Zombies, vampires, ghosts and werewolves are the mysterious creatures we love to fear, but just like Halloween itself they’re not native to Japan, inspired by and shipped over from Europe and America. But even before that, things were always going bump in the nights, even in the myths and legends of ancient Japan.
Grab a torch, watch the shadows, and let’s set foot into the world of Japanese monsters.
Yōkai is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but what exactly is a Yōkai? And will it eat me? The answer to the second question is often yes, but the first question is much trickier. You can use the term for practically any embodiment of the mysterious and unexplainable. Yōkai might bring you good luck or cause calamities, some have god-like powers and others will barely inconvenience you.
The most famous Yōkai are from traditional myths, but new Yōkai are created in everything from anime to adverts. We can thank 60’s ‘Gegege no Kitarō’ for the starting the current wave of attention for the mysterious spirits, a manga which followed the adventures of a protagonist Kitarō and his deceased father, now reborn as an eyeball with limbs.
Instead of hunting out the lesser known Yōkai, we’ll take a look at three of the most famous: Oni, Tengu and Kappa.
One of the most iconic monsters to roam through Japanese history, Oni are generally represented as Ogre-like giants with horns and huge iron clubs. Things start to get complicated quickly though, since Oni (鬼) is often translated to simply mean ‘demon’ which has a much broader meaning in English. Dragonball’s King Yemma or One Piece’s enormous Yonko Kaido make great examples, but that’s not to say that Demon Slayer’s much smaller Nezuko isn’t just as much of an Oni.
The best place to look is in ancient folk tales still told today like Momotarō, where these guys appear as brightly coloured stock villains, causing mischief until brave heroes arrive to defeat them. Oni are now seen as much more comical and friendly than in times past, and even have their own emoji! 👹
With bright red faces and long noses, Tengu appear ridiculously aggressive and aggressively ridiculous. In the past they were seen as fearsome harbingers of war, and had a bird-like form rather than the more human like representation they have now. The long beaks turned into long noses, and Tengu took on a more positive role as fearsome but loyal protectors. There’s a particularly good Tengu statue at Kurama Station in Kyoto, but they don’t turn up in anime too often. Usopp’s gigantic nose may well be Tengu inspired though. Tengu have also recently gotten the honour of their own dedicated emoji! 👺
Of the three Yōkai in this article, Kappa look the weirdest. Somewhere between a turtle, and a monkey, this green skinned creature has a shell on its back and water holding cap on its head. Trusting a Kappa might result in you being the victim of mischievous pranks, or being dragged down into the water never to return.
Amazingly, this reputation of murder and mayhem hasn’t stopped Kappa from being popular throughout Japan. Both Shiki City and Kitchen Town in Tokyo have the Kappa as their mascot, and Kapp’n the Kappa is a respected villager in Animal Crossing. Kappa are still lagging behind other spirits as they are missing an emoji. You’ll have to find one you think is close enough. 🐢
There’s a whole world of Yōkai out there, from Kitsune foxes to skeleton warriors. Which one haunts your dreams?