Yokai: Japan's Weird and Wonderful Spirits - Part 1
Yokai, literally meaning `bewitching monsters`, are traditional Japanese spirits or monsters which appear in old Japanese texts, some dating from long before the Edo period (1603-1868). While some of these `monsters` bear a strong resemblance to similar ghosts and monsters in western literature and folklore, others are unique and almost unbelievably specific. Many yokai were created in the Edo period by illustrators and writers of ukio-e (woodblock print images of the `floating world` or spirit world) like Toriyama Sekien, Kawanabe Kyosai, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
The kappa (`river child`) is one of the most famous Japanese yokai. This is a smallish, green creature which resembles a turtle and lives in streams. They particularly love eating cucumbers and playing tricks, one of their most dangerous being luring humans into their rivers to drown them. They do, however, have a noticeable weakness- this is a small bowl or shallow plate which is located on their head and contains a small amount of water. This water keeps the kappa alive and without it it soon dies. One other trait that kappa are well known for is their impeccable politeness. This is, however, also their downfall, as it is known by most people which have heard of kappa that all is needed to escape a kappa is a bow. The kappa, being incredibly polite, will bow back, therefore losing all of the water in the bowl on its head!
The tengu is also a well-known yokai in and outside of Japan. This is a red creature often appearing in Buddhist texts as a sort of demon. They have a very long, distinctive nose, and occasionally a beard or moustache. The nose is probably related to the first appearances of tengu as bird-like creatures with beaks. As enemies of Buddhist they possessed the bodies of women and tried to lure monks and followers of Buddhism with them. Other `monsters` are known as obake, or `those which change`. These are typically animals which change into monsters. The most famous obake are probably kitsune, foxes which are able to change form into humans at will. However gaining popularity in current manga and novels are bakeneko – monster cats.
Along with the recent obsession with cats on the internet, bakeneko have started to attract the interest of manga writers and even cosplayers as a fun and interesting character. There are three main types of bakeneko – the nekomata, the gotokuneko and the kasha. The nekomata is known for having a split tail. It is also able to create ghostly fireballs, bring the dead back to life by jumping over a recently dead corpse, and in some stories even fly. It is also occasionally able to expand its body to about six metres across. The nekomata is used a lot in recent manga and anime as it has some pretty interesting traits. The gotokuneko is a comparatively tame creature who sits at home and keeps the fire at home going for the humans of the house who are out. `Gotoku` means `three-pronged cooking stove` a bit like a tripod, giving it this link to the home, hearth and fire. The third monster cat also has a relation to fire, `kasha` meaning `fire cart`. The kasha used to simply be a cart, literally on fire, which carried bodies to hell, but morphed into the shape of a cat-like creature in time. This creature was mainly shown in Buddhist depictions of hell and shown as a warning to sinners as to what would happen to them in the afterlife.
Some yokai have extremely specific traits, shapes and powers, almost unbelievably so. These include, for example, a wall which moves when you aren`t looking and which has eyes and mouths, called a nurikabe. It most famously appeared in Gegege no Kitaro, an anime/manga series by Shigeru Mizuki solely focused around a main character, Kitaro, defeating and also making friends with a range of yokai. This series also often shows a large eye-spirit called Medama-oyaji (who is actually Kitaro`s father!) and often seen in a bowl of water washing himself (Kitaro, who is also a yokai, also only has one eye).
Some other weird and wonderful yokai include a one-legged umbrella spirit, a spirit which licks up grime from your bathroom at night, a spirit which has a large eye where its bottom should be, and so on. If you can imagine it, it`s possible there`s a yokai for it.
Yokai are without a doubt weird and wonderful, and, unlike a lot of western spirits, include almost just as many good spirits as evil ones, although they might like playing pranks a bit too much! Look out for these creatures in manga and anime and be stunned at the fact that the creature you are seeing was probably created hundreds of years ago and has just undergone a simple make-over!