However, these days Japan has been moving towards making Halloween a happy event. This is good news for parents because children can have a creative Halloween without getting too frightened (hopefully).
This Halloween, why not look for some inspiration from Japanese legends? Here are some ghoulies from Japan’s mystical past that are cute enough for kids but creepy enough for Halloween.
1. Dancing cat yokai
Few ghosts can match the cat yokai of Japanese lore. Because cats were a vital part of many farming communities, many of these furry ghosts are out there, and some are downright adorable.
While the nekomata (forked cat) of legend is said to be malicious, images of the two-tailed cat playing the shamisen (three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument) and the fact that some breeds were once pets is kinda adorable. Just ignore the part where they eat people that mistreated them in life.
The Neko no Odoriba is the tale of an owner of a particular adventurous cat that would often go out. Whenever it went out, napkins would go missing. Then one day, the owner heard lively music from a local place where people gathered to dance called an odoriba, (place of dance).
There he found a gathering of cats wearing napkins on their head as party dresses. Even now, in Kanagawa Prefecture, there are place names that include the Chinese characters for odoriba that celebrate where these loveable furballs are getting together to boogie. These can be fun tales to tell children at Halloween and places to visit.
2. The sumo mice
Not technically a yokai, but the nezumi no sumou (mouse wrestler) is a very cute story. The story tells of an old man that comes across two mice engaged in a sumo match. Looking at the mice, he recognizes the skinny one as living in his house. The other one, a fat giant of a mouse, was one that he’d seen in the house of a wealthy local merchant. So naturally, the small, frail mouse is easily defeated by the larger mouse.
Feeling pity for the tiny guy, the man gives it the rice he’d been saving for the new year to make it big enough to take on the mighty merchant’s mouse. When the formerly skinny mouse uses his energy to topple the bigger mouse, the loser visit’s the man’s house to also eat some rice.
The man and his wife are so enthralled by their cute guests that they leave rice cakes and a small loincloth for their rodent visitors. The bigger mouse is so grateful that he leaves some gold for the elderly couple, enough to ensure a happy ending to the story.
This cute story was even turned into a short film produced by Studio Ghibli, Chuuzumou.
3. Mr. Wall
Nurikabe (plaster wall) is an odd ghost that misleads travelers at night. He’s known as “Mr. Wall” and sort of looks like Falcore from The Neverending Story.
According to legend, these creatures would block paths and routes with invisible walls—annoying but not exactly the stuff of nightmares. However, you simply need to knock on the bottom-left “corner” to free yourself.
Teachers and parents can use this ghost as a great setup for a Halloween activity involving mazes and games.
4. The echo spirit
One interesting (and spooky) thing about yokai is that they are not just spirits but interact with us. This opens up a world of possibilities for unique Halloween games.
Of these, the yamabiko (mountain spirit, echo) is probably my favorite due to its adorable peach-colored belly, constant grin and floppy ears like a cocker spaniel. When you call it, it will call back.
This can be combined with call-and-response activities like cuckoo.
5. Wacky ghost tools
The tsukumogami (tool ghosts) are the spirits of common objects and tools you see everywhere in Japan. An old legend is that these things are formed from items that a family has faithfully used for centuries. Think of the beloved toys in Toy Story.
For arts and crafts, you can also try making Chochin Obake (paper lantern ghosts). This yokai can be as scary or cute as you like, especially if you add their trademark tongue. They are also easy to make. Just buy some old lanterns and have fun making faces on them.
Probably the best-known tool-ghost is the kasa-obake (umbrella ghost), which, as its name suggests, appears in folklore as an animated umbrella. For traditional Western ghosts covered with white sheets, the Japanese ittan-momen (lit. one bolt of cotton), a cloth monster, is an option. However, even I find these kinda creepy, so be careful with young children.
Kids who like to play with clay or playdough might find kameosa (long bottle) a fun yokai. Like Jack-O-Lanterns, these are large pot ghosts and a rare example of a benign yokai, gifting people unlimited water (or wine if you’re an adult) from their mouth.
Hopefully, these cute monsters give you some good ideas if you want to use some yokai for Halloween fun. Remember, these are just for inspiration, so feel free to experiment.
What is your favorite yokai? Do you know any yokai-themed activities? Let us know in the comments!