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Have you ever heard of a yokai? Not the Nintendo 3DS game Yo-kai Watch (although that’s not entirely unrelated). We’re talking about the yokai of Japanese folklore; surely you’ve heard of it before if you’re into Japanese culture at all.
If you’re curious about yokai and want to learn more about them, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to answer your questions about yokai and introduce you to some of the most fascinating types of yokai you can find in pop culture.
What Are Yokai?
Yokai (妖怪) roughly translates to “monster,” “demon,” or “spirit.” There’s really no direct equivalent for this word in English. Suffice it to say that the concept of yokai encompasses everything from spooky phenomenons to spirits, from monsters to even animals.
Most yokai are mischievous, but not all of them have bad intentions. Yokai can take the shape of many different creatures—some might look like humans or animals, while others might have the ability to shapeshift entirely. You’ll even see some yokai that resemble Western goblins or elves.
These creatures have been a part of Japanese folklore for centuries, passed down through generations by word of mouth, and have made their way in Japanese artwork and theater. Modern examples of yokai exist in video games like Pokemon and anime like Spirited Away.
The 5 Most Famous Types of Yokai
There’s a huge variety of yokai in Japanese folklore. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous types of yokai that are commonly referenced in Japanese culture, primarily in video games and anime.
Kappa are Japanese monsters that resemble the cast of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a little too closely. These creatures have a human-like appearance, webbed toes and fingers, and a turtle shell on their back. They also have an indent in the top of their head that collects water—if the water ever empties, a kappa could die.
Kappa traditionally reside in lakes and rivers. They almost look like human-turtle hybrids with their green color and scaly skin. These amphibious creatures like to pull relatively childish pranks like sneaking a peek up a woman’s kimono and even farting. However, Kappa can pose a threat to swimmers—they’ll pull people underwater with their expert wrestling skills.
Besides Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you can also find Kappa in Animal Crossing. The character—cleverly named Kapp’n—is a seafaring kappa.
Kitsune are foxes that possess shape-shifting abilities and a high amount of intelligence. There are two main types of kitsune: the zenko are kind and godly, while the yako have mischievous or malevolent intentions.
Kitsune can shapeshift into humans, often taking the form of lovers, friends, or helpful guardians—they’re most often seen as beautiful women. These wise creatures can have up to nine tails. According to Japanese tradition, only a kitsune that has lived over 100 years can grow extra tails.
Naruto is probably the first anime that comes to mind when you think about kitsune. The powerful nine-tailed fox lies sealed within Naruto, giving him a huge boost in power. You’ll also find a rendition of the kitsune in Tails from the Sonic series, Ahri from League of Legends, and Ninetails from Okami.
Shikigami are tiny ghosts that a summoner can call forth during a ceremony. You typically can’t see shikigami, however, a summoner has the ability to bind them to small pieces of human-shaped paper. I guess learning how to make those paper doll chains in kindergarten comes in handy after all.
The person who calls upon Shikigami must know what they’re doing, otherwise, the Shikigami could end up killing its invoker. A summoner can manipulate shikigami to do tasks such as keeping an eye on an enemy or even stealing from someone.
Shikigami is one of the most notable minor characters in Spirited Away (and Studio Ghibli films as a whole). After Haku goes after Zeniba’s gold seal, Zeniba commands the shikigami to hunt and wound him. You’ll also see shikigami take the form of a human in both Gintama and Inuyasha.
Onryo is the type of yokai that will give you nightmares—they often represent an angry or jealous spirit. Instead of the soul moving onto the afterlife, it resides on Earth to wreak havoc and revenge. Onryo are usually victims of murder, a natural disaster or war, so their unhappiness is warranted.
Powered by wrath, onryo will destroy the lives of innocent people to cope with their own anger. Although they can easily kill someone, they gain satisfaction out of seeing them suffer. Onryo will put a curse on their victim, which affects their whole circle of friends and family.
You might immediately recognize the onryo’s similarity to the ghosts in The Grudge and the haunting black-haired spirit in The Ring. These stories and characters are heavily inspired by the myth of the onryo.
Nurikabe have to be one of the most frustrating yokai around. The name nurikabe means “plaster wall” in English, so I think you can see where this is going. Nurikabe are essentially the Snorlax of yokai—they’re invisible walls that stand in the way of travelers.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the type of wall that you can just hop over or go around. These walls stretch out forever, so you can’t even walk around or climb over it. Some stories claim that using a stick to tap the bottom-left side causes it to vanish.
The Super Mario series has created their own rendition of nurikabe: the recurring Whomp enemy. If you’ve played any Super Mario games, chances are that you’ve encountered one of these annoying creatures. These big, grey walls have arms and legs, and they’ll try to crush you as you walk past.
A Taste of Japanese Culture
When you look closely enough, you’ll notice that anime, movies, and video games are chock-full of yokai. In fact, it’s become something of a subgenre. For more examples of yokai in modern expressions of art, check out the best supernatural anime about yokai.
But there’s a lot more to Japanese culture! For something a little more tangible… and edible… how about a literal taste of Japan? The snacks and sweets that come out of that country will blow you away and leave a lasting impression.
Want to experience a taste of Japan right from your home? TokyoTreat will send you a big box of unique Japanese snacks, drinks, and candies every month. Learn more about TokyoTreat!