[From August Issue 2013]


When summer comes around in Japan, many movies and TV programs related to “obake” (monsters or ghosts) are released. In addition, haunted house events are held in amusement parks. It’s said that this is because people feel a chill when they see something scary. Another word for “obake” is “bakemono” and these words are used to signify something dreadful that is not of this world.

Generally speaking, obake are divided into two categories: yuurei (ghosts) and youkai (specters or goblins). It is said that the souls of people who have died with unfinished business to complete, remain in this world and appear as yuurei. One traditional image of a Japanese yuurei is a legless woman in a white kimono. She has a pale face and long hair; to show she is dead she has a white triangular piece of cloth tied to her forehead with a cord. With both arms held out and her fingers pointing downwards. She mutters “urameshiya” (I have a grudge).

Making her debut in the Edo period (17th – 19th centuries) ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan,” the most famous yuurei is “Oiwa.” In the story, which has been performed as a kabuki play, Oiwa dies after being poisoned; in order to take revenge on the husband that betrayed her, she turns into a ghost with a horrific face. Another famous ghost is “Okiku,” a maid who appears in the story “Banchou Sara Yashiki.” Blamed for losing a plate, she is killed. The reason many ghosts are female seems to be a reflection of the times when many women were abused and died bearing a grudge.

Youkai are generally human beings or animals that have been possessed by some kind of spirit which transforms them into a strange shape. When speaking of traditional youkai, the “hitotsu me kozou” (one eyed boy) or “rokuro kubi” (long-necked woman) come to mind. However, because of the influence of the popular youkai manga “Gegege-no-Kitarou,” people nowadays fondly think of youkai as being amusing characters. Sakaiminato City in Tottori Prefecture, which is the home-town of creator MIZUKI Shigeru, has created various youkai sightseeing spots to promote tourism.

Adapted into movies, youkai legends still exist in modern times. In 1979 the “Slit-Mouthed Woman” became a social phenomenon. The story goes that a young woman with a mask over her mouth asks children, “Am I beautiful?” When they answer, “Yes, you’re beautiful,” she takes off the mask. As she does so, her mouth appears slashed open up to her ears. Another famous one is “Hanako in the toilet,” in which the ghost of a girl appears in a school toilet.

Lovable Youkai and Shape-Changing Animals

“Tengu” are legendary creatures which have a red face, a long-nose, and wings with which they can fly. Tengu are worshiped as mountain deities. In ancient times villagers feared them, believing that tengu were responsible for mysterious phenomenon in the village. “Kappa” are youkai who live in rivers and ponds. As tall as a child, they have something that looks like a plate on top of their heads. Kappa are cute and, being gods of water, are loved by Japanese.

“Zashiki warashi” (household deities), are spirits of the dead who reside in the tatami room (room with straw matting) of a house. It’s said that they play tricks on family members, but that fortune will fall on those who see them.

On the other hand, it is known that in the old days in Japan foxes or raccoon dogs, took human form, tricked humans, or possessed them. Phrases such as “a bewitching encounter with a fox and a raccoon dog,” are sometimes used in business negotiations. Even cats are sometimes treated as youkai.












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