Sunday, November 2, 2014

Japan's Monsters Inc.: Getting To Know Obake, Yokai & Yurei

Just a few of Japan's inimitable collection of supernatural creatures Illustration by Ben Warren.

Compare America's werewolves, vampires, ghosts, witches, and zombies to Japan’s abundance of supernatural creatures, and it’s hard to believe Japan didn't invent Halloween—a holiday that has only arrived recently as a pop-culture import popularized by theme parks such as Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan.

But Japan’s bestiary of mythical creatures was around long before Halloween. Tales of hundreds of mythical beings with few or no Western parallels are divided into whole subcategories that aren't always clear even to native Japanese.

Today the Japanese term often used to describe creatures seen during Halloween is obake—inhuman beings that have undergone a transformation. People, animals, even inanimate objects such as neglected or abandoned containers can become obake (this type of obake is known as a tsukumogami and appears often in Japanese folklore). They are typically not very dangerous creatures, tending to prefer mischief over malice (though this is not always the case).

The karakasa-kozo is a perfect example. Typically abandoned by its former owner, this paper umbrella has developed a single eye, two arms, a leg (in place of its handle), and a long tongue which it uses to lick people. A harmless obake, it enjoys scaring its victims by popping out of umbrella racks.  

Another category of Japanese creature seen during Halloween is yokai. These mysteriously gifted beings are beyond human comprehension and often possess supernatural powers. They tend to be more malicious than their obake counterparts.

Kappa, mischievous humanoid sea creatures with green, scaly skin, are one of the most famous yokai. They can be hostile towards people, and can enjoy eating human children. They are one of the few yokai able to speak a human language, and are known for their extreme sense of honor. Should a person chance upon one, it is recommended to bow deeply, as the kappa will likely return the bow, spilling the water in the plate on its head and losing its source of power.


The last major category is yurei. These once-human apparitions are bound to the physical world by strong feelings such as a grudge or a romance. The only ways to dispel yurei are to fulfill its wishes or for priests to perform the proper rites to send it to the afterlife.

The onryo is an intensely vengeful class of yurei bound to Earth, seeking retribution for a past injustice. The most famous example is Oiwa from the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan. Oiwa is disfigured by a poison disguised as facial cream sent from an admirer of her husband. Disgusted with Oiwa’s ghastly appearance, the husband orders his servant to rape her, so so he will have grounds for divorce. The servant cannot bring himself to do so, and instead shows Oiwa her reflection in a mirror. Horrified, she breaks down, takes up a sword, and in her rush to the door, accidentally stabs herself in the throat. She uses her last words to curse her husband, binding her soul to the physical realm, where she relentlessly torments him until his death.

The story, originally a kabuki play, has received numerous film adaptations, and has had a major influence on modern Japanese horror. Oiwa, for instance, is very similar to Sadako from The Ring.


Unlike obake, yurei and yokai don't always make the transition to Halloween in Japan. These vengeful spirits and demons give way to the ghosts, vampire bats and haunted pumpkins of America's Halloween. In fact, the term obake has lost much of its original meaning, and now commonly refers to standard American ghouls.

But many of these mythical creatures live on in popular culture through anime and manga. The series GeGeGe no Kitaro and InuYasha feature notable modern incarnations. Kitaro and his friends are protected by a character called Nurikabe, based on the yokai of the same name, which manifests itself as a giant wall, extending infinitely in all directions until it is poked near the ground with a stick. InuYasha's Kirara is a nekomata, a cat with two tails fabled for its great power, and the character Shippo, is a classic kitsune (fox demon), able to shapeshift and perform magic.

Today's revival of classic Japanese creatures doesn't compare to their heyday in the Edo period. This decline in popularity—the folklore began to be dismissed as embarrassing fairytales when Japan began to modernize in the 19th century—has led there to be little knowledge of these creatures outside Japan, with few opportunities for foreigners to discover them.

One such opportunity is today's Obake Family Day at Japan Society. Children of all ages learn more about yokai and obake firsthand, by creating their own while learning a bit of Japanese, make masks, use traditional Japanese calligraphy to illustrate their spirit creatures, and even take pictures with their favorite obake. The stories behind the beasts will be told through traditional kamishibai (paper-theater) storytelling.

While the legends of yokai and obake (and even yurei) continue to haunt Japanese ghost stories to this day, America has remained mostly unaware of their existence. Still, there’s something here worth exploring, and it’s about time Japan’s rich, haunted history made it across the ocean.

After all, we've been in the dark for far too long.

--Mark Gallucci 

Children can make an Obake Buddy at Obake Family Day. Photo by Aya Wilson.
[UPDATED 11/3/14]


Unknown said...
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