I came across a quote by the artist Katsushika Hokusai the other day, and was reminded how much I enjoyed his work. Best known for his series of woodblock prints Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, particularly the immortal The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai also created many depictions of Japanese yokai (supernatural monsters) and other mythological beasts. Here are a few examples of master print-maker Hokusai’s portrayals of various denizens of the Japanese spirit-world:
The tengu were a mountain-dwelling race of warrior bird-demons, known as harbingers of war and unrest, who delighted in tormenting Buddhist monks. They were known to encourage chaos and upheaval, often training humans in the arts of swordsmanship and gun-fighting.
Tengu are capable of flight, sometimes swooping down upon victims to carry them away and drop them into the trees from great heights. Other times, a tengu abductee would be found in the woods, suffering from a type of dementia known as tengu kakushi, meaning “hidden by a tengu.” Additionally, tengu were able to teleport at will, communicate through telepathy, and even fully possess a human’s mind to take over their body. They have also been reported as being able to correctly predict what men are thinking and, in one story, able to magically remove a tumor from an old man’s face.
Along with their supernatural abilities, Tengu have been associated with magical objects. Stories tell of the tengu’s magic fan, which can shrink or grow noses; a magic straw cloak, capable of turning its wearer invisible; and a magic gourd, which never runs out of sake. They are often depicted with magical staffs or enchanted mallets, as well.
Over the years, two forms of tengu have emerged. The Karasu-Tengu (Crow Tengu) has a raptor-like appearance with wings and beak, while the Hanataka-Tengu (Long-Nosed Tengu) resembles a red-faced feathered human with a long, phallic nose.
Originating in Chinese folklore, the Baku was a supernatural dream-devourer, eater of nightmares. This being was usually portrayed as a chimera-like creature with elephant trunk and tusks, rhinoceros eyes, tiger paws, and an ox tail. Unlike many yokai, the baku was a helpful spirit, able to ward off nightmares if called upon to do so. A distressed sleeper, upon waking (or even while still asleep) was advised to cry out, “Baku, devour this dream!” The baku would not only remove unpleasant dreams and assure a restful sleep, but could also convert said nightmares into luck.
The kappa is a child-sized amphibious water sprite with webbed hands and feet, a turtle shell, three anuses, and a water-filled cavity atop its head. This water must not be spilled, for it is the source of a kappa’s power when away from water. However, as kappa are polite to a fault, bowing before one will surely cause him to return the courtesy, thus causing the water to spill and thereby paralyzing him. A human refilling the water will turn the kappa into his indentured servant for life.
Though kappas are generally regarded as trifling mischief-makers, they have been known to indulge in serious offenses such as raping women and drowning children. Small children are warned against going near bodies of water unaccompanied, for aside from cucumbers, human youngsters are a kappa’s favorite meal. When bathing in kappa-infested rivers or ponds it is good practice to toss cucumbers (inscribed with the names of the bathers) into the water, in order to temporarily pacify these troublesome creatures.
Appearing as normal humans by day, but long-necked yokai by night, the Rokurokubi have the ability to transform their faces to resemble scary Oni. Oftentimes they live amongst ordinary mortals, some even taking spouses, and occasionally they are said to be unaware of their true natures. Though seldom portrayed as truly sinister, they delight in frightening people and enjoy revealing their demonic identities to the unsuspecting. Drunkards, fools, and people falling asleep are common targets.
Oni are wild-haired, horned demon-ogres of ancient Japanese legend, commonly depicted wearing tiger-skin loincloths and brandishing iron clubs (kanabou). Though humanoid in appearance, their skin is red, blue, or black, and they sometimes have three eyes. Oni usually represent undesirable human traits, embodying the worst tendencies of mankind. They are dim-witted, cruel, easily distracted, and fond of crude humor. Rarely do they reveal themselves to man, but prefer to wreak havoc by evil acts such as causing avalanches and spreading plagues.
Yama-Uba (Mountain Crone)
Traditionally depicted with unkempt hair and tattered robes, Yama-Uba is a predatory old witch skilled in potions and poisons. Living deep in the mountains of Japan, she feigns helplessness to trick unwary travelers into coming to her aid, whereupon she kills and eats them. Other times she leads lost strangers through dangerous passages, allowing them to fall to their deaths, then feasts upon their corpses. She is sometimes said to be able to stretch her mouth the length of her face, and can use her hair as a living thing, trapping victims and eating them with a second mouth atop her head. However, despite her reputation for devouring adults as well as children, she has a maternal side too, and raised the orphan hero Kintarō.
It has been suggested that Yama-Uba is of the Oni class, but unlike those infallible beings, she has weaknesses. In some depictions she is a nocturnal creature, unable to travel in sunlight. In other stories, her soul is trapped inside a flower, which, if destroyed, would cause her death.
The actual origin of Yama-Uba tales may stem from times in Japan’s history when famine forced villagers to cast their elderly out into the woods, because they were unable to feed them.
Like the Western ghost, the yurei are spirits unable to pass on to the afterlife. Typically they are bound to the Earth by a strong emotion, and remain in their spectral form until some purpose has been fulfilled or justice met. This may entail their remains being discovered and given proper burial with necessary rites, a love relationship consummated, or a killer brought to justice. Unlike some other spirits, yurei tend not to wander, but haunt single individuals, such as their murderers or intended lovers.
Though the tanuki is a real animal, a Japanese raccoon dog, it has been a part of folklore since ancient times. The tanuki of legend is a mischievous shape-shifter, known to disguise himself as a tea kettle or pot. He is frequently depicted with a sake bottle in one hand and a promissory note in the other, as he has a tendency to drink on credit, accruing large bar tabs. He is also fond of paying his bills with leaves magically disguised to resemble paper money.