BOOKS

The Brilliant Japanese Folklore That Inspires Anime (NEW BOOK)

The following is an excerpt from The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, a collection of illustrations and richly detailed stories about the mythological creatures that have long existed in Japan.

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. Check out 8 weird and wonderful yokai below:

  • Hyakkiyagyo
    On a popular-culture level, certainly the idea of animate inanimate 
objects provides an entertaining and comical subject and
    On a popular-culture level, certainly the idea of animate inanimate objects provides an entertaining and comical subject and the potential for social commentary. The most famous early images of tsukumogami appear in the playful Muromachi-period Hyakkiyagyo-emaki, but the idea has been reinvented over and over into the modern period. Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Kodama
    The kodama, which means “tree spirit,” is not set in behavior or appearance. Toriyama Sekien uses a kodama as the opening ima
    The kodama, which means “tree spirit,” is not set in behavior or appearance. Toriyama Sekien uses a kodama as the opening image in his first catalog of yokai, completed in 1776—making it the first yokai in his famous series. The picture shows an old man and woman who seem to have emerged out of a crooked old pine tree. Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Oni
    The earliest images of oni (or fi gures that would come to be associated with oni) are seen in Buddhist depictions of hell, s
    The earliest images of oni (or fi gures that would come to be associated with oni) are seen in Buddhist depictions of hell, such as the late-twelfth-century Jigoku zoshi (Hell scrolls). As the image developed it was probably also influenced by early pictures of Raijin (the thunder deity), as found in, for example, the thirteenth-century illustrated Kitanotenjin engiemaki. Portrayal of the oni as a fierce, demonic, violent horned figure has remained remarkably consistent since these early illustrations. Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Yamabiko
    The yamabiko is said to be responsible for the echo that answers when you shout into the mountains. The word yamabiko actuall
    The yamabiko is said to be responsible for the echo that answers when you shout into the mountains. The word yamabiko actually means “echo,” and it is unclear whether the word came before the yokai, or the yokai led to the creation of the word. Toriyama Sekien portrays the yamabiko as a floppy-looking, monkeylike creature sitting atop a high stony peak. Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Yamamba
    The yamamba, or yamauba, is an old woman who lives in the mountains. The word yamamba literally means “mountain old woman” bu
    The yamamba, or yamauba, is an old woman who lives in the mountains. The word yamamba literally means “mountain old woman” but might be more loosely rendered as “mountain crone,” “mountain hag,” “mountain witch,” or even, as one translation puts it, “malevolent ogress.” The yamamba is one of the best-known yokai in Japan. In legends, folktales, and local beliefs, she is often portrayed as a hideous witchlike being who kidnaps women from local villages, eats livestock and small children, and torments anybody who wanders into her territory. At the same time, there are also positive portrayals of the yamamba in which she is a deific and beneficial presence. Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Ninmenju
    In one of his many encyclopedic compendia of yokai, Mizuki Shigeru describes a tree in Aomori Prefecture that, according to l
    In one of his many encyclopedic compendia of yokai, Mizuki Shigeru describes a tree in Aomori Prefecture that, according to legend, would bleed when cut. He suggests that this strange plant might be a version of the ninmenju (alternatively jinmenju), a tree with human heads instead of flowers. Such a yokai tree was pictured two centuries earlier by Toriyama Sekien, who explains that it is found “in the mountains and valleys. Its flowers are like human heads. They do not speak, but merely laugh constantly. If they laugh too much, it is said, they will fall off." Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Hyosube
    The hyosube, also called hyosuhe, hyozunbo, and hyosubo, is a water yokai, perhaps a species of kappa, found especially in Sa
    The hyosube, also called hyosuhe, hyozunbo, and hyosubo, is a water yokai, perhaps a species of kappa, found especially in Saga and Miyazaki Prefectures in Kyushu. Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
  • Kamaitachi
    You are walking outside and suddenly discover that your leg has been cut as if with a sharp blade. This is said to be the wor
    You are walking outside and suddenly discover that your leg has been cut as if with a sharp blade. This is said to be the work of a kamaitachi—literally a “sickle weasel.” The kamaitachi is an extremely widespread yokai phenomenon found throughout Japan, but probably most common in the so-called snow country of northern Honshu. In most cases, the creature inflicts its wound on the lower part of the body, on the shin or the calf, and often there is no pain or blood associated with the cut. Beliefs and narratives about kamaitachi vary from place to place, but the creature is often said to ride in with a powerful gust of wind or on a whirlwind; in some places the phenomenon is known as kamakaze, or “sickle wind.” Original illustration by Shinonome Kijin.
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