Yōkai, Demons, and Ghosts—Oh, My!
By Jessica Hutchison
Recently in Japanese media, supernatural beings have become pretty popular.
Well, I say recently, but they’ve really been popular for the last few hundred years. Japan has some amazing ghost stories, and it is well known for them. If you don’t believe me, remember the movie The Ring? What about The Grudge? They are both based on Japanese stories and those are just the modern examples.
Ghost stories were also widely popular in bunraku and kabuki plays back in the day. Some of them were so popular, you can still see them today (my personal favorite is the classic Yotsuya Kaidan). But the thing is, Japan has a very different view on demons and ghosts and all those other things. That’s what I wanted to talk about today. So let’s start with the most general term for creepy things: yōkai (妖怪).
This term is super broad, and is translated into English as “ghost, apparition, phantom, specter, demon, monster, and goblin.” That’s a lot to take in. All of those words mean something different in English.
If I were to explain what a yōkai is, I would probably use the word “spirit.” Those first words on our long list of definitions (ghost, apparition, phantom, and specter) sort of give the idea that they are a deceased human who has not moved on. That’s not true. Yōkai were never human (with some rare exceptions).
A better Japanese word for our idea of “ghost” is yuurei (幽霊). In Japan, these are human spirits that have not moved on to the afterlife. They generally appear as women in white with long, dark hair. Pretty much just like those girls from The Ring and The Grudge.
There are also many different types of yōkai. Japan has a lot of folktales that talk about very specific yōkai types, such as kappa and tengu.
So our next word in the definition list is “demon,” which also doesn’t quite fit. In Western culture, demons are evil. There is no question about it. But in Japan, yōkai aren’t inherently evil. Sure you have some that will try to kill you or ruin your day, but a lot of them can actually be pretty benevolent. The real word for the Western idea of “demon” is akuma (悪魔) which literally has the character for evil in it. Just to make sure.
Even the Japanese term oni (鬼) which is widely translated as “demon” does not give the impression of an evil being. Oni are more like ogres that live off in the woods. If they get in your house, it’s not great, but they won’t try to drag you down into hell anytime soon. They are generally red and have horns, so it’s easy to see how they could be confused with the Western concept of “demons.”
Monsters and Goblins in Japan
The last definitions, monster and goblin, just don’t fit the idea of yōkai. A monster under your bed might actually be similar to a yōkai, but Frankenstein’s monster is nowhere close to the same thing. “Monster” is much too broad of a word. “Goblin,” on the other hand, is far too specific. It’s also a little too fantastical, as we mainly associate goblins with high fantasy.
So, overall, a yōkai is sort of like a spirit. There are many types of them, some good, some bad, and honestly, I don’t think we really have a word in English that can quite describe them. They appear in Japanese media all the time, most notably with the popular show Yōkai Watch. If you really want to get a good idea of what a yōkai is, I would recommend the show Natsume Yuujincho. The show is full of yōkai, and it’s clear that none of them are what we would refer to as “demons” or “ghosts.”
Now, moving along to more creepy terms, let’s get into a subcategory of yōkai: obake (おばけ).
I think I actually heard this term more than yōkai when I was in Japan. Which is kind of funny because an obake is just a yōkai that can shapeshift. This could be because obake or bakemono (化け物) are just more popular.
The most well-known of these types of yōkai are probably kitsune (狐)—foxes. In Japanese folklore, there are three animals that can shapeshift. Foxes can do so easily, cats with a bit more effort, and finally tanuki, but with more difficulty. Most stories with foxes shapeshifting involve them turning into beautiful women and seducing men. It kind of seems like an excuse for infidelity to me, but those are the stories.
There are also plant-based obake. The most famous of these are called kodama (木霊). If a tree with a kodama is cut down, it’s bad news for whoever cut it down. Kodama like to curse people who mess with their trees. Some really cute kodama show up in the popular movie Princess Mononoke, but don’t let their cuteness fool you.
Speaking of mononoke (物の怪), let’s talk about that subcategory of yōkai.
I did research, guys, and a lot of people seem to just lump mononoke in with yōkai. But that doesn’t quite work. They aren’t the same thing.
What I was told (by a guy who studies the Tale of Genji for a living) is that a mononoke is a vengeful spirit. But it’s not necessarily someone who has died. Sure, it can be a dead spirit that haunts whoever they don’t like and makes them sick, such as the main spirit in Yotsuya Kaidan. But it can also be a living spirit.
The example from the Tale of Genji is probably the clearest. Genji is a player. He goes around seducing women left and right. One lady he woos is Lady Rokujo. She finds out about Genji’s other women and becomes so jealous and angry that when she falls asleep, her spirit leaves her body. It then straight up strangles one lady while Genji is with her. It also makes both of Genji’s wives ill, and eventually kills them too.
So a mononoke is a person, usually a woman, that has become so angry or jealous she becomes a spirit to seek vengeance. If you’ve seen Princess Mononoke, think about that in context with San’s character. It makes a lot more sense why they called the movie that, doesn’t it?
There’s this really creepy idea in lots of Japanese stories that living people can become supernatural. It’s creepy, but also really cool.
There are classic stories, such as the jealous woman who transformed into a snake (which would make her an obake). There’s another story where a monk became a “demon” after turning to cannibalism.
In a more modern, but subtle example, the movie Twilight Samurai has a sort of transformation. One character eats the ashes of his daughter and almost immediately becomes more violent and angry. It’s not stated blatantly, but an action like that in many traditional stories would result in the character being transformed into something more like a yōkai than a human.
Japanese Yokai in Literature
Japanese storytelling has included the supernatural for literally over a thousand years. The terms for these different beings are specific and nuanced. It can be hard for us to understand the subtleties when we look at these terms from a foreign perspective, but cultural things like this can be so much fun to learn about.
Learning about classic cultural things like this can also help you learn more about modern Japanese culture. So don’t be afraid to dig deep and learn about Japanese storytelling, folklore, and legends.
If you want to get more into classic Japanese stories, check out the folktale I retold—Kachi Kachi Yama—on our blog page. Also, stay tuned for more retellings of classic folktales and much more discussion on Japanese storytelling.