What’s the Difference Between Yurei and Yokai?

Yokai_or_Yurei

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

What is a yokai? What is a mononoke? What is a bakemono? Are yurei also yokai? These seemingly basic questions have no precise answers. Almost everyone has their own ideas, and they seldom agree with each other. Because folklore isn’t a science.

Defining these words is like trying to define “monster” or a “superhero.” I have seen (and participated in, ‘cause that’s how I roll) debates on whether the xenomorph from the “Alien” films belongs in a category of “movie monsters.” Some say that because it is an “alien”—and aliens aren’t traditional folkloric monsters—it can’t be a monster. (I disagree.) But the word “monster” isn’t clearly defined. Basically, anything scary can be a monster. So by that token, are ghosts “monsters?” What about “human monsters” like serial killers? Dragons in fantasy movies? When does something stop being a monster? Or start being a monster? What about the Cookie Monster? Or Monsters Inc.?

And how about superheroes? Even though he lacks super powers, Batman is generally accepted as a superhero, but how about Sherlock Holmes? Or Tarzan? Or Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Heracles? Where do you draw the line? Should the line be drawn at all? Does popular consensus matter?

As you can see, there is no real answer. Just opinions. And almost all of the great folklore researchers have their own opinions. They disagree with each other on the definition and categorization of yokai, on exactly what a yokai is and if a yurei counts as a yokai or not. Almost every book on yokai and yurei begins with the definition of terms—what that particular researcher/writer considers to be a yokai or a yurei.

You just kind of have to pick your camp and decide who makes the most sense to you. Or start your own camp, because that’s valid too. Just don’t expect anyone to agree with you.

Etymology of Yurei and Yokai

Hansho

Hansho from Osaka Prefectural Library

Like (almost) all kanji, the characters for yurei and yokai originate from Chinese. According to researcher Suwa Haruo, the kanji for yurei (幽霊) first appeared in the works of the poet Xie Lingyun who wrote during the time of China’s Southern Dynasty (5 – 7 CE). The kanji for yokai (妖怪) appeared much earlier, in the classical 1st century Book of Han (漢書) which coincidentally also records the first known mention of the island of Japan. (Strange that the first known use of yokai and the first known mention of Japan appear together—there is some deeper meaning in that!)

Neither word has quite the same meaning in Chinese as it does in Japanese. Chinese uses the kanji 鬼 (gui) to mean ghost, which was imported into Japanese as the word “oni.” And the Chinese usage of 妖怪 (yokai) refers specifically to human beings under some sort of supernatural influence. (This is all according to Suwa Haruo, by the way. I have no personal knowledge of the Chinese language!)

Japan imported both terms, with yokai first appearing in the 797 CE history book Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀 ; Chronicles of Japan Continued), the second of the six classical Japanese history texts. Yokai described an unseen world of mysterious, supernatural phenomena. The term represented something invisible, without form or identity; a mysterious energy that pervaded the deep forests, oceans, and mountains.

In truth, the word “yokai” was barely used at all. Ancient Japan had a more common name for this invisible, mysterious energy—mononoke. The idea of mononoke was something to fear—a mysterious, natural force that could come out any time and kill you, like a lightning strike or a tidal wave. It took the artists of the Heian period to give form to this mysterious energy, and transform the mononoke into bakemono, changing things. And then it took the writers of the Edo period to take these shapes and give them stories. Few of these artists and writers would have recognized their work as “yokai.”

Yokai as a word only came into general use the during the Meiji period, thanks to folklorist Inoue Enryo (1858 – 1919). He founded a field of study he called Yokaigaku, or Yokai-ology. Inoue used the term “yokai” in the same way we would say Fortean phenomenon—meaning any weird or supernatural phenomenon. Wanting Japan to move into the modern world, Inoue used the term “yokai” to point out the foolishness of believing in such things in a scientific age, and vowed to shed light into the dark, superstitious corners of Japan. He hoped to eradicate “yokai” by studying it and explaining it scientifically.

Yanagita Kunio’s Yurei vs. Bakemono

Yokai DangiYokai Dangi cover from Amazon.co.jp

Yanagita Kunio took the next attempt at parsing out the various folklore and coming up with some kind of workable system or definitions. Yanagita put differentiated between “obake/obakemono”—being bound to a particular place, and “yurei”—being able to move freely, yet bound to a specific person. Here’s what he said in his Yokai Dangi (妖怪談義;Discussions of Yokai):

“Until recently there was a clear distinction between obake and yurei that anybody would have realized. To start with, obake generally appeared in set locations. If you avoided those particular places, you could live you entire life without ever running into one. In contrast to this, yurei—despite the theory that they have no legs—doggedly came after you. When [a yurei] stalked you, it would chase you even if you escaped a distance of a hundred ri. It is fair to say that this would never be the case with a bakemono. They second point is that bakemono did not choose their victims; rather they targeted the ordinary masses … On the other hand, a yurei only targeted the person it was connected with … And the final point is that there is a vital distinction regarding time. As for a yurei, with the shadowy echo of the bell of Ushimitsu [the Hour of the Ox, approximately 2-2:30 AM], the yurei would soon knock on the door or scratch on the folding screen. In contrast, bakemono appeared at a range of times. A skillful bakemono might darken the whole area and make an appearance even during the daytime, but on the whole, the time that seemed to be most convenient for them was the dim light of dust or dawn. In order for people to see them, and be frightened by them, emerging in the pitch darkness after even the plants have fallen asleep is, to say the least, just not good business practice.”

Translation from Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai.

In Ikeda Yasaburo’s book Nihon no Yurei he almost agrees with Yanagita, seeing two distinct types of yurei. The first kind, as evidenced by the story The Chrysanthemum Vow, show a spirit with a specific purpose and attachment towards another human being. They have the ability to travel, to move “a hundred ri” as Yanagita puts it. The other kind of spirits, as evidenced by The Black Hair, are those spirits bound to a particular place. They may have some sad story keeping them put, but ultimately it is the location that matters.

Ikeda says:

“Usually I just call both types yurei, but it might make sense to make a distinction. You could call the first group—the ones bound to a specific person—yurei, and the second group—those bound to a specific location—yokai. But these groupings are just made for ease of discussion. In truth, the spirit realms are far too complicated for simple classification; any rule or distinction you make is immediately broken.”

Obviously, Ikeda is correct; Yanagita’s distinctions fail the simplest of tests. Look at three of Japan’s most famous ghosts, Okiku (Bancho Sarayashiki), Oiwa (Yotsuya Kaidan), and Otsuyu (Botan Doro). The plate-counting Okiku is bound to her well, and by Yanagita’s definition would be an obakemono and not a yurei. Oiwa is free to travel where she wills, but doesn’t care at all about the Hour of the Ox. When she appears at her husband’s wedding, it is the middle of the day. And the Chinese origin of Otsuyu means that she obeys almost none of Yanagita’s rules, making her neither obakemono nor yurei.

Yanagita was one of Japan’s first folklorists, and a great researcher and gatherer of tales, but I often disagree with his conclusions. Not for any fault of his own; Being the first, he was operating with a limited amount of materials and information, and not able to discuss or cross-reference his findings.

Mizuki Shigeru’s Inclusive Yokai World

Mizuki Shigeru Yokai ParadeJapanese Yokai battle Western Yokai in Mizuki Shigeru’s Great Yokai War

Mizuki Shigeru takes a much broader approach, In his Secrets of the Yokai – Types of Yokai he put everything under the general term of “Yokai” (or “Bakemono,” which he considers the same thing”) and then broke it down into four large categories, one of which is “Yurei.” Mizuki started studying yokai seriously in his 60s when he had largely retired from drawing his famous Kitaro comic. He also did something Yanagita Kunio had never done—he traveled the world and learned about the folklore of other countries, and compared it to his native Japanese folklore he knew so well. From this, he developed a definition of yokai that was as inclusive as possible, broadening the use of the word “yokai” outside of Japan to include “Western yokai” and monsters, and the natural phenomenon and deities of all countries.

Mizuki’s approach is the most widely accepted today, as seen by the Japanese definition of yokai from Wikipedia:

“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.”

I personally fall into Mizuki’s camp—I believe yokai are so much more than just Japanese monsters. In fact, if you look at Toriyama Sekien’s yokai encyclopedias many Japanese yokai did not originate in Japan—they are characters from Chinese folklore or Indian Buddhism added to Japan’s pantheon. And even inside Japan, yokai encompass so much more than monsters. There are yokai winds. Yokai illnesses, Yokai transformed/possessed humans. Pure yokai monsters.

But then again, I am as guilty as anyone for also using the word yokai as a shorthand for Japanese monsters. Because it is convenient, and gets the meaning across in a simple fashion. And sometimes, convenience trumps accuracy. Because folklore isn’t a science.

Yurei and Yokai – Dead Things

yureisankakuboshiYurei entry from Toriyama Sekein’s Hyakkai Yagyo

Then you get into a whole other area—Are yurei a type of yokai? Or are they something different? Again, there is no universally accepted answer. Yanagita Kunio considered yurei to be yokai, but not bakemono. Mizuki Shigeru considers yurei to be one of the Big Four categories of yokai. Matt Alt calls yurei and yokai out as two separate things in his books Yokai Attack! and Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide. (I respectfully disagree.)

To me, this is the easiest question—of course, yurei are yokai. All you have to do is look at the yokai collections from the Edo period. Yurei were always included as entries. Edo period kaidan-shu freely mixed ghost and monster stories. Games of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai always included strange stories of any type, with no differentiation between yurei and yokai. They were all just “weird tales.”

For that matter, some yokai monsters are in fact dead humans who returned as yokai. Many things can happen to a human spirit after death. They can move on to peace, transform into a yurei and haunt away, or transform into a monster with a life that lasts far beyond their death. Perhaps the most famous example is the Emperor Sutoku who died and was reborn as the Evil King of the Tengu, a story that appears in both the Hōgen Monogatari and Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Translations from the Asian Classics)
. Or there is the massive Gashadokuro, sometimes said to be the assembled bones of people who died of starvation. Or Dorotaro, the spirit of a farmer whose fields were mistreated by his son.

There are many others. Yurei is clearly just one form a human being can manifest as after death. They can become kami. They can become yurei. They can become yokai. All though saying “they can become yokai” is redundant, as they are all yokai.

Religion and Yokai – Degraded and Unworshiped Gods

Another thing Yanagita Kunio says—and this I agree with him on—is that some yokai are the traditional, historical, and forgotten gods of Japan. In his book Hitotsume Kozo he outlines his “degradation theory,” showing how ancient gods are slowly demoted into small-time monsters, and then folktales. He uses the kappa as an example. Once a powerful water deity—and there are still a few kappa shrines in Japan—the kappa was demoted over the centuries to a beastly monster, to something almost harmless, until now it is little more than one of Japan’s “cute character mascots.”

Many yokai also share strong ties with Buddhism. During the Edo period Kaidan Boom, several strange monsters and gods were imported from India and China and recast in roles as Japanese yokai. As with Yanagita’s degradation theory, these once-mighty beings become silly goblins in the Japanese pantheon,

Komatsu Kazuhiko put forward  the idea that yokai are sort of the B-List of the kami pantheon, the “unworshiped gods.” It has long been thought that spirits can be transformed into kami via ritual and worship. By that measure, yokai are simply proto-kami, amassed spiritual energy that has managed to take form, but needs the extra boost from human worship to advance to the next stage and become a true kami.

Just as many yokai have no connection to religion at all. Toriyama Sekein created a host of yokai for his books, some of which were just ghostly twists on plays on words or popular phrases. Kyokotsu the Crazy Bones being one of the most obvious examples. A few hundred years later, and these Toriyama-invented yokai are considered just as valid as something like a kappa that is thousands of years older.

Modern Yokai

Kitaro Mizuki Shigeru Cover

When you ask “What’s the Difference Between Yurei and Yokai?” you sort of have to decide if you mean historical, or modern. In the Edo period and older, there was absolutely no difference. You go back even further, and yokai and yurei are indistinguishable. But as we move more and more into the modern manga-influence era, where yokai are being used as characters in comics, and the meanings of the words appear to be changing.

I think manga is the biggest influence on yokai today. Comics like Kitaro, Inuyasha, and Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan are teaching a new generation of readers what yokai are, and it is something entirely different from what Yanagita Kunio recorded in his notebooks. Modern yokai have distinct personality and complex motivations, instead of Yanagita’s repetitious monsters bound to their locations and lacking true motive power. And yurei are being left out of the party, treated as something different from yokai entirely.

kejoro Nura Clan YokaiKejoro from Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan

Those manga yokai are probably just as valid as Toriyama Sekein’s yokai catalog. The definitions of yurei and yokai have changed over the centuries, and will continue to change going into the future. Because “change” is at the heart of yokai. They mold to meet the needs of the current generation. They are mutable.

In his book Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai, Michael Dylan Foster puts it best. He says he ”intentionally leaves the definition open-ended, for the history of yokai is very much the history of efforts to describe and define the object being considered.”

Translator’s Note:

This is a long, rambling answer to a question by reader Chiara Leerendix, who was having a debate with her professor on the differences between yurei and yokai. He claimed that yurei were spirits of the dead and related to death and religion, while yokai were just monsters without any deeper meaning or religious connection. Obviously, I disagree with that. But the debate is ongoing.

While I don’t have an exact answer for Chiara, hopefully this will provide her with some good arguing points to take to her professor. Of course, her professor is welcome to respond to this post as well!

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What Does Ayakashi Mean in English?

Mizuki Shigeru Ayakashi

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, and Other Sources

A sea serpent so massive it takes three days to pass by in a boat? Mysterious lights floating by the beach? A generic term for ghost stories? Ayakashi is one of the most complicated and convoluted terms in all of Japanese folklore. There is no easy answer to this simple question.

What Does Ayakashi Mean?

Usually when investigating a yokai I like to start with deciphering the kanji that make up the name. That is your first, best clue as to what the monster or phenomenon is. But ayakashi is written either in hiragana (あやかし) or katakana (アヤカシ), neither of which give any hints as to the meaning. There is an alternate and specific spelling of ayakashi that does use kanji, and we will look into that later.

In its most basic usage, ayakashi is a general term for yokai that appear above the surface of the water, and can be translated as “strange phenomenon of the sea.” That fact that this is the surface of the water is important—yokai tend to appear at boundaries, places where one thing becomes another thing. So ayakashi are yokai that haunt the boundary between the ocean and the air, instead of sea monsters swimming in the dark depths.

There are many yokai that have been called ayakashi over the years. Here are a few of them:

Ayakashi no Kaika – The Strange Lights of Ayakashi

Seiban_Kaidan_Jikki_Kumobi

In Nagasaki, the term ayakashi refers to strange lights that dance above the surface of the water, and are found mostly on the beaches in twilight.

These lights are different from the typical Japanese kaika (怪火; strange lights), in that the floating fires are said to contain what looks to be small children running around inside of them. This phenomenon is particularly associated with Tsushima city, Nagasaki.

Some of these ayakashi no kaika also appear out on the water, where it is said they can suddenly take on the appearance of massive rocks or landmasses that appear out of nowhere. The goal of this transformation is to panic ships, forcing them to change course and run aground or sink. But the irony is, if the brave captain sails right through the mirage, they vanish leaving everyone unharmed.

Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

Funayurei

See Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

In Yamaguchi and Saga prefectures ayakashi refers to funa yurei, a group of yurei who drowned at sea and now try to sink boats to increase their numbers. Funa yubrei are known to float up to the surface of the water appearing first as kaika, then transforming into figures when they reach the surface. They will demand a hishaku—a bamboo spoon—from any boat they encounter, and if given one they will swiftly fill the boat with water and drag the crew down to the depths.

A wise captain always carried a hishaku with holes drilled in it when sailing in funa yurei infested waters. Giving this spoon to the funa yurei means that they cannot sink your boat.

Several other areas in Western Japan use the term ayakashi to describe ghosts of those drowned at sea, who try to sink boats and drown swimmers either for revenge or to swell their ranks. A good example of this is the Shudan Borei.

The Woman of the Well

This story of the ayakashi appears only once, in the Edo period Kaidanshu Kaidanro no Sue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for an Old Man of Kaidan).

In Taidozaki, in the Chosei district of Chiba prefecture, a group of sailors put to show in order to re-stock their fresh water holds. As they pulled into the beach, a beautiful woman came walking by carrying a large bucket. She said the bucket was filled with fresh water that she had drawn from a nearby well, and that she would be only too happy to share it with the sailors.

Hearing this, the Captain said “There’s no well nearby. I’ve heard similar stories of thirsty sailors beguiled by a beautiful woman offering them water, never to be seen again. That woman is an ayakashi!” He ordered the boat swiftly back to the sea. As the men pulled their oars, the woman came running towards the ship in a rage, and leapt into the ocean biting the hull of the ship and holding on tight. The quick-thinking Captain beat her off with one of the oars, and the ship sailed away unharmed.

Remoras

Spearfish_remora

A real-life animal associated with the term ayakashi are remoras, the leach-like fish with sucker bellies that fasten themselves onto sharks and other ocean-going objects in order to get a free ride and some free food.

According to folk belief, if remoras fasten themselves to the underside of your boat, you will become stuck in the water and unable to move. In this case, remoras are called ayakashi.

Ikuchi – The Oily Sea Serpent

Sekien Ayakashi

By far the most famous depiction of ayakashi is the massive sea serpent Ikuchi. The association comes from Toriyama Seiken (鳥山石燕), and his entry for ayakashi in his Konjyaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; A Collection of 100 Ghosts from Times Past)

Toriyama wrote:

“When boats sail the seas of Western Japan, they encounter a beast so large it takes 2-3 days just to sail past. The body of the beast drips oil, but if the sailors work together to clear the boat of the oil no harm will come to them. If they don’t, they will sink.“

The Ikuchi is a legendary monster from Ibaraki prefecture, that was written about in Edo period Kaidanshu like Tsumura Soan (津村正恭)’s Tankai (譚海; Sea Ballads) and Negishi Shizumori (根岸 鎮衛)’s Mimibukuro (耳袋; Ear Bag). The Ikuchi is described as eel-like and massively long, several kilometers at least. It was not inherently dangerous, but would become tangled up with ships accidently. Crews had to work often for days to get their ship free of the Ikuchi. The most dangerous part was the oil that seeped from the monster’s body. The crew had to diligently clean up all the oil, or the ship would sink.

Why Toriyama called his depiction of the Ikuchi “ayakashi” isn’t known. Perhaps he didn’t know the monster’s true name, or perhaps he was using the general term for sea monsters instead of the specific name of Ikuchi. But for whatever reason, such is Toriyama’s influence that Ayakashi has come to describe the Ikuchi in most modern depictions.

Other Depictions

The word ayakashi has been put on almost every variation of sea monster you can think of. The 1918 book Dozoku to Densetsu (土俗と伝説; Local Customs and Legends) describes the ayakashi like this:

“The ayakashi is a mystery of the sea. They haunt boats on the open waters. Their appearance is like an enormous octopus. It will wrap itself around a boat, and only let go when gold coins are given to it.”

The 1923 book Tabi to Densetsu (旅と伝説; Travels and Legends) says this about ayakashi:

“While traveling the open sea at night, you will see lights in the distance. A ship approaches, mysteriously traveling against the wind. The ship is blazing, covered in lanterns of every shape and size, and suddenly overtakes your vessel. Or sometimes it disappears all together, and reappears next to you. The boat is filled with the souls of those who drowned at sea, and they want to add to their number. If they get close enough, they will fling an iron basket filled with fire onto your ship, killing all on board.”

Another Edo period kaidanshu offers this description:

“When the winds blow from the West, the dead travel on the waves. With lanterns hanging from the prow, you can make out the site of a woman clad in a white kimono, standing in the prow of a small ship. This is the ayakashi.”

There are many, many more. Most of the stories are slightly similar—describing either some kind of great sea monster, or a boat full of drowning victims out for revenge—but few of them are exactly the same. This is probably what cause folklorists and storytellers to throw up their hands and say “Fine! Ayakashi just means all sea weirdness. That covers everything, right?”

Not quite …

Ayakashi and the Masks of Noh

Noh Mask Reiayakashijpg

While no one agrees on exactly what kind of ocean phenomenon ayakashi is, they are all at least agreed that it is SOME kind of ocean phenomenon. Except for Noh theater.

Many of Japan’s arts have a specialized vocabulary that is used nowhere else (try going to a sushi restaurant in Japan and asking for some “purple” and you will see what I mean.) As you know (ha ha!) Noh theater uses masks. All of the masks have names, and the name for a male mask of a ghost or violent god is called ayakashi.

Noh uses a specialized kanji, 怪士 meaning strange (怪; ayaka – ) + warrior (士; shi). These masks come in variation, like the chigusa ayakashi which is fleshy and more human-like, or the shin no ayakashi with protruding eyes and bulging blood vessels. The most terrifying is the rei no ayakashi, a skeletonesque face with a white pallor and sunken eyes. The ayakashi masks were designed around the Muromachi period and where used interchangeably for many ghostly roles, but by the Edo period each mask had been assigned a specific role.

Because of the masks of Noh, and Ayakashi no Mono (怪士のもの) can refer to a ghost story of Noh, where one of the ayakashi masks are used. And that is where the confusion comes in, from using the term “ayakashi” as a general word for yokai or “ghost story.” It is … but ONLY in Noh theater.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales

ayakashis samurai horror tales

And that brings us to where most Westerners have heard the term ayakashi, in the anime Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. While this is a brilliant series, you will notice that nowhere is there a sea creature of any kind, neither monster nor boat full of lantern-bearing yurei.

That is because the series is named after the Noh usage of ayakashi, which gives it a mysterious, nostalgic feel (and is also a bit misleading, as the stories in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales come from Kabuki theater and not Noh. But that’s marketing for you … )

Translator’s Note

This started out with me answering a reader’s question on the difference between yokai, ayakashi, and mononoke. It soon became apparent that there was far too much information for a simple answer, and blossomed into this article.

And I still didn’t answer the question! Sorry! But at least you will have a better understanding of what ayakashi means!

Further Reading:

For other informative posts about yokai and such, check out:

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

A Brief History of Yokai

Funa Yurei

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

What are Hanyō?

Hanyo_Kanji

Half human. Half yokai. Hanyo have become a staple character in recent yokai comics and animation. But do they have roots in Japanese folklore?

Kuniyoshi_Kuzunoha Abe no Seimei

The answer to that is a pretty resounding no. Hanyo are almost exclusively the creation of modern comic book artists and animators. More specifically, hanyo are the creation of Takahashi Rumiko, and to a lesser extent Mizuki Shigeru. While half-human/half-yokai children do exist in Japanese folklore, they are—with few exceptions—normal human beings. Whatever it is that makes a yokai, it doesn’t carry over to their half-human children.

What Does Hanyo Mean?

Hanyo is a neologism invented by Takahashi Rumiko for her comic book Inyuyasha. She took the kanji Han (半; half) and put it next to Yo (妖; apparition)—alternately spelled hanyou in an attempt to imitate the Japanese long vowel sound—to create a word for her concept of half-yokai characters. Takahashi has created an entire mythology around yokai, with variations depending on if their mother or father was a yokai, and attempts to become a full-blood human or yokai.

Inyuyasha Hanyo

Mizuki Shigeru had earlier invented the term hanyokai (半妖怪; half-yokai) for his characters Nezumi Otoko and Neko Musume in his comic Gegege no Kitaro. In Mizuki Shigeru’s comics, the two hanyokai are in practice 100% yokai (Nezumi Otoko is over 360 years old, for example) and the term is used largely as an insult. Kitaro sometimes talks down to Nezumi Otoko for being only a hanyokai and not a true yokai. This was possibly mirroring the distaste for half-Japanese children when Gegege no Kitaro began, most of whom were the children of occupying U.S. soldiers and Japanese women.

Nezumi Otoko Neko Musume

It could also relate to Mizuki Shigeru’s theory of yokai being single-souled and humans having double-souls. Yokai being single-souled, focusing on whatever their task or motivation is—counting beans or whatever. Humans, and the other hand, were conflicted and at war with themselves. In Gegege no Kitaro, Nezumi Otoko is one of the few characters that “switches sides” between good and evil, possibly resulting from his human double-soul. But the same cannot be said for Neko Musume, who is squarely on Kitaro’s side. So this is just speculation. Maybe he just thought hanyokai sounded cool.

Half-Yokai/Half-Human in Japanese Folklore

The children of yokai and humans—and even yurei and humans—are relatively common in Japanese folklore. Almost all of these stories fall in the Magical Wife genre (I have never heard of a Magical Husband story). The stories follow a similar patter where a man performs some task/has an encounter, later a mysterious woman comes to be his wife provided he perform some condition like never speak of the previous encounter, never look in a box, etc … The couple live happily for several years, have some kids, and inevitably the husband breaks his promise and the Magical Wife leaves.

The most famous Magical Wife story is the tale of the Yuki Onna, where a snow demon comes upon two woodgatherers freezing in the forest. The Yuki Onna kills the older one, then falls in love with the younger. She eventually marries him as a human—under the condition that the husband never speak about his frozen encounter—has children and lives together many years. When the husband eventually gabs, the Yuki Onna flees, abandoning her children and spouse.

There are many, many more Magical Wife stories, like Hagoromo the Tennin and some about transformed animals and henge. There are stories where a dead woman’s yurei returns to her husband, take cares of him and bares his children, performing her wifely duties before she is able to return to the afterlife. The one thing these stories have in common is that the children from these mystical mash-ups are all normal, human children.

(The Magical Wife genre is popular in Western folktales as well, popular enough that it has its own classification under the Aarne–Thompson classification system—#402 The Animal Bride.)

The Exceptions—Kintaro and Abe no Seimei

There are always exceptions. In this case, there are two of them, although only one could really be called a hanyo or hanyokai.

Kintaro the Nature Boy is one of Japan’s most famous and popular folkloric figures. Incredibly strong even as a baby, and friends with the bears of the woods, there are multiple variations of his origins. In one of them, his mother the Princess Yaegiri became pregnant when the Red Dragon god of Mt. Ashigara sent a clap of thunder to her. This is not the most common origin for Kintaro—most stories have his mother fleeing some conflict while pregnant and giving birth in the mountains. And even then, with a Red Dragon as a father Kintaro would more properly be a hanshin, a demi-god, and not a hanyo.

Kunisada_Bando_Mitsugoro_IV_as_Kintaro

Abe no Seimei is the other exception. A real person, Abe no Seimei was a famous onmyoji ying/yang sorcerer during the Heian period. He has since passed into folklore, and it is difficult to separate the fact from the legend when it comes to Abe no Seimei. One of the legends, however, is that his mother Kuzunoha was a kitsume, a magical fox.

Nakifudo_Engi_Abe_no_Seimei

The legend states that Abe no Yasuna came upon a hunter trapping a fox. Yasuna battled the hunter and won, and set the fox free. A beautiful woman named Kuzunoha appeared to tend his wounds, and the two fell in love and married. Their child Seimei was born, who was exceedingly bright. One day, while Kuzunoha was watching chrysanthemums, a young Seimei saw a piece of fox tail poking out from her kimono. The spell broken, Kuzunoha the fox returned to the forest, leaving her son behind but granting him a piece of her magical powers. This makes Abe no Seimei the only true hanyo in Japanese folklore.

Yoshitoshi-Kuzunoha Abe no Seimei

The Children of Ubume

There is one more semi-exception. Ubume are a specialized type of yurei, who die while pregnant leading to a still-living child being born from a dead body. Ubume are ghost mothers who come back to tend for their living child, who is often trapped in a coffin buried under the earth. By some legends, the children of these ubume are special, often faster and stronger than normal humans.

The most famous ubume child is, of course, Kitaro from Gegege no Kitaro.

Translator’s Note:

I wrote this because I get asked fairly often about hanyo, mostly from fans of Inyuyasha who want to know how authentic Takahashi Rumiko’s use of Japanese folklore is. The answer is “not very.” She creates her own worlds with her own mythologies. But her creation of hanyo has proved popular enough to crop up in other comics as well, like Rise of the Nura Clan and Maiden Spirit Zakuro.

However, true human-hybrids are exceedingly rare in Japanese mythology and folklore.

Further Reading:

For more stories from Hyakumonogatari.com, check out:

The Yurei Child

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

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!

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

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

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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