The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore

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A lively excursion into Japanese folklore and its ever-expanding influence on global popular culture through the concept of yokai.

Monsters, ghosts, fantastic beings, and supernatural phenomena of all sorts haunt the folklore and popular culture of Japan. Broadly labeled yokai, these creatures come in infinite shapes and sizes, from tengu mountain goblins and kappa water spirits to shape-shifting foxes and long-tongued ceiling-lickers. Currently popular in anime, manga, film, and computer games, many yokai originated in local legends, folktales, and regional ghost stories.

Drawing on years of research in Japan, Michael Dylan Foster unpacks the history and cultural context of yokai, tracing their roots, interpreting their meanings, and introducing people who have hunted them through the ages. In this delightful and accessible narrative, readers will explore the roles played by these mysterious beings within Japanese culture and will also learn of their abundance and variety through detailed entries, some with original illustrations, on more than fifty individual creatures. The Book of Yokai invites readers to examine how people create, transmit, and collect folklore, and how they make sense of the mysteries in the world around them. By exploring yokai as a concept, we can better understand broader processes of tradition, innovation, storytelling, and individual and communal creativity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520271029
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/14/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 36,526
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael Dylan Foster is Professor of Japanese, Department Chair of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of California, Davis. He is the author of Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai (California) and numerous articles on Japanese folklore, literature, and media.

Shinonome Kijin is an artist and scholar of yokai. He lives and works in Chiba Prefecture, Japan.

Read an Excerpt

The Book of Yokai

Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore

By Michael Dylan Foster, Shinonome Kijin


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95912-5


Introducing Yokai

About fifteen years ago, I lived for a time in a small coastal village in rural Japan, where I was researching a local festival. I rented a rickety old wooden house literally a stone's throw from the ocean. Until a few months earlier, a family had lived there, and a lot of their belongings were still in the house: old furniture, pots and pans, kitchen utensils, drawers overflowing with clothes. A single Japanese-style room with worn tatami flooring served as my living room and became my bedroom when I unfolded my futon at night. There was a television in one corner and a Buddhist altar in another, and high on the wall was a row of framed black-and-white portraits of men and women looking down at me with severe expressions. These were the ancestors of the family who owned the house.

I'm not sure why the family had left. I rented the house from a distant relative of the owners, a kind old woman who lived nearby and saw that I was comfortable during my stay. And for the most part I was. I would fall asleep to the endless singsong of the waves. A few times, in the middle of the night, I awoke to rustling sounds in my tiny kitchen: a stray cat had snuck in through a hole in the floor and was rummaging around for scraps of food. And once or twice, when a storm blew in from the ocean, I could hear waves crashing on the beach with an eerie and purposeful violence. The wind would shriek through the outer walls of the house and rattle the flimsy shoji doors inside.

But once, something really strange happened. I had been out late, drinking with friends and discussing the festival. When I got home around midnight, I diligently wrote up the day's events in my field notes and then laid out my futon. I promptly fell into a deep sleep.

When I opened my eyes, the room was glowing faintly. The framed photos of the ancestors glinted. It was dawn, that deep, quiet time of transition from darkness to light, from night to day. I wondered why I had woken up so suddenly and so early. Perhaps the cat had snuck into my kitchen again.

But then I heard voices—a woman, speaking quietly but with authority, and a man responding. I sat up wide awake now and looked around.

The voices were coming from the television. I watched the end of a weather report and the beginning of the morning news. There was nothing particularly scary about this until I started to wonder why the television was on in the first place. The remote control was on a table, a few feet from my futon, so it is unlikely I had turned it on accidentally while sleeping. Had I left it on the previous night? Perhaps I had been drunker than I thought, but I had no recollection of watching TV. Could there have been a weird electrical surge? Was something like that possible? Or perhaps it was a sign, some kind of message. Maybe somebody was trying to tell me something. I watched the news carefully, but could not figure out what message was being conveyed to me, other than the fact that the world was in its usual turmoil.

Eventually, I turned the television off and went back to sleep for another hour or two. Later that day, I mentioned the experience to several of my friends in the village. They had no explanation.


I begin with this inconclusive story, a mundane modern mystery, because it raises the simple question of how we interpret our world. In particular, how do we explain occurrences that don't easily fit our everyday understandings of the way things work? When we ask who or what turned on the television, we are intimating that there is a living being or animated force interacting with us even though we cannot see it. We may visualize this force as a monster or a spirit or a ghost or a shape-shifting animal. In Japan such a force, and the form it takes, is often called a yokai.

And yokai, notoriously, take many different forms. They are commonly associated with folklore, and with small villages or old cities or deserted mountain passes, but they have also long populated literature and visual imagery. Today they are found throughout Japanese anime, manga, video games, movies, and role-playing games. Particularly in these latter formats, they have crossed oceans and continents to become part of popular culture in countries far from Japan. So what is a yokai? For now, let us just say that a yokai is a weird or mysterious creature, a monster or fantastic being, a spirit or a sprite. As this book will show, however, yokai are ultimately more complicated and more interesting than these simple characterizations suggest. Yokai may emerge from questions such as who turned on the television when nobody was around, but from there they take us on a kaleidoscopic journey through history and culture.

About This Book

One common characteristic of yokai is their liminality, or "in-betweenness." They are creatures of the borderlands, living on the edge of town, or in the mountains between villages, or in the eddies of a river running between two rice fields. They often appear at twilight, that gray time when the familiar seems strange and faces become indistinguishable. They haunt bridges and tunnels, entranceways and thresholds. They lurk at crossroads.

It is appropriate that this book about yokai also fits somewhere in between. While it is based on years of academic research and fieldwork, it is not intended only for scholars of Japan or experts on supernatural folklore. I hope it will contribute to their discussions, of course; but more important, I hope anybody with even a passing curiosity about these subjects will find it of interest. I have tried to present my ideas as clearly as possible, with little technical language; at the same time, I have strived to do justice to the depth and complexity of the topic.

The book, then, occupies a space between the academic and the popular, a position, in fact, similar to that of many books written about yokai, and other subjects, in Japan. While Japan has a long tradition of publishing highly academic monographs with small print runs, many scholarly books—particularly about popular subjects such as yokai—are also published by commercial presses and available at bookstores throughout the country. A diverse, well-educated public regularly consumes serious works on history, archaeology, folklore, media, literature, religion, and even philosophy.

This book is also situated at a crossroads between cultures. One objective is to introduce Japanese yokai and Japanese scholarship on the subject to an Englishlanguage readership. In the West over the last several decades, the monstrous has increasingly become a subject of scholarly and popular fascination. While much of the writing on these topics is insightful, rarely is there any mention of Japanese monsters. But as will become apparent in the pages that follow, in Japan the study of the monstrous—of yokai—has long been a vibrant field. Like much other work within the humanities, yokai research in Japanese simply has not been translated into English. This book is by no means a translation, but it is informed by rich Japanese research on the topic, which I hope to make accessible to people studying the monsters of other cultures. At the same time, I give all this my own particular interpretation and analysis, adding my voice to the conversation on these subjects.

Serious research on yokai in English and other languages may be limited, but yokai themselves are becoming more and more familiar to people in countries outside of Japan. Part and parcel of Japan's so-called soft power, these strange creatures have started to invade the rest of the world. For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yokai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered ITLκITL or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the "origins" of the yokai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is another purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yokai they might encounter. Although it is often impossible to trace the roots of particular creatures, I can offer a sense of the diverse influences and complex cultural histories that breathe life into them.

It will become clear, I think, that there has always been a great deal of interaction between yokai in folklore, literature, art, manga, and so on, and it is meaningless to draw sharp distinctions between these forms of communication. But for the most part, I leave analysis of the most contemporary popular-culture appearances of yokai to readers—who are probably more familiar with these versions than I am. I also do not explicitly treat Western-born manifestations of yokai, such as English-language manga and fan fiction. My own research has focused on yokai as they are expressed in Japan; I hope those with interests located elsewhere will build on what I present here or use it for comparative purposes.

With all this in mind, I have divided the text into two parts. Part 1, "Yokai Culture," provides a cultural history of yokai folklore and yokai studies and explores some of the concepts that inform how yokai and humans interact. Part 2, "Yokai Codex," is a bestiary, a compendium of various yokai, that helps illustrate many of the concepts discussed in part 1. These two parts are really interdependent—yokai discussed in part 2 appear in part 1, and texts mentioned in part 1 show up in part 2. Getting the full picture may require flipping back and forth.

"Yokai Culture" is divided into three chapters, each with several sections. Because there is a lot of information in each of these chapters, the sections are short and each one includes a number of subheadings. The current chapter presents key concepts related to yokai and their study. I explain a little about folklore in general and then trace the words that historically have been used for yokai. Finally, I explore some of the ways we can define yokai and think about how they come into existence.

Chapter 2, "Shape-Shifting History," introduces the big names—both people and texts—through which we know about yokai today. The simple premise of this chapter is that yokai would not exist without the human beings who told of them, studied them, wrote about them, and in some cases tried to subdue them. Yokai have played an important role, often in the shadows, as Japan developed from one period to the next. This chapter is divided into four sections, each dealing with a particular historical era.

Chapter 3, "Yokai Practice/Yokai Theory," has two sections. The first provides a brief journey through what I call the "yokai culture network"—a web of people who are closely involved with the production of yokai knowledge today. And the final section suggests further approaches to understanding yokai in the abstract and to exploring their meanings within a larger global context.

Part 2, "Yokai Codex," is designed like a small encyclopedia. One way people have commonly dealt with yokai is by labeling, organizing, and classifying them. Perhaps this is because yokai are so varied and plentiful: maybe the only way to really define them is by listing examples. So this part is a bestiary with information about selected yokai: the list is long but really only scratches the surface, because, as I argue throughout the book, yokai are diverse and abundant and always changing or being reborn. In the codex, I have tried to include all the best-known creatures, as well as a smattering of more obscure ones, but inevitably many have been left out. This bestiary is designed for easy sampling and for easily looking up particular yokai, but it can also be read straight through, which may reveal surprising connections between different creatures.

Researching Yokai

Yokai dwell in the contact zone between fact and fiction, between belief and doubt. They inhabit a realm of narrative in which laws of nature are challenged. And yokai themselves are always changing, from place to place and generation to generation. Because of this mutability, broad generalizations or simplistic statements about them are tempting. With something so elusive and shape-shifting, how can anybody say you are wrong? How do we prove anything about these creatures?

Indeed, one is faced with a problem when writing about yokai: unlike historical figures, political events, or economic changes, yokai rarely make it into the authoritative public record. They slip through the cracks of official history. They don't belong to anybody. Rather, they are a kind of communal intellectual property: anybody can play with them, change them, believe in them, and make new versions of them to be sent out into the world. Of course, these are all reasons why yokai are deeply revealing. They are a part of culture that tends to be dismissed as "just folklore." So how do you study something that emerges anonymously, exists in multiple versions, and circulates widely over time and space? What do you do when there is no original? How do you research yokai?

A young woman would walk up to people on the street. She was attractive, but she wore a large white surgical mask over her mouth. She would tap a stranger on the shoulder and ask, "Am I pretty?" Then she would remove the mask. Her mouth was slit at the corners all the way up to her ears. "Even like this?"

This is a legend I heard one day from a Japanese friend. She had heard it as a child and recalled being afraid to walk home from school alone. This frightening female yokai came to be known as the kuchi-sake-onna, or the "slit-mouthed woman," and for a few months back in 1979 the very thought of her terrified children throughout much of Japan. In the codex, I have a longer entry on the kuchi-sake-onna, but I mention her now because, as a modern urban yokai, she serves as a good example of how one goes about researching yokai in general.

In my experience there are three general approaches, each one informing the others. First there is ethnography: talking with people, asking them about yokai they grew up with or encountered in their communities, their hometowns, their apartment buildings, or even in manga and anime. That is how I first learned of the kuchi-sake-onna—and then I followed up by asking almost everybody I met for their versions of the legend and memories of what it had meant to them.

Sometimes this sort of research can be easy: you just hang out in a bar and chat with customers. But it can also require contacting a village historian, formally interviewing a publisher or novelist, or making an appointment at a shrine to talk with the priest. It can entail participating in a public festival or getting permission to attend a ritual or private ceremony. In some cases, this kind of research requires living in a community for a long time and gradually learning about people's everyday lives.

A complementary form of research is archival—digging through primary sources. This might mean reading old texts written in Sino-Japanese kanbun or examining Edo-period images or illustrated books. It can also entail reading popular magazines or analyzing novels or contemporary manga and anime. These materials can be found in research libraries or museums, and sometimes in local communities or private households. The kuchi-sake-onna, for example, did not appear in any of the official historical documents I looked at, but I found dozens of references to her when I combed through popular magazines and tabloids from 1979 and the early 1980s; I also came upon all sorts of other data that helped me understand what she might have meant to people at that time. I found most of these sources in archives in Tokyo, but I also got some firsthand information from a record producer whose company had once recorded a song about the kuchi-sake-onna.


Excerpted from The Book of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster, Shinonome Kijin. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Water Goblin Tales: Preface and Acknowledgments
Names, Dates, Places

Part I. Yokai Culture
1. Introducing Yokai
Yokai, Folklore, and This Book
The Language of Yokai
Event Becomes Object

2. Shape-Shifting History
Heroes of Myth and Legend
Weird Tales and Weird Tastes
Modern Disciplines
Postwar Animation and the Yokai Boom

3. Yokai Practice/Yokai Theory
Yokai Culture Network
Zone of Uncertainty

Part II. Yokai Codex
4. The Order of Yokai
5. Wilds
6. Water
7. Countryside
8. Village and City
9. Home

Epilogue: Monsterful

Alphabetized List of Yokai in the Codex

Customer Reviews