Japan and Yokai

Gashadororo

From ancient to modern times, Japan’s monsters continue to be part of the cultural psyche.

By Komatsu Kazuhiko

Translated from this article

The 1994 Yokai Boom

When Kodansha published my book “New Ideas of Yokaiology” (妖怪学新) in 1994, it was during a renaissance of yokai and kaii—traditional tales of the strange and unexpected.

In March of that year, yokai researcher Tanaka Takako published his groundbreaking “Cities Seen in the Hyakki Yagyo” (百鬼夜行の見える都市). In June, Yumemakura Baku sparked an unprecedented interest in Onmyoji and Abe Seimei with the first book in his Majūgari trilogy. Then in September, novelist Natsuhiko Kyogoku used yokai tales as raw materials for his mystery novel debut “The Summer of Ubume” (姑獲鳥の夏). Meanwhile in July of 1994, director Takahata Isao was inspired by the development of the Tama Hills area of Tokyo to make the film “Pom Poko” (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ), based on yokai folklore surrounding tanuki.

Since that initial boom, history and art museums across Japan roll out yokai and folklore exhibitions every summer. They offer explorations of yokai culture and history, and displays of supernatural-themed artwork and artifacts. These summer exhibitions are hugely popular, and never fail to draw large crowds year after year.

Looking at all of the books and films that have been published since 1994, it would appear that the public appetite for yokai is unending. Any naysayers who claim the yokai boom is over quickly find themselves laughed out of the room.

Why does this interest in yokai and strange tales persist? Perhaps it is because yokai have become deeply entrenched in subcultures like anime and comics. Since the collapse of the Bubble Economy, most of Japan’s industries have been stagnant except for pop culture. Japanese pop culture has also expanded to the international stage. Many who have never heard words like “yokai” or “Abe Seimei” or “Onmyoji” hear these terms in Japanese entertainment, and the concepts seem fresh and exciting, rejuvenating interest in Japanese culture and folklore.

New Ideas of Yokaiology

Why Do People Create Yokai?

I wasn’t aware of being part of a new movement when I was writing “New Ideas of Yokaiology.” I only wanted to precisely arrange and express my thoughts about the study of yokai and the supernatural.

One of my main purposes in the book was to explore a different avenue of thought regarding yokai than from the works of Yanagita Kunio which dominated folklore studies. Specifically, I wanted to turn away from his idea that yokai were basically devolved or unworshipped kami.

Yanagita conjectured that yokai were the leftover deities of old religions that had faded. But I felt that couldn’t explain their relevance in modern society, and how new yokai continued to be created. Why did people create yokai? What purpose did they serve? Can they only be studied from a historical perspective, or are there some special characteristics of Japanese yokai culture? These the questions that welled up in my studies.

In my book, I found that a unique element of yokai study is how many other disciplines it touches. In order to properly discuss yokai many scholars came together into a roundtable, into the combined discipline of yokaiology (妖怪学). These scholars are enthusiastic in their pursuit of yokai, and together have written a “New Yokaiology Declaration” (新しい妖怪学宣言). From this, yokaiology was embraced as a serious form of study.

For my part, I think yokai are an expression of human imagination and creativity. I study them as a cultural phenomenon. Yokai can arise from anything with a human connection; from animals, plants, or minerals. They are born in the world between human observation and human imagination. To me that means that to say I study yokai must mean that I also study humans. You cannot separate the supernatural from their human creators. Yokaiology is a branch of anthropology. Through the study of yokai, we can learn about human nature as well.

Years into the study of yokai, it has been come clear that yokaiology is an important part of the overall study of Japanese culture. It is a rich source of material and information. It is a history that stretches from the time of the Kojiki and the Nihonshiki. Along that time a countless variety of yokai have been born, countless yokai stories told and art created. Not because they are something we fear, but because playing with the mysterious brings us great pleasure. They bring joy to our everyday life.

The tradition of yokai is very much alive in modern Japan. They are almost universally loved. In fact, yokai are at the very foundation of Japanese culture, and we cannot neglect such important research.

Translator’s Note:

I thought this article by yokai scholar Komatsu Kazuhiko was interesting, and I finally found the time to translate it. He makes some wonderful points about yokai, and has a unique perspective on seperating yokai from the traditional interpretations of Yanagita Kunio.

Also a reminder that my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is finally published! Thanks to everyone for your patience in getting it out, and if you haven’t ordered it yet, well …

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost_Cover

Kurobozu – The Black Monk

Kurobuzu

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

If you wake up after a restless night, with reeking breath and gasping for air—beware! You might have had a visit from the breath-stealing Kurobozu; the Black Monk.

What Does Kurobozu Mean?

It doesn’t get less complicated than this! 黒 (Kuro; Black) + 坊主 (Bozu; Monk). As with many yokai, the “monk” part does not have any particular religious meaning. Many yokai have this as part of their name, which could just as easily mean “stranger.” Kurobozu is also used as an alternate name for other yokai like the umibōzu and takabozu.

During the Edo period, classes and traveling were high restricted. Most were not permitted to leave their home town, and posted waypoints on the road rigorously checked passports to make sure everyone stayed put. Itinerant monks were one of the few classes allowed free travel, so they were often the only unfamiliar faces who ever wandered into town.

That and the bald heads. Almost every yokai with “bozu” in its name is inevitably bald.

What Does a Kurobozu Look Like?

Aside from the bald head, the Kurobozu is depicted as vaguely human-like, although shrouded in a pitch black monk’s robe. It is like a living shadow. Its head is featureless, except for the vague appearance of two eyes that sometimes reflect the light. The lack of face leads some to consider the Kurobozu to be a type of Nopperabo.

Based on the two types of Kurobuzo stories, the images are often merged into a bear-like monster wrapped in a monk’s robes.

The Kurobozu of Tokyo

During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), sensationalist newspapers ran illustrated stories of crime, yokai, and other supernatural happenings. These stories were often very short; a bit of text accompanied by an eye-catching illustration. This is how the Kurobozu entered the yokai pantheon, in the 663rd issue of the Yubinhouchi Shinbun (郵便報知新聞; Postal Intelligence Newspaper).

A family living in the Kimata area of Tokyo reported a strange disturbance. Each night while they were sleeping a strange presence would appear in their bedrooms. The presence hovered over the wife, leaning close to her. It slobbered over her face, and sucked her sleeping breath from her mouth. In the morning, the wife’s breath and face would stink of rotting flesh. She fell ill. Unable to tolerate it any longer, the wife went to stay at a relative’s house. The mysterious Kurobozu did not follow her there, and she was able to recover her health. After some time, she returned home and has reported no further disturbance. The Kurobozu has disappeared.

The Kurobozu of Kumano

There is another legend of a creature called a Kurobozu that comes from the Edo period, and is recorded as a local legend of Kumano in the kidan-shu Sankawa Kidan (三州奇談; Romantic Tales of Three Rivers).

The story tells of a hunter who encounters a large, black monster out in the woods, looking something like a black bear. When the hunter shot it with his rifle, the monster grew in size until it was several meters tall. Terrified the hunter fired again, and the monster fled, moving over the difficult terrain at an incredible pace, almost as if it was flying.

Translator’s Note:

I am writing up some yokai to be used in the Pathfinder roleplaying game bestiary. The Kurobozu is one of these! (Expect more to come!)

The Kurobozu is one of many yokai about which little is known other than these two stories. It is very similar in appearance and actions to the yokai called yamachichi (山地乳), a monkey-like monster that also sneaks in at night to suck up a sleeper’s breath.

There are obvious explanations for both these yokai—either a cat snuggling up on a sleeper’s chest appearing monstrous when seen through the eyes of someone still half in dream, or the well-known phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

But no matter the real-world explanation, the Kurobozu still makes a pretty cool monster. So if you are a fan of pen-and-paper roleplaying games, go dive into the world of Pathfinder and do battle with some yokai.

Shigeru Mizuki’s Pre-War Notes: An Age of Buried Humanity

Mizuki_Shigeru_Portrait

Translated from Asahi News

93-year old Shigeru Mizuki—famous artist of manga such as Gegege no Kitaro—recently discovered notes he wrote 73 years earlier before he was shipped off to fight in WWII. The notes are written on 38 pages of Japanese paper. In it, the 20-year old Mizuki writes of his fear of death. He attempts to overcome his fear with philosophy and religion, and to make some sense of his impending death.

Mizuki_Shigerus_Prewar_Diary

Mizuki wrote:

“In order to understand who you are, you must be free of egotism, to see yourself as you truly are. You can be of no use to others when you, yourself, are corrupt. That is one of Nietzsche’s great lessons. Whenever I read that I am filled with admiration. I owe him greatly. My purpose is that if I read these words over and over again, eventually I will internalize them and become the type of person they embody.”

And:

“50-100,000 men are dying in this war every day. Of what point are the arts? Of what point is religion? We aren’t even permitted to contemplate these things. To be a painter or a philosopher or a scholar of letters; all that is needed are laborers. This is an age painted with the earth tones of graveyards. An age of buried humanity, where people are just lumps under the earth. I sometimes think being alive at this time is the only thing worse than death. Everything of worth has been discarded. What remains is violence; political authority; that’s what kills us. I have no more capacity for tears. My only relief is to lose myself in music, in painting. I turn pale at the thought of war, but that’s how I win.” (October 6th, 1942)

And

“I learn morality through philosophy, through art, and religion like Buddhism and Christianity. But nothing strengthens me to face my own death. The philosophy is too wide.”

Shigeru Mizuki and Father

The booklet was found by Mizuki’s eldest daughter Haraguchi Naoko when she was going through some of her father’s old papers in his office in Chofu, Tokyo. She said “Reading it was like reading my father’s mind, as he screamed against his fate. I could understand his feelings perfectly. I was overwhelmed.”

The essays have no titles. The dates are inconsistent and not always labeled. Examining the document, it looks like they were written in 1942, between October-November over the period of a month. At the time Mizuki attended school at night. He was drafted into the army the following spring. Mizuki endured fierce fighting on the island of Rabaul in Papa New Guinea, where he lost his arm in a bombing raid.

Translator’s Note:

The discovery of this note has a beautiful serendipity to it, considering I have just finished putting the final touches on my translation of the final volume in Shigeru Mizuki’s epic autobiography/history Showa: A History of Japan. It reminds me of one of the final pages in the 4th volume, where a desperate Mizuki turns towards the reader and pleads across the years:

“Never forget it was real! This actually happened to us!”

As years pass and people die—like my own grandparents, long since gone—it is easy to see stories like this as just stories. For many, WWII has no more reality than the 300 Spartans and the Battle of Thermopylae. They both make for great movies, but little else. Living links like Mizuki forestall this passage of history into legend, all the more so because he is an artist able to record and transmit his personal testament across the years. Like Will Eisner and his comic Last Days in Vietnam, Mizuki forces people to confront some of the humanity of war they might rather not think about—like having to poop on a faraway island where going outside makes you a target for enemy attack.

This note puts another human face on Mizuki’s trials. Peeking inside his head across 70 years you see a different person than the lazy layabout he portrays in his comic. I can’t imagine the darkness of being 20 years old, a soul full of art, and seeing nothing before you but a grave. Well, maybe I can imagine it a little bit—that’s the power of Mizuki’s creation. He lets us in.

I am again thankful that Showa: A History of Japan was translated into English while Mizuki is still alive. We have a tendency to wait until people are dead to honor them. Not only translated, but every volume of Showa has been nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award. I’m hoping the final volume keeps up the tradition (and maybe even wins).

The West has been the last to discover Mizuki—he wrote this comic 20 years ago and it was long ago translated into Spanish, French, Italian, and Chinese … pretty much every major language but English. I’m not sure what that says about us, if it says anything at all. Tastes are different; times are different. Translating Showa has been a personal project for me, something that truly changed my life. It’s amazing how much has happened since I wrote Drawn and Quarterly that blind email so many years ago. I am actually thankful that no one else took on the task over the past twenty years.

I sometimes feel Mizuki was waiting for me to come along …

And if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend you check out Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan. It’s a great comic.

Showa 1926-1939 A History of Japan

Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

Showa 1939-1944 A History of Japan

Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

Showa 1944-1953 A History of Japan

Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan

Showa 1953-1989 A History of Japan

Showa 1953-1989: A History of Japan

Cruel Attack at a Inari Shrine—Four Statues Broken at Kego Shrine in Tenjin, Fukuoka

Broken Inari Statue

Translated from: http://www.nishinippon.co.jp/nnp/photo/show/102187

April 25, 2015 (Updated April 26, 2015)

At about 1 AM on the morning of the 25th, in 2Chome, Tenjin ward, Fukuoka City, four stone fox statues were found broken on the grounds of Kego Shrine. The police station made a check for other property damage. The statues were pushed off their bases and their heads broken off. So far, no tools or implements have been found that may have been used in the crime. There are no suspects.

According to a patrolman, the four statues were located at the main shrine at the south entrance of the temple grounds. This deity of the shine is the “Goddess Inari of Profits and Gains” The statues were approximately 1.2 – 1.5 meters in height. It is thought the heads were broken off before they were pushed off their bases. They were discovered by a temple volunteer walking the perimeter.

Headless Inari Statue

According to the police, temples and shrines in Nara and Kyoto have been desecrated by someone splashing an oil-like substance on the shrines. It is not known if the two attacks are related.

The statues were carved by Kunihiro Seiho (76) and his father. They dedicated the statues in thanks of a long and healthy life of good work. Seiho was enraged, saying “I would visit the statues once a month. They mattered. Why would anyone do something like this? I can’t understand at all.”

Translator’s Note:

I’ve never put up a newspaper article here before, but there seemed to be a lot of interest in this so I thought I would! A terrible act of vandalism.

Ashinonai Yūrei (足のない幽霊) – The Footless Yūrei

Female Ghost by Kunisada (1852)

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

The gentle drops of falling rain. A lonely willow tree standing near a graveyard. And a Japanese ghost, called a yūrei, waiting below. This is our image of a yūrei, and when we imagine this picture of the yūrei, it has no feet. But why?

When yūrei are compared to the ghosts of neighboring countries like China and Korea, it is the ashinonai, or footless, aspect that is considered uniquely Japanese. Chinese ghosts wear a similar burial costume, but they saunter about on ghostly feet rather than float above nothingness like their Japanese cousins.

…and yet, it cannot be said that all yūrei are footless. You can often hear the sounds of ghostly footsteps in older kaidan stories. In the popular kaidan Botan Doro the arrival of the yūrei Otsuyu is announced by the karan, koron of her wooden geta sandles. And in Noh theater, many of the ghostly characters sport magnificent footware. Ashinonai Yūrei did not appear until later.

The origin of the ashinonai yūrei image is usually attributed to The Ghost of Oyuki, however the earliest known depiction appeared sixty years before Maruyama Ōkyo’s birth.

Quarrel_between_the_Empresses_of_Retired_Emperor_Kazan

An unknown artist drew a footless yūrei in the picture-book of the puppet play Kasannoin Kisakiarasou (1673; Quarrel Between the Empresses of Retired Emperor Kazan). The picture is just a small sketch in the upper-left corner of the page, but it clearly shows the vengeance-seeking yūrei Fujitsubo as a footless apparition. Another book from the same era, called Shiryō Gedatsu Monogatari (1690; The Story of the Salvation of a Ghost) also features a small image of a footless yūrei. It is not known whether Ōkyo would have seen either of these works.

Speculation on the reason behind footless yūrei falls into a few main camps. One school of thought is that clouds were considered traditional vehicles of transportation for deities and ascended beings in Japan. It was said that these yūrei were being whisked around by clouds, but with the clouds not completely drawn in and only covering the feet. Another, more grim speculation is that the artists were influenced by a Chinese holy text called Juuou-e that says souls judged to be carrying sin in the afterlife will have their legs hacked off by demons and must crawl on stumps through the afterlife.

Other, more romantic ideas have been proposed. In his book Nihon no Yūrei, Keio University professor Ikeda Yasaburo suggested that Maruyama Ōkyo was inspired by the haze of incense smoke rising into the sky, and drew his yūrei as if they were half composed of this smoke. Others say that Ōkyo painted The Ghost of Oyuki from memory, and that the image represents his lover sneaking off to the bathroom at night, her bottom half hidden in the dim candlelight. Yet another unrelated theory says that ashinonai yūrei originate from Bunraku puppet theater, where long robes hide the feet of female puppets and the hands of puppeteers.

It is most likely that a combination of these explanations is true. Whatever the reason, while the white face and wild hair of Edo period yūrei are still very apparent today, this absence of feet has not survived into the modern age. Only a few films, such as the 1995 Picture Bride, are still careful to retain this detail. For the most part the ashinonai yūrei is a creature of the past.

Picture_Bride_Movie

Translator’s Note:

One of the cold hard truths of publishing a book is page count. More pages = more costs, and sometimes you just have to trim! That means that several sidebars that were planned to go into Yurei: The Japanese Ghost had to get cut. But that’s OK! Because I can still share them here!

I am happy to report that Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is officially at the printers. We should be getting a proof copy soon, and if all goes well then the book will be ready to be printed and delivered!

Thanks again to everyone for your support and patience!

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