With Autumn here and the spooky and mysterious mood setting in slowly, it’s the perfect time to get to know the Youkai [妖怪], an important part of not only Shinto but also Japan’s Ancient culture and folklore ! Along with Kami, Youkai are also given a special place in Japanese mythology. Sometimes they are worshipped, sometimes they are feared. So let’s see what makes these creatures so different!
Origins and History
Youkai originated from the Japanese concept of Animism which believes that all objects, places and creatures have a distinct spiritual essence llike emotions and personalities. There was believed to be two types of spirits that existed; peaceful ones called nigi-mitama and violent ones called ara-mitama. The ritual for turning a violent spirit into a peaceful spirit was called Chinkon. The ara-mitama that failed to turn into a deity due to a lack of sufficient respect, or those who lost the strength of worshippers after losing their divinity became Youkai.
In the later periods, tales of Youkai were told during the Edo period [1600-1870]. The very first mentions of Youkai are found in a Chinese book from the 1st Century AD called Xunshi zhuan and in Shoku Nihongi [Imperially commissioned Japanese text] in the 7th Century AD. These books used the word “Youkai” as a way to say a “Phenomenon that surpasses the human mind” and “Strange phenomenon” in general. Various pictorial depictions of the Youkai began to occur in illustrated handscrolls in the Heian period [800-1200] and also many books like Konjaku Monogatari began to have frequent stories of Youkai.
Kappa, meaning “River Child”, are said to be youkai that live underwater but also sometimes come on the land. These youkai are not entirely antagonistic in nature. They are said to resemble humans but have green skin and webbed feet with a turtle-like shell on their back. Their most distinguishing feature is that they have a dish like depression on their head called sara which retains water. If this dish is damaged or if the water is spilled then the kappa will be unable to move and might even die. These youkai are known to possess keen intelligence thus being able to befriend humans and learn their language. Kappa are said to love cucumbers and sumo wrestling and are said to wrestle with humans for fun as well. But once you encounter a kappa only a few methods of escape are known – by spilling the water in their dish or by defeating them in shogi or sumo. After spilling the water, if a person refills it they are known to serve that person for the rest of their lives! The thing that makes them unique is that they are extremely honorable and never break a promise.
Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox, but also describes the fox-like youkai. Lores depict legendary foxes as superior, intelligent beings possessing supernatural powers. According to some folklore, foxes have the ability to shapeshift into humans and some say that kitsune use these to trick others. Foxes and humans lived together in ancient Japan which gave rise to these legends. Kitsune are said to be the messengers of Shinto Kami and the more tails they have, the older, wiser and more powerful they are. Kitsune are known as youkai not because they are spirits, but because here the word “spirit” is used to reflect a state of enlightenment or knowledge. There are two major types of Kitsune – Zenko, which are benevolent and celestial, and Yako, who tend to be mischievous or even malicious. Zenko who exceed the age of 1000 years become Tenko having nine tails and a golden colour and then ascend to heaven. Apart from messengers, Kitsune are also commonly portrayed as lovers, often appearing in the guise of beautiful human women in order to trick young men. On more than one occasion, this has resulted in a marriage with an unwitting human as well! Some Kitsune even spend most of their lives in human form, adopting human names and customs, taking human jobs, and even raising families.
Tengu are mythological beings which are Youkai but are considered to be divine. The tengu in art appears in a variety of shapes. It usually falls somewhere between a large, monstrous bird and a wholly anthropomorphized being, often with a red face or an unusually large or long nose. In Buddhism, they are considered the harbingers of war and disruptive demons, the reason being there are two types of Tengu.
Kotengu resemble large birds of prey with few human features and sometimes carry weapons stolen from temples. These behave like savage monsters and have little respect for humans. They consume human flesh and commit heinous crimes for fun.
Daitengu means “Greater Tengu” and are much larger than Kotengu and look more human than bird-like. They dress in the robes of a monk, have a red face and incredibly long noses which indicate how powerful they are. They live solitary lives on top of mountains in thoughtful meditation, intent on perfecting themselves. They are very intelligent but still are savage and unpredictable. This combination results in them being the most dangerous and are also thought to be the ones causing natural disasters and other catastrophes.
So, while Kotengu terrorized people whenever they can, over the centuries, Daitengu were viewed less as the enemy of mankind and more as a race of god-like sages living deep in the mountains.
Oni are one of the greatest icons of Japanese folklore. They are large and scary, with a hulking figure and are sometimes taller than trees. They come in many varieties, but are most commonly depicted with red or blue skin, wild hair, two or more horns, and fang-like tusks while carrying a large iron club called a kanabou. All oni possess extreme strength and constitution, and many of them are accomplished sorcerers. They are ferocious demons, bringers of disaster, spreaders of disease, and punishers of the damned in hell. Oni are born when truly wicked humans die and end up in one of the many Buddhist hells. Occasionally, when a human is so utterly wicked that his soul is beyond any redemption, he transforms into an oni while still alive. He then remains on earth to terrorize the living. These transformed oni are the ones most legends tell about, and the ones who pose the most danger to humankind.
In Japanese folklore, Tsukumogami are tools that have acquired a spirit and thus became a youkai. Because the term has been applied to several different concepts in Japanese folklore, there remains some confusion as to what the term actually means. Today, the term is generally understood to be applied to virtually any object “that has reached its 100th birthday and thus became alive and self-aware”, though this definition is not without controversy. It is also said that if objects aren’t treated with enough respect then those objects can harm the owner after becoming a youkai.
Yamata no Orochi is a giant serpent youkai with eight heads and eight tails and said to be the only one of its kind. It appears in the earliest written Japanese documents, but without a doubt, the legend goes back even farther into pre-history. The legend of it is associated closely with the Shinto religion and goes as follows –
“Ages ago, the storm god, Susanoo, was thrown out of heaven and descended to earth. Then he came upon an elderly couple of gods who told him that they had sacrificed several of their daughters to Orochi each year and now only their last daughter remained. Susanoo explained that he was the elder brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and offered to slay the beast in return for her hand in marriage. He then kept a powerful sake to lure Orochi and after drinking it, the monster fell into a deep, drunken sleep. Susanoo used this chance to make his attack. When Susanoo had cut the creature down to its fourth tail, his sword shattered into pieces. Examining the part of Yamata no Orochi’s tail which broke his sword, Susanoo discovered another sword within the creature’s flesh: the legendary katana Kusanagi no Tsurugi. Susanoo eventually offered Kusanagi as a gift to his sister, Amaterasu, and was allowed to return to heaven. Today, the sword which came from Yamata no Orochi’s tail is said to be safeguarded in the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.”
The speciality of this story is that not only is it ancient but even today many elements from this story are used by Japanese authors in their books.
Youkai are not only a part of the ancient culture but also have blended well with modern culture. For example, in Kyoto, there is a Youkai Street where shops have statues of Youkai in front of them. Intentionally or unintentionally many anime and manga make several references to these as well which many times go unnoticed. Some popular examples include Orochimaru from Naruto who is based on Yamata no Orochi and twins Ram-Rem from Re:Zero who are based on the story of Blue and Red Oni from ancient folklore. So be alert for who knows maybe you might spot one of these as well !