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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Supernatural Spirits Of Japan: The Yōkai

I probably watch too much television, but I'd never admit to saying such ignorant thoughts to my plastic fantastic lover. (Kudos if you knew what that last phrase was about, old timer.)

I was watching a freshly dug episode of Sleepy Hollow earlier this week (I really do write these things ahead of time, usually), because I like to know as much as possible about American history, so along with learning that Stars & Stripes seamstress Betsy Ross was a bad ass hottie spy via Sleep Hollow, and all my modern news from the former Colbert Report.

Anyhow, the show mentioned a yōkai (妖怪), which is Japanese for ghost or apparition.

Despite the plethora of ghostbusting television shows and movies past and upcoming, there is no physical or metaphysical proof of the existence of such supernatural phenomena. Unless, of course, such things are being kept from the majority of the outside world for whatever reason—aka the television show Supernatural, or whatever goes on in Area 51 (or the real secret place Area 52). I have no idea if there is an Area 52 located in underground in Utah. That's just where I would put it. Free salt, and all that.

Yōkai—to a native English speaker, like myself, it sounds like a fun word to say… but the Japanese kanji (the Chinese-derived alphabet) for the term is plucked from those meaning "bewitching; attractive; calamity" and "apparition; mystery; suspicious".

Interesting how the first kanji has synonyms for bewitching or attractive or calamity. Been there, felt that.

Other terms for ghosts include: ayakashi (妖), mononoke (物の怪) and mamono (魔物).

I have it from first-hand experience (Wikipedia), that yōkai/ghosts are just like their western counterparts: mischievous to nasty… while some believe they are a harbinger of good fortune when encountered. I guess it all depends on who you know and whether or not you ticked anyone off while they were alive…

Of course… this is when yōkai simply infers ghost.

There is also the supernatural inference. This means a yōkai can perhaps also be something less-phantom-like living, but still spiritual (not in the good Buddha is best-way) and supernatural.

What does a yōkai look like? Depends...

Unlike traditional Euro-North American personifications, Japanese ghosts are purported to take on a myriad number of forms: human-like; turtle-like (human-ish turtle mythical creatures known as kappa); bird-shaped critters that can become human-like (tengu); take the form of an inanimate object - like a soup bowl or a rock; or Buddha help us, no shape at all - think amorphous blob.

Many of the yōkai have the ability to shape-shift… and those that do are also known specifically as obake.

So… ghosts is ghosts (though Ghostbusters reminds us that there are many types of ghost), but what are these spiritual creatures to which I alluded to earlier in the long forgotten past?

  • Bakeneko

Bakeneko are a cat creature that was a cat, but changed into a yōkai that would act in a non-cat-like way - dancing and dressing up like a human. A shapeshifter, if you will;
  • Hebi - snakes (in general, I suppose the old time Japanese must have felt that snakes had a supernatural feel to them). If there is a different version of this, I would assume that the yōkai snakes would be more sentient to the real world, and thus attack or terrify to make a point. ;

  • Inugami

These are dogs, similar to werewolves, but are, rather than throat-ripping lycanthrophs, are instead masters of black magic. They are supposed to be human-like, but still obviously canine-ish. Bad dog.

  • Jorōgumo
Image taken from I would still have swat it and then stomp on it. Maybe after sex.
This is a spider that changes into a seductive woman. As a writer, I can see how one would create such a creature for a story... a seductive woman weaving a web of deceit to ensnare her male victims, consuming their fortunes, and once done, going all black widow on the man to kill them before shambling off to find a new, rich victim. I'm sure that we could look at ANY yōkai involving a woman and see how the writer could create a similar evil creature. Writers, so I hear, get personal satisfaction and revenge with the story;

  • Kyūbi no Kitsune
Dig that shadow play on the screen! - print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa.

In Japanese, the word 'kitsune' is used to reference real-life foxes (there are two varieties in Japan), and the spirit fox - a fox-like yōkai that has up to nine-tails, and is known both as Kyūbi no Kitsune and simply as kitsune. Nine-tails? Like the anime/manga character Naruto. Apparently, nearly all yōkai can shape-shift into men or women - and while it is implied that it is done to fool or trick other humans, folklore has kitsune existing as humans working as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives. Ooh! Foxy Lady!

  • Mujina

Badgers. Badgers? Badgers? We don't need no stinking badgers! (a line from the movie UHF)... but mujina is an old Japanese term primarily referring to the badger. In some regions the term refers instead to the raccoon dog (also called tanuki) or to introduced civets. Adding to the confusion, in some regions, badger-like animals are also known as mami, and in one part of Tochigi Prefecture (my home prefecture, but not in my home town) badgers are referred to as tanuki and raccoon dogs are referred to as mujina.
As yōkai, mujina badger demons may take the form of an attractive woman with a promiscuous nature, usually causing mischief in their partner's life. I believe I may have dated one while in Japan. She had a nice tail.

  • Tanuki 

There really IS a tanuki in real-life Japan, that is a Japanese racoon-dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus), also known as tanuki):

It differs greatly from the yōkai version, however, in that it walks on all fours, does not have huge testicles (then again, that tree in the photo is blocking the view). The yōkai tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shape-shifting, but somewhat gullible and absentminded.I never saw one in Japan, which is good, because it would have scared the crap outta me. Heck... I never even saw a squirrel while in Japan. Just frogs, mice, cranes and crows. That was pretty much it. Oh yeah... and spiders...

  • Tsuchigumo
Killing a Tsuchigumo, skulls fall out from its belly.
The Tsuchigumo is a spider that hides in the ground… which I suppose has more to do with the fact that Japan isn't supposed to have trapdoor spiders… I think. It had the body of a tiger, eight legs like a spider - so it was large - and, in some case it wore clothes and ate unwary travelers.


Red oni with club. Looks like your standard demon, if I am any judge of supernatural creatures, which I am not.
Oni is the catchall term for orges and demons - classic Japanese giants with skin of a singular color - either: blue, red, brown or black. Two horns on the head, wide mouth with fangs; wearing a tiger skin loincloth (Leopard skin is much sexier). It is depicted as having a giant sword or club in hand.


Tengu - crow version.
Tengu - see above - but while once evil, later became known as a defender of Dharma - the way of Buddha, I believe.

Household Items
Really… but after seeing a talking teapot in Beauty & The Beast, I could believe anything.

The really weird belief is that these items below have come to life on the 100th anniversary of their formation - why? Perhaps some Japanese folklore writers were eating some funky mushrooms:
  • Bakezōri - straw sandals (I have visions of Porky Pig in the classic cartoon Wearing of the Grin and the tap-dancing shoes that won't stop);
  • Biwa-bokuboku - a lute - as long as it's not playing Greensleeves over and over, I could handle a soundtrack to my daily life;
  • Burabura - a paper lantern (as long as it's lit, it can float beside me to light up the dark paths I take… one just needs to remember to not go into the light, of course);
  • Karakasa - old umbrellas (Of course it's an old umbrella… it's 100 years old… and what the heck are people doing with 100-year-old umbrellas? Does it just refuse to open up in a rain storm? Who came up with this one? Waug-waug-waug-waug);
  • Kameosa - old sake jars (The horror - either the sake jars are empty when you need a drink, or they won't stop trying to drown you in rice wine. Bring it on, yōkai!);
  • Morinji-no-kama - tea kettles (What's the biggie? Does it just continues to do a wolf whistle - which if you are female is either incredible flattering but you can't say so, or incredibly sexist and annoying. If you are a man, its continuing wolf whistle is sooooo distracting - made you look - that you can't get any work done as you wonder what you are missing out on seeing;
  • Mokumokuren - paper screens with eyes… is this like a creepy painting on the wall where the eyes of the portrait seem to follow you everywhere?Or is it just a yōkai that can't stop being a peeping Tom?
I like that the Japanese felt the need to create specific words for these types of yōkai supernatural beings.

Human Transformations
Unlike the previously mentioned critters that become human-like, we have here four types of human yōkai that transform into hideous versions of humans. Add own joke here.

The Rokuro-kubi are humans able to elongate their necks during the night - and I mean really elongate… like totally snake-like. Now… this can be broken down into a type that has a stretchy snake-like neck, or one whose head can detach allowing the head to fly unfettered;

The Ohaguro-bettari - usually a female, who when it turns to face you invariable is only a face with a blackened mouth. No eyes, nose, ears… just a maw;

The Futakuchi-onna is a woman with a voracious extra mouth on the back of her head. You never see it while you are talking to the woman at dinner time wondering how the fugue she can survive just picking at that expensive meal you bought her for that first date- but then… as soon as your head is turned to check out that waitress (bad first date etiquette, by the way) for a few seconds, that mouth behind has eaten everything. Now if there was a Japanese ghost story that could explain why women don't fart like men.

There's also something called a Dorotabō a mud-creature spirit of a farmer who comes back to terrorize those who have not looked after his farmland… but that's just a reanimated corpse, and not really a physical transformation. So… forget I mentioned that.

Other creatures known as yōkai, are the Akaname. This is a demon that lurks in unclean bathrooms and supposedly comes out at night to lick up the filth on the floor. This doesn't sound scary at all, rather a welcome relief.

There's an Azukiarai - a demon yōkai that is washing beans near a river. Again… so what? While I enjoy dirty rice and beans, I'd rather not really have dirty beans and rice.

There's also the tōfu-kozō - a child yōkai that walks around carrying a plate with a block of tofu on it. It doesn't do anything annoying or scary or helpful… it's like WTF?

And lastly, the Ashiarai Yashiki - disembodied foot and leg that smashes into a house and demands that a human washes it. It's… a Monty Python joke waiting to happen. If one refused to wash the yōkai's dirty foot, it could mean misfortune or possibly death. Maybe it would jam it's filthy foot into your mouth… and while some people might not mind that sort of stuff—it's different when proper hygiene is present—even if something stupid like this really did happen, why not just wash the damned foot?

I want to believe,
Andrew "Vince Clortho" Joseph
PS: Yes, I was mixing mediums: I want to believe is the message in the X-Files (as a poster and a thought process), while Vince Clortho, keymaster of Gozer is the name of a demon possessing a man, seeking the Gatekeeper in the classic first movie Ghostbusters.  

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