The Yokai in Japanese Art – What are they?

An Expert’s Take on Yokai

Waraku talked with the Japanese art historian and one of the supervisors for the large-scale 2016 yokai exhibit, “From Eery to Endearing: Yokai in the Arts of Japan”, Professor Yasumura Toshinobu to learn more about yokai. What exactly are yokai? And what is it about them that fascinates us? Here is what he revealed to us.


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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s comedic parody “Hyakki Yagyo”, which is stored at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. These prints depict rather humorous characters rather than frightening demons.

Some Background on the Word Yokai

The term yokai came into common usage from the Meiji era onwards, and until then, the inhabitants of the nether world were referred to as oni (demons) and bakemono (ghosts or monsters). Towards the end of the Heian period in the 12th century, oni and bakemono started to appear among the annals of Japanese paintings. During this time, the Pure Land Buddhism boom gave rise to expressions such as, “If you cannot make it to Heaven, then you will go to Hell”, and the paintings of hell genre called jigoku-e – both of which were used as tools for recruitment. Finally, it was the demons drawn in these latter jigoku-e that functioned as both the image source and origin for what we now label as yokai.


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A portion of one of the paintings that comprise the National Treasure of Japan “Hekija-e” or the “Extermination of Evil” from the 12th century. It is housed at the Nara National Museum. Is this guy cute or scary?


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Bad Guy or Good Guy? Don’t Judge Them by their Looks

In July, the National Treasure “Hekija-e”, or “Extermination of Evil” paintings were on display in Tokyo. One of the total of five paintings features what appears to be a large bakemono. At first glance, it seems rather unpleasant even repulsive. However, in reality, the monstrous figure munching away on evil oni is the Shinchu, or Divine Insect. In one day, this deity consumes 3,300 oni on our behalf. When you think of Shinchu in this way, it is no longer scary.


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Accepting the Idea of Yokai

During the Kamakura (1185 – 1333) and Muromachi (1336 – 1573) periods, whenever some accident or disaster disrupted the norm, it was often reasoned that,“It’s because of the yokai (or oni)”. That concept is still continued and utilized today in the worldview of the popular show, “Yokai Watch”. In this way, yokai gradually became something familiar to us and in turn, the yokai depicted in art too seemed friendlier. For example, please look at the yokai from the Important Cultural Property “Hyakki Yagyo Emaki” or “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons” scroll from the Muromachi period shown below. The primary objective of these guys is to frighten humans, but not to attack them. Gleefully cackling away, these yokai merely give nobles walking around the streets of the Capital (Kyoto) a scare as they continue parading throughout the night. These yokai were clearly drawn with a sense of humor.

A selected portion of one of the oldest and most famous hyakki yagyo paintings, “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons” scroll, which was previously mistakenly attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu. Originating from the 16th century, it is now stored at Shinju-an within the Daitoku-ji grounds in Kyoto. The various yōkai depicted in the scroll above comprise of a parade of one hundred demons, a motif that is often featured in Japanese folklore called hyakki yagyo. The demons shown here are setting out for a night of fun as they run amok through the human world on certain summer nights.


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Also, the yokai that appear in the Edo period “Ino mono no keroku” of “Ino’s Chronicle of Strange Things” scroll attempt to frighten a warrior named Heitaro, but to no avail; the young man remains unshaken. Crestfallen by their failure, the yokai disappear. This sort of personality or aspect of Japanese yokai is what makes them cute. As previously mentioned, they are not out to inflict harm on humans. And that’s why, we don’t dislike their existence, but rather there are qualities and parts about them that we can laugh at.


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Artists Found Yokai Fascinating, Too!

Some curious creatures in Takai Kozan’s painting “Yokai Picture” from the 19th century. It currently belongs in a personal collection, but will be on display in Osaka until October 10, 2016.


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At the beginning of the Edo period, the famous ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s teacher, Toriyama Sekien, produced the “Gazu Hyakki Yagyo” or “The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”. This woodblock-printed book served as a sort of illustrated encyclopedia, it is thought that this publication spurred on the yokai’s popularity as it spread throughout the country. Utamaro, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Jakuchu, and other popular artists also drew pictures of yokai as well. Since yokai did not exist in reality, artists could freely utilize and express their imagination. For artists, this subject proved very alluring. The idiosyncratic yokai of Hokusai and Kuniyoshi in particular still exert a lot of influence today. Hokusai’s pupil too, Takai Kozan, almost exclusively drew pictures of yokai in his home town Obuse in Shinshu, Nagano prefecture during his later years. While we do not know if there was a profound reasoning behind this, undoubtedly, it was also because of yokai, wouldn’t you say?

Want to See More?!

In case you missed them, we have introduced some yokai and other aspects of the “From Eery to Endearing: Yokai in the Arts of Japan” exhibit in the following articles. Feel free to review or peruse these as well at any time.

“From Eery to Endearing: Yokai in the Arts of Japan” was on display at the Abeno Harukas Museum in Osaka until November 6, 2016. Do not despair though, yokai exhibits open every summer in Japan so another chance to view yokai is around the corner.


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