Yokai (specter) (妖怪)

Yokai (specter), in folk beliefs handed down in Japan, is an unusual being with supernatural powers that can cause bizarre and abnormal phenomena that are beyond human understanding. It is also called ayakashi or mononoke.


As seen in settlements and houses in Japan, fear caused by vague boundaries with nature, and life that coexists with nature, such as outskirts of country and sacred shrine forests, turned into reverence and appreciation. Yokai was realized as beings that brought about such fear, haps and mishaps. As typified by the word 'kamusabi' (to behave like a god), the view that things that are old or aged are sacred and god-like just for being old and aged, overlaps with the interpretation that yokai (Tsukumogami - god of great age and experience) is an aged object or something that lived for a long time that has become possessed. Currently, the existence of yokai is not verified, and it is considered to be a superstition or a byproduct of magical thinking dating from the period when science was underdeveloped. However, it is also a matter that demonstrates the psychological mindset of Japanese people.

Koshinto (Ancient Shintoism as practiced prior to the introduction of Confucianism and Buddhism to Japan)

Ancient Shintoism, which is the origin of current Shintoism, is also called a primitive religion. It includes nature worship and animism, which believe that deities (Shintoism), lives and spirits exist in the universe. Traces of them can often be found in current Shrine Shintoism, and they coexist with folk beliefs as ancient Shintoism.

The world view in Shintoism consists of utsushiyo (actual world) and tokoyo (eternal world). Tokoyo is the realm of gods and sacred area.
However, it is noted separately as tokoyo (written as "常夜"meaning eternal night) and tokoyo (wrtten as "常世" meaning eternal world), and it has 'two aspects.'
Tokoyo (eternal world) is the utopia or paradise, and it is the world that gives rise to wealth, knowledge and ageless and eternal life, and it is a world without night. Tokoyo (eternal night) is the underworld or hell, and it is considered to be a world of night only that gives rise to evil and misfortune. This type of world view has existed until the recent years, and omagatoki (twilight hour) and ushimitsudoki (the dead of night, around 3:00 A.M. to 3:30 A.M.) were considered to mark the border of tokoyo (eternal night). They were integrated into everyday life, and they implied the time at which one would encounter 'something mysterious'.

Similarly, gods also have 'two aspects'. They have aspects of Araburukami (violent god) and Nagirukami (peaceful god) that can give rise to evil and good, respectively, and they are expressed, respectively, as Aramitama (violent spirit) and Nigimitama (peaceful spirit). These gods that came from Tokoyo (eternal night), Araburukami and their temporary images or the objects that represent these divine spirits were also described as so-called yokai. Among them, Tengu-jinja shrines, Kappa-jinja shrines, Shirohebi-jinja shrines (white snake shrines), Binbogami (deity that brings poverty) and Takarabune (treasure boat) (Shichifukujin) (Seven Deities of Good Fortune) that were not organized into Shrine Shintoism can be said to have their origins in the deities of ancient Shintoism (Japanese folk religion). Furthermore, there are kujirazuka (whale tumulus), doguzuka (tool tumulus) and hochozuka (knife tumulus) that came about from appreciation for food and tools, and there are mokozuka (tumulus for Mongolian warriors) and katanazuka (sword tumulus) as memorials to those who died with bitter disappointment.
These tumuli were built to enshrine the spirits so that 'the spirits that live there do not become Araburukami.'
However, they are disconnected from the current shrine Shintoism, and the act and the intention at the root of such tumuli are the same as those for yokai.


Tsukumogami is a god that lives in something that had a long life (animals and plants) or in a tool (container) that was used for a long time, and if people remembered it fondly or cared for it, then it would bring about happiness, but if not, then it would become an Araburukami to bring about misfortune. In most cases it overlaps with the concept of yokai that has been passed down to the present. It is considered that if it becomes angry, then it becomes Kyubi no Kitsune (nine-tailed fox) and if it is calm, then it become Okitsunesama (fox worshipped as god of harvest).

For animals, there are Kyubi no Kitsune, Nekomata (mythical two-tailed cat monster) and Inugami (dog deity).

For tools, there are Oboro-guruma (a ghostly oxcart with the face of its driver), Karagasa Kozo (umbrella boy ghost), Nakikama (ghost with a pot for its head) and Suzuri no Tamashii (ink stone spirit).

Other Related Examples

Ancient Japan was considered to be a multi-ethnic nation, and various ethnic groups flowed into Japan from various regions from ancient times. Cultures from these ethnic groups were incorporated, and exchanges with ethnic groups such as Emishi and Ebisu took place in relatively early years. Furthermore, culture from the continent was adopted, and it is considered that various forms of yokai were created with passage of time in peoples' lives until the modern day (periodization).

Tsutomu EMA, a scholar of the Japanese manners and customs, categorized the origin (yorishiro) of yokai into five groups of people, animals and plants for the living creatures, and tools (man-made tools) and natural things for non-living things, and gave examples.

Gods and divine spirits other than the personified gods (deities) in Japanese mythology

Folk religion (other than Tsukumogami)
For those that are not Tsukumogami in folk religion, their yorishiro are not well-understood. Alternatively, they are Araburukami whose origins are not known. They include tengu, kappa (mythical creature that lives in the water), zashiki warashi (a child ghost which is supposed to bring good fortune to the house or building in which it appears) and Daidarabocchi (a giant in Japanese mythology).

It is also called Hyochaku-gami (drifting deity), and those that arrived from overseas and mirages that formed above the sea were worshiped. These are called yorigami worship. Umi zato (monster which appears at sea) and shiranui (mysterious lights on the sea) (yokai) are considered to have their origins in yorigami worship.

Marebitogami (guest god) (Marebitogami)
This deity's origin is obscure, and it is sometimes considered as an example of yokai. There is a theory that says that this was a god of Emishi. Examples include Mishaguji and Arahabaki no kami (god worshipped mainly in the Tohoku district).

Those that appear in Japanese Mythology
Yamata no Orochi (eight-headed giant snake)
The syllable 'chi' in orochi is one way of pronouncing spirit in the ancient language. Sachi (happiness) in the old days was also written as 弓矢 (bow and arrow), and 'chi' in ikazuchi (thunder), mizuchi (mythical aquatic creature having a snake-like body with four legs and a horn) and inochi (life) all are considered to denote tamashii (spirit, soul) or spiritual power.

Shikigami (a fierce god which behaves in accordance with onmyoji (master of yin and yang))
Shikigami is a yokai (kijin, demon) that is called upon from the sacred realm and used by onmyoji, a sacred ritual performer, in order to monitor people's evil and good deeds. Ushino koku mairi (paying a visit to a shrine at two o'clock in the morning to put a curse on someone) was an ancient magical ritual to break through the boundary that marks the sacred realm, to call upon a yokai and to use it in order to bring about misfortune upon someone against whom one has a grudge.

Human lives and human forms
Departed souls
Spirits of dead people such as hitodama (will-o'-the-wisps), yurei (ghost), evil spirits and onryo (vengeful spirits) leave the carnal body and take on some kind of shape. Also, people could be overtaken by strong emotions such as wraiths and yasha (demons), and there are 'kitsunetsuki' (possessed by a fox spirit), who are people possessed by yokai.

Human forms
Oni (demon), yasha (yashaoni) (demons), Shuten Doji (the leader of a group of bandits that roamed the region around Kyoto).

Deities with foreign origins
Karasu tengu (crow-billed goblin) is said to have its origin in garuda.

Kudan is a Chinese yokai, but it already made its appearance in books during the Edo period. Ekiki (demon that spreads contagious diseases) was introduced during the Heian period, and it became the Japanese yokai, Yakubyogami (deity that spreads contagious illnesses).


Early First Century
In the current Chinese book, "Junshiden," it is stated, 'The specter (yokai) was in the Imperial Court for a long time. The King asked Tui the reason. He answered that there was a big anxiety and he recommended to empty the Imperial room,' and the word yokai is used to imply 'a bizarre phenomenon that's beyond human understanding.'

In 772
In "Shoku Nihongi" (Chronicle of Japan Continued), there is a description that 'Shinto purification is held because yokai appears very often in the Imperial Court,' and the word yokai is used in a similar manner, not to refer to some object, but to describe an unnatural phenomenon.

Mid-Heian period (794 - 1185/1192)
In "Makura no Soshi" (The Pillow Book), Seishonagon wrote, 'It is a very vindictive mononoke,' and Murasakishikibu also left a statement, 'The mononoke became too terrible.'
The word 'mononoke' appeared around this time.

Around 1370
In the fifth volume of "Taiheiki" (The Record of the Great Peace) there is a description, 'Sagami no Nyudo was not frightened by the yokai at all.'

In 1788
"Bakemono chakutocho" (commentary of specters in the middle Edo period) authored by Masayoshi KITAO was published. This was a picture book that was an illustrated reference book of yokai.
It says in the prologue, 'it can be said that the so-called yokai in our society is a representation of our feelings that arise from fear.'
It shows that during this period, there were already people who studied yokai yet questioned their actual existence.

Edo period
With the development of printing and publishing technology during this period, yokai was frequently used as a theme of picture books.

By the spread and use of 'rental bookstores' that dealt with such books, the appearance of each yokai became established among the general public, and that spread throughout Japan. For example, for yokai that belong to the kappa group, there were many forms and interpretations throughout Japan. However, because books were published, the current form of the so-called kappa became established. Furthermore, including other publications, there exist many forms of yokai that were created during this period through puns and word plays aside from those that have been handed down among the general public. One example is "Gazu Hyakki Yagyo" (The Illustrated Night Procession of One Hundred Demons) by Sekien TORIYAMA, which can be considered a modern-day yokai encyclopedia.

Furthermore, yokai were illustrated frequently as the main theme of 'ukiyoe' (Japanese woodblock prints) paintings. Famous painters who drew yokai include Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA, Yoshitoshi TSUKIOKA, Kyosai KAWANABE and Hokusai KATSUSHIKA. In addition, "Hyakki Yagyo" (Night Procession of the Hundred Demons) was illustrated as a drawing model for the Kano school.

After the Meiji period
The westernized thinking of the Meiji Restoration also had an effect on the translation of publications from overseas. In particular, western stories were highly touted. Binbogami (deity of poverty) and Yakubyogami (deity of the transmission of epidemics) were talked about along with Death. Death was depicted in classical rakugo (classical comic story-telling), and therefore, it can be misunderstood as a Japanese yokai or god. However, it is known to have spread among the people through creative rakugo "Shinigami (rakugo)" (Death (rakugo)) by Encho SANYUTEI during the Meiji period, which was composed using the translated book of either "Godfather Death" in the fairy tales by the Grimm brothers or the Italian opera (musical) "Crispino". In this way, monsters described in western stories became acknowledged by the general public. As misinterpreted Japanese yokai and also as 'western yokai' in the modern history, they have a comparable history in Japan.

In the meantime, classical Japanese culture was denounced, and there were examples of book burning of written traditions of song and dance. Scientific thinking was deemed supreme, and yokai, along with other superstitions, had tended to be denounced. However, from the end of the Edo period until the Showa and Heisei periods, it cannot be denied that publications of books by folklorists of the time and the prestige placed by folklore played a role in preventing the disappearance of yokai as an ethnic culture of Japan.

Modern age
From the recent past to now, yokai have been introduced through various forms of mass media, and therefore they are known among young and old alike. Pre-war picture-story shows and post-war promotion of comic book industry, rental bookstores that were in existence until about 1970 as well as the spread of television broadcasting had something to do with their recognition, and in a way, their familiarization. Nowadays, yokai is used as a source of tourism in order to revitalize local regions, as exemplified by Tono, Iwate Prefecture, that is depicted in Tono Monogatari (Strange tales of the Tono region in Iwate Prefecture) as well as by Tottori Prefecture, which is Shigeru MIZUKI's home town. In Kyoto, there is a store called Yokaido, which is a renovated machiya (traditional Kyoto-style house), and the owner gives a guided yokai tour of Kyoto.

As described above, yokai has been passed down in various forms. However, traditional oral story telling by the elders and the older people is rare. Furthermore, regionally unique situations and background in oral story telling are not easily conveyed. Traditional yokai represented by Tsukumogami can be conceptualized as something that's realistic only by having nature nearby, such as tanuki (raccoon), fox and Japanese mink. A yokai may also be a traditional everyday tool typified by items such as ink stone, kama (large cooking pot) or tsurube (bucket used for scooping water from a well) or a tool that is reminiscent of life styles of the olden days, such as 'azuki arai' (yokai which makes the sound of washing azuki beans near a person sleeping in a mountain) and 'dorotabo' (yokai appearing at a rice field, which has only one eye and three fingers in his hand), which are all tools that are no longer seen even in the farming environment of the suburbs and the countryside. Therefore, even those people who were born during the first decade of the Showa period (between 1925 and 1935) 'do not understand or are familiar with' the 'objects' that become yokai, unless those people had evacuated to the countryside during the war. As with the classical rakugo, people recognize the words or the meaning of the words, yet they cannot realistically picture the objects to which the words refer. Therefore, modernization of the society itself is having a negative effect on the survival of yokai as classical Japanese culture.

On the other hand, yokai introduced through mass media are not limited only to those that belong to the classical culture that has been handed down as a folklore. As in the Edo period, fictional yokai characters are actively invented in the modern age. New yokai have been born from the stories of haunted schools and urban myths, such as kuchisake onna (a woman with her mouth torn to her ears) and toire no Hanako-san (Hanako in the bathroom).
From the spread of kuchisake onna after 1975, such yokai of urban myths have been described by the mass media using a collective term, 'modern yokai.'
This collective term was also recently used in a book that deals with urban myths. In particular, yokai scholar Bintaro YAMAGUCHI uses it quite often in the books he authored.

During the 1970's, many books were published that introduced yokai in the form of encyclopedia, illustrations and dictionary as a part of children's horror books. It has been pointed out by modern research that in these books, mixed with the folklores, ghost stories and essays of classical Japanese culture, there are many yokai characters that are considered to be inventions that did not exist in the classical Japanese culture. In particular, Gashadokuro (giant skeletons) and Jubokko (tree yokai appearing in the battlefield by absorbing the blood of the war dead) are known to belong to this type of creation. Arifumi SATO is known as a creator of yokai characters in the recent years. It has been pointed out that there are creative yokai characters in yokai research-related books written by Shigeru MIZUKI, who is a successful yokai cartoon writer. Mixing modern creations with the classical Japanese yokai characters in this manner is often criticized and vilified for slighting the tradition. However, as mentioned earlier, by the Edo period, yokai were actively invented by people such as Sekien TORIYAMA. Therefore, there is an opinion that allows fabrications in Japanese classics yet criticizes modern creations as irrational. Furthermore, there is a favorable view that says that introducing various yokai characters through these books nurtured creativity and emotional development of young readers of the time.

Lexicons and semantics
English-speaking countries
The word yosei is used for the translation of the word 'fairy', a being in European folklore, but animism in cultural anthropology includes both yosei and yokai. When yokai in modern Japanese culture is introduced to English-speaking countries, the translation 'monster' is often used. However, these semantic differences are obviously due to the background view of nature and history, but because they are also largely due simply to translation and nuances, so these words are not synonymous.

Chinese-speaking countries
The character of Yokai, 妖怪, is also written as 妖恠, and they are also expressed as yoki, yosei, yoma, yomi and yorei. Though not used in the same sense as yokai in Japan, yosei and seirei are also words used to describe yokai, and the word seikai is also used. As far as yurei (ghost) is concerned, in terms implying the spirit of the dead, it is the same as in Japan. However, it strongly suggests to imply oni (demon) or kijin (fierce god), and in Japan, its image is closer to that of yasha (Buddhist guardian deities sometimes depicted as demonic warriors). As it can be seen, even though these two countries are culturally close and they both use Chinese characters that have their origin in Chinese civilization, the meaning of yokai differs.

Yokai can be written using other Chinese characters, 夭怪, and words such as yo, oni, obake (ghost), kaii (mysterious creature), kaibutsu (monster), kesho (reincarnated or transformed being), chimimoryo (evil spirits of mountains and rivers), tsukimono (something that possesses people or things), bake (ghost), bakemono (ghost), hyakki (hundred demons), henge (apparition), ma (devil), mamono (devil), mononoke (specter), mononoke, youi, yokaihenge (specter) are also used with a similar meaning. However, 'kaibutsu' refers to those that were not passed down through Japanese folk religion, fabricated yokai characters with a short history or those in folklores from overseas. Alternatively, it tends to refer to grotesque creatures of unknown nature, grotesque alien creatures from outer space or unidentified creatures in fiction.

During early first century Han Dynasty and the Nara period in Japan, yokai was a word that described 'suspicious and bizarre phenomena.'
However, as a result of becoming associated with various gods, folklores, ghost stories and religious values, and being generated and created, phenomena whose details were unknown were considered to have been caused by something that had a specific shape. Therefore, it is considered that the 'being that caused bizarre things' came to be called yokai.

In Japan, demon-like beings from folklores in Europe and the Western Continent may also be treated as yokai. Examples include not only the vampires and werewolves of the west, but also those of Chinese origin such as the ones in the rare Chinese book, "Shan Hai Jing" classics of mountains and seas), and they are called 'tairiku yokai' (continental yokai), or 'seiyo yokai' (western yokai) and 'chugoku yokai' (Chinese yokai), respectively. The reason why overseas demons, that are foreign to the Japanese mode of life, are called 'yokai' is that such non-Japanese cultures flowed into Japan during various periods, and they possess a certain amount of history.

Mokke no saiwai
Mokke no saiwai means 'happiness that was begotten unintentionally.'
It was originally called mononoke no saiwai, and it meant happiness that was brought about by mononoke (yokai). Different stories have been passed down such as yamanba (mountain witch), oni and zashiki warashi bringing about misfortune and or happiness. Yokai is not only a cursed being or a being to be feared, but it sometimes is a being that can bring happiness. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, gods of ancient Shintoism and Shintoism as well as Tsukumogami are also beings that bring about fortune and misfortune. These are characteristics seen in animism (nature worship). Even in weather and climate, an appropriate amount of sunny weather and rain means good harvest and fruitful rain, but too much of them can cause drought and floods. They are associated through these characteristics.

As an expression of unexpected events or things bringing about good things (unexpected growth, advantage or benefit), there are words such as 'bake' and 'obake,' and they are lexicons and expressions of 'obake.'
When 'an unexpected new singer becomes a top-ranking star,' then an expression such as, 'this new singer transformed himself or herself' or 'obake shita' (transformed oneself greatly) is used. It is also used for animals and plants that grew large, and expressions such as 'obake daikon and obake yago (colloquial term for dragonfly larva)' (giant daikon radish and giant dragonfly larva) are used. In ancient Shintoism, along with 'kamusabi,' there is a history and value of respecting not only something that's old, but also something that's large. Examples include sacred mountain Mt. Fuji as shintaizan (mountain worshiped as the sacred dwelling place of a deity or deities), sacred trees and Meotoiwa (Wedded Rocks) in giant tree and giant rock worship. It can be said that there is a connection on the fundamental level to the concept of 'obake' as something that's large.

In addition, for the purpose of bringing about happiness, the act of making oneself more beautiful is called 'kesho' (to wear a make up). It is said that the origin of this word is 'kesho,' which represents yokai and ghosts.

The boundary

In ancient Shintoism, there are mountains and forests called kannabi where 'gods sit.'
These kannabi sites then became connected to iwakura (dwelling place of a god, usually in reference to a large rock), iwasaka (area where a god sits) and himorogi (a sacred space or altar that is set up temporarily and used as a place of worship). While these sacred shrine forests, sacred trees, sacred mountains and Meoto Iwa are sacred realms or sacred bodies, they are also considered as boundaries between 'utsushiyo' (actual world) and 'tokoyo and tokoyo' (eternal night and eternal world). In order to prevent evil and misfortunes from easily traveling back and forth, and in order for people not to be spirited away, shimenawa (sacred rope) or hokora (small shrine) is set up to mark the sacred boundaries. Aside from omagatoki (time to meet the demon) and ushimitsudoki (3 to 3:30 AM), there is a hexing ritual called ushi no koku mairi. In the old custom, one hammers a nail into a sacred tree (sacred body) to become an oni (demon) in order to take out a revenge on someone against whom one holds a grudge. It was considered that by hammering a nail into a sacred tree at ushi no koku (around two to four in the morning, late in the night) the boundary marking the sacred realm would be broken, god (evil or yokai) that brings about misfortune would be summoned from tokoyo (god's world with eternal night), and the ritual performer would gain a supernatural power to hex the person against whom one held a grudge.

The commonality here is the 'phase of place' (environment and situation) that represents a shift (change) in space and time. Dusk and dawn are times that mark a boundary where daytime and night time phases shift. As the saying 'ushimitsudoki when even the plants and trees sleep' goes, no matter how lively or open a place may be during the day, once all activities disappear it feels as if 'the time has stopped and the space has been closed off' with a darkness that's like black ink. In addition, aside from places such as kannabi that mark boundaries where the natural environment changes, places such as hills, mountain passes, crossroads, bridges and boundaries between settlements where the condition of man-made areas such as 'paths' change, were also considered to represent boundaries that marked the unfamiliar world (sacred realm). Therefore, in order to prevent evils and misfortunes from occurring, jizo (guardian deity of children) statues and Doso-jin (traveler's guardian deity) were enshrined to mark the boundaries of the sacred realms. Once social infrastructures were further improved, many things were considered as boundaries between tokoyo and utsushiyo, from shrines, temples and gates of cities to hedges that separate the streets from the premises of traditional Japanese houses, bathrooms, storage rooms and storage shelters located outside the house, and even amado (wooden shutters constructed at the various openings of a building) and shoji (paper-covered sliding screens) that separate the house from the outside. They were considered as times and places where one would encounter a yokai.

Yokai as a theme for creative work

Yokai has been treated often as a theme for works in the field of art and entertainment.

Notable researchers

Listed in the order of their birth.


From 1858 to 1919, he was a Buddhist philosopher who categorized and systematized yokai's existence and truth about their phenomena using philosophy and psychology based on the scientific view of the time. Books he authored include "Yokaigaku" (study of yokai) and "Yokaigaku kogi" (lecture on the study of yokai).


From 1867 to 1941, he was a scholar of natural history and a biologist. He was known as the authority on myxomycete, but he was also a folklorist. He was a friend of Kunio YANAGITA, and they co-authored written works. He commented on yokai from his standpoint in the works that he authored.


From 1875 to 1962, he was a Japanese folklorist. His book, "Tono Monogatari" depicted kappa and zashiki warashi. It is a work of folklore that demonstrates Japanese values, mode of life and customs mainly in Iwate. Other works of his include "Yokai Dangi" (lectures on yokai).

Tsutomu EMA
From 1884 to 1979. After the cultural enlightenment, things such as superstitions were viewed not only negatively, but they had a tendency to be denounced. However, from the viewpoint of Japanese history, he wrote "Nihon Yokai Henkashi" (history of change of Japanese yokai), treated yokai academically, and created a general atmosphere for the public to take a renewed look at yokai.

Hiromi IWAI

Born in 1921. He is a Japanese folklorist, and he studies mainly old Japanese everyday tools and folklore. Books he authored include "Shonenshojoban Nihon Yokai Zukan" (picture book of Japanese specters for boys and girls) and "Yokai to Ema to Shichifukujin" (Specters, Pictorial Offering, and Seven Deities of Good Fortune).


From 1936 to 2000, he was a Japanese folklorist. His books include "Yokai no Minzokugaku Nihon no Mienai Kukan" (Folklore of Specters, Invisible Space in Japan).

Kazuhiko KOMATSU

Born in 1947. He is a cultural anthropologist as well as a Japanese folklorist. His books include "Nihon Yokai Ibunroku" (records of peculiar stories of Japanese yokai) and "Yokaigaku Shinko, Yokai kara miru nihonjin no kokoro" (new thought on the study of yokai, the mind of Japanese people through yokai).

Katsumi TADA

Born in 1961. He is a scholar on yokai.

Sekien TORIYAMA (1712 - 1788)

Representative work, "Gazu Hyakki Yagyo." He was an ukiyoe artist.

Akinari UEDA (1734 - 1809)

Representative work, "Ugetsu Monogatari" (The Tales of Moon and Rain)
He was a literary scholar and a novelist.

Yakumo KOIZUMI (1850 - 1904)

Representative work, "Kaidan" (ghost stories). He was a novelist and a scholar of English literature.

Shigeru MIZUKI (1922 -)

Representative work, "Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro." He is a comic book writer.

Natsuhiko KYOGOKU (1963 -)

His work includes "Kosetsu Hyakumonogatari" (one hundred stories in our society). Novelist and yokai scholar.

Megumi HATAKENAKA (1959 -)

Representative work is "Shabake" (story of ghosts). She is a novelist.

[Original Japanese]