February 22, 2024

A 500-Page Book Explores the Ghosts & Monsters from Japanese Folklore


West­ern­ers tend to think of Japan as a land of high-speed trains, expert­ly pre­pared sushi and ramen, auteur films, bril­liant ani­ma­tion, ele­gant wood­block prints, glo­ri­ous old hotels, sought-after jazz-records, cat islands, and ghost towns. The last of those has, of course, not been shown to har­bor lit­er­al wraiths and spir­its. But if that sort of thing hap­pens to be what you’re look­ing for, Japan’s long his­to­ry offers up a wealth of mytho­log­i­cal chimeras whose form, behav­ior, and sheer num­bers exceed any of our expec­ta­tions. Wel­come to the super­nat­ur­al realm of the shapeshift­ing, good- and bad-luck-bring­ing, trick-play­ing yōkai.

“Trans­lat­ing to ‘strange appari­tion,’ the Japan­ese word yōkai refers to super­nat­ur­al beings, mutant mon­sters, and spir­its,” writes Colos­sal’s Grace Ebert. “Mis­chie­vous, gen­er­ous, and some­times venge­ful, the crea­tures are root­ed in folk­lore and expe­ri­enced a boom dur­ing the Edo peri­od when artists would ascribe inex­plic­a­ble phe­nom­e­na to the unearth­ly char­ac­ters.”

Hiroshi­ma Pre­fec­ture’s Miyoshi Mononoke Muse­um, whose open­ing we announced here on Open Cul­ture in 2019, “hous­es the largest yōkai col­lec­tion in the world with more than 5,000 works, and a book recent­ly pub­lished by PIE Inter­na­tion­al show­cas­es some of the most icon­ic and bizarre pieces from the insti­tu­tion.”

Writ­ten by eth­nol­o­gist Yumo­to Koichi, a yōkai expert whose dona­tions con­sti­tute most of the Miyoshi Mononoke Muse­um’s col­lec­tion, the 500-page YOKAI offers “the rare expe­ri­ence of see­ing the brush­work of Edo-era painters like Tsukio­ka Yoshi­toshi,” whom we’ve fea­tured here as Japan’s last great wood­block artist. Poised between the human and ani­mal king­doms, reflect­ing the ways of the past as well as the forces of nature, yōkai would seem to belong entire­ly to the tales of a bygone age. But in fact, many of them have joined the canon since Tsukioka’s time, hav­ing emerged from haunt­ed-school rumors, the fer­tile imag­i­na­tions of man­ga artists, and even video games. Whether to accept these “mod­ern yōkai” has been a mat­ter of some debate, but as Japan­ese pop­u­lar cul­ture has long shown us, every age needs its own mon­sters.

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed con­tent:

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Japan­ese Folk­lore Mon­sters Is Now Open

The Ghosts and Mon­sters of Hoku­sai: See the Famed Wood­block Artist’s Fear­some & Amus­ing Visions of Strange Appari­tions

When a UFO Came to Japan in 1803: Dis­cov­er the Leg­end of Utsuro-bune

Behold the Mas­ter­piece by Japan’s Last Great Wood­block Artist: View Online Tsukio­ka Yoshitoshi’s One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon (1885)

Dis­cov­er the Ghost Towns of Japan — Where Scare­crows Replace Peo­ple, and a Man Lives in an Aban­doned Ele­men­tary School Gym

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.





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