Japanese Monsters - Youkai

Oni Figurine, Aomori prefecture, Japan
R. Creation. amana images

There are a few terms to describe Japanese ghosts. I have introduced "obake" and "yuurei" in my article, "Japanese Ghosts". In this article I will tell you about "youkai," and look at the characters for them. Youkai literally means, "bewitching apparition." They include monsters, goblins, and ghouls. They usually appear at dawn or dusk. Unlike yuurei, which are the souls of the dead and downright scary, youkai are comical, bizarre and mischievous in some way.

Here are some youkai.

Oni

Oni, demons or ogres, are one of the most famous youkai. They are huge and have horns. The color of their body is red, blue, or black. They usually carry a big iron club (kanabou). They are best known for guarding the gate of Buddhist hell. They also often appear in folktales. (Momotaro, Issun-boshi etc.) They are dumb, cruel, and malicious.

On Setsubun (Feb. 3rd), there is a custom to drive away evil sprits. People scatter soybeans outside of doorways, shouting "Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi! (Demon out, Good luck in!)." Click here to learn the kanji character for "oni".

Here are some expressions including oni.

  • Oni ni kanabou 鬼に金棒 (Literally means, "Oni with an iron club") --- To make one invincible.
  • Oni no inuma ni sentaku 鬼のいぬまに洗濯 (Literally means, "Do laundry while oni are away") --- When the cat's away, the mice will play.
  • Oni no kubi o totta you 鬼の首を取ったよう (Literally means, "As in beheading oni") --- To achieve a major success.
  • Oni no me nimo namida 鬼の目にも涙 (Literally means, "A tear even in an oni's eye") --- Even the hardest heart will sometimes be moved to pity.
  • Kokoro o oni ni suru 心を鬼にする (Literally means, "To make one's heart an oni's") --- Harden one's heart against pity.

Kappa

Kappa are supernatural creatures which live both on land and in water.

They are as tall as a four or five year old child. They have a beak-like snout, and fins on their hands and feet. They also have a shell on their back, and a water-filled dish on their head. As long as the dish is full of water, kappa keep their supernatural powers. Kappa are known for dragging people into the water and pulling out their livers through their anuses.

Although kappa harm people sometimes, there are also many tales where they have helped people. They are very curious. They often appear in cartoons because of their lovable images.

Kappa love sumo wrestling and cucumbers. That is why cucumber sushi rolls are called "kappa maki". "Okappa" are bobbed hairstyles because they look like the kappa's hairstyles. Kappa are excellent swimmers. There is a saying "Kappa no kawa nagare (a drowning kappa)" which means, even an expert can make mistakes sometimes.

Rokurokubi

Female monsters with long, flexible necks. They look just like ordinary humans during the day, but at night, they extend their necks to frighten or spy on people. They sometimes turn their human faces into those of demons.

Yuki-Onna

A snow woman, appears in a white kimono on a stormy night. She causes travelers to become lost and freeze to death.

Click here to read the story of "Yuki-Onna" by Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo).

Hitotsume-Kozou

A one-eyed goblin, literally has a large eye in the center of its face. It looks like the shaved head of a priest. It does not play tricks, but just scares people.

Tengu

Tengu is also a youkai. Click here to read about "tengu."

Click this link to learn more about Japanese ghosts and read the famous yuurei stories "Bancho sara-yashiki (The Story of Okiku)". Click this link to learn about Japanese Halloween Vocabulary.