The Japanese Spirit Realm

The Japanese have many facinating tales involving ghosts, demons, and nature spirits which are known as yokai (youkai). The yokai have their origins in the ancient Shinto religion, with the veneration of nature spirits and the worship of ancestors. The practice of Shinto beleifs involves ritual offerings of food at a temple or shrine to keep the spirit world appeased. Many places are sacred to the yokai and violation of these spaces can lead to misfortune or death.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) the popularity of yokai reached new heights with the practice of the Hyaku Monogatari (One-Hundred Stories). The Hyaku Monogatari was a gathering in a hall lit by one-hundred candles where storytellers would practice their skills at folklore and ghost stories. After the end of each story, one of the candles was put out, gradually making the room darker and darker. After the one-hundredth story was told, the final candle was snuffed out and a ghost was said to appear.

Adding further to the legacy of the yokai were the artistic talents Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) who created many of the images of spirits and beastiaries that are common references even today. Yokai have maintained their popularity in Japan through manga (Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki), movies (The Great Yokai War by Takashi Miike), anime and video games (many Pokemon are designed after yokai).

Through the centuries the yokai have changed and grown through the telling and retelling of the stories. Much like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for western culture. However, the underlying characteristic of any of the yokai seem to be that they have a fixed sphere of influence on the world and have a set of rules they must live by. By learning the rules a human may gain control of or protect themselves from the yokai. There are hundreds or different types of yokai and their appearance can range from looking like an average person to a horrific monster. Many can disguise themselves with shapeshifting abilities and all of them have supernatural abilities of one sort or another.

Here is a brief listing of some of the yokai:

Nature Spirits

The yokai nature spirits are shapeshifters and quite often take on a human form until they are discovered.


The fox woman is a benevolent yokai. Although she is known for being a trickster, she is also known for her loyalty as a friend, lover and wife. Tales often tell of her outwitting wrongdoers for the sake of those she loves. While in fox form she may have as many as nine tales.


The snow woman who appears during blizzards and brings death by freezing with her visitations. She is desribed as a tall beautiful maiden with pale white skin. Yuki-Onna may be clothed in a flowing white kimono or naked with only her face, long black hair and pubic hair visable against the snowy background. She moves ghostlike across the ground leaving no footprints behind her.


This water imp is known to have a turtle-like appearance with human-like appendages. The kappa has webbed hands and feet which have razor sharp claws that he uses as weapons. Although the kappa has been known to kill and eat people he has a reputation as a prankster as well. The top of the kappa's head is bowl-shaped and filled with water. If bowed to, the kappa out of courtesy will bow in return, and pour the water out of his head, causing him to loose his magical powers.


These giant spiders are typically depicted as female with a hunger for human blood. They are predatory by nature and have the gift of illusion. They are known for lulling their victims into thinking the web they are in is a remote country cottage or shrine. While their unsuspecting guests are sleeping, the spider slowly poisons them to death.


Although all known indigenous wolf spieces are now concidered extinct on the island of Japan since the begining of the twentyth century, their spirits may still roam the open wilderness areas. They are known to be benevolent and protective spirits, much along the line of the Kitsune


According to folklore any cat may become a Bakeneko if it lives long enough. With time they grow quite large, gain the ability to walk on their hind legs and use their forepaws as hands. Eventually the Bakeneko will be able to take on human form. These cat-people will ultimately try to take over their masters household by any means. At first they will try to frightening their owner away by tricking them into thinking their house is haunted by creating strange sounds in the middle of the night and generating ghost fire (Hitodama). If this fails, the Bakeneko will attempt to arrange a fatal accident for their master or they may just devour their owner and take their place. The power of the Bakeneko lies in its tail and it will loose all of its magical abilities if it is cut off. The most powerful of these cat-people is the Nekomata, which has two tails.


There are as many varieties of these bird-people as there are birds. They have shape-shifting abilities and of course the gift of flight. The Tengu are indifferent toward humans at best and malevolent at worst. They are vain creatures that are always seeking out gems, jewelry and treasures to add to their nests. A gift of such an item may gain their favor, if only breifly. Anyone foolish enough to steal from a Tengu may find themselves whisked off their feet and dropped from a great height or torn apart by razor sharp claws.


A goblin or earth spirit with a large potato-shaped head and wearing long grasses as clothing. He is known for stealing lamp oil which he drinks.

Japanese Ghosts (Yurei)

The ghosts of Japan have many possible forms depending on who they were and how they died. One common appearance of ghosts as beings in white robes was established by Noh and Kabuki theatre. However, in prints they may be shown as floating spectors covered with blood, as twisted figures or faded misty spirits. These traditional images of ghosts have carried over into contemporary J-Horror (Ringu by Hideo Nakata, Chakushin Ari by Takashi Miike and Ju-on by Takashi Shimizu).


Vengeful spirits that return to punish the ones that did them wrong in life


The ghost of a mother that lingers in the world of the living to protect her child.


A vengeful ghost from elite society usually of someone that has been martyred.


Spirits of sailors, fishermen or anyone that perished at sea. They are often seen walking on the surface of the water near the place they drown or as ghostly reflections


Ghosts of children who are commonly unaware that they have died.

Warrior Ghosts

The spirit of soldiers that haunt the battlefield in which they died.

Seductress Ghost

One story tells of how a man met a beautiful maiden one evening at the crossroads near his village and was envited to her home. No one in his village knew her but when he told them where she lived, he found out that it was a cemetery and was warned to stay away from her. However, the maiden visited him at his home the next evening and enticed him to coming with her. The next day he was found dead in a tomb at the cemetery embracing the skeleton of a young woman that had died long ago.


A spirit cursed by greater powers for their greed or jelousy in life. Commonly said to be a Buddist monk who did not keep his vows, this creature is filled with self-loathing and is looked upon with pity. The gaki must satiate their constant hunger with things they find repugnant (ie. human corpses, filth, dung). No matter how much they eat, the Gaki appear emaciated, like the victims of famine and are often depicted with small mouths or narrow throats that will not allow for the adequate passage of food to their starvation-bloated bellies


It may appear as a living human during the day but at night, like the Gaki, this spirit is cursed with eating corpses.


In the presence of ghosts, spirits and other supernatural activities a "ghost fire" will appear. It remains unclear as to whether the hitodama is a ghost unto itself or a bi-product of spiritual forces. They appear to be similar to the Will o' the wisp or ghostly orbs of western culture and are commonly seen floating around other Yurei.

Tsukumo-Gami (Living Artifacts)

These creatures seem to be created from fragile household items that gain life on their one-hundredth birthday and go on to live out a mischievous existense.


Straw sandals that have gained the ability to walk on their own. If they are put on, the wearer will find himself wandering aimlessly as if lost or walking into realms reserved for spiritual beings. If the bakezouri have a dislike for their wearer, they will lead them into perilous situations.

Karakasa (Kasa Obake)

The parasol or umberella monster gains the ability to float or fly. As with all the living artifacts it takes great joy in startling mortals and playing tricks on them.


The paper lantern monster has the ability to float about by carrying itself down lonely paths to lead mortals astray. It may also start fires to damage homes and property. The chochinobake also has the ability to colapse itself and suddenly pop up to surprise the unwary human.


The kameosa is a sake jar that gains the remarkable ability of never running dry. It takes great joy in getting mortals drunk and then further confusing them with a wide variety of pranks and illusions. Some kameosa have the ability to produce any liquid; from the finest sake to the vilest poisons. For many reasons the kameosa may be a mixed blessing to any household due to their influence on emotions by inducing love, hate, infidelity, foolish trust and blind rage.


The most famous story of a morinji-no-kam tells of how a tea kettle was purchaced by a buddist monk, but when he brought it to the monestary it tranformed back and forth from a tea kettle into a tanuki (raccoon dog). When it was prayed over the transformations ceased and it remained a tea kettle. A shrine was later created in the monestary to honor this magical artifact.

uman Transformations

The forces that tranform a human into a yokai remain enigmatic. Unlike the trasformation into ghosts, these creatures have a physical presence.


This long neck yokai is often female and unaware of their own supernatual ability to stretch out their necks in a serpent-like fashion at night. They may learn of this unusual ability through dreams of seeing their bedroom from odd angles while they are sleeping. Once the gain knowlege of their power it becomes impossible for them to resist from using it to spy on or frighten people. They also suffer the need to show-off their ability, but will only expose themselves to drunkards, the blind or the village idiot in order to maintain some degree on deniability.


This yokai is created by a supernatural forces and obsessive behavior. It is an affliction that most commonly affects women, transforming them into vicious demons due to excessive jealousy, suspicion, anger or hatred. The hannya's face has large glaring eyes and a long, narrow frown that stretches from ear to ear. Sharp bull-like horns sprout from her head which make it impossible to hide her true nature.


The two-mouthed woman has mouth that magically appears on the back of her head. Her hair becomes animated and begins feeding the second mouth large quantities of food. The futakuchi-onna is a curse inflicted upon the greedy husband.


A faceless ghost or spirit that frightens the unwary traveler that comes up to them from behind. A haunting from the noppera-bo can cause the victim to see everyone around them as faceless and drive them to madness.


The Mountain Crone is a creature that hungers for human flesh and preys upon travellers who have become lost in the wilderness. She has has many different schemes for luring her prey to their deaths and uses her ability to appear as a beautiful woman, a friend, or defensless old lady to gain the trust of her prey. Once she has her victim trapped, her hair becomes like tenticles that grab her victim and pull them into a huge toothy maw opens up on top of her head.


The dorotabo is a farmer who haunts his abused land as a walking corpse. According to some tales, after living a lifetime so closely with his land and maintaining it for so many years, he will act as its custodian even after death. The dorotabo makes its presence known only at night, crying out for the return of his land, Unlike a normal haunting by ghosts the dorotabo has the actual physical presence of a corpse, infused with the rocks, dirt, and plants that grew on his land.

For a more comprehensive listing of yokai visit the Obakemono Project at

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