Yokai: The Mysterious and Fascinating World of Japanese Folklore

Have you ever heard of yokai? These are supernatural creatures that appear in Japanese folklore, often with strange and whimsical features. Some are benevolent, some are malevolent, and some are just plain weird. But they all have one thing in common: they reflect the rich and diverse culture of Japan.

In this article, we will explore the world of yokai, learn about their origins and types, and discover some of the most famous and popular ones. We will also see how yokai have influenced Japanese art, literature, and pop culture, and how they continue to fascinate people today.

What is a Yokai?

The word yokai (妖怪) literally means “bewitching apparition” or “strange phenomenon”. It is a broad term that encompasses various kinds of supernatural beings, such as ghosts, spirits, monsters, demons, shapeshifters, and animals with human traits.

Yokai can be found in nature, in urban settings, or in the afterlife. They can be friendly or hostile, helpful or harmful, depending on their personality and mood.

Yokai have been part of Japanese folklore since ancient times. They are believed to originate from various sources, such as animism (the belief that everything has a spirit), Shintoism (the indigenous religion of Japan), Buddhism (the imported religion from India and China), and foreign influences (such as Chinese mythology and European legends). Yokai also reflect the fears, hopes, and values of the people who created them.

What are the Types of Yokai?

There are many ways to classify yokai, but one common method is to divide them into three main categories: yurei (幽霊), obake (お化け), and mononoke (物の怪).

Yurei are the spirits of the dead who have not found peace. They usually have a grudge or a regret that prevents them from moving on to the next world. They often appear as pale and transparent figures with long hair and white clothes. Some examples of yurei are onryo (vengeful ghosts), ubume (ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth), and funayurei (ghosts of drowned sailors).

Obake are the shapeshifters who can change their form at will. They usually have a playful or mischievous nature, and like to trick or scare humans. They often appear as animals with human features or objects that come to life. Some examples of obake are kitsune (foxes), tanuki (raccoon dogs), and tsukumogami (household items).

Mononoke are the mysterious and powerful entities that dwell in nature or in human-made structures. They usually have a majestic or fearsome appearance, and can cause harm or blessings to humans. They often appear as monsters, demons, or gods. Some examples of mononoke are tengu (bird-men), oni (ogres), and ryu (dragons).

What are some popular yokai?

There are hundreds of yokai in Japanese folklore, each with its own unique story and characteristics. Here are some of the most popular ones:


A water-dwelling creature with a turtle-like shell, webbed feet, a beak-like mouth, and a bald spot on its head that holds water. It is said to be fond of cucumbers and sumo wrestling but also to drown people and animals by pulling out their shirikodama (a mythical organ located near the anus).


A woman whose neck can stretch to incredible lengths at night. She uses her long neck to spy on people or to lick up oil from lamps. She may not be aware of her condition or may try to hide it from others.


A snow woman who appears on cold winter nights. She has pale skin, long black hair, blue lips, and a white kimono. She can freeze people to death with her breath or lure them into the snow with her beauty. She may also fall in love with a human man and try to live with him.


The leader of all yokai who can command them at will. He has an old man’s face with a gourd-shaped head, a long white beard, and a black robe. He likes to sneak into people’s houses when they are away and act as if he owns the place.


A mermaid-like creature with long hair, scales, a beak-like mouth, and three legs. It is said to appear from the sea and prophesy good or bad harvests or epidemics. It also tells people to draw its picture and show it to others to prevent or cure diseases.

How Have Yokai influenced Japanese culture?

Yokai have been a source of inspiration and fascination in Japanese culture for centuries. They are mythical creatures that have been depicted in various forms of art, such as paintings, sculptures, woodblock prints, and comics. Yokai have also been featured in various forms of literature, including folktales, novels, poems, and manga. Additionally, they have been adapted into various forms of media, such as films, animations, games, and toys.

Some of the most famous and influential works that feature yokai are:

  • Hyakki Yagyo (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons): A series of paintings by the 16th-century artist Toriyama Sekien that depict various yokai in a procession.
  • Kwaidan (Strange Tales): A collection of stories by the 19th-century writer Lafcadio Hearn that introduce yokai to Western audiences.
  • GeGeGe no Kitaro: A manga and anime series by the 20th-century artist Mizuki Shigeru that follows the adventures of a boy who is half-yokai and his friends who fight against evil yokai.
  • Spirited Away: A film by the 21st-century director Miyazaki Hayao that tells the story of a girl who enters a world of yokai and tries to save her parents who have been turned into pigs.

Why Are Yokai Still popular today?

Yokai are still popular today because they appeal to people’s curiosity and imagination. They offer a glimpse into a different and mysterious world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. They also reflect the diversity and complexity of human emotions and experiences. They can be scary or funny, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, or anything in between. They can also teach us valuable lessons about ourselves and our relationship with nature and society.

In conclusion, yokai are an integral part of Japanese folklore and culture. They are supernatural creatures that have various origins, types, and characteristics. They are also sources of inspiration and fascination for many forms of art and media. They are still relevant and popular today because they capture people’s interest and creativity. Yokai are more than just legends; they are living expressions of Japan’s rich and diverse culture.