The Newsletter 76 Spring 2017

The Book of "Yōkai"

Natsuko Akagawa

Reviewed title:

Michael Dylan Foster. 2015
The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Berkeley: University of California Press
ISBN 9780520271029

If the current craze is anything to go by, the next big cultural export from Japan after manga and anime, will be Pokémon. As with its predecessors, in the translation to a global world culture, Pokémon’s links to a premodern Japanese world may barely be recognized. One suspects that the majority of its global practitioners may never proceed beyond the thrill of chasing after virtual monsters. But for some aficionadas, the new pastime may offer an entry into the world of traditional Japanese folklore. In that case, Michael Dylan Foster’s The Book of Yōkai will be the hard copy app of choice!

Foster does not want to be too specific in defining yōkai for those who have not been brought up in the culture they have traditionally inhabited. Introducing his subject, Foster’s response to the inevitable first question the non-initiated may want to ask is:

So what is yōkai? For now let us just say that a yōkai is a weird or mysterious creature, a monster or fantastic being, a spirit or a sprite. … [But] yōkai are ultimately more complicate and more interesting than these simple characterisations suggest … [and] take us on a kaleidoscopic journey through history and culture (p. 5).

The aim of the book is to lead through that mysterious world.

Foster, by his own account, has lived and breathed yōkai since graduate days and is the author of a number of publications exploring Japanese folklore, including the celebrated Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai (University of California Press, 2009), for which he received the Chicago Folklore Prize. This book is a synthesis of the author’s long involvement with this genre and aims to provide a convenient overview of the field for the English-speaking newcomer.

The Book of Yōkai is a two-part distillation of scholarship that draws upon an extensive corpus of literature on the subject (testified by 16 pages of references), as well as on interviews conducted by the author. In Part One of the book, Foster takes readers on a journey through the world of yōkai, before providing, in Part Two, a broad sampling of its manifestations. Part One outlines the ‘cultural history of yōkai folklore and yōkai studies’. As well as introducing readers to the world of monsters and spirits, and the nature of the tradition of yōkai folktales, Foster introduces the influential writers who have inducted succeeding generations of Japanese into its mysteries. Part Two, a ‘Yōkai codex’, provides a sampling of some of the ghostly characters and the literary genres in which they appear. Readers are invited to approach the book in any way they choose, and many will no doubt want to begin with Part Two, to find out about the wide variety of good and bad monsters, before moving back to Part One when ready to gain a wider appreciation of the genre’s cultural context. A special enticement to do so is provided by the addition of original illustrations by Shinonome Kijn which, even in their small, pencilled format, provide a rich accompaniment to text.

What does the reader learn about yōkai? Foster avoids providing too simplistic a definition because as we come to learn, their identities ‘are not set in stone: they are contingent on the perspectives of the humans interacting with them’ (p. 21). Rather, he prefers to describe the context in which such monsters and spirits are brought to life, their nature, and the scholarly tradition that has further defined and refined the genre over time, as well as sustaining it across generations.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of Part One, Foster examines the contribution of the Japanese yōkai scholars and the sources of the tradition since classical times. In large part, the contemporary popularity of yōkai is due to the publications of early 20th century writers, Inoue Enryō (1858–1919) and Englishman Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) (‘one of the most important foreign-language interpreters of Japanese culture’ (p. 55)), and more recently, the post-war ‘revivalists’ Mizuki Shigeru (b. 1922), Miyata Noboru (1936–2000) and Komatsu Kazuhiko (b. 1947). While the latter can be credited for retheorising the yōkai tradition for a postwar generation, it was particularly through the work of novelist Kyogoku Natsuhiko (b. 1936), that, according to Foster, yōkai has achieved its current popularity, and arguably, influenced the more recent development of the Pokémon boom.

In Chapter 3 of Part One, Foster moves beyond the theory and history of yōkai, to focus on its everyday meaning, both in terms of everyday practice and local relevance. This discussion also addresses the question of the commercialisation and (the corruption of) ‘authenticity’ that has accompanied the popularisation of yōkai in Japan. Although Foster is not inclined to use the term ‘heritage’, in making a case for recognizing yōkai as ‘a permanent (though ever changing) feature of the cultural landscape [in Japan]’ (p. 74), he presents what in another context would amount to a cogent argument for recognizing this story-telling tradition as integral to Japan’s intangible cultural heritage, and as such, a heritage to be safeguarded. Foster’s response to the current commercialisation of the genre is to argue that ‘commercial production is one way in which yōkai stay relevant and viable and ever changing’ (p. 79), a conclusion that may well be relevant to a consideration of the significance of Pokémon currently.

Apart from avoiding simplistic definitions, throughout the book, Foster also warns against any essentialist or orientalist interpretation of yōkai’s cultural significance. In concluding Part One, Foster reiterates the point that Japanese yōkai should be regarded as part of a much larger global folkloric tradition, a phenomena that has its counterpart in the folk cultures of many other countries. Inevitably, however, it remains the case that “the particular shapes [that yōkai] monsters and spirits assume are anything but universal. They are sculpted by the distinct cultures and societies in which they emerge, evolving through specific historical moments and with the changing desires and challenges of the people who tell their tales” (p. 33).

Readers will be fascinated (as well as teased) by the kaleidoscope of creatures, malignant and benign, briefly described in Part Two. Many of these are ‘humanoid’. They range from figures such as ono, a human figure with clawed hands and protruding fangs, the unfortunate kuchi-sake-ona (the slit-mouthed woman), the ‘example of modern urban-suburban monster’, or mōryō, the child-like monster that eats body parts, to the more benign human-like creatures associated with good fortune, such Azuki-araim the ‘bean-washer’, Ningyo, a ‘real’ mermaid, or Kijimuna, the unreliable trickster, and traditionally imagined as ugly but now often imagined as ‘cute’. Others take on animal or spirit forms, such as kodama, the tree spirit or kappa, a water spirit, or even manifest themselves as ‘an animated rectangular wall’, in the case of nurikabe.

Readers, whose appetites are whetted by these descriptions and illustrations in Foster’s book may wish to continue their hunt for yōkai via the ‘yōkai finder’ provided by or they might want to consult the colourful collection of paintings in Miyata Noboru’s book, Yōkai no minzokugaku: Nihonno mieenai kukan (Folklore of monsters: Japan’s invisible space) (Iwanami Shoten, 1990).

Reviewed by Natsuko Akagawa, The University of Queensland ( Also published on