Thursday, January 31, 2019

Yokai Among Us

If you're looking for unusual, non-European creatures to use as fictional characters, check out the yokai of Japan. This word, often translated "demon," is a broad term covering all sorts of spirits and supernatural beings, not only malevolent, scary entities but also mischievous and benevolent ones. In the animistic world-view of traditional Japanese culture, almost anything can be a spirit or become imbued with one. Human-made inanimate objects a century or more older can become animated (tsukumogami). If you don't treat your personal possessions with respect, they may come to life and take revenge. There are yokai animals, plants, natural phenomena, and personifications of abstract qualities. There's a yokai that looks like a walking paper umbrella and another that blocks travelers' paths in the form of a wall. There's even one that flips your pillow in the night. One of my favorites, the akaname, exists for the sole purpose of cleaning bathrooms. In some versions, failing to keep your bathroom clean will incur its wrath. The shiro uneri is an overused dishtowel, reduced to a dirty rag, that comes to life and attacks servants. Both of these legends, obviously, act as cautionary tales to warn against neglectful housekeeping. There are also legends of more conventionally frightening spirits, such as the ghosts of women who've died in childbirth and demonic wolves that chase people on lonely roads. Japanese folklore is highly eclectic, including not only yokai from centuries-old tradition but also monsters from urban legends that have sprung up within recent decades and even individual writers' original creations incorporated into popular lore. If we lived in the universe of this belief system, we'd have yokai thronging around us almost everywhere.

Some of the best-known creatures often found in fiction, anime, and manga: Kappa, water monsters, often depicted as resembling turtles, that try to drag victims under and drown or devour them; kappa love cucumbers, and you can defeat them by tricking them into spilling water from the bowl-shaped depressions on their heads. Kitsune, which literally means "fox" but also refers to supernatural fox spirits, seductive and often very powerful. Tanuki, likewise a real animal, the "raccoon dog," and also supernatural shapeshifting tanuki with trickster habits. Tengu, crow-like humanoids sometimes rumored to spirit people away.

Here's the general Wikipedia page about yokai:


A Wikipedia list of many different yokai and other creatures from Japanese folklore:

Legendary Creatures from Japan

And here's a comprehensive, illustrated website on the subject:

For an informative, lively, in-depth reference work, see THE BOOK OF YOKAI, by Michael Dylan Foster.

The Studio Ghibli animated movie SPIRITED AWAY, brought to the U.S. market by Disney, showcases a wide variety of yokai.

My recently published light paranormal romance novella, "Yokai Magic," features a talking spirit cat in a contemporary American setting, along with a small menagerie of other yokai:

Yokai Magic

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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