The Other Japan

Stuff you should know

Yokai’s: Japan’s Forgotten treasure

One thing that people rarely talk about in Japanese history is the fascinating stories about Yokai’s.

What are yokai’s?

Yokai’s are mysterious beings that are most prominent in Japanese folklore. Most foreigners, and even natives of the Japanese archipelago believe that the core foundations of Japanese religious beliefs are ingrained through Shinto-ism and Buddhism. However this a great misunderstanding, for a great proportion of the modern Japanese day belief revolves around the idea of the Yokai’s.

源頼光公館土蜘作妖怪図 Minatomono-Yorimitsu-Tuchigumo-youkai-zu (ca. 1843, Public Domain)

The mishmash of the Japanese animism with a mix interpretation through various Buddhist contexts

So granted, Yokai’s are actually not a religious belief, there is no cult, there is no secret syndicate society that worships these creatures ーbut there are however, countless numbers of folklores and ukiyoe (or the original manga that flourished through 17th-19th century Japan) that depict the original forms of Yokai’s that we see today.

As many may be familiar, animism is a concept which is a concept that all that exists in this world permeates with godly and divine spirit (or energy that of). Buddhism, the other major religious belief in Japan has a belief that the dead become part of Buddha (or a form of Buddha, the 仏様 hotoke-sama), once a funeral ceremonial service has been performed. Most of the Japanese population are enlisted to a buddhist temple to have future funeral services, or some sort of monastery or religious group that they belong to, so getting the right kind of services should not be a problem… then leaves us with a question… what happens to those who have not been able to given proper funeral services?

Although some sects of Buddhism believe in the concept of “hell”, it is unlike perception of hell in terms in parts of the world where Judeo-Christian thinking is the dominant belief. In fact, it’s more like a long “test” for the human souls. Which determines when they could reincarnate back in to the “human realm”. Although it is unclear whether this is from the beliefs of “国家神道 Kokka-shinoto” —the “Shinto of the state” (Shintoism belief which puts the emperor and the imperial family as the most supreme being), or “古神道 ko-shinto” —the ancient shinto (which was the ingenious religion practiced before the adoption of buddhism in Japan in the last 15 centuries), there are concept of “イヤシロチ purified/sacred areas” and “穢れ地 areas of impurity”, or the ideas of Amagahara天下原 or the “land of those from the skies” and Yominokuni 黄泉の国 the “land of the dead” or “underworld”, are prevalent, but it seems that some creatures —especially deities— where able to travel to and from these different realms. Due to the fact that many sects of Buddhism originated from China, there are Taoist influences that also merged with the animistic belief of Koshinto that that had been practiced in Japan. Which in someways, make the lines that distinguish between the beliefs and philosophies very vague. Therefore “Gods (those from above)”, “deities (mini-gods? who have more human-like attributes)”, “spirits” and “buddha (collective souls, spirits or recollection of the deceased ancestors who had proper funeral services)” are all intertwined. So with this question; What happens to those souls who are forgotten?

In Buddhism, there is the concept of “6 realms of reincarnation”, where the deceased are given a test fro 49 days, which includes a visit to realm of hell (Kyoto, Seifukuji temple)

Yokai’s could be a depiction of the lost and forgotten souls of the deceased

Well, seems like there are creatures and human-souls that are “forgotten” and didn’t get a proper burial service are the ones who become Yokais and Oni that appear in Kwaidan stories… so what are they? Are they lost souls looking for redemption in the human realm? Or could they be souls from Yomi and Jigoku(hell realm) that came to the human realm too early… or maybe some of them are just longing to go back home, and in order to do so, try to do as many mischievous and bad deeds possible waiting for laws causality to cast them back where they originally came from. In either ways, Yokais and Oni’s are feared in one sense, but are cherished and accepted by the Japanese people and either seen as examples those who not to be (and there is a word for this 反面教師 hanmen-kyoshi) 、and at times even become a guidance to the people. Many do not depict the Yokai’s as being demonic, or “purely evil”. This coincides with many other cultural values that are prevalent through out Japan’s history.

お岩さん Oiwa-san, a yurei – or ghost like spirit who torments the living is a favorite story in Japan.

Yokai’s as spiritual and esoteric guides for the 21st century?

猿田彦 Sarutahiko, not exactly a Yokai, but a fairly high ranked kami or a deity in Shinto-ism has features like a long nose, and red fierce facial expression filled with wrath. Just like the Tengu, many deities don’t necessarily have a smile of saint in traditional Japanese culture.

We can further say that looking into Yokai’s and other Japanese folklore such as Kaidan could give us a hint on how we can precede our lives as humang beings living in the 21st century. It should be well noted that many of the Yokai stories have been made during the Edo era, the time of isolation and war-less 250 years. There is also no doubt that the reemergence of Yokai stories have to be given credit to Shigeru Mizuki for his work on Ge-ge-ge-no-Kitaro which were inspired though his early childhood experiences as well as his time in the Pacific during WWII. It seems, like the yokai stories emerge at times of peace and harmony, and the possible reason that their stories come into fruition could be the fact that they are trying to give us hint: a hint on how to question the idea of “evil” in times of no physical dispute.

As I am writing this now, it is just about 2 days after Halloween, and 2 days before yet another epic U.S. Presidential Electon, which might again raise some questions about which is the lesser of the evil;



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