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Yokai | Scary and Cute Japanese Monsters

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Parents throughout history and in the whole world have made up stories to scare their kids away from misbehaving. But many adults love a good ghost story too. Japan has a long history of scary monsters, demons, ghouls, and ghosts. Some of them are definitely scarier than others, and some are almost cute. Modern yokai often appear in manga, anime, and games as well. Let’s have a look at some of the most famous yokai and a short history of Japanese ghosts and monsters! If you like ghost stories too, you can have a look here.

Figurine of a yokai, a Japanese monster

Short History of Yokai

Japanese people have been drawing pictures of various yokai for over a thousand years, and through these pictures, they have been satirizing and making fun of people and the world. While some of them might have looked scary, they were mainly used for a comedic effect. For example, in a painting from the end of the Edo period, a large group of Japanese monsters confronts an enemy who has arrived with monkeys in tow. The scene reflects the state of the world at the time when foreign ships were constantly appearing in the surrounding waters.

The International Research Center for Japanese Studies has created and opened to the public a “database of images of monsters and yokai” based on the yokai paintings in its collection. The database contains a wide variety of images of yokai, which are not only sinister but also somewhat comical and cute.

Kappa the Water Yokai

Kappa is one of Japan’s most famous monsters. The name ‘kappa’ comes from the fact that they appear in rivers and have the appearance of a child. Legends and stories of kappa have been handed down from place to place in Japan, and their names and appearances differ slightly. Many legends tell of a child-like figure, green all over, with a turtle shell on its back. It also carries a round dish on its head. They say that this plate is always filled with water, and if the plate dries up or breaks, the kappa will lose its power.

In addition, most kappa depicted today look like reptiles covered with fish-like scales, but in natural history books before the 18th century, they were often depicted as ape-men. In the mid-18th century, kappa were created in the form of amphibians like frogs and sponges to make them more acceptable to the people of Edo, a city without mountains.

One of the most famous theories about the origin of the kappa’s appearance is that it is the drowned body of a child killed by the parents for population control. It is said that the kappa was a lie created by adults so that other children would not know that this was happening. It is a sad story, but in the Edo period, this was common practice. A less disturbing origin story is that kappa were used by parents to scare their kids away from the water because kappa would pull them down if they get too close.

Kappa’s Character

Despite their sad roots, kappa are portrayed in books as funny and ditsy. They love to wrestle and play pranks and are often depicted as being caught and chastised by humans. On the other hand, there are many legends of kappa being grateful, helping with rice planting, and delivering fish every day in return for gratitude.

It is said that cucumbers are the favorite food of kappa, because fresh cucumbers were an indispensable vegetable for offerings to the water gods. Kappa are said to be the gods of water, which is why kappa are said to like cucumbers. In reference to this, thinly rolled sushi with cucumbers came to be called ‘kappamaki’.

Rokurokubi the Longneck in Japan

A rokurokubi is normally a normal human being, but when it sleeps, it loosens up and stretches its neck abnormally long. Their neck muscles sport horizontal wrinkles and purple streaks. For some reason, the rokuro-neck seems to be found only in women. It is said to be inherited from mother to daughter.

Some people thought that the rokuro-neck was a monster. While others thought that it was a person who was born with an abnormality. Another theory is that the rokuro-neck was a ‘detached soul disease’, in which the soul leaves the body.

There is an eyewitness account about a geisha in Shin-Yoshiwara, Edo. Her head grew to about 30 cm in length and hung down while she was sleeping with a guest at night. It is suggested that this geisha was a person whose neck would stretch when she slept and relaxed her mind.

The Servant Girl’s Loose Head

There is a story related to Rokurokubi about a servant girl who was hired by a rich family in Tsuruga, Fukui. The servant had a chronic disease that caused her to have too much phlegm. Because of this, she often groaned late into the night. One night, the Lord’s wife woke up to the sound of her moaning. So he went next door to check on the servant’s bedroom. The Lord’s wife woke up to the sound of moaning and went to check on the servant’s bedroom next door.

Under the small folding screen by the servant’s bedside was something round and wriggling. When he brought the light closer to look at it, he found that it was the head of the servant. It was trying to climb up the screen, falling down, and trying to climb up again. The author of this story said that the servant girl was suffering from a kind of detached soul disease. He said that the servant’s head had not really left her body. But in people with a lot of phlegm, the soul leaves the body and forms a head.

The Hair Cutter Yokai

This one is funny and scary at the same time. In the Edo period, there were many incidents of people having their hair cut off without realizing it. The yokai ‘Hair Cutter’ was believed to be the culprit. Its large beak and hands look like the blades of scissors. His head resembles a bird, but his body is more human-like, and he even wears a red loincloth. Their whole body is black because they do evil under the cover of darkness.

Apart from this, foxes were also thought to cut off human hair and eat it. This story has been around for a long time. One noblewoman was victimized at the end of the Heian period. The origin of the tradition of hair cutting by foxes goes back to China. However, unlike in Japan, it is men who are victimized. It is said that the foxes in that region disguised themselves as beautiful women to commit the crime.

As you can see, Japanese folk stories can be quite scary and contain hidden messages. If you come to Japan and dig a bit deeper, you can learn a lot more about Japanese culture and history through stories!

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