About Yokai, Yurei, and Other Japanese Monsters

Horror from the Land of the Rising Sun

Yokai parade image: Kowabana

For a country with such a beautiful and poetic nickname, Japan has some truly weird monsters. Because they may be the Land of the Rising Sun but once the sun goes down, strange beings come out to play.

And it does not get any weirder than yurei and yokai.

A collective name for spirits and monsters, these supernatural beings may have Western analogs but they are not the same. Not at all.

They are the result of centuries of old stories and folktales mixed with their Shinto and indigenous animistic religions with a pinch of Buddhist traditions for flavor.

monster from the film Bloodbath: Demon Within

By the way, how good is your Japanese? You cannot reason with these creatures in English. In fact, most of them do not even speak a human language. Their language is horror and violence.

I listed them both in my most popular horror creatures list. Do they belong? Perhaps not. They are not as popular as werewolves or ghouls. Still, give them time. The West has not yet met them properly.

The majority of these stories were popularized during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) thanks to art and printing. Yokai and yurei have become stock characters in countless myths by then. The Japanese love a good dark fantasy, if by dark you mean pitch black.

Baku, the Dream Eater yokai at Konnoh-Hachimangu shrine

Did you expect a polytheistic culture to be any less into the supernatural and ghost hauntings than our monotheistic one?

Japanese horror (known colloquially as J-horror) is creepy, unnerving, and intrinsically Japanese. And yet, seeing the success of J-horror films like The Ring and The Grudge, we can say their brand of horror, although not for everyone, does have crosscultural appeal.

But first, how are they different?

Yokai and Yurei, What is the Difference?

Bake-Kujira the ghost whale by Birgitte Gustavsen/Deviant Art

The Shinto religion (known in Japan as kami-no-michi) is polytheistic and they worship many gods or spirits called kami, which are supernatural entities that inhabit many places and objects. The kamis are worshipped at shrines and temples.

Yes, the most high-tech country on the planet, the one with the most advanced robots and computers, believes in supernatural spirits that haunt every single thing, even pencils. Ironic, sure. But who cares? We benefit from such an amazing pantheon of beings.

The word yokai is a combination of the words ‘yo‘ (attractive, bewitching) and ‘kai‘ (mystery, wonder).

There are hundreds, if not thousands of these beings. Each one is weirder and scarier than the other one. They have nothing to envy the ancient Greeks and their mythological monsters.

Yuki Onna image from amino apps

One link they share with the ancient Greeks is the notion of the woman as a monster. (Sexist, I know). Most of these monsters are female. And they can hold their own to the Hydra, the Medusa, the Chimera, the Echidna, and the Sirens.

The yokai, in particular, are meant to be the embodiment of a specific moment, feeling, a weird sound or smell, a phenomenon with only a supernatural explanation. Weird, awkward, like walking into your roommates having sex.

How do you distinguish them? The yokai are corporeal monsters, actual creatures bound to a specific place. Meanwhile, the yurei are spirits akin to ghosts, free to move elsewhere.

By the way, one thing these creatures share in common is the themes of revenge, jealousy, hate, injustice, vengeance. Spirits seeking retribution from a perceived offense. And they cannot be killed. Not even by magic.

Yokai, the Monsters of Japan

Tengu photo: Yamato

When you have hundreds of yokai to choose from, it is hard to pick. Nevertheless, some are known even outside Japan.

In effect, some of these yokai are more like categories of beings. Although they may lose something in translation.
  1. Obake. – These are the shapeshifting monsters of Japanese myths, like tanuki and foxes who transform into beautiful women to trick men, or worse. They are also called Bakemono. I knew not to trust Tom Nook.
  2. Tengu. – Named after the Chinese dog-like demon, they look nothing like a dog. Instead, they resemble bird-like creatures with long noses. They are protectors of shrines and holy sites. Still, this protector is not a kindly friend.
  3. Kappa. – The turtle-like river monsters who love to eat cucumbers and drown children who swim without parental permission. They can speak Japanese and know medicine, though. Keep a cucumber handy.
  4. Tsukumogami. – These are inanimate objects, like a chair or an umbrella, who gain sentience after a hundred years. Possessed objects? Sounds like Poltergeist to me. Hahakigami, the broom spirit, is perhaps the best-known one. What’s next, a possessed lantern?
  5. Baku. – The dream eater who eats nightmares. See? Not all yokai are bad. Right? Nightmares a bad, no?
  6. Rokurokubi. – Have you seen a weirder spirit with a superlong neck? Like Mr. Fantastic but scarier? There is another type of these whose heads detaches and flies around. I rather encounter neither one.
  7. Tearai-Oni. – Onis are considered demons. The Tearai is one of the most popular ones. They are giant-size and have a hygiene fetish since they are constantly washing their hands. There are statues of them all over Japan staring you down from a strange body position. OCD giants? Now I have seen it all.

What about the yurei?

Yurei, the Dim and Wet Ghosts of Japan

Aka Manto image: Deviant Art

What is with Japanese ghosts and water? And what is with all the questions? These ghosts are chatty.

By the way, not all ghosts are evil. The nigi mitama is peaceful and may bring good fortune. Make sure to avoid the mononoke which are people possessed. Never good.

The following yurei are to be avoided. They are not friendly.

  1. Kushisake Onna. – This onryo (malevolent spirit) wears a face mask (a common sight under coronavirus). The uncommon sight is when she tries to kill you if you give the wrong answer to her question. “Am I beautiful?” is always a tricky question to answer. With her, more so.
  2. Yama-Uba. – Japan’s version of a witch, except they live in the mountains. They are ugly, decrepit, and eat children. Mmm, sounds like the original witches from fairy tales.
  3. Gashadokuro. – These are the bones of soldiers perished in a battlefield. Like the living skeletons from Pirates of the Caribbean but giant-size and meaner.
  4. Jorogumo. – A beautiful woman who turns into spiders? Or a spider who turns into a woman? Spiders are disgusting and scary as it is. But a man-eating ghostly spider? Terrifying.
  5. Yuki Onna. – You get lost in a snowstorm and improbably run int a gorgeous woman. Super hot. But her touch is colder than an iceberg and her kiss steals your life force. Not hot.
  6. Aka Manto. – Imagine Little Red Riding Hood as a Japanese ghost. Imagine running into her in a bathroom. She asks if she should wear a red or blue cloak. Either answer means death. Red by tearing your flesh; blue by strangulation. Pick a different color and she will drag to hell. You can’t win.
  7. Chochin Obake. – The chochin is a possessed paper lantern who grows a tongue and an eye. They seek to scare humans, not kill them. If I see a lantern with human features, I would get a heart attack. Beware the chochin.

How can you win? For real.

How to Defeat a Yokai or a Yurei?

Kayako Saeki art by Duylinh Nguyen

Like most supernatural entities, yokai and yurei cannot be defeated. At least not by magic or conventional means. You cannot defeat what is already dead. You cannot fight what you cannot touch.

But you can certainly banish them and in some cases, exorcise them.

Fortunately, the Shinto religion has rituals for such occasions. If the magical prayer does not work, you can always try to help the poor soul find peace by completing their task (as long as it does not involve you dying).

If a wrong cannot be righted or if the spirit cannot be expelled, you could try negotiating with them. Conversely, seeing how mean they can be, perhaps some prayer and Shinto blessed water may be best?

image: Kawanabe

Yokai and yurei have yet to make an impression outside anime, manga, video games (Yokai Watch, Pokémon), and films. There has to be out there a great novel waiting to be written about these and many other strange Japanese myths.

The West got a taste of this type of storytelling, but where is the main course? Nonetheless, whatever you do, stay away from their curses. These beings are horrible. So horrible I rather dealt with a Western demon or ghost.

Reader, who is your favorite yokai or yurei?


2 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    A small error I noticed (only because she’s my favorite) is the spelling of Kuchisake Onna.

    Kuchi = mouth
    And “sake” is from the verb “sakeru” to split, or tear

    I really enjoyed the article, though!

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March 2023