Tales of Japanese Spirits Give Form to Our Deepest Fears

Rokurokubi and kuchi-sake-onna. Original illustrations by Shinonome Kijin
Rokurokubi (left) may stretch her neck and kuchi-sake-onna (right) has a mouth slit from ear to ear (all images original illustrations by Shinonome Kijin, courtesy University of California Press)

Have you ever had a supernatural experience, a moment unexplained by reason or logic that left you feeling as if a mysterious force was present? The Japanese label that force yōkai, a group of spirits or shape-shifting creatures associated with Japanese folklore that are the subject of a new book by Michael Dylan Foster, published this month by the University of California Press. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore is an in-depth guide to these fantastical monsters and their cultural influence — from their origins in early Japanese texts and illustrations to their current appearances in anime, manga, films, and games. Accompanying the history of yōkai folklore and discussions of how humans interact with yōkai is a bestiary of over 50 types of yōkai, all illustrated with original drawings by Shinonome Kijin, a yōkai aficionado who sells his works at manga– or yōkai-related events. 

Informed by Foster’s years of rigorous academic research, interviews with scholars, fieldwork in Japan, and conversations with locals while he was living in the country, the book delivers an extensive and rich narrative that remains accessible and engaging, particularly because Foster writes in the first-person and shares personal anecdotes to explain concepts. (To recite an example of a supernatural experience, he recounts waking up in the morning to find his television broadcasting the weather report when he is almost certain it was turned off at night.) The book still maintains a scholarly tone, though, in how Foster clearly explains his approach to and intentions of each chapter or section before delving into its contents.

Ninmenju. Original illustration ny Shinonome Kijin
Ninmenju is a human-faced tree found in the mountains and valleys

Yōkai are difficult to define since they take on many different forms, but Foster, who describes them as “strange, anomalous manifestations of otherness,” does a comprehensive job of unpacking their myriad representations and explaining their commonalities. Foster presents yōkai’s many manifestations as characters, all of which have roots in early Japanese texts, including written descriptions in ancient records and short stories known as otogizōshi that relay religious narratives, adventures, tales of animals, and more. The Book of Yokai also references visual renderings of yōkai from paper or silk scrolls known as emaki and picture books called kibyōshi, produced primarily in the late 18th century. Yōkai are depicted in innumerable forms and styles, from human-like beings with exaggerated or monstrous traits to hybrid animals with shape-shifting powers and even to real animals like centipedes or badgers.

Although yōkai take on a variety of physical appearances, they all exist in a liminal state of being: not only do they emerge at dusk, but they also live in the borderlands, such as on mountains between villages or at the edges of cities. Rokurokubi, for example, reside near human settlements; they appear as normal women but may stretch their necks to wreak havoc, accounting for bizarre occurrences. At times shown with serpentine necks, other rokurokubi are depicted with fully detachable heads, implying their ability to fly around rooms autonomously. Kuchi-sake-onna — which literally translates to “slit-mouthed woman” — also live by villages or cities and appear as mysterious females who approach children on their way home from school and frighten them.

While some Yōkai function to explain extraordinary, unusual phenomena, others channel more trivial or enigmatic experiences. The home-dwelling yanari, for example, resembles a poltergeist who is responsible for strange noises heard at night, while the makura-gaeshi is a house spirit one may blame for shifting the position of a pillow overnight.

The large variety of yōkai introduced in the book may seem overwhelming. But Foster goes beyond simply defining and providing examples of these creatures, always taking care to relate them to human experience. While their beastly and mysterious characteristics are fascinating enough, yōkai also reveal the extent of our many insecurities. As Foster explains, some yōkai embody our fears rather than help us make sense of confusing circumstances. Ninmenju, for example, are plant monsters that sprout human heads rather than flowers and are interestingly associated with the legendary talking tree that foretold Alexander the Great’s death. According to traditions, hitotsume-kozo, a young boy with one eye and a long tongue, scares people with his monstrous features and supposed powers to attract disease and wreak disaster on households. Whatever form they embody or purpose they serve, yōkai reveal how people confront and digest the inexplicable and how there is a need to assign physical constructs to the immaterial nature of our anxieties. Yōkai are an elusive group with origins in one culture, but Foster succeeds in drawing out their universal relevance.

Yanari and Kasabake
Yanari (left) is used to explain sounds and kasabake (right) is an umbrella monster
Baku and makura-gaeshi. Original illustrations by Shinonome Kijin
Baku (left) is a dream-eating creature and makura-gaeshi (right) shifts pillows while a person sleeps
Hitotsume-kozo is known either as a mischievous character or as a sign of misfortune
Ubume and nuppeppo
Ubume (left) is an incarnation of a woman who died in childbirth and nuppeppo (right) is thought to haunt deserted temples
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