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Yokai, Kaidan, Kaiju: Japan's affinity for the weird

Page history last edited by Anders Johnson 9 years, 8 months ago



Anders Johnson


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Japan, has always been a communally oriented country and despite their peculiarly unique adaptations of Western pop culture, their endless array of subcultures and sub-subcultures, fitting in and conformity to the group continues to be an overriding aspect of their culture. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” an old Japanese proverb goes. In contrast to this, Japan has a powerful affinity for stories of weird and unusual creatures. A sampling of Yokai, Kaiju, Kaidan, popular anime & Manga reveal the Japanese imagination to be heavily populated with a plethora of unusual folk monsters, spirits, deities, demons, ghosts, and other oddities. I am struck by the possible cultural meanings of such monsters, their shifting relationship with these creatures and what it has to say about their experience as a communally focused culture. I think a great deal can be inferred about the Japanese through an examination of their shifting relationships with these creatures.

  •      Yokai, Kaiju, Kaidan highlight this fascination with the strange & weird in Japanese culture. Their ever-changing relationship with weird creatures speaks to their ever-shifting relationship with the other, the outsider, the new, & unknown.
  •        Yokai, Kaidan, & Kaiju all share the common Kanji character "Kai" which translates to "weird, strange or mysterious." In Yokai, it is paired with "yō" meaning "attracting" or "bewitching with."  In Kaidan, it is paired with "dan" meaning something like "to discuss or speak about or tell stories of." In Kaiju, it is paired with "ju" meaning "beast."  
  • So we have 
    • Yokai: Attracting weird, strange or mysterious 
    • Kaidan: Talking about something weird, strange or mysterious 
    • Kaiju: Weird, strange or mysterious beast.


Although not particularly religious, Japanese culture is full of references to earlier Shinto beliefs. In Shintoism, there is a hidden realm of spirits and deities, known as the Kami,whose presence and actions in the hidden realm effect the world we live in. By paying our respects to the good Kami and avoiding the bad Kami, we can influence the Kami to work in our favor and avoid misfortune. The term “Yokai” roughly translated as “attracting weird“ or “bewitchingly weird,” refers to a whole host of apparitions, spirits, monsters & creatures who have their origins in regional folklore throughout Japan. They range from shape-shifting animals, household objects that come to life on their 100th birthday, spirits that haunt trees & bodies of water, to monsters, demons, and deities that function in much the same way as the Kami only more visibly. As Japan became increasingly literate, there was an increasing desire to collect stories of strange events and strange creatures from all over. Stories brought over from China were frequently stripped of all religious context and morals leaving nothing but a strange tale of strange events and strange creatures. Such stories were sought more for their value as a window into an other world and thus many more creatures were added into the collective body of Yokai. As some of these creatures became more popularized and well known, their stories took new twists, as you will see. . .






Kappa:    A turtle-like water monster with a reputation for drowning the unwary around ponds, lakes and rivers. This water-sprite has the back of a turtle, a beak-like snout, and a flattened or bowl-like head ringed by a tuft of hair. One of the most popular Yokai, a Kappa's character ranges from mischievous prankster to bloodthirsty, murderous monster. They kill both people and animals, drowning them, eating their livers, drinking their blood, and sometimes even raping women. They are also known to be so polite that when bowed to, they return the bow, causing water to spill out of their bowl-shaped heads, rendering them inert until their head is once again submerged. Kappa can also be befriended and if shown proper respect, award favors. They love cucumbers. If you should run into a Kappa, simply offer them a cucumber with your name carved into it as a bribe for your life. They may eat you and drink your blood but at least they are terribly polite and love cucumbers. I suspect the politeness and cucumber loving developed as Kappa became a more familiar character.  





ONI :      No folkloric creature encompasses the varying roles of Japanese monsters like the Oni. Oni are a sort of demon or ogre that have taken a wide array of roles in Japanese storytelling and folklore. Oni are popularly represented as monstrous, wild-haired and having red or blue skin, one to three horns, terrible claws, tiger skin loin cloth and an iron club. They are said to be able to eat a man in one gulp and have often been depicted torturing, butchering and devouring their human victims. They move freely between the world of the living and the world of the dead. An Oni can be a terrible, destructive force to be feared or they can be a powerful protector and guardian. In a few stories they also possess the ability to shape-shift and appear as a normal looking man or woman. Noriko T Reider, in her essay “Transformations of The Oni From The Frightening and Diabolical to The Cute & Sexy” mentions the Nõ play “Maple Leaf Viewing” in which a samurai warrior seeks to subjugate a trouble-making Oni who defies the rule of the emperor. On route, he encounters an Oni assuming the form of a beautiful woman in order to seduce the warrior and so prevent him from attacking. As was common, here we see the identification of one who “lives beyond the rule of the emperor” and the woman who stands in the way of a Warrior and his imperial task, as “Oni.” Another story tells of an ascetic who falls in love with the emperor's beautiful consort. To realize his desire, he actually starves himself to death and reincarnates as an Oni in order to have this woman. He actually succeeds, returns as an Oni, seduces her and has his way with her in public, in front of the emperor and everyone. Here, insatiable lust is characterized as “Oni.” An old Japanese superstition held that if a baby was born with teeth, it was a child of the Oni. There are numerous anecdotes and stories of such “children of the Oni” being abandoned, abused, or even killed upon birth. Their apparent physical differences set them apart from other babies and thus brought about the designation of “Oni.” Reider also notes that there is a wealth of historical and literary evidence suggesting that the term Oni was applied to a very real community of miners in the Ōo Mountains who stood apart from their neighbors because of their different ways and customs. They were strange and foreign and so described as Oni. Even as recently as WW2, Japanese propaganda cast Americans in the role of Oni. It can hardly be questioned that Oni are a powerful symbol of 'the other,' 'the outsider' but they are not always to be feared or despised. A very popular children's story is Hamada Hirosuke's 1933 story “The Red Oni Who Cried” about a misunderstood Red Oni who, saddened by his rejection by humans, is helped out by his more monstrous friend Blue Oni. Blue Oni assumes the role of villain so that Red Oni can save the day and win the friendship of humans. This story even appears to have inspired the 1966 Kaiju film, War of The Gargantuas (known in Japan as Frankenstein's Monsters: Sanda versus Gaira). Later on we come to see Oni sexualized in Manga such as with Takahashi Rumiko's character, Lum featured in “Those Obnoxious Aliens.” Lum is terribly cute and appealing while also utterly alien and an outsider. She has sharp teeth, horns and the tiger skin clothing of an Oni. Such transformations of the Oni seem to coincide with Japan's becoming socially and economically open to the rest of the world. As Japan becomes more prosperous, open, and more engaged with the rest of the world, Oni have come to represent more things. They maybe threatening, but they may also be misunderstood. They may be hideously ugly or they may be sexually appealing. Expressed in these new roles is now a curiosity and fascination with the outsider.














Tsukumogami:  Ordinary objects that come alive on their 100th birthday. This doesn't happen anymore because everything is cheap and plastic and not likely to last that long.


Let's all go to the lobby. . .


Kasa Obake  - Umbrella Monster


Chochinobake - Paper Lantern Ghost





Obake:  Shapeshifters. . .  Certain animals are revered for their shapeshifting abilities and mischievous nature.


TANUKI - The Raccoon Dog


Not to be confused with a raccoon or a dog, this animal is actually a canine native to Asia & Japan.



Tanuki are famed for their rather prominent testicles which they are illustrated using as backpacks, boats, sails, carpets, etc.



The 1994 Anime film Pom Poko tells the story of a tribe of Raccoon dogs who use their supernatural shape-shifting powers to frighten humans away from their forest home before it's entirely demolished to make way for subdivisions.











Kitsune are said to be very intelligent and able to assume human form. They are closely associated with Inari, a Shinto Kami and are revered as Inari's messengers.








WTF? Yokai


Nuppeppo - a lumpy mass of stinky flesh



Nure-onna: Snake woman   -    Rokurokubi: Long necked woman   -   and other long necked demons




Maikubi – the quarrelling heads of 3 dead miscreants


The 3 dead heads from Miyazaki's Spirited Away








Tengu - "Heavenly Dogs," they appear to have characteristics of humans and birds of prey





Hanako-San: toilet monster and Akaname: the licker of untidy bathrooms

They have a word for everything!








Kaiju: Strange beast... it refers to the Japanese film genre wherein giant  monsters do one or more of the following: 

  •      Destroy cities and wreak havoc upon mankind
  •      Battle other giant monsters while destroying cities and wreaking havoc upon mankind
  •        Battle other giant monsters while heroically protecting mankind
  •        Battle other giant monsters while befriending small Japanese children












                                                        Jet Jaguar is friends with Godzilla                                                                                                  GAMERA!                                                              RODIN!






Everything is, of course, collectible . . . and cute. 

So what is going on here? Are monsters bad? - At first,usually . . .  but the longer they're around, the more roles they take on: Destroyer, Villain, Hero, Misunderstood protagonist, Friend, Ugly, Cute, Miniaturized, Collectible, Iconic, Ironic, etc. Godzilla started out as a clear cut MONSTER. There was nothing good about him but as time went on, more Godzilla movies were made and as WW2 moved further into the past, Godzilla became something more. As giant monster movies continued to be made, other monsters were introduced to fight Godzilla. Godzilla now became the familiar monster while fighting newer and stranger, outsider monsters such as King Ghiddorah, Rodan or Mothra. Godzilla moved from being a simple villain to the misunderstood monster. His monster battles saved Japan from destruction of less familiar monsters. From there he morphed into a popular Japanese hero. The same kind of transformation also occurred with Gamera, the radioactive space turtle. From monster to misunderstood to friend and hero, and from there we get “cute” with miniaturized versions (Son of Godzilla) and toys.





KAIDAN: Collected stories of the strange, the weird, the supernatural and typically, the ghostly...

  • In China, there was a tradition in which buddhists would gather together to tell 100 stories of the Buddha, thereby inviting a religious miracle to occur. In Japan, during the Edo period (1603-1868), we see this tradition brought over and adapted as a popular house game in which those gathered would try to tell 100 ghost stories in a night, inviting the appearance of a real ghost (See also: Koshin Machi- http://www.three-monkeys.info/1/ORIGIN/MockJoya.htm ).
  • Japan has always been rich with stories of weird things but it wasn't until the Edo era that the popularity of such storytelling drove them to begin compiling such stories into books. These collections are what is referred to as Kaidan.
  •  The fact that the entire religious context was stripped from this storytelling tradition seems to be typical in Japanese culture. Many of their popular ghost stories were popular stories brought over from China and so the Japanese versions can still be compared to the Chinese originals.
  • Chinese storytelling is thick with religious context & moral preaching. However, the Japanese versions often remove all religious contexts and even cut away the ending before any lesson can be gleaned from it. (see Noriko T. Reider: Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan: Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatar &   The Emergence of Kaidan-shu: The Collection of Tales of the Strange and Mysterious in the Edo Period) 
  • Why would they do this? Why would they remove what we might consider to be "the point" of the story?
    • That is our own cultural prejudice to call it "the point." I think the Japanese are more interested in having this beautiful and strange picture . . . this window into another world, unclouded by superfluous messages, morals, and religious doctrine. They just want to look. I suspect their lack of interest in moral instruction or religious interjections into their stories may have something to do with Shintoism and its rather vague & ill-defined notion of an afterlife. As far as I'm aware, in Shintoism, there is very little said about any cause & effect relationship regarding an afterlife. They are more interested in the here & now and their relationship with the world they live in.


Some of these images are not quite illustrative of "Kaidan" but they certainly get across a love or yearning for the strange and weird...




















Yurei - Ghosts







  • So what is going on here? Why do monsters, ghosts, demons, and all manner of weird creatures hold so much fascination for the Japanese?
  • What compels them to collect so many different and oddly specific varieties of creatures?
  • Why are these creatures sometimes bad, sometimes good, sometimes sexual, and sometimes just plain weird?
    • If you look at all these creatures as a sort of collective representation of "the other," or what is different, and foreign, it makes sense...
    • Japanese spooks and monsters come in so many shapes, sizes, and varieties and go through so many transformations of character that it is difficult to say whether they are good or bad. I suggest that maybe that is because the Japanese themselves have not answered the question. They live in the question and will continue to do so. Good or bad, the Japanese wealth of creatures represents a cultural desire to obtain a view of a world outside of their own; to escape momentarily from the norm of the group. They are forever group oriented and forever curious about what lies outside the group.
    • During times of hardship, war, trauma, intense isolation, or a feudalistic society, Japan's weird creatures tend to be at their worst. They're frightful and threatening. They're a warning to be wary.
    • However, during periods of peace, flourishing trade, openness, & a commercial based economy, Japan's weird creatures seem tamed. They're just misunderstood. They're fascinatingly weird. They're exciting and bizarre. They are even friends.







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