03 October 2012

kowai revisited

Few things captivate the mind quite like monsters. From the time we are little children until we are adults (and even beyond), monsters are a huge part of our lives. Everyone remembers the nameless beasts that live in our closets, or under our beds, waiting for us to fall asleep before they can pounce. The very notion of fear of the dark speaks to our heritage as part of the animal kingdom- predators who hunt by night, the fear found with confronting the unknown, the whispers we think we hear when shadows fall. Being scared, and the creatures that do the scaring, are a big part of our shared culture, and often reflect the world we live in.

And then there’s Japan. While we in the US pride ourselves on our wealth of folklore and dozens, if not hundreds, of unique regional fare, we often forget that we are both a young nation, and one firmly rooted in the “now.” We have our monsters, we have our ghosts and we have our fear. But when lined up next to the history of Japan, well...we aint’ got nothin’ on them. And, quite unfortunately, we also don’t have a great grasp of what we are missing out on. We get films like “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” which are often highly touted as groundbreaking and revolutionary, but only represent a tiny sliver of the greater world of Japanese folklore, myth and the weird. We obsess over vampires and werewolves, often highlighting their modern sexuality and “forbidden-ness,” but are blissfully ignorant to the “kowai-onnas” that live just across the Pacific Ocean, who have been enthralling the minds of the nihon-jin before Lestat du Lioncourt was even an idea. 

Well, brave readers of the scary world, I intend to rectify some of that. As a longtime Japanophile and lovers of all things supernatural, I have spent a good deal of time becoming acquainted with the weird world of Japanese monsters, or youkai, as they are known across the ocean. I have read legends of creepy things living within cracks, tricky shape-shifters and sensual oddities. I have lectured on the complex and changing “Hidden Worlds” of Japan, and discussed the finer points of the other side. And now I bring to you some of what I have learned. Because it’s only after you become aware of what might be watching you that you can truly appreciate, and in turn properly fear, the unknown. 

Hold on tight. And leave the candle burning. 

(Author’s Note: The spelling of youkai is meant to emphasize the long ‘o’ sound found in certain Japanese words.) 


As a whole, youkai are as big a part of Japan as anything else. While a lot of cultures have their own monsters, few have as developed or far-reaching as Japan. Explaining the impact of youkai on Japan requires more space than I have to work with here, but I would like to focus on a few of the key points made by Michael Dylan Foster in his remarkable treatise on the subject, “Pandemonium and Parade.” For those interested in learning more, that book is highly recommended. 

One of the first things that must be pointed out when discussing the idea of youkai is that the word itself doesn’t have a precise meaning. While loosely translated as “monster,” the word actually has about a dozen other connotations attached to it, including spirit, goblin, ghost, fantastic being, strange experience and, possibly the most telling, changing thing (Foster, 5). This idea that youkai are mutable/transformative in some way, and are linked in with changing forms and ideas, is central to both the powers ascribed to some of the monsters, and the method by which they have survived long past other folk creatures worldwide. Not to mention the fact that some of these same youkai are well known precisely for being able to change shape at will, but that’s another story for another day (Foster, 6). 

Youkai in Japan have been around seemingly forever. Some of the oldest such monsters have their roots in Heian period Japan, a time when the nation was going through a good deal of upheaval. At the time, monsters were very regional in nature, and often tied to either natural phenomena, or a general sense of the unknown “other” that lived just outside the visible world (Foster, 6). Youkai were either seen as being a strange, unknowable part of the landscape, coexisting with humans despite being on the fringes, or as potential invaders seeking to cross the boundaries from the surreal to the real, and either cause chaos among humanity, or nothing at all. 

The Heian period was a major shifting point in the nature of youkai simply because during those four centuries that spanned the moving of the capital and the rise of a warrior class, an entire new type of youkai appeared: the vengeful spirit. Born out the collective superstition of the era, widespread belief in evil spirits and the burgeoning focus on loyalty, duty and honor, the idea of neglected spirits and betrayed ghosts returning to take vengeance began to circulate, alongside tales of giant skeletons and flaming wheels. Fanned by some of the more esoteric sects of Buddhism, and the healthy fear of the populace (not to mention the court), these supernatural evils took a firm hold that would carry out of the middle ages and into the modern world. (For more information on Heian Japan, see George Sansom, “A History of Japan to 1334.) Their influence is felt even now in their “descendants,” films like the aforementioned “Ringu” and “Ju-On,” both tales of wronged spirits returning from the grave to exact vengeance. 

Like the Heian before it, the Edo period also held a changing dynamic for the formerly hidden monsters. As the fascination with youkai began to gain steam, regional monsters began to be formally catalogued by the Edo government. Scholars and storytellers were encouraged to travel to Edo to present tales and information about the otherworldly begins living in their own provinces. This “great cataloguing,” was a time when youkai were being shared with the nation of Japan as a whole. Also during this time, many new youkai began to appear, as tales spread (Foster 31, 52). This period of youkai fascination culminated with the publishing of various “encyclopedias” like the Wankan sansaizue, and the art prints of Toriyama Sekien. Sekien, an artist who specialized in ukiyo-e style woodcuts, would become famous for his images, which depicted both “classical” youkai and a few of his own creation. 

Fast forward a hundred years, and a massive change in Japanese politics and policy brought a new variable into the fold. In 1875, the Meiji Restoration both brought Japan into the modern world, and gave Western scientists and thinkers access to previously restricted information. Not surprisingly, this interest extended to the “quaint” belief in yokai, and Western science began to look into the claims surrounding them. These early “cryptozoologists” began to explore previously held beliefs that monsters existed, and the discussion began. West and East collided as cultures mixed and monsters made the transition across the vast oceans. This “diaspora of the scary” came to a head in 1904, when European scholar, and staunch Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn published “Kwaidan,” acknowledged as the first book of Japanese ghost stories and monster culture to be published outside of Japan. Hearn, himself interested in the supernatural dimensions of the world, phrased these classic stories in words that Westerners would both understand and appreciate, and helped usher in the third period of youkai fascination. He also made a movie star out of the first internationally famous youkai, the “Yuki-onna” or Ice Woman, who would dominate the western fascination with these exotic monsters for decades to come.

A scant 20 years after making their debut, youkai had transformed from Japanese import to cultural ambassador. Much like anime did in the 1990s and beyond, the Western world became fascinated with these monsters, far beyond the purely scientific, and the tales began to become common in social circles. The youkai themselves began to illustrate and represent Japanese culture in ways that ceremony and circumstance could not- the West loved scary things, and these were an entirely new form of scary. Often born our of different cultural norms, they incited the senses and the mind, and helped explain some of the eccentricities of Japanese culture at a time when Japan was exploding as a world power. Hearn himself hoped the same, writing that as his book was being published, Japan and Russia were already amassing forces, and he hoped that these tales would allow for those not taking part in the battle to see a different side of Japan (For more information, see the “Kwaidan Introduction”) than simple military successes or failures. 

Then came the war, and youkai transformed yet again.  Similar to the ways in which they served as cultural ambassadors at the start of the century, towards the end of it they once more took on this role, but this time, instead of bringing Japan to the world, they helped Japan re-establish its identity. Following the war, when films and media were outright banned from showing movies glorifying the military past of Japan (in particular, the samurai and all they were linked to), youkai began to become the new way of showing who the Japanese were. From the 1950s onward, Japanese ghost stories became popular films and were embraced by audiences around the world. But within Japan, their meaning was more than just insight and entertainment- they were Japan’s own, a product of her borders and native to her lands. And, as before, they were still transforming, and new creations emerging all the time. Some were reinterpretation of older tales (Yuki-onna), some were born out of the climate of war (Toire no Hanako, or “Hanako of the Toilet”), but all of them had one major thing in common: they existed only in Japan. Unlike European monsters, who had received a diaspora like no other and were being claimed by dozens of nations and cultures, yokai were still Japanese, and only Japanese. 

Today, this fascination with the idea of youkai continues in the realms of anime and manga, as it did with film, television and books for so long. The artistic representation of the unseen ranks of Japan’s supernatural have always held strong appeal, and that has not changed one bit since the Edo period brought youkai into the spotlight. With generations of people in a newly globalized world, this is the next step in the star of youkaidom, and the introduction to a new audience, much like Kwaidan did over a century ago. The films of Miyazaki Hayao and Miike Takeshi, the manga of Tezuka Osamu and Shigeru Mizuki (and some more modern mangaka like Shiibashi Hiroshi) and the video games of Atlus Studios (creators of the widely popular Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series) have all played a part in disseminating these classical tales beyond the borders of Japan, among the modern tech-savvy generations. And this flow shows no signs of slowing down. 

Further Reading
Michael Dylan Foster: “Pandemonium and Parade.” University of California Press, 2009

Editor's Note:

This isn't a new article...not really. Last October I tried to keep to a schedule of posting essays and profiles on yokai and other scary things, in honor of Halloween month. Well, that didn't work too well. This year, I'm not going to make that same mistake. 

This is a revised and expanded version of the essay I posted last October. It was edited for the horror magazine Blood Moon Rising, a quarterly publication that I write for. I hopefully managed to touch on more points regarding the history of yokai and its impact on Japanese culture. At the very least, it serves to show how I never stop thinking about this stuff. 

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