Yokai Explained

Yokai Explained

We all love something cooling during the summer heat. And what can be more refreshing than a spooky story that makes you shiver?

But sorry, I can’t handle scary stories. They are, well, scary. Japanese people, on the other hand, are really good at making and retelling them.

So this time let me introduce you to the Japanese monsters – yokai and help you understand how they came to life and what turned them into Pokemon. I’ll also tell you how strict censorship made yokai superstars of the Edo period, which Japanese monster made a big fuss in 19th century London and New York and why in the 21st century we are still fascinated by yokai, creating more and more of them all the time.

Part 1 – The old monsters

  • Kami, yokai, yurei and other terminology
  • The ancient monsters: Yamata no Orochi and tsuchigumo
  • Onmyoji and demon parades of Heian capital
  • Minamoto Raiko vs. Shuten Doji
  • Tengu and their friends yamabushi
  • The birth of Tsukumogami

Part 2 – From Tsukumogami to Pockemon

  • Sca-a-a-ry stories – Hyakumonogatari and the many yokai of Edo period
  • The new, the old, the foreign – yokai enciclopedia Gazu Hyakkiyagyo
  • Yokai in Art and Literature
  • Feejee Mermaid – an inocent fishermen hobby
  • Yokai that came from West – Korori and cholera epidemics of 19th century
  • The true and fake yokai of Inoue Enryo
  • Lafcadio Hearn – a foreigner who loved yokai
  • Yokai in the 20th century. Yanagita Kunio and Mizuki Shigeru
  • Yokai boom! From Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro to Pockemon and Yokai watch

BONUS: on Patreon, you can find my first Patron-exclusive bonus episode where I want to bring your attention to three yokai. They are not as famous as kappa or tanuki, yet their stories brilliantly illustrate why Japan has so many different yokai. The simple answer is – anything can become yokai. For a more detailed one check out this patron-only episode.

If you liked this episode, don’t forget to subscribe.

Or maybe leave me a comment or buy me a coffee:

This time the list of things I want you to read or watch got so long I had to stop myself at some point. But if you feel I didn’t include something important, let me know in the comments and I’ll update the list.


Great book on Yokai. Unlike many others, it doesn’t only describe the most popular yokai out there but offers an analysis of how they came to life, evolved and spread around the country. It also has an extensive section dedicated to the history of yokai studies in Japan.
That said author does spend quite some time sharing his memories of living and working in Japan. Which is cute, but could easily be omitted.

Another book by the author that I have yet to read.

The problem with the English edition is that the timeline is not clear. It’s different in Japan, but it works for this country and it’s easy to navigate. Early modern is… when? Had to think about it every time and I’m still not sure I guessed right.

It’s very informative yet hard to read (and at times really boring).
Not exactly what I was looking for.

While the book does introduce you to yokai, yurei and outsiders, the author mainly focuses on how related research developed over the years, how approaches changed and where are we (and the author himself as a leading yokai scholar of our time) now.
The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore while it has its downsides makes for a way better introduction to yokai culture in my opinion.

As put by the authors themselves “It is not intended as an authoritative last word on the origins or purported behaviour of these creatures. It is a collection of conventional wisdom (perhaps “uncanny wisdom” would be a better term?) concerning the yokai—the sorts of things the average Japanese individual might know about them. Think of it as a springboard for further exploration on your own, and a leg up to understanding the many references and allusions to yokai that appear in modern Japanese films, literature, and even everyday speech”

If you want to read more about different yokai, you’ll need a yokai guy. And you’ll be surprised but he exists – Matthew Meyer, The Yokai Guy. He has an awesome blog and a few book publications. Whichever you go for, interesting stories and beautiful illustrations will make you want more.

Kwaidan is the most famous book by Lafcadio Hearn. That’s where we encounter his legendary Yuki-onna and Miminashi Hoichi. But you can pick any of Hearn’s books and be sure to find yokai there mixed with other completely normal things he found fascinating, like mosquitoes, graveyards or oranges.

As for fiction works mentioned in the episode, you might want to check out

Though not mentioned in the episode, this book is a brilliant example of yokai being used to present the problems of human society.

While I’m not familiar with Ubume no Natsu, “Moryo no Hako” or “Box of Demons” is accessible in all formats: book, movie, manga and anime. So you can pick the one that suits you better.


  • Begin Japanology Season 4, Episode 38 – Japanofiles: Matt Alt
  • Japanology Plus, Season 1, Episode 23 – Yokai

As usual, I can’t continue without reminding you about my favourite show.

Ok, I’m guilty, I spend many hours a week on YouTube. Last time I spent at least three watching this guy’s videos. They are funny yet informative and I absolutely loved the topics he covers. So give this channel a try. Lots of yokai stories there, but I particularly loved the series on sexuality in medieval Japan.

  • Uncanny Japan Podcast

You’re listening to Japan Explained, so I guess you like podcasts. And here is one dedicated, as the name suggests, to the uncanny side of Japan where yokai, yurei and other spooky creatures are abundant.

Anime and manga

There are too many titles to mention, so I’ll limit myself to two categories: the ones famous in Japan and the ones I actually watched/read and liked.

  • Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro

Starting with the famous ones, Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro by Mizuki Shigeru is the one everybody in Japan knows about. What not everybody knows about is that there is another anime adaptation of this story called “Hakaba no Kitaro” – dark and spooky yet irresistible for some reason.

  • Yokai Ningen Bem
  • Natsume Yujincho

This one is a big hit for a reason – it’s kind, warm and funny yet no weapons, blood or fan service involved.

  • Yokai watch

That’s the one I personally hate because it’s everywhere. Ok, not so much anymore because “Kimetsu no Yaiba” replaced it, but it’ll take time to unmake the damage.

  • Mononoke Hime, Spirited Away, Pom Poko, My Neighbour Totoro

Studio Ghibli here, and they couldn’t miss the chance to show us some yokai.

  • Mononoke
  • Hyaku Monogatari Kaidan

These two titles are related. Hyaku Monogatari Kaidan is exactly what the title suggests – a collection of spooky stories arranged like a Hyaku Monogatari gathering of the old days with each story being told by a new narrator. And one of them talks about the medicine seller from Mononoke.

  • Uchouten Kazoku

A funny story about a tanuki family living in Kyoto. Actually, Kyoto was the reason I started watching it. You are travelling through the familiar city yet there is magic everywhere. What not to like?

  • Hozuki no Reitetsu

Not technically yokai-related, yet I couldn’t omit this anime from the list. The story tells us about daily life in Japanese Hell, its communications with Japanese Heaven and creatures populating both. It’s hilarious at times and yet there are plenty of opportunities to learn something new.

  • Shaman King

Even though Shaman King features very few yokai, it’s a good reminder that every country has its folk-tales, mythical creatures and magic rituals.

  • Shonen Onmyoji
  • Tactics
  • Amatsuki

I don’t know how is it better to describe the last three entries. All three are short anime series, all three are a bit weird and not something I regularly watch. Yet each of them features a good number of yokai rarely seen in other anime.

Still here?

Check out Japan Explained on Patreon to read travel suggestions for the episode.

And see you soon. Bye!

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