What Does Yokai Mean in English?

You probably think you already know what yokai means. And, you are probably wrong. Or at least, you are only partially correct. There is more to yokai than you think.

Thanks to movies like “The Great Yokai War,” and comics and books like “Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clanand “Yokai Attack!,” yokai as a word is slowly making its way into the English language. People are becoming aware of Japan’s legacy of magic and mystery. But, “yokai” is entering English with a meaning almost-but-not-quite the same as the Japanese meaning.

It is kind of like the word “manga”—in English, manga has come to mean “Japanese comics.” Exclusively. But in Japanese, manga just means … comics. All comics. Regardless of national origin. Iron Man? Manga. Mickey Mouse? Manga. Rex Morgan, M.D.? Manga. Tin Tin? Manga. And it doesn’t even specifically mean books (That would be “manga no hon.”) “Manga” can mean toys, movies, games … anything comic-related. It has a vast meaning beyond the limited scope of usage that we have given the word in English. I digress.

Of course, yokai can refer to Japan’s menagerie of monsters. All of the beasties and spirits—the baku, the kodama, the yuki onna, the kappa—all of these are yokai. I am as guilty as the next person for using yokai as a generic term for “Japanese monster.” It works. It fits. But that’s not the whole story.

Many other things are also yokai, things that are not creatures of any sort. Like the word manga, the Japanese usage of yokai has a much larger scope. It covers much more than just monsters.

(It is worth noting that “Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan” isn’t called that in Japanese. The original title is “Nurarihyon no Mago” meaning “Nurarihyon’s Grandson.” The term “Yokai Clan” was tagged on to appeal to English readers.)

Breaking Down the Kanji – 妖怪

Like most Japanese words, the key to the meaning is in the kanji. So let’s start there.

Yokai uses two kanji;

  • (yo) which means “mysterious, bewitching, unearthly, weird.” It doesn’t really have a scary nuance to it, but more of the attraction to something beyond the normal. It can be used in words like yoka (妖花) meaning an ethereally beautiful flower, or ayashii (妖しい) meaning bewitching or charming.
  • (kai) which means “mystery, wonder, strange.” Kai has more of a sense of horror, or the bizarre. It is the same kanji used in kaidan (怪談) meaning “weird tales” and kaiki (怪奇) meaning “bizarre, strange, outrageous.”

Put those two together and you get yokai妖怪, with a direct translation along the lines of “something that is otherworldly and strange yet captivating and appealing.” But direct translation of kanji almost never gives the full picture.

So, What Does Yokai Really Mean?

I think a better translation would be “mysterious phenomena”—or even “Fortean phenomena” if that means anything to you. “Mysterious phenomena” is probably better.

Along with folkloric creatures, yokai can refer to things like strange weather, mysterious illnesses, optical illusions, weird fruit, etc … And yokai is not limited to Japan. In his Yokai Encyclopedias, comic artist/folklorist/genius Mizuki Shigeru covers things like the Moai statues on Easter Island, or bigfoot and the yeti, or vampires and ghouls, or rains of frogs. Yokai is a broad, sweeping term that can cover pretty much everything weird on Earth.

Here’s what Japanese Wikipedia has to say:

“Yokai as a term encompasses oni, obake, strange phenomenon, monsters, evil spirits of rivers and mountains, demons, goblins, apparitions, shape-changers, magic, ghosts, and mysterious occurrences. Yokai can either be legendary figures from Japanese folklore, or purely fictional creations with little or no history. There are many yokai that come from outside Japan, including strange creatures and phenomena from outer space. Anything that can not readily be understood or explained, anything mysterious and unconfirmed, can be a yokai.”

That great arbitrator of all things yokai, Mizuki Shigeru, further breaks down the word yokai into four separate categories:

  • Kaiju – 怪 (kai, mysterious) + 獣 (ju; beast), meaning “monster.” Most of Japan’s famous yokai are kaiju. Godzilla is a dai-kaiju, or “great monster.”
  • Choshizen - 超 (cho; super) + 自然 (shizen; natural), meaning the supernatural, including mysterious natural phenomena.
  • Henge - 変 (hen; strange) + 化(ge; to change, transform) , meaning shape-shifters like tanuki, foxes, and old cats.
  • Yurei -幽 (yu; dim) + 霊 (rei; spirit), meaning ghosts, and spirits of the dead.

So if you think in the classic biological classification model, then you would have something like this:

  • Bakeneko is a yokai > henge
  • Oiwa is a yokai > yurei
  • Bigfoot is a yokai > kaiju
  • Bermuda Triangle > yokai > choshizen

(Very) Brief History of the Word Yokai

Yokai is a pretty old world, pre-dating most of Japanese folkloric vocabulary. The oldest known use of “yokai” is from the 1st century text “Junshiden” (循史伝) where the author writes “The yokai was in the Imperial Court for a long time.” The term is used to describe a sense of unnatural anxiety and foreboding. It shows up again in 772, in “Shoku Nihongi” (続日本紀) where a ritual cleansing of the palace is recommended to “clear away the yokai.” It isn’t used in the sense of any particular bad creature, but just accumulated “bad juju” that might be clinging to the palace.

Yokai as a term for Japan’s folkloric beasts didn’t really appear until the Edo period, with the publication of “Yokai Chakutocho” (夭怪着到牒 ), a yokai bestiary of the kind still familiar today. Sharp-eyed readers ( or those who know Japanese) will see that a different set of kanji was used; 夭 (yo, calamity, disaster ) + 怪 (kai). That kanji has a much more distinct menacing feel to it.

Texts from the Edo period also distinguish between types of yokai, such as “strange natural phenomenon” or “strange living things.”  Also during the Edo period, when Japan began to have contact with other cultures, books began to be published of accounts of “Yokai of the West.”

Now you Know What Yokai Means!

Of course, this is the quick and dirty version.  Whole books can and have been written on yokai, on the history of yokai, on the evolution and social meaning, etc … At least now when you want to start diving into things like that, you will have a clearer understanding of what the word yokai actually means!

Further Reading:

Secrets of the Yokai  – Types of Yokai

Secrets of the Yokai II

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

Translator’s Note:

I wrote this article mainly to clear up some misapprehensions.  More and more I see people refer to yokai as if it meant some sort of tribe of Japanese monsters.   And while that isn’t exactly incorrect, it is a simplification. So here is a little deeper dive for yokai fans.

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33 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mazyrian
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 15:59:48

    Very interesting. I myself may have been guilty of using Youkai just as “Japanese folkloric monster”.
    Got confused a moment with the Junshiden reference, though, since there wasn’t any Imperial Court in Japan in the 1st century. Although a little googling reveled it was a Chinese story.

    Reply

  2. Zack Davisson
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 20:08:28

    I do too. And it is confusing, because it DOES mean that. It just also means a bunch of other things. That’s mainly why I did the article: I see people all over the internet talking about yokai as if it exclusively meant “Japanese monsters.” Which is doesn’t.

    And yeah, that is a Chinese story. I should probably make that clear … whoops!

    Reply

  3. Blue Satan
    Oct 27, 2012 @ 04:01:02

    Love this post, has cleared my doubts. And yes, im guilty too for using Yokai as Japanese Monster. Very interesting and unique info, as always.

    Reply

  4. Nikolai
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 15:24:29

    Awesome post! I’m always a fan of the ‘what does [word] really means in english’ posts.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 10:51:40

      Thanks Nikolai! I admit I had you and your NihongoShark website in mind when I wrote this! And the fact that “How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?” remains one of my most popular articles. It’s good to set the record straight on some of those terms.

      Reply

  5. Eva Zumrová
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 11:00:47

    Hi, your posts are great. I really found many useful and interesting information. But I have one question regarding certain type of yokai. The Tsukumo-gami (animated objects) are sole category as Yurei and Kaiju, or are sub-category of … something? Your description is pretty good, I just can’t put them somewhere. I’m writing a story with yokais and I want to use them in it. I called Ittan-Momen a Obakemono (Bakemono) for time being, but it’s correct? Isn’t it too general?

    I also noticed you write “Yokai”, but it can be seen even as “Youkai”. Which is (more) correct? And how should I read it? I have habbit of reading it with “long o”.

    Thanks in advance and I’m sorry for not so good grammar :)

    Reply

  6. Zack Davisson
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 11:40:48

    Thanks! Those are all good questions!

    Yeah, the Tsukumo-gami don’t fit any of the categories really well. I looked in Japanese Wikipedia, and they are most closely aligned with choshizen, which is a catch-all for normal things exhibiting supernatural capabilities. Winds. Trees. Spoons. Shamisens. None of these things should normally come to life or do anything weird, so when they do, it is choshizen.

    But really, the classifications are vague at best. And they were invented long after the yokai themselves, so trying to wedge yokai into particular categories is never going to be perfect. It’s folklore, not science, after all!

    In Mizuki’s yokai encyclopedias, he doesn’t classify the yokai as one thing or another. At most he classifies things geographically, but that is about it.

    Bakemono (or Obake, or Obakemono, which are all the same thing) is just a general term that covers everything. 100% of yokai are bakemono, and 100% of bakemono are yokai. There are some writers that try to split the differences, especially with the bakemono literal translation of “changing thing.” But in practice, in daily Japanese usage, they are identical. So yes, Ittamomen is a bakemono. And it is a yokai. It’s like trying to decide if a werewolf is a creature or a monster. The answer is “Yes.”

    As to the spelling of yokai, it depends on what romanization system you use. IN Japanese, it does have a long vowel so technically it should be yōkai or youkai using a macron or extra “u” to designate the long vowel, but I find both of those clunky. After all, no one writes Tokyō or Tokyou for Tokyo, even that would be more technically correct!

    So I just go for yokai. It sounds right when English speakers say it, unlike youkai which can easily be mispronounced as U-kai. I could go with the macron, but I find it a pain to type.And visually “yokai” looks better Honestly, unless you are speaking Japanese, the long vowel doesn’t matter all that much. .

    Reply

  7. Eva Zumrová
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 11:49:07

    Thanks a lot for quick and very long answer :)

    Reply

  8. Zack Davisson
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 11:55:22

    No problem! I think English-speakers in particular like the idea of classifying yokai into different categories, as if they were Pokemon or something. But Pokemon are created specifically to fit those classifications.

    Yokai don’t conform to rules so easily!

    Reply

  9. lilituwind
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 06:11:43

    I’ve seen the translation of “supernatural beings”, more like a generic term, of which English has no equivalent.

    Reply

  10. Zack Davisson
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 10:06:51

    “Supernatural beings” doesn’t really cover everything though. Yokai can just be natural phenomena–a wind, a wave, an earthquake, an illness–just as much as they can be a “being.”

    Reply

    • lilituwind
      Jan 07, 2013 @ 15:17:52

      Oh yeah, I know that now. It’s actually from the Inuyasha wiki, it seems more accurate than the English translation’s “demons”. So, you would say it would pertain to strange-mysterious supernatural beings or phenomena? I have a question though, I couldn’t find it on the blog, is mononoke really just another word for yokai?

      Reply

  11. Zack Davisson
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 15:51:24

    It pertains to both. Yokai is a catch-all word … it covers many, many things. That’s why I like “mysterious phenomena” as a more accurate translation, which includes supernatural beings. In a pinch, I suppose I could go with “Japanese Monsters,” because “monster” is a flexible word. You can have a monster storm, a monster wave, along with other supernatural creatures. And “monster” isn’t always a bad thing. Cookie Monster, for example.

    Definitely not “demon.” That is far too loaded a word, that really has nothing to do with yokai. The word demon has a religious significance that yokai does not.

    (Oh, and not to put down Inuyasha, but I wouldn’t trust too much on that wiki to be accurate. I haven’t read the series, but from what I have seen Takahashi Rumiko invented her own mythology that is based on Japanese folklore, but with major differences. Same with most comics .. Naruto, Pokemon, etc … they are going for good storytelling, not accuracy.)

    Mononoke is definitely not another word for yokai. I will do a mononoke entry someday. It’s on my “to do” list. While yokai is a broad term, without any particular ethical nuance, mononoke are evil. The souls of the angry dead. Plague bearers. Bad things.

    Reply

    • lilituwind
      Jan 07, 2013 @ 16:28:10

      Awesome, can’t wait to read it! Yeah, I don’t use it as an academic source,, the wiki, but it was more accurate than the dub’s presentation of the word yokai. I think mysterious phenomena is probably a good translation, I like monster too.

      Reply

  12. Trackback: The Etymology of Yōkai | Yōkai Composed
  13. Rafe
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 13:36:28

    All the Internet entries say ‘yokai’ means ‘monsters’ and so on, as you’ve described here.
    But I seem to recall seeing ‘Yokai’ used in Japanese movies the way one would say ‘Yes sir!’ in English.
    Now I’m confused.

    Reply

  14. Zack Davisson
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 14:26:26

    They sound alike, but are totally different words!

    了解 (Ryokai) – Yes sir!

    妖怪 (Yokai) – As described in this article.

    Reply

  15. Rafe
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 10:26:35

    Now I see. Yes, when spoken they sound so alike I could not figure it out. Thanks! =)

    Reply

  16. philomena randy
    Aug 17, 2013 @ 06:22:38

    May someone explains me the difference between yokai, ayakashi and mononoke? I am confused with these three words.

    Thanks

    Reply

    • Eva Zumrova
      Aug 18, 2013 @ 08:46:00

      I’m not an expert, but from my own experiences the “yokai” refers to all kinds of supernatural phenomenon. The “ayakashi” may refer to “youkai” in and on the sea, while “mononoke” marks (often) harmful spirits like bakeneko (see the manga named Mononoke). There isn’t one definite answer for this, but I hope I helped you a little bit. In few animes they use all kinds of words like o/bakemono (Ushio&Tora), mononoke (manga named Mononoke) and ayakashi to describe certain “monsters/phenomenon” and it depends on them how they interpret it. No another language can “describe” it like Japanese, co that’s maybe why it can become so confusing.

      Reply

      • philomena randy
        Aug 19, 2013 @ 04:23:30

        I watch a lot of anime (Mononoke, Nurarihyon no Mago, Natsume etc). I noticed that they use different terms (different interpretations) like you mentioned before. But I think I understand what you explained earlier.

        Cheers

      • rqj59am6pk@snkmail.com
        Oct 06, 2013 @ 13:55:17

        Hi Zach,

        I think I got it correct, but I wonder, can you please take a quick peek at the attached image and confirm if it says the following?:

        It should be saying ‘Kyubi-no-kitsune’ (‘nine-tail fox’).

        Thank you.

        Roland Cheney

        “百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai” comment-reply-at-wordpress.com |Japan – hyakumonogatari/Examp

  17. Zack Davisson
    Oct 06, 2013 @ 18:43:34

    Hey Roland!

    Sorry, but I didn’t get the attached image. I don’t know how to post images to comments. But the kanji for Kyubi no Kitsune is 九尾の狐.

    Hope that helps!

    Reply

  18. Zack Davisson
    Oct 06, 2013 @ 20:28:10

    Well, there is no “no” in that picture because it is Chinese. They use the same kanji in Chinese, but not hiragana, which is a Japanese invention.

    Really, you can write it either way, the Chinese or the Japanese: 九尾の狐 or 九尾狐. I just popped over to the Japanese wikipedia, and 九尾の狐 is what they use for the page title, and appears to be the most common.

    The nine-tailed fox is Chinese folklore that was imported to Japan, so it makes sense that the Chinese kanji spelling would be preserved from time to time.

    Reply

  19. WildMagicGirl
    Oct 30, 2013 @ 21:14:03

    This is basically what my understanding of the term Yokai was… I equated it with the term “Fey,” and as far as I can see the two words are very nearly synonymous.

    Today, thanks to decades of misrepresentation in the media, “Fey” or “Fairies” as they are too often called are believed by most to be tiny, sparkling, winged beings. Take a look at older European mythology, and you’ll see that that’s not the case. The Fey– many people in my Irish family will half-jokingly tell you that you should not say fairy, as it is insulting– are a very myriad group. They include everything from pixies to giants. There are Tuatha de Danann, (tall, beautiful, powerful humanoids, who are the highest class of Fey society and are also called the Aes Sidhe,) and there are Bean-Tighe, or Brownies, (small, brown, kind folk who sometimes finish chores for weary humans.) There are Kelpies, (vicious aquatic creatures that ofter appear like horses on the shore for the purpose of luring humans close enough to kill,) Púcas, (mischievous shape-shifters who usually look like anthropomorphic animals,) Lesidhe, (foliage-bedecked protectors of woodlands,) and everything in between. Some could even argue that Goblins (ugly and generally wicked creatures) are a type of Fey. Some Fey appear less corporal and more spiritual than others, and there are both good and bad Fey abounding in mythology. (Even the distinction of Seelie (light) and Unseelie (dark) court fey does not clearly mark moral standing. For an example look at the reference to a tale found in Michael Dames’ “Mythic Ireland.” In this story, the Lord of Death, Crom Dubh, battles the Lord of the Sun, Lugh, when Lugh tries to wrestle a sheaf of barely corn away from him. This contest was metaphoric for Lugh’s attempt to force himself on Crom Dubh’s daughter, Eithne, and Crom’s defense of her. So, in this instance, death is the good guy while sunlight is the villain.)

    Anyway, the point of that entire long, rambling tirade was simply this: if you are familiar with Japanese mythology, you will likely see a large number of similarities between the Yokai and the Fey. Therefore, I submit to you that the two words might be employed as fitting synonyms for those who are aware that not all Yokai are monsters and not all Fey are pixies.

    Reply

  20. Zack Davisson
    Oct 31, 2013 @ 13:53:48

    But they are still some sort of creature, right? Some sort of being? In that case, yokai is not synonymous with Fey.

    As I have said, the word “yokai” is not exclusive to creatures. It can be natural phenomena–a strange wind. an unnatural wave. The Bermuda Triangle would be “yokai.” Or yokai can refer to odd plants and rocks. A piece of a house, maybe. An odd door or window. Or the spirits of the dead. Or … anything, really.

    Reply

  21. Trackback: Chapter 9 Postscript: Lake, River, and Sea | de's journal
  22. Tosiaki (@Tosiaki1)
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 21:00:42

    Youkai is a difficult word to find the limits of. On one hand, vampires are commonly considered youkai on par with oni… in fact, many consider them the same as “blood-sucking oni.” But on the other hand, mythical figures like Medusa, and divine/demonic figures like demons and angels are commonly not considered youkai, although they might occasionally be. Yamata no Orochi is sometimes considered a youkai, but many would also disagree. Dragons, spirits (both Western ones, and Japanese ones like ikiryou and shiryou), and fairies are also commonly not considered youkai because they have a “divine” or if not divine, at least a “spiritual” element… but a few might consider them youkai. So what exactly is a youkai depends heavily on who you’re talking to.

    Reply

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  25. celicaxx
    May 09, 2014 @ 14:15:14

    Well I feel dumb. I didn’t even know/think much of yokai as a word and it’s meaning being monsters/strange apparitions/etc. I thought it just meant “Roger” because of all the time I spent watching Gundam. I found out in Gundam they’re actually saying “ryoukai!”” instead of “yokai.”

    So I’m dumb.

    Reply

  26. RakshaCharna
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 02:25:20

    Thanks, I really loved this article! I’ve always been a little bit unsure precisely what ‘yokai’ covered, and have seen many different uses for it.
    I just wonder in some places I see the terms, ayakashi, oni, akuma, yokai, all in a big mess, and in others there seem to be a difference.
    But what exactly is the differences between them?
    I often see ‘oni’ used as goblin (even though the creature(s) looked nothing like what I understand of the word goblin, they were neither good nor evil and some looked like fx. angels more than anything else), ‘akuma’ as devil, ‘yokai’ as monsters (like you mentioned), and ‘ayakashi’ sometimes as monsters other times more like spirits.

    Reply

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