Yurei, Bakemono, Yokai and other Japanese Horror Stories

I am not a huge fan of horror movies, although I was an avid reader of horror when I was younger. The last horror story I read was Ring by Koji Suzuki (1998). It was terrifying, in a very subtle, psychological way. I have recently been watching The Terror: Infamy by AMC on Amazon Prime. This is actually the second series of the show, the first being completely unrelated to the current topic. The series is about a American internment camp of Japanese Americans during WW2 and it weaves a number of traditional Japanese folklore stories through the drama. It is exceptionally well done and has totally captured my attention, but has also made me want to explore these myths and folklore that are ubiquitous in Japan and appear in more than a thousand years of Japanese history. Through stories and plays and then ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and into pop culture and movies, these creatures, ghosts and monsters have mysteriously and ominously crept their way through Japanese everyday life, affecting rituals, causing all manner of superstitious behaviour and pervading every aspect of Japanese culture.

Image credit: Rotten Tomatoes

These traditional stories of Japan can be traced back to several sources. Shinto animism, didactic Buddhist fables and several texts. The Kojiki (711-712) and the Nihon Shoki (720), both ancient texts, believed to be the first ever written in Japan, containing semi-historical, mythological and genealogical records of Japan, the kami 神 (Gods) and the Imperial Family. Kaidan refers to a genre of story popular from the Heian period (beginning 794) until the Edo Period (ending 1868). Anything that was written after the beginning of the Meiji period is generally just called ホラー (Hora-) from the English or 怖い話 (kowai hanashi) – literally scary story. Stories like Ring and The Grudge are considered ホラー but their stories are ancient and very traditional.

As always, my research on this topic has beckoned me down a very intriguing rabbit hole and I have decided to seperate the yurei and the yokai into two seperate blogs. I will start with the yokai, as I have encountered significant numbers of these creatures in many different forms, and their prevalence is tangible in many everyday Japanese situations and customs. I am also living with these creatures everyday, as my family are avid fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s yokai, and I have been informed by a lovely Japanese boy who stayed with me on exchange that I probably live in the real life forest of Tottoro.

妖怪 (yokai) the kanji can be broken down to bewitching or calamity and spectre or apparition. Yokai can be malevolent or benevolent. They can take many forms and have various powers and reasons for being. There are 物の怪 Mononoke, 木霊 Kodama, 河童 Kappa, 尻目 Shirime, 天狗 Tengu, and the お化け Obake or 化け物 Bakemono.There are many more types of yokai, I certainly could not cover them all. Yokai can take many forms, human, animal, plant, object or even natural phenomenon. They may mutate from this world, the next world (reincarnation) or the spiritual realm. They may even take the form of a building or natural structure.

The first appearance of the word mononoke was in my beloved Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tales of Genji”, written in the 11th century, and the first novel ever written. Many of you will be familiar with Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli’s beautiful anime. The anime depicts mononoke as ardent environmentalist entities, trying to drive the humans out of the forest they are destroying with their iron industry. Mononoke are said to reside in all things and all beings are surrounded by these untamed energies. However, historically they were perhaps not quite so well meaning. Murasaki said “the mononoke have become quite dreadful” and there were many rituals, exorcisms and tightly adhered to superstitions about auspicious dates, cardinal points for travel, for building, for cremation and the like. There were many objects placed in certain places for protection, sutras written to appease the energies and religiously based and dogmatic rules that were strictly obeyed and not questioned. The other yokai appearing in Princess Mononoke are kodama. Kodama are very, very cute and they are the spirits of the trees. These forest spirits seem to live in particular trees that are discernible by their trunk, their shape, the knots in the wood and other distinguishing features.

Kappa are amphibious and small, and range from mischievous to nefarious. They look a little turtle like and live in and around rivers. They like eating cucumbers and wrestle each other in sumo battles, but they are also guilty of kidnapping children and drowning people. Even the souls of dead children and babies are vulnerable to the water imps and Jizo statues are placed near rivers for the protection of the children passing from this world into the next. You can read more about Jizo here. Shirime are very funny yokai, although seeing one may result in trauma. These yokai look much like a regular human like but have an eyeball for a butt. The translation of 尻目 shirime- is literally butt or bum eye.

Tengu, the kanji translates to sky dog or sky sentimental, are recognisable as the emoji 👺 with red faces and long noses. The folklore and stories of the Tengu are confusing and incredibly varied, with many different attributes and characteristics assigned to them. It appears that they started out in early folklore as meteoric dogs and somehow transformed over time to become bird-like men. Their presence is said to warn of an impending war, they apparently have a penchant for leading Buddhist monks astray, or even kidnapping them, they have some relationship with martial arts and are said to be great swordsman and fighters, and some legends even have them as the historical predecessors of the ninja in Japan. Tengu are complex and there are so many stories. I have seen so many of these figures and masks in Japan, but have had little understanding of them. Now, after quite a lot of reading I think I have really gained no insight and am just seriously confused, but, the stories are entertaining.

Finally, the bakemono (also called the obake). These are probably my favourite kind of yokai, and they can be quite terrifying. Bakemono translates to “thing that changes” or shape shifter. They can be living or supernatural beings that take on temporary transformations. These projected transformations can be into other living creatures, but also into objects. Bakemono may also be foxes, cats, badgers or tanuki (raccoon dogs) and kodama may also shape shift and become bakemono. People can be overcome by bakemono and forced into actions against their will, and many yurei, or ghosts, that have not had the correct funeral rights performed can become bakemono while trapped between purgatory and the after-life. The character in The Terror: Infamy was such a bakemono. Her story was sad and these preternatural entities are often traumatised and vengeful and the folklore contains many stories that involve multi generations of a family, where ancestors are implicated in the bakemono’s “haunting”. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Ghosts, or yurei, are the next instalment.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. festivetribe says:

    If I saw someone with a butt eye I’d be traumatised too! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

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