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Yōkai, Obake, and Yūrei: The Rundown on Japanese Creatures

Although you could say that peak ghost season in Japan is in August, due to the Obon festival, Halloween has experienced a surge in popularity in the last decade. With theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan holding annual Halloween events since 2000, it has caught on with children and adults alike!

Now it’s our turn—in the spirit of cultural exchange, let’s learn a bit about the spooky side of Japanese folklore! Because the Japanese bestiary is so enormous, it would take volumes to do it justice, but here’s a bit of basic info to get you started:

Yōkai

Yōkai (妖怪), also known as mononoke (物の怪) are supernatural beings, like our monsters, demons, or goblins. The term yōkai is vague and can be used to describe a wide variety of creatures. The idea of yōkai in Japanese folklore dates back to the 8th century, when Japan’s oldest recorded histories were created. These legends were expanded upon during the Edo period, a golden era of art and culture in Japan, but were later all but forgotten during the Meiji era, when Japan was greatly modernized. The popularity of yōkai has since rebounded as they are featured heavily in anime and manga.

Yōkai can range from benevolent to evil and animal-like to humanoid; many are somewhere in between. One such example is the kappa (合羽) or “water child.” These reptilian beasts look like a cross between a turtle and a human and are said to drown people in rivers and ponds in Japan. The favorite food of the kappa is human children, but they are are also huge fans of cucumber—this is where the name for kappamaki (cucumber sushi roll) comes from! Kappa are occasionally friendly to humans, and are said to be able to speak Japanese, too.

kappa-square-small

Obake

Obake (お化け), are a subclass of yokai (妖怪) also known as bakemono (化け物). There is no direct equivalent in English, but they could most accurately be described as shape-shifters. The term obake is sometimes translated as “ghost,” but a key difference to note is that obake are not the spirits of the dead! Instead, obake are living supernatural creatures. There are distinct subcategories of obake; these include creatures whose true forms are animals, plants, and even inanimate objects! A good western example of an obake is Stephen King’s Christine, a car bent on murder.

One example of obake you may be familiar with are the kodama (木霊) tree spirits in Hayao Miyazak’s epic film, Princess Mononoke. The kodama in the movie are cute, bobble-headed creatures that live in the trees, but traditionally, kodama are much scarier! If you cut down a kodama’s tree, it will place a curse on you, and even today in Japan, you can sometimes find shrines at the bases of trees believed to host kodama. In some villages, festivals are offered in honor of the kodama when trees are cut down.

Mononoke_Kodama

Yūrei

Yūrei are perhaps the most terrifying Japanese creatures. These are the ghosts of the deceased and have been introduced to western culture through J-horror movies such as Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge). Yūrei have long, disheveled hair and appear wearing the clothes that they died or were buried in, such as white burial kimono. In some cases, they may haunt a specific person, but usually are tied to the place where they died. Yūrei are stuck between life and death, and can only move on when their unfinished business is resolved, much like ghosts in western mythology.

Legend has it that a yūrei roams the halls of the Morikami. She has been spotted at times watching over the property, or listening in on conversations. Recently, our resident ghost hunters caught her on camera. Check out the exclusive footage.

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