Sunday, 14 June 2009

Japanese Creatures I: Yokai

Hello folks, and welcome to The Obscuritan. Our port of call this month is Japan, where we’ll be taking a look at some of the Ghouls and Ghosts of Feudal Japan – the Yokai (Goblins), Bakemono and Henge (Shapeshifters and monstrous animals) and Yurei (Ghosts) and Tsukumogami (Living Objects). The terms Yokai and Bakemono (“thing that changes”) are often used interchangeably. For the time being, we’ll be using the name Yokai to talk about the “species” of creatures – namely, those that are born as monsters – and Bakemono for creatures or objects which have become monsters. Expect more on these in the next 2 weeks.


Simply put, the name Yokai (Yōkai, Youkai) is equivalent to Goblin or Monster, but just like the English words, this label encompasses thousands of different creatures. And, just like the Goblins and Monsters in the popular consciousness, stories of the Yokai include many thousands of miscellaneous “Goblins” for which there are no name, and indeed many entirely invented by the many artists such as Toriyama Sekien who popularized them (of which I have included a few). Nevertheless, there are many that have become popular characters, and we’ll explore some of them here. Some appear to be explanations for various phenomena, others are merely creatures who enjoy doing (or are forced to do) such things. Some are mischievous, some are dangerous, and most are utterly bizarre.


A little bearded man, the Azuki-Arai sits down by the river with a big pot of red Azuki beand, casually singing to himself “Shall I wash my Azuki Beans, or shall I catch a human to eat? Shoki Shoki! [the sound of beans being washed]”. The answer, thankfully isn’t homicidal; the Azuki-Arai is very timid, and dives into the river, beans and all, at the mere sound of a person approaching.


This creature takes the form of a small child, who visits the bathrooms and washhouses of the unhygienic, where it licks the surfaces of toilets, baths and sinks. While on the surface of it this makes them look clean, the saliva of the Akaname carries virulent disease. Speaking of nocturnal lickings, the Tenjo-Name, a similar spirit who is never seen but whose presence seldom goes unnoticed, licks other surfaces throughout the house, particularly the ceilings, leaving damp, worn-through patches.


Those who find themselves walking alone at night may get the feeling that they are being followed, and sometimes even hear faint footsteps on the road. The Betobeto-san is invisible, and seemingly does not harm those who it follows, but for those who become increasingly disturbed by this presence, one only has to step aside and indicate for the creature to go ahead for it to carry on about its way, leaving you to go about yours.

Hitotsume Kozo

A small childlike spirit sometimes dressed in monk's clothing which frolics around settled areas causing mischief and scaring people with its large, cyclopean eye. Although it usually does not do any harm, it is also said to be a harbinger of disease, and can usually be shamed into fleeing by hanging up a collander, mocking the Hitotsume Kozo's one eye with its many.


A malicious water-spirit which appears as a short, man-sized bipedal turtle with an apelike beaked face and a hollow indentation in its skull filled with water. This creature lurks in waterways, drowning swimming children and killing people relieving themselves in the river by ripping out their intestines via their anus. Mothers would throw cucumbers in the water to appease the kappa while their children swam, and warriors could easily defeat them in wrestling matches by bowing to them - returning the favour, the water of life would fall out of the Kappa's head, weakening it greatly.


This creature takes a variety of forms, often appearing as a living shadow or in the form of a priest. Either way, it assails humans by creeping up behind them in their shadow. Once the unwitting person notices the presence and turns round, the Nobiagari grows quickly to a tremendous height as the person cranes their neck to look further and further up. Usually this is merely a prank designed to make the victim fall flat on their behind, though in some accounts the creature uses this opportunity to lunge at the victim’s throat. Said in some cases to be a manifestation of a Henge, either a fox, a badger or in one region the (now-extinct) Japanese River-Otter.


A being which takes the form of a normal human being, save for a smooth, featureless face, which enjoys using this form to torment humans. However, some accounts may place it as a Bakemono (therefore a human who has had their features removed somehow). Those who travel late at night are often harassed by Noppera-bo in teams, where one will converse with the traveller for a while before revealing its disfigurement, whereupon the traveller will flee to a nearby food-cart or somesuch and frantically explain their plight to the owner, describing the creature’s appearance. The owner will then turn round to face the victim, revealing its own blank face and ask “Like this?”.

This being is often mistakenly given the name Mujina, which is in fact the name of the Henge goblin-badger (more on Henge next month). This problem derived from Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan (Stories of Strange Things, one of the earliest English collections of Japanese folklore) giving it that name, though it is possible that the shapeshifting Mujina may assume this form, as can other Henge.


These creatures wander aimlessly around settled areas in the dead of night at years end. Roughly humanoid, they appear as large, blobby mountains of flesh with no visible eyes or mouths, and reportedly stink of rotting flesh. They pose no threat to humans, and if one can manage to kill and eat one, its flesh is said to bestow eternal life and vitality. One was reported to have appeared in the court of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who only found out about its properties after he had had it safely released.


Often used generically to mean "demon", Oni are actually closer to Ogres. Oni roam the land in packs or gangs, and appear as large, muscular men with sharp claws and teeth, horns and manes of hair, often wearing Tigerskin loincloths. This combination of Tiger and Ox features stems from their origins in the Northeast direction - North and East being represented in Astrology by these animals - in which lies the Kimon Gate to the underworld. Though these creatures often get drunk and commit wanton destruction, there are tales of repentant Oni becoming monks and priests. Furthermore, at the start of the year, villagers would parade through the village throwing Azuki beans to repel the Oni, shouting "Oni out, Good Luck In!"


This creature lurks at the entrances to Shinto temple-complexes and acts as a sort of nocturnal guardian. When impious or hostile people attempt to pass through the entrance Torii gate, the Otoroshi leaps down upon them and devours them. However in other accounts, it also does this in other high places and generally preys upon humans.


The first occurrence of these spirits was in China, where similar creatures called Xīng Xīng or Shēng Shēng (fittingly meaning “Lively-lively”) were recorded in the ancient bestiary “Shan Hai Jing” (Classic of Mountains and Seas). In the Shan Hai Jing, however, accounts vary as to its appearance, being either green or blue, an ape or a hog with a human face. The Japanese incarnation, however, takes the form of a short manlike spirit with a mane of flame-red hair (sometimes a whole hairy body) and matching skin. Much more friendly than most Yokai, in stories where it occurs it is perpetually drunk with Sake, and is more than happy to share with humans. In one folk story it grants Sake with healing properties, but with a catch that only the pure hearted gain any benefit, and in the Noh play Shojo Midare, it rewards the owner of the wine-cart it frequents with a jar that never empties. Shares its name, fittingly, with the Japanese name for Orang-utan.


Its name meaning "Heavenly Dog", derived from the Chinese Tiāngoǔ, a dog which would devour the sun during eclipses, these are perhaps the most Goblinlike of the Yokai, appearing dressed as men in the garb of the mystic mountain priests (Yamabushi) either in humanoid form (Hanadaka-Tengu) or as crowlike beings (Karasu-Tengu). Though very powerful, Tengu are generally ambivalent, and spend their time in the mountains away from people, tricking those that do pass by. However, many stories have featured the Tengu manipulating events in the background, whether by starting wars through their shapeshifting abilities, or by training great heroes in the warrior arts, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

The Night Parade (Hyakki Yakō)

During the summer nights, Yokai, Bakemono and other spirits are believed to gather together and march through the streets, the crowd growing larger and larger as they go as the many creatures of the city join them. A popular choice for artists, allowing them to draw many different sorts of Yokai as well as make up their own. Though artists usually depicted these phenomena as humorous, and as long as one remains in the home one is usually safe, these parades included creatures both mischievous and dangerous.

This is only a brief glance at a few of these creatures - there are far, far more I haven't yet talked about. Expect a follow-up series in the near future featuring more.

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