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  • Japanese: 妖怪 (youkai)

Yôkai is a term that means "bewitching apparitions", and it encompasses the ghosts, monsters, and other phantoms of traditional Japan. The term originally meant just "monsters", and was (and still is to an extent) a synonym for bakemono, until the writings of Meiji scholar Inoue Enryô redefined the term as any scientifically unexplainable phenomena. Today, the word has stretched even more to included the imported legendary creatures from Western myth and folklore. It is often translated as "ghosts" or "demons" in Western writings, although these words carry somewhat inappropriate connotations. These apparitions are often depicted as comical and grotesque as often as scary and dreadful.

"Hyakki Yakô" (百鬼夜行) by Kawanabe Kyôsai.

Some yôkai are of Chinese origin, such as ame-onna (雨女), hakutaku (白沢) or shôjô (猩々); or have developed into something uniquely Japanese from a Chinese concept, such as the tengu (天狗). Others seem to have originated in Japan, such as the kodama (木霊), the spirit of a tree. There is an enormous amount of distinct yôkai that can be named and described; two hundred or more is not a liberal number.

These traditional spooks and spirits often embody the opposite of ideal Japanese behavior: yôkai are known for their wildness and extreme abandon, in a culture that has often been characterized by strict class divide and immobility. Others represent dangers in the natural world, such as the kappa (河童), a cross between a monkey and a tortoise, which haunts rivers and is said to devour the entrails of children who stray too close to the water. Yôkai can also appear in human-like shapes such as rokuro-kubi (ろくろ首), nopperabô (のっぺら坊) or tenome (手の目).

The most well known of yôkai are the aforementioned tengu and kappa, and also the fox (狐, kitsune), the raccoon-dog (狸, tanuki) or badger (mujina), and the oni, a horned human-shaped ogre often carrying an iron club.


See main article Bakemono.

Bakemono (化け物) are the traditional monsters of Japanese culture. The word itself means "changing things", and many bakemono are thus the results of bizarre transformations, from things that are common and normal to things that are mysterious and abnormal. They are also said to be the transformations of shape shifting animals such as foxes or tanuki. Bakemono also include tsukumogami, the animated spirits of everyday household objects. The great majority of yôkai belong under the heading of bakemono.


See main article Yûrei.

Yûrei (幽霊) are the ghosts of human beings which linger in the world out of vengeful anger, regret or a debt to a person such as a newborn baby. Some common yûrei that appear in stories are yuki-onna, the ghost of a woman who has died in the snow, and ubume, the ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth. Some of the most well known yûrei stories come from noh and kabuki dramas, such as Bancho Sarayashiki, Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan, and Botan Dorô.


  • Addiss, Stephen, ed. (1985) Japanese Ghosts and Demons. George Braziller.
  • Figal, Gerald. (2000) Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. Duke University Press.
  • Toelken, Barre and Iwasaka, Michiko. (1994) Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends. Utah State University Press.
  • Morgan, Susan. The Obakemono Project. Retrieved February 21, 2007.