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.
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.
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:
妖 (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
怪(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?
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….
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.
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 binbogami, yakubyogami, 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.
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.
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 – 怪 (kai, mysterious) + 獣 (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.
- Choshizen – 超 (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.
- Henge – 変 (hen; strange) + 化(ge; to change, transform) , meaning shape-shifters like tanuki, kitsune, and old cats. This would also be your werewolves and vampires.
- Yurei –幽 (yu; dim) + 霊 (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.
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?
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