Do You Know “YO-KAI?”
By Daisuke Komatsu
Have you ever heard of the term Yo-kai? Yo-kai is a general term for beings and phenomena beyond human knowledge that have been handed down throughout Japan since ancient times, and are still a part of Japanese culture today. You may have heard the names "Oni (ogre)," "Tengu," or "Kappa.”
If you are an American or Westerner, you might think of entities such as ghosts and other phantasms. You may also think of fantastical creatures such as dragons and unicorns, or transcendent beings such as gods and demons.
There are more than 1,000 different kinds of Yo-kai, large and small, good and bad, from evil beings that play tricks on humans to those that protect us from natural disasters. For example, a fishing boat may get into a maritime accident because a Yo-kai called "Umibouzu" destroys the boat, or a family may be blessed by inviting a Yo-kai named “Zashiki-Warashi” into their home, who guarantees that its hosts will become prosperous.
Yo-kai are often referred to as creatures that we cannot usually see, phenomena that are difficult to explain through science, unbearable natural anomalies, experiences of being spirited away, native deities, etc. They are also beings that remind us of morals and customs, giving suggestions and hints on how to lead a respectable life. In this sense, they are not just scary monsters.
Statues of Kappa
In Japan, Yo-kai have existed in every region from Hokkaido to Okinawa, but Hokkaido Yo-kai, for example, were unique to that region’s indigenous culture and were recognized only by the people of Hokkaido, and never by the people of other regions in Japan. Likewise, other regional Yo-Kai existed in tales only alongside the lives of the people of their localities.
In 1910 folklorist Yanagida Kunio published "Tono Monogatari" (The Legends of Tono), a collection of folklore from the Tono region of Iwate Prefecture. It is said that thanks to Tono Monogatari, Yo-kai has come to be recognized as a genre of Japanese culture, and Japanese have become aware of Yo-kai from other regions as well.
I myself was born and raised in the countryside about an hour's drive from the Tono area. When I traveled to Tono on vacation, I visited a "Kappa-buchi" stream where you can catch “Kappa,” which are similar to mermen, and a guest house where it is said that “Zashiki-Warashi” once lived. So Yokai have been a familiar part of my childhood.
In commemoration of the 110th anniversary of Tono Monogatari in 2020, the Tono Tourism Association released a permit for capturing “Kappa” and continues to offer a prize of 10 million yen if visitors capture a kappa and bring it to the Tourism Association. Not only in Tono City, but all over Japan Yo-kai, as an important tourism resource, are helping to revitalize towns and villages.
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide, people in Japan prayed for a speedy end to the pandemic to a Yo-kai called "Amabie," which is said to warn off illness and allegedly appeared in Higo Province (present-day Kumamoto Prefecture) in 1846 during the Edo period.
Looking at Yo-kai from a different angle, Japanese people have long been fond of describing or anthropomorphizing mysterious phenomena as living creatures, and they have become an integral part of cultural activities such as folklore, novels, animation, and video games.
Statues of beloved characters Kitaro and his dad, Medama-oyaji (or literally Eyeball-Father) from "Gegege no Kitaro."
In particular, the "Gegege no Kitaro" Yo-kai anime created by Shigeru Mizuki began as a picture-story show in 1954 and later became a manga and anime, creating a Yo-kai boom in Japan. Likewise, the game "Yo-kai Watch," released in 2013, popularized Yo-kai among children as it depicts modern-day versions embodying "elementary school students' problems.” As it has grown via a multimedia franchise in the form of comics and anime, affinity for “Yo-kai Watch” has increased among this young demographic.
I am the father of two boys, aged 5 and 2, who have a hard time falling asleep, and I often tell them that if they don't go to sleep soon, the "Makura-Kaeshi (Pillow Turner)" or "Namahage" will come! The sons also make excuses using Yo-kai as part of their daily lives.
It is interesting to think that Yo-kai may be involved in this way, from events at home to global crises. Hopefully, some Yo-kai will appear to solve the various sad events that the world is facing today.
An advertisment for "Yo-kai Watch"
(Image Source: https://www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/anime/youkai-watch2021/)