A Brief History of Yokai

NightParadeof1000demons

When the god Izanagi returned from the Land of Yomi, he purified himself in a bath. As he dried his body, each falling drop of water soaked into the soil and imbued the land with supernatural potential. Thus, the yokai were born.

The story of Izanagi and the origin of yokai comes from the oldest known work of Japanese literature and the basis of Japanese mythology, the 8th century Kojiki (古事記; Record of Ancient Matters). In Japan’s creation myth, the land itself—the rocks, trees, mountains, and rivers—are infused with latent magical energy. This energy needs only a focus to give it life. Just as nebulous gas ignites to form stars, this energy is compressed by events like volcanoes or earthquakes, or strong human emotions like fear or hatred, until it emerges as one of Japan’s menagerie of monsters and phenomena. Yokai take many shapes, and are as varied and complicated as human imagination can make them.

Yokai have not always been a single tradition. In ancient times, small tribes and kingdoms populated the island. Each isolated region gave birth to its own rich folklore, its own gods and monsters. It took the conquering and warlike Yamato clan in the 3rd century to subdue these tribes into a unified nation and culture. As centuries passed, new technologies like the printing press allowed regional folklore to spread. People learned for the first time what scared their neighbors when the lights went out.

The Golden Age of yokai was the Edo period (1603-1868), an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. Folklorists and artists like Toriyama Sekien (鳥山石燕; 1712 – 1788) scoured the country for obscure legends and half-whispered folktales to populate their Yokai Encyclopedias and illustrated yokai scrolls. As the Brothers Grimm did for Germanic folklore, Toriyama and others rescued these stories from obscurity by putting them on paper at a time when oral traditions were vanishing.

Yokai almost disappeared following the Edo period, when Japan was swept up in a mania for modernization. When meeting with the Western powers, the country was embarrassed of its provincial passion for the supernatural. The government tried to sweep yokai under the carpet in favor of rational thinking and scientific advancement. As the military took over and Japan plunged into the darkness of WWII, the yokai were forgotten.

But one young man remembered. Comic artist Mizuki Shigeru (水木しげる; 1922 – Present) was raised on yokai stories told by his village wise woman. When he came home from the war, he started working in the new manga industry, drawing the stories he had heard as a boy. His comic Ge ge ge no Kitaro (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎) became one of Japan’s most popular comics, and Mizuki taught all of the children of Japan about the country’s mythical past.

Mizuki Shigeru’s influence continues, and yokai are again known throughout Japan. Children who grew up on Mizuki’s comics started creating their own yokai stories. People like Shibashi Hiroshi (椎橋寛; 1980 – present) created comics like Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (ぬらりひょんの孫), which were then translated into other languages and spread the yokai phenomenon across the world.

Further Reading:

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

Secrets of the Yokai – Types of Yokai

Secrets of the Yokai II

Translator’s Note

I have been consulting on a Yokai Art exhibition that is being held at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This is a short little piece I wrote about this history of yokai and its connection with modern manga, that will be used as an introduction to the exhibition. Just thought I would share it with everyone.

History of Yokai

But don’t worry–I am still working on Hashihime for my next post!

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24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cynthia O'Keeffe
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 12:35:16

    As always well written; Interesting, concise, and timely. Congratulations on your consultation with the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam! This integrates seamlessly into your Yokai Stories.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Feb 06, 2013 @ 21:01:11

      Thanks! It was hard fitting everything onto a single page … I still feel guilty for everything I left out. Not easy to give a synopsis of thousands of years of culture.

      Reply

  2. Mouryo
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 12:37:07

    Great, the Netherland aren`t that far away from where I live

    Reply

  3. lili
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 13:04:08

    Hi Zack, when is this exhibition in The Netherlands?

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Feb 06, 2013 @ 21:02:44

      It’s supposed to be in late June from what I have been told. I honestly don’t know too many details about it … I have just been fielding questions for a couple of months, and putting a few pieces of writing together. I think it is combined with an exhibition on manga, so the yokai piece might be a small part of a larger exhibition.

      Reply

  4. dreamwolf7
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 22:53:51

    I love animes. Especially the ones where yokai is incorporated into the plot. Nurarihyon No Mago is one of my favourite animes. Do you watch anime, Mr. Zack?

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Feb 06, 2013 @ 21:03:30

      Honestly, I don’t watch very much anime–and to be honest I have never seen Nurarihyon no Mago. I used to watch quite a bit, but I just don’t have the time any more …

      Reply

  5. Blue Satan
    Feb 09, 2013 @ 03:39:14

    I hope Yokai never disappear. I don´t approve of Japan being ashamed of it´s own past and culture!! Thanks to Shigeru-sensei , we can enjoy a wide variety of Yokai tales nowadays. And I love Nurarihyon no mago, it´s my favourite manga.
    Great post! I hope I can read your post of the Hashihime as early as possible.

    Reply

  6. Savvy Sleuth
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 09:17:47

    Thanks for the great site. Saw you on the Amazon Top Reviewers list and clicked to see this after reading your profile. My daughter loves all things Japanese, and hopes to live there one day (she’s a HS freshman). I’m sharing this site with her as I know she’ll be hanging on your every post! Great stuff.

    Reply

  7. Blue Satan
    Feb 16, 2013 @ 07:30:52

    I was wondering if all the images that you use of Yokai painted by Shigeru Mizuki are of Yokai Jiten or Mujara?
    E.g, the one of the Ninmenju, the Ushi no koku mairi , the Takaonna and the Gotokuneko.

    Reply

  8. Zack Davisson
    Feb 16, 2013 @ 16:48:48

    All of my pictures come from the Mujara series. That’s really my favorite for Mizuki Shigeru’s yokai. Once I got those I kind of stopped consulting the other ones.

    Reply

  9. Blue Satan
    Feb 17, 2013 @ 03:00:34

    Do you have any link with all or tha majority of Mujara´s pics? They’ll be very useful for my blog!

    Reply

  10. Zack Davisson
    Feb 17, 2013 @ 11:27:13

    No link, sorry. I just scan the pictures from my book when I want to post them.

    Reply

  11. Jose Prado
    Mar 21, 2013 @ 22:34:06

    Cynthia , you rock! Thank you for undertaking this great work of yours in translating these stories. As a Pagan I happen to believe in these stories and creatures.

    I’d like to invite you to submit anywork you like to the Paranormal Corner :
    http://paranormal-corner.blogspot.com/?m=1

    And to the National Paranormal Society (NPS)

    http://national-paranormal-society.org/

    We’d love to read your works. Even if they’ve already been posted here, we’ll re-post them and cite you as the source. Just say Jose Prado thought they might be interested in your work. I look forward to reading more.

    -Jose

    Reply

  12. Zack Davisson
    Mar 26, 2013 @ 16:25:26

    Thanks for the links Jose! I wouldn’t mind having my stuff submitted to the NPS, but honestly — I don’t really have the time to go about doing it. I’ve been too busy to even update the site recently, and that will be my first priority once I carve out a few minutes of free time.

    Reply

  13. FishCAKE
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 11:30:40

    This Great!! I was wondering Mr. Zack if i can use some of this information for my Essay ?? Thank You very much

    Reply

  14. Zack Davisson
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 13:11:00

    Thanks! You are welcome to use any of the information on my site–all I ask is that I be properly credited for it.

    Reply

  15. FishCAKE
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 19:42:17

    I will make sure to credit you.. Thank You!!!

    Reply

  16. Trackback: Jellyfish Eyes and Japan’s Monster Culture | Hankblog
  17. Anonymous
    Aug 11, 2015 @ 02:08:43

    Hi! I’m a student interested in Youkai, I just found this blog and it looks quite interesting and useful. Would mind me asking you a question?
    Recently I’m looking for books about general history of youkai but the only books I find seem to be encyclopaedia/list of Youkai or stuff along these lines, which although interesting are not what I need.
    Perhaps you happen to know those kinds of books – more “academic” ones?

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Sep 02, 2015 @ 20:24:22

      I assume you are looking for books in English? My favorite “academic” books are by Michæl Dylan Foster, who did “The Book of Yokai” and “Pandamonium and Parade.” Those are both very informative. I also recommend Noriko Reider’s books, like “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present,” and Ronald Morse’s translations of “Tono Monogatari.” Links to all of these can be found in my Books tab. And I hope you will also try my own book, “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost!”

      Reply

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