When you hear the word yokai (strange apparition), the first thing that might pop into your head is a turtle-looking kappa or the shapeshifting kitsune fox. Many of the creatures, ghosts and ghoulies you’ve heard of in Japan can fall under the umbrella term yokai. In Japanese (妖怪), yokai refers to something strange, mysterious or unexplained. Before contact with China, the Japanese yokai were formless and obtuse, much like Japanese gods, demons and assorted deities.
However, yokai grew popular during the Edo period when Toriyama Sekien wrote his book Night Procession of One Hundred Demons, which helped to cement the idea and images of yokai in the popular imagination of Japan. That said, if you find yourself in Japan and hear a bump in the night or see something creepy, it could be one of this five popular yokai.
Seto Taisho: The crockery general
If there’s some commotion in the kitchen of your local restaurant, there’s a good chance Seto Taisho is plaguing them. This tiny little soldier is made up of discarded bits of broken plates, bottles and jars. He wields needles and any other pointed objects he can find to terrorize the kitchen staff and cause as much chaos as he can.
As long as you’re not working in the kitchen, you’re probably okay, but I’d try not to drop too many plates and dishes at home. Not only will your downstairs neighbor probably complain to your management company, but you may add just enough pieces to let the little general manifest in your apartment.
Chimi: The mountain spirit
This is one you definitely want to avoid. Chimi is a general term for yokai with a human face and animal body. Their sole purpose is to trick humans into wandering off into the mountains so they can kill and eat them.
Feeding off the innards of human corpses is what the chimi likes best in life. They love finding hikers in Japan’s dense forest and mountain regions, which is the perfect place to isolate humans to feast on.
When you’re out camping or hiking, remember to stay with your group and keep to the well-trodden paths. Otherwise, that noise you can hear may not just be a deer or a bear (also something you don’t want to encounter), but you could be stalked by a chimi looking for a snack.
Shirime: The eyeball butt
The Japanese language is a wonderfully expressive language that contains abstract terms and phrases that allow for a nuanced and poetic way of describing the world. But, unfortunately, it also sometimes does exactly what it says on the box. Shirime is a great example of that. It means “eyeball butt.” And that’s exactly what you get. An eyeball in a butt.
A stranger taking down their pants or lifting their kimono at you in the street is a frightening enough experience. Still, one who bends over to reveal the eyeball in their anus is another thing altogether. Thankfully, aside from the surprise and disgust, the shirime doesn’t wish you any harm. If you scream and run away, a shirime will probably be satisfied with a good night’s work.
Nikusui: The meat sucker
Your mother warned you about strange women; you should have listened when it comes to the nikusui (meat sucker). Like vampire legends in the West, Nikusui looks like an attractive young woman who approaches men walking alone at night, asking to borrow their light (from a lantern in the stories, but you’re probably using the light on your phone).
When she gets close enough, she snuffs out the light and bites their victim, draining all the meat from their body, leaving just a saggy pile of skin and bones behind.
The good news here is that (most) sightings of the nikusui are limited to Mie and Wakayama prefectures. But if you live in those areas and meet a young woman when you’re out on a night stroll, and she asks for a light, just start running in the opposite direction.
A yokai list would not be complete without mentioning a tanuki (raccoon dog). Outside of tengu (mischievous supernatural beings) and kitsune, they’re probably the most common yokai you’ll see, perhaps without realizing it.
There are real tanuki that root through your garbage at night, and Super Mario is also known to wear a tanuki costume, but you’ll often see statues of tanuki outside of your favorite restaurant, which is placed there to bring good luck. The thing you probably notice first about these statues is the massive set of testicles dangling between their legs or resting on the floor, which you then have to explain away to your children.
But believe it or not, these massive testicles are the source of the tanuki’s shapeshifting power. They can become objects or tools or disguise their appearance. While tanuki are mainly tricksters that enjoy gambling and drinking, they can be vicious when provoked. So much like any drunk person in a bar, keep your distance from a tanuki when it’s on a bender.
Have you seen any yokai in Japan or had an odd experience you couldn’t explain? Let us know in the comments below!