From the manga of Shigeru Mizuki to the anime-manga-game franchise Yo-Kai Watch, yokai have become increasingly familiar to English-speaking audiences. But what exactly are they, and where do they come from? We talked to yokai expert Zack Davisson, translator of Mizuki’s The Birth of Kitaro, author of Yurei: The Japanese Ghost, and an expert on yokai and yūrei (Japanese ghosts), to learn more about these mysterious spirits.
Let’s start with some definitions. What exactly are yokai? Are they the same as ayakashi? How do yūrei fit into all this?
Yikes! The Big Question! There really is no more difficult question to answer in Japanese folklore than “What exactly are yokai?” More knowledgeable people than I have been debating this for centuries—most notably Meiji period scholars Inoue Enryo and Yanagita Kunio. Ask that question to 10 different researchers and you will get 10 different answers. Inoue tried to define scientific categories of yokai, based on psychology, while Yanagita favored the random, folkloric nature of monsters. Shigeru Mizuki takes an immensely broad stance, defining yokai as anything unexplained or unknown. They are the embodiment of the numinous, of the spiritual world that exists outside of our physical one. I’m definitely a Mizuki disciple, so I tend to follow his lead, which is the definition I give in The Birth of Kitaro.
As to things like ayakashi, that shows the influence of manga and anime on language. The word was originally a blanket term for sea monsters, like the umi bōzu and ikuchi. If you look up the Wikipedia entry, that’s still what it describes. But somehow it has worked its way into being a generic term for yokai in some series. Not sure where the transition happened, or why. Not a fan of it myself. I’ll correct anyone who uses it for anything other than sea monsters!
And yūrei—well, those are ghosts. Which means that, of course, they are also yokai. Because anything unexplained or unknown are yokai.
When did yokai first appear in Japanese folklore?
The word yokai dates back to the 1st century Chinese text Junshiden, where it refers to what might be considered ill fortune lingering around the Imperial court, like bad energy. It didn’t enter the Japanese language until 772, and didn’t really fall into common usage until Inoue Enryo used it in the Meiji period for his book Yokaiology.
The monsters themselves, well—like all monsters in a pantheon, they appear and disappear over the times. The oldest records of what we might call “yokai” just refer to evil, invisible, formless energy that existed beyond the boundaries of civilization. The Japanese word used at the time was “mononoke,” meaning “things of mystery.” The concept of monsters with physical form didn’t happen until the Asuka period, around 500-700 CE. Contact with Korea, China, and India brought the idea of monsters, which Japan happily adopted. Although it still wasn’t until the first Yokai Boom of the Edo period that the vast majority of yokai people know came into existence.
Was there ever a time when people literally believed in them? Do people literally believe in them now? Or have they always been regarded as fiction?
It’s tricky. You could ask this same question about the supernatural in general and get the same answer. Many people believe in some degree, and within limits. They may not believe in vampires and werewolves, but maybe they believe in horoscopes or luck charms or ghosts or ancient aliens. It is all the exact same thing. And you will find your kappa believers in the same quantity as bigfoot and chupacabra hunters.
Serious belief waxes and wanes. During the Edo period there was no question that yokai were real. They were believed in as much as fairies and fae in Scotland and Ireland. In the 1970s there was a panic over the kuchisake onna. Kids were even walked to school in groups to prevent attacks.
Shigeru Mizuki was always a firm believer in yokai. In Showa: A History of Japan he tells about how the yokai nurikabe saved his life on the island of Rabaul during WWII. He felt that yokai came in and out of existence; new ones were born to new societies as others went extinct. He considered electric lights to be one of the reasons you don’t see the old ones as much any more. Yokai like dark places, and the world was too bright.
One of the interesting things about yokai is the way they have been documented. In the introduction to The Birth of Kitaro, you mention the Gazu Hakki Yagyo—The Illustrated Night Parade of 100 Demons. How much of what we think of as yokai lore is genuine folk tradition, and how much is really literary fiction? Are there specific yokai that we know originated in books rather than folk tales?
The vast majority appear in books rather than folktales. In fact, most of them come from the mind of one person, Toriyama Sekien. He was an Edo period artist who had a hit with his yokai encyclopedia series The Illustrated Night Parade of 100 Demons. He quickly ran out of folkloric monsters, but with a public hungry for sequels he just started making up new ones and passing them off as authentic. He wrote four books in the series and invented almost all the yokai most people are familiar with.
Which, honestly, I don’t think makes them any less genuine. This is a kind of a trick I play on audiences when I do panels. I ask people what happens to vampires when they go into the sun. Every one says “catch on fire,” but that is 100% a movie thing, coming from the film Nosferatu. Same with silver bullets and werewolves. That has zero folklore provenance—it came because the producer of the Wolfman film liked the radio series The Lone Ranger, and thought silver bullets would be a cool idea. But now they have become so entwined with the legends that people accept them as authentic. Does it matter? I don’t think so.
I like researching the origins of things, but I don’t think that coming from an oral tradition ranks higher in the hierarchy than something an author wrote. They are all equally “real.”
Do you have a favorite yokai? Is there one that seems particularly interesting or unique?
Obviously I like yūrei, because that is what I did my master’s thesis on and wrote my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost about! I find yūrei fascinating because they are so deeply engrained in the culture. Lafcadio Hearn talked about that in his book Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation that if you didn’t know the ghosts of Japan, you could never really know Japan.
One a pure aesthetic quality, and for fun, I love kappa. I have quite a few kappa hidden around my house. I like how kappa are horrible, horrible monsters that do horrible, horrible things, but have somehow morphed into being cute little characters that make for a nice stuffed toy.
You mention in the notes to The Birth of Kitaro that some yokai come from other countries. Can you give a couple of examples of foreign-born yokai? Is there a special name for them?
Many yokai originally come from other countries. Kitsune are based on the huli jing from China. Oni are copies of the Indian rakshasa. In yokai encyclopedia in Japan you will always find sections dedicated to Western yokai like vampires, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. In Kitaro, Shigeru Mizuki wrote about the Great Yokai War that pitted Japan’s yokai against the West’s. In Rosario + Vampire all the monsters go to Yokai Academy, with has vampires, yuki onna, witches, and pretty much anything else. It’s a mixed-up yokai world!
There’s not a special word, because the word “yokai” does not imply Japanese origin, any more than the word “monster” implies American or British origin. It’s a generic term. A lot like the word “manga.” In Japan it refers to all comic books, regardless of national origin. It’s only when the word was adopted into English that people began using “manga” to refer specifically to “Japanese comics” and “yokai” to mean specifically “Japanese monsters.”
One of the things you see a lot in manga is the notion of yokai or other spirits causing, or being caused by, negative emotions. Is that just a manga thing, and is it a modern concept or is it part of the yokai tradition?
I don’t know about negative emotions—yokai are often birthed by strong emotions, but they don’t have to be negative. Love, for example, gives rise to many yokai.
It’s based on early Japanese beliefs combined with Buddhism, where desire is the root of all evil. Desire binds and twists people, and the ultimate spiritual goal is to be a person who wants nothing. That’s the meaning of enlightment, realizing that this world is merely an illusion you cease to desire the things in it, as they are illusion too.
Conversely, desire binds you to the world. It’s why traditional yokai are often characterized by the one thing they obsess over, the azukiarai who is continually washing its beans. That said, the Yo-Kai Watch idea of yokai causing emotions is a manga thing. That’s a new invention.
You are translating Shigeru Mizuki’s yokai manga, starting with The Birth of Kitaro. Can you explain what part Mizuki had in preserving and codifying yokai lore?
Shigeru Mizuki’s manga sparked what is called the second Yokai Boom. The first one was during the Edo period, when Japan became obsessed with monsters. And I mean really obsessed; the whole country was united by belief in the supernatural, to the point where offices of the government were devoted to controlling angry spirits. But contact with the scientific West completely overturned that. Japan’s rulers became embarrassed of the backwards superstitions of their country and made belief in yokai illegal. They spent about 100 years purposefully wiping out yokai from the culture.
Mizuki learned about yokai from his ancient nurse, Fusa Kageyama, whom Mizuki called NonNonBa. She remembered the stories from her childhood and passed them on to Mizuki, who then reintroduced them to the popular consciousness with his comics. And Japan went crazy for them again.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened to Japan and yokai without Mizuki. The two are so completely entwined that most people are far more familiar with Mizuki’s versions than the older variations. It’s much like Disney. Would we still know Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves if they hadn’t made those films? Or would other fairy tales have risen to prominence? No one knows …
One thing you can say with confidence is that Japan would be a very different place—and yokai would be completely different—without Shigeru Mizuki’s influence.
How does Kitaro differ from traditional yokai?
I would say it is the interposition of Shigeru Mizuki’s own personality. Mizuki’s work is always autobiographical, even when not overtly. He can’t help putting himself into the stories. So you have yokai, and you have monsters, but they are often metaphors for something as much as story elements. A good example is Nezumi Otoko; that’s one of Mizuki’s original creations, and serves as his mouthpiece. Nezumi is both simultaneously everything Mizuki loves and hates about people. He’s a pessimistic optimist.
Most traditional yokai tales were told for pure entertainment, and that is there with Kitaro as well. The stories can be read as just hijinks and good times. But there is always a deeper level.
What are the biggest challenges of translating yokai stories?
Bridging the culture gap, certainly. Yokai are so deep into Japanese culture that they don’t need any explanation. I make it my personal mission when translating to not rely on Translator’s Notes or things like that—I want them to read as Mizuki wrote them, as an uninterrupted story. That can require some bridging of language, although ultimately it means trusting in the reader.
One of the joys of reading works in translation is coming up against the unfamiliar, and embracing that … and learning something new!
You have written a book on Japanese ghosts. How did you first get interested in yokai and yūrei?
Really it was moving to Japan. I’ve always loved the supernatural, cryptids, folk stories, mythology, and the like. But moving to Japan … that was hitting the mother lode. It’s a country absolutely bursting with living folklore. This isn’t things that have been retired to the history books. Japan’s gods and monsters are still very much a part of the everyday.
And I knew nothing about it! That was the most tantalizing bit. I was obsessed, digging in to everything I could and trying to find answers. As for yūrei specifically, well … my birthday is August 15th, which is Obon, the festival of the dead. That gave me an instant connection with Japan’s ghosts, one that I wanted to explore.
Besides Kitaro, what other yokai manga or books would you recommend for readers who enjoy this genre?
That’s a tough question, because Mizuki himself is unique. As an artist, he is what they call a sui generis, someone so completely in their own class that they define the very genre they create. Honestly, if I was looking for someone equivalent, I would say Mike Mignola and his Hellboy series, which is another folklore-inspired comic by a master of the comics form. Kazuo Umezu is another artist of the same caliber, and his Cat-Eyed Boy is wonderful.
For modern stuff, I like Mushishi, although it has little to do with folkloric yokai. I know there are several others, like Natsume’s Book of Friends and Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, although I must confess I have never read them. If you want to know more about yokai in general, aside from my own books and website hyakumonogatari.com I highly recommend Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s Yokai Attack!, and Matthew Meyer’s yokai encyclopedia series Night Parade of 100 Demons and The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, both of which I edited. For a more scholarly deep dive there are Michael Dylan Foster’s The Book of Yokai and Noriko Reider’s Japanese Demon Lore.
After that, well … if you want more, I am afraid you are just going to have to learn Japanese! Or wait for me to translate more and write some more books!