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.
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.
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 …