

    9. Looks awefully familiar, but I’m drawing a blank. What is it from? (Hmm…. Binbougami ga? Probably not.)

    10. Fruits Basket. A fun classic.

    11. Card Captor Sakura. Best straightforward magical girl show.

    12. No idea. Does look vaguely familiar.

    13. Ookami game. Never played it, but looks fun.

    That’s a surprising number of hits with me. If they’re not randomly chosen (well, I get why Youkai Watch is where it is, heh), I think I click with your taste a lot.

    1. OK – I absolutely love this comment so no here’s the answer key:
      The header pic is:Reina from Myriad Colors Phantom World – ok show but great gif
      1 – Yup InuxBoku – adorable show
      2 – Again – you got it. I love the premise of this series.
      3- Actually that is suppose to be fan art of Soushi Miketsukami so InuxBoku again (kind of a popular Yokai anime)
      4 – Another win – Redhands indeed. I think it’s the first time I actually hear of someone else having seen this
      5 – Big guy from Muromi-san. You are good at this. I have an inexplicable love of fish theme anime.
      6 – Yes and very much yes
      7 – Same
      8 – I should really rewatch Nausicaä. I always loved it but since it was the first manga I read there was a “not as good as the book” bias in my head
      9 – One of the Yokai from Rosario + Vampire – somewhat forgettable series but it had its moments
      10 – Of course – my fave was Shigure
      11 – Yes!
      12 – Fan art from random AMV
      13 – It was an awesome game and it’s getting an HD ps4 release soon!

      So you did awesome on the pic quiz I didn’t know I had. I take a ridiculous amount of time chosing pics I’m so happy someone appreciated!

    2. Ah, I forgot about the header. Yeah, that’s an iconic image for Phantom World. I didn’t like it much, but it had its moments (I finished it, actually).

      The main reason I posted about the pics was actually the Crime Edge pic. I did a double take and thought I might be mistaken, because literally nobody talks about the show, and if I bring it up with people who know it I get… polite silence. I really do love this show and I’d really like them to finish the story at some point, but it doesn’t look very likely.

      That alone might not have gotten me to post, but then I got to Muromi-san, which is another rather obscure show I liked. Given the other pics are mostly shows I enjoyed to some extent or another, that’s pretty significant. I sensed a lot of overlap in taste.

      It’s been rather long since I watched Fruits Basket, so I’m not sure who my fave was. I think Ayame (the Snake) might have been near the top.

      So (9) is from Rosario + Vampire, the show with a decent first season and a horrible second season, which I couldn’t finish. I’m not surprised I didn’t get that one; it didn’t leave much of an impression (except that I really loved the Yuki Onna character design.)

      Finally, I don’t have a PS4. I could buy one, but I’m still using both my PS2 and PS3, and really don’t have the space for another console. I could find the PS2 version, I suppose. How… dexterous do I have to be for Ookami? I have really bad reflexes.

      1. It’s actually pretty relaxing on ps2. It eases you into the entire calligraphy mechanics and it is fantastically seeped in Japanese mythology. Beautiful to look at .

        I actually saw Crime Edge because I thought the title was intriguing – I sort of pick up shows a bit at random and much like you I got really into it. Sadly I doubt there’s anything new in the future for this show but you never know… Wouldn’t hold my breath.

  5. Excellent post! Informative, interesting, love the pictures, well done! I enjoyed this quite a bit! 🙂
    I happen to be something of a monster and mythology buff, but most of my knowledge is more of the Western stories. While I’ve been rather fascinated by the Eastern, I’ve never managed to make much sense of it. This right here just filled in some gaps for me, things make more sense now. Thank you! 😀

      1. You’re welcome! 😉 I know the feeling, when you know that someone likes what you’ve produced, it just makes you feel a little warm inside, ya know? 🙂

  6. Whoa, didn’t expect so much new information. It’s very fascinating that for the Japanese youkai seem to be something quite natural and deeply rooted in many aspects of their culture. The nature itself and also simple everyday items then seem to make ordinary life far less anthropocentric. I guess a Westerner would be far more at loss to encounter a bigfoot than it would be for a Japanese person to see a kappa.

    1. I may be wrong but I think most cultures are more accepting/flexible when it come to the esoteric, than North Americans. I know the Inuit here have some similar and super fascinating folklore as well.

      1. Well, most of the Europeans also belong to roughly the same class of people. The problem is that our folklore seems to be far removed from our casual lives, stored in museums and alive only to the smallest degree.

        1. You know, I think I might challenge you on that one. If we understand folklore to be only our historical cultural legends then I see your point, Europeans and Americans tend to be quick to brush off most of their heritage but if you look at folklore as a living, evolving thing then the age of information is fertile ground for new mutations. Creepy pastas and urban legends are popping up all over the place. New generations are creating their own fresh mythologies informed by stories from every corner of the world. To me, those are just as valid and fascinating… well some…

          1. That’s true, I was thinking mainly about the traditional folklore. The new generations are certainly creative but I’m not sure if the old can be compared with the new. The old legends have been refined through many centuries while the new urban legends are still constantly changing, suddenly becoming popular or disappearing. But yeah, both types deserve the spotlight equally.

  7. Yokai have interested me ever since I read the InuYasha Manga. It’s cool to see how folklore differs worldwide because of religion. Thank you for writing this post.

    1. I have never seen InuYasha but I’m russian (this is going somewhere trust me) and when I was growing up there was book by Boris Akunin with InuYasha on it for NO REASON… Like the story had nothing to do wit it or anything but I was really attracted to the picture cause I was a kid. When I realized years later where it came from I was fascinated and have wanted to see the show ever since. This is the book: http://68.media.tumblr.com/7e66d1f44edc445ac0e7e6f24c933fb3/tumblr_n4q015ayi31sny68eo1_400.png
      weird no?

  8. Great post. Like you, I probably just had a general idea of what the word meant but I’d never look further so this was really fun to learn more about yokai and the history. Thanks for sharing.

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