The Legend of the Yokai

by Cameron Hammonds May 23, 2018 2 Comments

The Legend of the Yokai

The land where the sun rises, in ancient times, was rife with folklore and myths of spirits, ghosts, specters, phantoms, monsters, and demons.  When learning of yokai, terms such as oni, tengu, kappa, inugami, Shinigami, amanojaku, and sunekosuri will be heard often, and are all yokai, yet as many as I have listed, this is only the apex on the tip of the iceberg.  Yokai are the bumps in the dark, the Japanese boogeymen, the ghosts, goblins, and ghouls of ancient Japan, the land of samurai, ninja, geisha, cherry blossoms, and Mt. Fuji. 

The name "yokai" is derived from two words; "yo", which means to bewitch, attractive, calamity, and "kai", which is defined as mystery and wonder.  So, yokai, in itself, translates roughly into something appealing and mystical, yet dangerous.  Yokai are not only mysterious ghosts and spirits, however.  Gods are also considered yokai and are capable of possessing animals, items, and even humans. 

To understand yokai in their entirety would require delving deeply into copious amounts of demonology, ancient history, philosophy, and the study of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, and even some Chinese religion.  Early in Japanese history, accounts of mysterious phenomena were being experienced and documented with scroll paintings, and later by tomes and encyclopedias created by folklorists, priests, and demon hunters.  Toriyama Seiken created The Illustrated Night Parade of One Hundred Demons,and from this the legend of the yokai was birthed, and quickly found its place in every corner of Japanese culture. 

The yokai seemed to topple from their pedestal in Japanese culture, however, during the Meiji restoration, in which Japan was attempting to modernize and steer away from ancient ways of thinking.  But, it seems yokai and their influence are rapidly gaining momentum again in present day Japan, and even the U.S. due to various films and animes, such as Inuyasha and Death Note, and video games, such as Fatal Frame and Kuon.   

There are so many different yokai that it's almost cruel to ask me to explain each one in depth, but I will discuss a few of the more common yokai "archetypes".  We will start with the yokai named oni.  Oni are huge, lumbering ogre/troll-like entities, usually red, blue, or green in color and sporting a various amount of horns protruding from their heads.  Oni, in Japanese culture, have shifted from being evil entities to protective guardians, and some building use depictions of oni to ward of bad luck, similar to how gargoyles are used. 

The next yokai we will discuss is the famed tengu.  Tengu can be found throughout Japanese folklore and in certain styles of Shinto they are also considered kami, or gods.  These yokai are depicted as human/bird hybrids and are said to be demons and warmongers in Buddhism, but are also depicted as fierce, skilled, and highly efficient warriors.  Texts from the Heian period show that tengu were fierce adversaries and fought with the practitioners of Buddhism, and after disguising themselves as priests, or monks, they would play the part of a false prophet of sorts, using a false image of Buddha to mislead the pious from their paths of righteousness.  At one point, tengu were said to be the spirits of bitter priests, obsessed with causing others to fall away from Buddhism.  Despite all of the back and forth on tengu, there are said to be many forms of tengu, benevolent, demonic, water elementals, bird-like, appearing in forms similar to a tortoise, and so many more.  Even attempting to describe one yokai thoroughly can be a massive undertaking, as you can see. 

Moving on to the next common yokai, known as kappa, or kawatora, which is one of the more renowned yokai, along with the former 2 oni and tengu.  The name kappa is a derivative of the words kawa, which means river, and wappa (warawa/ warabe), which means child.  In Shinto, kappa are considered water elementals, or deities (yorishiro/ suijin), in Japanese Buddhism, a troll/ ogre/ goblin-esque creature.  The kappa yokai is known by a myriad of other names, just as the oni and tengu, and each name differs according to variations in religion, region, customs, and the folklore of that area.  Oh, yeah! Get this, the Sogenji Buddhist Temple in Edo, now Tokyo, is said to have a mummified kappa arm, and they borderline worship these yokai. 

Kappa, in a nutshell, look very similar to a small, reptilian child, and appear either blue, yellow, or green in color, with webbed feet, and at times, a beak and turtle shell.  They are also said to be adept at swimming, which led to the aphorism "kappa no kawa nagare", or "a kappa drowning in a river" (roughly translated), which is used to say that even experts make mistakes.  Kappa are said to live in and around most bodies of water in Japan, but some folklore states they also reign as Yama-no-kami, or Mountain gods. 

Kappa are usually said to be tricksters and pranksters, but more extreme folktales exist where kappa drown, rape, pillage, and plunder.  Kappa are also said to be skilled sumo wrestlers who are obsessed with politeness and courtesy.  Yeah. . .  I know. . .  Yokai confuse me, as well. 

This brings us to the last yokai that I'll be able to discuss in this article, which means that maybe, with a little coercing, an article describing individual yokai every so often could be a possibility, we will see though.  But, I digress, back to the topic at hand, the inugami.  The inugami is basically this weird dog god/spirit/demon that possesses individuals with kojustu, which sounds as if it should be mentioned in the Naruto series, but it is actually a rather odd, yet feared ritual of employing the spirits of certain animals.  Kojutsu was supposedly banned during the Heian period, but reportedly involved the decapitation of a emaciated dog, and the burial of said dog in a sepulchre of sorts at a crossroads.  Yikes! 

Inugami are said to live in water jugs, closets, and pantries of the people they possess and create a variety of ailments and symptoms in the victim.  There was no cure for an inugami infestation, but some accounts stated that if you treated inugami as fox spirits, you could have wealth and success.  Inugami were also said to be passed down a bloodline, from descendant to descendant.  That's wild!

I'm going to wrap this up here and I hope you enjoyed this thimble-full of yokai knowledge.  I wish I could tell you guys everything there is to know about yokai, but I doubt anyone knows everything. 

Stay safe, train hard, be humble!


Cameron Hammonds
Cameron Hammonds

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April 09, 2020



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