Now, Pokemon has been a major pop culture player since roughly 1996. However, Pokemon is not all that there is in the “strange creatures” genre from Japan. There is also Digimon, which started its life as a virtual pet and Monster Rancher, a Playstation series. We also can’t forget their giant cousins the Kaiju like Godzilla, Gamera and others of that ilk. So, what is it about Japan that makes their pop culture so prone to creating bizarre, super-powered beasties? Well, it turns out creatures like that were part of their culture going way back. Their folklore is filled with weird monsters.
So, let’s go ahead and take a look at them . Let’s talk about Yokai.
Now, I’ve heard this word translated about a million ways. I’ve seen it as “Japanese fairies”, “Japanese ghosts”, “Japanese spirits”, “Japanese monsters” and “Japanese demons”. The truth is that none of these are quite accurate and the best translation would likely be “supernatural creature”. Also, like “anime” or “manga”, the word “yokai” is often used by Americans to describe the specific Japanese product. However, the Japanese use it a bit wider even referring to Western creatures like vampires and werewolves as yokai. I’ve already talked a bit about oni in my Momotaro post and tanuki in my Folktales from Japan post, so we’ll leave those ones out for now. Otherwise, here are some of the more notable yokai I know of.
Kappa- Kappa are one of the more popularly known yokai in Japan. Kappa are water creatures that are the size of a child. They have scaly skin, webbed hands and feet and beaks and shells like turtles. They can supposedly fart three times as potently as a human being (not kidding) and their arms are joined within their shell so that if you pulled on one it would get longer while the other got shorter. Kappa live in rivers and ponds and have been known to drown people or bite them to death underwater. You can get them to leave you alone by offering them cucumbers, which are their favorite food. Also, while they’re tough to beat in water, they’re not hard to deal with on land. Kappa have a depression on the top of their head that needs to stay filled with water. If it spills out, then the kappa is rendered immobile and may even die. So, the easiest way to get the best of a kappa on land is to get it to bow to you so that the water spills out of the depression on its head.
Kappa appear in some form in all sorts of Japanese pop culture. In many video games like Animal Crossing, turtle-like creatures that appear are based on kappa. I also can’t help but note the similarity between the word “kappa” and the name of Super Mario’s turtle-like enemies the “koopa”, but Nintendo has never admitted any connection. The Pokemon Lombre and Golduck also seems to be inspired by kappa.
Baku- Baku is a yokai originally transplanted from China. It is described as having the head of an elephant, body of a bear, tail of an ox and eyes of a rhinoceros. Overall though, it’s usually identified with the tapir. In fact, I’ve even heard of it referred to as the “dream-eating tapir”. The baku is actually considered good luck and a guardian spirit. It feeds on the dreams of sleeping humans, particularly nightmares. Evil spirits actually flee from the baku.
The baku appears in a few different places in Japanese popular culture, including both Pokemon and Digimon. The Pokemon Drowzee and Hypno are based on the baku.
Tengu- The tengu is another Japanese creature with Chinese roots. Their name stems from the Chinese tiangou which refers to a doglike Chinese demon. However, the Japanese tengu is often described as having birdlike features including a beak. Often, the tengu is given a more humanized form and the tengu’s beak is replaced with an unusually long nose. Buddhism originally regarded tengu as harbingers of war. However, their image eventually changed to that of protective spirits of mountains and forests who were still dangerous when crossed. Tengu appear in Japanese folk tales a fair bit. Usually the ones they appear in are of a humorous nature.
Tengu are another yokai with a pop culture presence, though I don’t have an exhaustive list handy. I do, however, remember that it was the one Japanese monster represented in the 1990s toy property Monster in my Pocket (I had about a million of those when I was a kid).
Yuki onna- Yuki onna literally means “snow woman” and is a spirit that haunts snowy mountain passes. Yuki onna are known for having a haunting beauty including snow white skin and long, dark hair. They are as cold as ice and a mere touch can give someone an icy chill. They feed on the Ki or life force of human beings which they usually suck from the mouths of their victims. The process usually leaves the victim frozen solid. Sometimes there are stories in which a yuki onna falls in love with a human but it rarely ends well.
Yuki onna is one of the creatures focused on in World Weaver Press’s Frozen Fairy Tales. A yuki onna also appears in both the manga Rosario+Vampire and the webcomic Eerie Cuties. The snow witch from issue two of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches also appears to be yuki onna.
Kitsune- There is a whole class of supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore that are animals that gained supernatural power after they turned a hundred years old or more. These include the raccoon dog (tanuki), cat (bakeneko) and badger (mujina). However, among the most popular is the fox or kitsune. There are two kinds of supernatural kitsune in Japanese lore. There are good foxes that work for the Shinto god Inari. There are also the wild kitsune that are prone to mischief, trickery and even evil. Even this kind of kitsune have their good side though, seeing as they are known to repay their debts, keep their promises and remember friendships. Kitsune are often adept shape-shifters and some that turn into humans have been known to live out their whole lives as humans. A distinguishing trait of magical kitsune are that they have more than one tail and are often depicted with nine of them.
On the pop culture front, the kitsune figures heavily into the anime/manga Naruto. It’s also represented in Digimon by Kyubimon and in Pokemon by Vulpix and Ninetails.
Futakuchi onna- I’m including this one largely because of how bizarre it is. Futakuchi onna is the “two mouthed woman”. The story goes that in households in which the food stores are shrinking but the lady of the house rarely takes a bite of food, the lady may be a futakuchi onna. The futakuchi onna is a woman who has a second, ravenous mouth filled with teeth on that back of her head hidden by hair. The mouth will use long, prehensile tendrils of hair to feed itself and eat up all the food in the house. Some say the futakuchi onna is another yokai that has shape shifted while others say it’s the result of a curse being placed on a young lady.
I haven’t encountered too many futakuchi onna in popular culture but there is one that’s a teacher in the web comic Eerie Cuties. Also, the Pokemon Mawile is inspired by it.
As more Japanese popular culture gets imported to the Western world, we’re going to come in contact more and more with their folklore and myth. Just recently Nintendo released a game in the US that plays even more on Japanese folklore called Yo-Kai Watch. Also, the superhero series Ninja Sentai Kakuranger, which is based entirely on the idea of ninja vs yokai, was released in the US with subtitles. The ones I wrote up above are just a primer. There’s even a whole class of yokai based on objects that come to life I haven’t even touched on. To learn more, check out www.yokai.com, a database of yokai. I got much of my information there, barring the pop culture stuff. The database goes into far more detail, though. Also, if you want more information on the connections between Pokemon and yokai, click HERE.
Now I’ve got to say goodbye while I get some more steps in and catch some more Pokemon. Until next time, “sayonara”.