Ghosts and monsters are featured in some of the most popular urban legends around the world. Cultures from all corners of the globe all have their own versions of horror stories, some of which have been passed down from generations before.
In Japan, the legends are that of the yokai.
Yokai are Japanese demons that can come in many shapes and forms, from shape-shifting animals to demonic monsters. They can possess a physical form but can also be spirits that evaporate into thin air.
Yokai has been an essential part of Japanese culture since before anyone can remember, shaping Japanese childhoods, influencing the arts, and eventually becoming recognisable cultural symbols.
These days, yokai are gaining more and more popularity as people become more and more aware of them through global exhibitions and gallery installations. They’re a fascinating part of Japanese culture, appealing to our inner-child fascinations with their legendary origin stories and their reasons for existence.
History of Yokai in Japan
Yokai have existed in Japanese folklore for centuries, coming into fruition during a time no one can quite place. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that people began to openly appreciate the art and history of yokai.
One person who assisted in the widespread popularity of yokai during the Edo period was Toriyama Sekien, a printmaker who became known as the father of the very first definitive encyclopedia of yokai monsters to ever exist.
Through the technique of woodblock printing, Toriyama was able to catalogue all yokai monsters known to exist. From their appearances, habits, characteristics, locations, and more, Toriyama could truly showcase to all of Japan, and eventually the world, the extent to which yokai monsters lived and breathed around us.
There are literally hundreds (and counting) of yokai monsters that are known across Japanese folklore. Let’s get to know some of the most popular ones now.
The 20 Most Popular Yokai in Japan
Tengu is a legendary yokai that you’d likely have come across whilst exploring Japan. This popular folklore creature is often printed on arts and crafts and is featured in many cultural performances.
Tengu is depicted as an evil-looking long-nosed creature, with an almost bird-like face. Tengu’s sole purpose is to deviate people away from the pathway to enlightenment through their magical skills and mischievous behavior.
Some shrines will display tengu statues, as they believe that Tengu will help them ward off evil spirits.
Arguably one of the most famous yokai in Japan, the Oni is an ogre who is strong, fearsome, and mischievous. They are known to bring bad luck and disaster with them wherever they go. They are originally from hell and legends tell it that they occupy desolate and abandoned areas.
Every year, the day before springtime, Japanese people celebrate ‘Setsubun’. During this festival, you will witness kids throw beans at Oni (adults dressed up in masks) in an attempt to drive them away and achieve good luck for the rest of the year.
This sea creature is usually described as having a huge dark head that just appears out of the water. It’s said that when it appears, it will break through any boat that is nearby and kill its passengers.
If it doesn’t, it will approach the ship and request a bucket; however, it will still drown the poor souls on the ship even after receiving a bucket. If you want to trick the Umi-bozu, you must give him a bucket without a bottom and confuse him, hopefully gaining you enough time to escape.
There have been apparent sightings of the Umi-bozu from as recent as the 1970s! If you’re visiting Japan and exploring the seas, keep your eyes peeled …
Yurei are the most typical-looking ghost creatures within the yokai category. They are often depicted as floating white corpses, dressed in a draping kimono, with long black hair.
According to Japanese folklore, yurei are deceased people who have not been able to join their ancestors in the afterlife; thus, they’re condemned to wandering around in limbo for eternity.
If you’re wondering why, you may have seen them before, it’s because it may remind you of Sadako, the vengeful evil spirit from The Ring!
Kappa is a popular water monster, often depicted as a cute cross between a turtle and a boy. However, Kappa has a long and dark history. It is said that Kappa lives in the water, and if anyone gets too close to the water edge, they will lure them into the water and then drown them.
Kappa has an unusual feature about them: they have a dish on their head that is filled with water, and if the water is emptied from the dish, they will become incapacitated!
One way to befriend one is to offer them cucumbers – they love them!
This creepy monster is often found on the floor of unhygienic homes. It is said that Akaname feeds on the dirt of poorly maintained households. You can find them in corners of your bathroom, lurking around your toilet – it’s even said that they’ll attack you if your body has poor hygiene!
The best way to avoid coming into contact with Akaname? Stay clean!
The Tanuki is known as a raccoon dog, and it is described as a forest spirit with a mischievous but friendly nature. It is known to play tricks on humans, and it can even transform into humans as well!
If you come across a tanuki, it is considered a good omen, and you will come across luck and prosperity shortly after.
The Japanese Kitsune spirit has been the inspiration of many pop culture characters and references, in part because of its ability to shape-shift into stunning women!
The kitsune is a yokai fox who is devious and sly, who often plays tricks on humans whom they believe are deserving of being fooled.
They are believed to have supernatural talents and powers, and are also known to be messengers of Shinto gods. You will often see kitsune statues at the entrances of Shinto shrines.
The Gashadoruko is one of the scariest yokai known to mankind. It is depicted as a gigantic skeleton (think up to 15 times the size of humans!), and its bones are made up entirely of people who have died in the past but haven’t been buried properly. For example, they passed of starvation during a famine.
They say you can hear Gashadoruko passing by at night by their chattering teeth. The best way to protect yourself from Gashadoruko is by keep certain Shinto charms on you at all times!
This hybrid yokai monster is a mixture between a monkey, a tiger, a dog, and a snake. Imagine the body of a dog, the legs of a tiger, the tail that is a snake, and the head of a monkey. That’s exactly what a Nue is!
This legendary yokai is said to have one of the most bone-chilling cries, and it will usually appear during the dead of the night. Once you hear its shrill cries, you known that disaster is coming.
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Everyone knows that neko is a cat, but a bakeneko? This is a cat-monster!
This frightening yokai is known to haunt homes and all the humans living in it. It can also devour the master of the home and take his place as the head of the household.
The bakeneko is one scary monster, but it has an even more evil form: the Nekomata. If you see a cat with two tails, run the other way, because this is the Nekomata, a yokai that has the ability to throw fireballs and devour human flesh on top of haunting households!
The Kasa-obake may not look menacing at first, with its one leg, one arm, one eye, and umbrella-like body. However, this yokai is said to appear on rainy and windy days, and will lift people up into the air and cause them to crash back down onto the ground.
The Kasa-obake is one of the first known instances of yokai that is not specifically an animal but rather an object. In Japan, objects are believed to be capable of having ‘spirits’, and so when things get older, it is more likely that they’ll possess a spirit.
If an object is more than 100 years old, it is even believed to become human!
13. Yama Uba
The Yama Uba yokai is depicted as being a hideous old looking witch. She’s often described as having long shaggy hair, withered skin, and a huge gaping mouth. The most distinct feature of the Yama Uba would be her tattered kimono.
The Yama Uba can magically transform herself into a young lady to try and trick humans who come across her path. She will lure them into her home…and then devour them!
Similar to the Kasa-obake, the Nurikabe is yet another yokai that is not an animal. Instead, the word ‘nurikabe’ literally translates to plastered wall, and that’s exactly how the Nurikabe yokai is depicted! Imagine a dull, grey wall with arms and legs and you’ve got yourself the Nurikabe.
It is an evil spirit that presents itself in front of lost travelers, preventing them from finding their way and eventually getting lost forever. Although not the scariest looking yokai, it’s definitely one of the most inconvenient!
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This frightening long-necked yokai is the thing of nightmares. During the day, it could be pretending to be the woman next to you at the bus stop, but at night, it turns into its monstrous form. The Rokurokubi is depicted as having a long neck that stretches to infinity!
They are known to attack men at night and suck them dry of their blood. The most petrifying form of the Rokurokubi yokai is the nukekubi. This version can detach its head from its body and freely fly around at night, hunting for its next victim.
16. Ashiarai Yashiki
Similar to the Akaname yokai, the Ashiarai Yashiki is a monster that goes after those with hygiene problems!
Whilst it’s meant to deter people from living unsanitary, this yokai being an actual giant foot covered in dirt is quite a funny-looking monster. It’s said that if it discovers a home that’s dirty, it will make a sudden appearance! To get rid of it, you must clean up your household until it is spotless.
This almost-human-looking yokai is perhaps the most pleasant and harmless of all yokai. He is often depicted as an old man with a large, elongated head, wearing Japanese robes.
He is known to simply appear in people’s homes, sit down on people’s chairs, and smoke and drink tea as though he were the master of the household!
Because of this, he is often depicted as the ‘Master of All Yokai’ in modern retellings of Japanese folklore.
The Zashiki-Warashi are house spirits that take on a child-like form. They are described as looking like 6-year-olds with blushing faces. They are cheeky and friendly and often reside in the reception areas of traditional Japanese homes.
Unlike many other yokai, it is believed that as long as they are around you, you will continue receiving good luck, so don’t try to chase them away!
Kintaro, which translates to ‘Golden Boy’, is Japan’s most famous traditional yokai hero. He is often depicted as having bright red skin and a strong, capable body.
Legend tells of a child who was born with superhuman strength. He was raised in the wild and communicates with animals who become his allies on his missions and adventures.
20. Aka Manto
The Aka Manto yokai is a malevolent evil spirit that haunts public or school toilets, awaiting its next young victim. It is said that once the Aka Manto spirit selects its victim and presents itself, there is no escaping.
If you come into contact with an Aka Manto, you will get two choices: red or blue. If you select red, you will be killed and drenched in your own blood. If you choose blue, you will be strangled until you turn blue.
Needless to say, it’s best to avoid the Aka Manto.
If you’re curious about yokai and want to experience them in real life, the best places for you to go would be to shrines, forests, and festivals whilst visiting Japan. There’s also an interesting Yokai art museum in Shodoshima island.
Yokai monsters are legendary across Japan, and each yokai possesses an origin story that is every bit unique and exciting to learn. Their history is intertwined with Japanese culture, and so learning about them is also learning more about how Japan has shaped up to be the way it is in modern times.
We hope you enjoyed our coverage of the 20 most popular yokai in Japan!