Y?kai (, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore. The word y?kai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity" and "spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious". They can also be called ayakashi (?), mononoke () or mamono (). Y?kai range diversely from the malevolent to the mischievous, or occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them.
Y?kai often possess animal features (such as the kappa, which looks similar to a turtle, or the tengu, which has wings), yet others appear mostly human like kuchisake-onna. Some y?kai look like inanimate objects (such as tsukumogami), while others have no discernible shape. Y?kai usually have spiritual or supernatural abilities, with shapeshifting being the most common. Y?kai that shapeshift are called bakemono () or obake ().
Japanese folklorists and historians explain y?kai as personifications of "supernatural or unaccountable phenomena to their informants". In the Edo period, many artists, such as Toriyama Sekien, invented new y?kai by taking inspiration from folk tales or purely from their own imagination. Today, several such y?kai (e.g. Amikiri) are mistaken to originate in more traditional folklore.
What is thought of as "supernatural" depends on the time period; but generally, the older the time period, the greater the amount of phenomena that were deemed supernatural in character or cause.
According to Japanese ideas of animism, spirit-like entities called (among other things) mononoke were believed to reside in all things. Such spirits possessed emotions and personalities. If the spirit were peaceful, it was a nigi-mitama, bringing good fortune--such as bountiful harvests. Violent spirits, ara-mitama, brought ill fortune--including illness and natural disasters. One's ancestors and particularly-respected departed elders could be deemed nigi-mitama, accruing status as protective gods and receiving worship. Animals, objects and natural features or phenomena were also venerated as nigi-mitama or propitiated as ara-mitama--depending on the area.
The ritual for converting ara-mitama into nigi-mitama was called the chinkon ("the calming of the spirits").Chinkon rituals were performed to quell maleficent spirits, prevent misfortune and alleviate fear from events and circumstances that could not otherwise be explained.Ara-mitama that failed to achieve deification due to lack of sufficient veneration, or who lost their divinity following attrition of worshipers, became y?kai.
Over time, those things thought to be supernatural became fewer and fewer. Meanwhile, depictions of y?kai in emaki and paintings began to standardize, turning into caricatures and softening their fearsome natures. Elements from tales of y?kai were increasingly mined for public entertainment. Use of y?kai in popular media began as early as the Middle Ages. However, the mythology and lore of y?kai became more defined and formalized during the Edo period and after.
The folklorist Tsutomu Ema studied the literature and paintings depicting y?kai and henge (, or "changed things/mutants") and divided them into categories, as presented in the Nihon Y?kai Henge Shi and the Obake no Rekishi.
In traditional Japanese folkloristics, y?kai are classified (not unlike the nymphs of Greek mythology) by location or phenomenon associated with their manifestation. Y?kai are indexed in the book Sogo Nihon Minzoku Goi (, "A Complete Dictionary of Japanese Folklore") as follows:
The ancient times were a period abundant in literature and folktales mentioning and explaining y?kai. Literature such as the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and various Fudoki expositioned on legends from the ancient past, and mentions of oni, orochi, among other kinds of mysterious phenomena can already be seen in them. In the Heian period, collections of stories about y?kai and other supernatural phenomena were published in multiple volumes, starting with publications such as the Nihon Ry?iki and the Konjaku Monogatarish?, and in these publications, mentions of phenomena such as Hyakki Yagy? can be seen. The y?kai that appear in these literature were passed on to later generations. However, despite the literature mentioning and explaining these y?kai, they were never given any visual depictions. In Buddhist paintings such as the Hell Scroll (Nara National Museum), which came from the later Heian period, there are visual expressions of the idea of oni, but actual visual depictions would only come later in the Middle Ages, from the Kamakura period and beyond.
Yamata no Orochi was originally a local god but turned into a y?kai that was slain by Susanoo. Yasaburo was originally a bandit whose vengeful spirit (onryo) turned into a poisonous snake upon death and plagued the water in a paddy, but eventually became deified as the "wisdom god of the well (?)."Kappa and inugami are sometimes treated as gods in one area and y?kai in other areas. From these examples, it can be seen that among Japanese gods, there are some beings that can go from god to y?kai and vice versa.
Medieval Japan was a time period where publications such as Emakimono, Otogiz?shi, and other visual depictions of y?kai started to appear. While there were religious publications such as the Jisha Engi (?), others, such as the Otogiz?shi, were intended more for entertainment, starting the trend where y?kai became more and more seen as subjects of entertainment. For examples, tales of y?kai extermination could be said to be a result of emphasizing the superior status of human society over y?kai. Publications included:
The next major change in y?kai came after the period of warring states, in the Edo period.
It was in this era that the technology of the printing press and publication was first started to be widely used, that a publishing culture developed, and was frequently a subject of kibyoshi and other publications.
As a result, kashi-hon shops that handled such books spread and became widely used, making the general public's impression of each y?kai fixed, spreading throughout all of Japan. For example, before the Edo period, there were plenty of interpretations about what the y?kai were that were classified as kappa,"but because of books and publishing, the notion of kappa became anchored to what is now the modern notion of kappa. Also, including other kinds of publications, other than y?kai born from folk legend, there were also many invented y?kai that were created through puns or word plays, and the Gazu Hyakki Hagyo by Sekien Toriyama is one example of that. Also, when the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai became popular in the Edo period, it is thought that one reason for the appearance of new y?kai was a demand for entertaining ghost stories about y?kai no one has ever heard of before, resulting in some ? that were simply made up for the purpose of telling an entertaining story, and the kasa-obake and the t?fu-koz? are known examples of these.
They are also frequently depicted in ukiyo-e, and there are artists that have drawn famous y?kai like Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Kawanabe Ky?sai, and Hokusai, and there are also Hyakki Yagy? books made by artists of the Kan? school.
In this period, toys and games like karuta and sugoroku, frequently used y?kai as characters. Thus, with the development of a publishing culture, y?kai depictions that were treasured in temples and shrines were able to become something more familiar to people, and it is thought that this is the reason that even though y?kai were originally things to be feared, they have then became characters that people feel close to.
With the Meiji Restoration, Western ideas and translated western publications began to make an impact, and western tales were particularly sought after. Things like binbogami, yakubyogami, and shinigami were talked about, and shinigami were even depicted in classical rakugo, and although the shinigami were misunderstood as a kind of Japanese y?kai or kami, they actually became well known among the populace through a rakugo called "Shinigami" in San'y?tei Ench?, which were adoptions of European tales such as the Grimm fairy tale "Godfather Death" and the Italian opera "Crispino" (1850). Also, in Meiji 41 (1908), Ky?ka Izumi and Tobari Chikufuu jointedly translated Gerhart Hauptmann's play The Sunken Bell. Later works of Ky?ka such as Yasha ga Ike were influenced by The Sunken Bell, and so it can be seen that folktales that come from the West became adapted into Japanese tales of y?kai.
Since y?kai are introduced in various kinds of media, they have become well known among the old, the young, men and women. The kamishibai from before the war, and the manga industry, as well as the kashi-hon shops that continued to exist until around Showa 40 (the 1970s), as well as television contributed to the public knowledge and familiarity with y?kai. Y?kai play a role in attracting tourism revitalizing local regions, like the places depicted in the Tono Monogatari like Tono, Iwate, Iwate Prefecture and the Tottori Prefecture, which is Shigeru Mizuki's place of birth. In Kyoto, there is a store called Y?kaido, which is a renovated machiya (traditional Kyoto-style house), and the owner gives a guided y?kai tour of Kyoto.
In this way, y?kai are spoken about in legends in various forms, but traditional oral storytelling by the elders and the older people is rare, and regionally unique situations and background in oral storytelling are not easily conveyed. For example, the classical y?kai represented by tsukumogami can only be felt as something realistic by living close to nature, such as with tanuki (Japanese racoon dogs), foxes and weasels. Furthermore, in the suburbs, and other regions, even when living in a primary-sector environment, there are tools that are no longer seen, such as the inkstone, the kama (a large cooking pot), or the tsurube (a bucket used for getting water from a well), and there exist y?kai that are reminiscent of old lifestyles such as the azukiarai and the dorotabo. As a result, even for those born in the first decade of the Showa period (1925-1935), except for some who were evacuated to the countryside, they would feel that those things that become y?kai are "not familiar" are "not very understandable." For example, in classical rakugo, even though people understand the words and what they refer to, they are not able to imagine it as something that could be realistic. Thus, the modernization of society has had a negative effect on the place of y?kai in classical Japanese culture.
On the other hand, the y?kai introduced through mass media are not limited to only those that come from classical sources like folklore, and just as in the Edo period, new fictional y?kai continue to be invented, such as scary school stories and other urban legends like kuchisake-onna and Hanako-san, giving birth to new y?kai. From 1975 onwards, starting with the popularity of kuchisake-onna, these urban legends began to be referred to in mass media as "modern y?kai." This terminology was also used in recent publications dealing with urban legends, and the researcher on y?kai, Bintar? Yamaguchi, used this especially frequently.
During the 1970s, many books were published that introduced y?kai through encyclopaedias, illustrated reference books, and dictionaries as a part of children's horror books, but along with the y?kai that come from classics like folklore, kaidan, and essays, it has been pointed out by modern research that there are some mixed in that do not come from classics, but were newly created. Some well-known examples of these are the gashadokuro and the jubokko. For example, Arifumi Sato is known to be a creator of modern y?kai, and Shigeru Mizuki, a manga artist for y?kai, in writings concerning research about y?kai, pointed out that newly created y?kai do exist, and Mizuki himself, through GeGeGe no Kitaro, created about 30 new y?kai. There has been much criticism that this mixing of classical y?kai with newly created y?kai is making light of tradition and legends. However, since there have already been those from the Edo period like Sekien Toriyama who created many new y?kai, there is also the opinion that it is unreasonable to criticize modern creations without doing the same for classical creations too. Furthermore, there is a favorable view that says that introducing various y?kai characters through these books nurtured creativity and emotional development of young readers of the time.
Various kinds of y?kai are encountered in folklore and folklore-inspired art and literature. Examples of this include the video game and animation franchises, Pokemon and Yo-Kai Watch. While inspired by insect collecting, Satoshi Tajiri's Pokemon also carries heavy similarities to yokai. Examples include Pokemon Whiscash and yokai Namazu, Drowzee and Baku, Shiftry and Tengu, Jynx and Yamanba, Espeon and Nekomata, and Mawile and Futakuchi-onna. Yo-Kai Watch directly uses yokai such as a main character, Jibanyan, being a nekomata.
It has been noted that over time, the depiction of yokai has shifted from horrific creatures to friendly, even sometimes cute creatures for the purpose of advertising collection-based merchandise targeted towards younger audiences. Using a specific kind of depiction of yokai, the popular image has been morphed from one used to teach lessons via fear to one that is friendly and helpful towards children.