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Messages from yurei and yokai
—Koizumi Yakumo and Inoue Enryo on yokai

Masayuki Ikeda
Professor, Waseda University & Director, International Institute for Language and Culture, Waseda University

‘Horror’ is the essence of yurei and yokai

Supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore known as yokai are enjoying a spike in popularity. Considering yokai is constantly haunting the world, it is strange that a yokai “boom” is even possible. The media often portrays yokai as friendly, easygoing characters, especially in popular cartoons aimed at Japanese children. People today love yokai for their easygoing personalities and friendly demeanor, despite the fact that their original reason for existence is to scare us.

In my opinion, these friendly depictions of yokai are complete and utter distortions. Nevertheless, people tend to prefer warm-hearted and comforting yokai. What we are seeing here is an unprecedented compromise between yokai and humans.

Yurei, a term referring to ghostly apparitions in Japanese folklore, are said to come out more frequently in the summer by taking advantage of the darkness of night. Surely, they are busy throughout the year just like yokai. However, Japanese people tend to think that yurei are on a seasonal contract. One problem for yurei is that Tokyo does not get that dark. As a result, yurei seem to be hesitating, unsure of when and who to haunt.

In the past, yurei were extremely frightening. However, as they become less and less scary, it seems yurei will go the way of the yokai and become lighthearted mascots known as yuru-kyara. Either way, it does not change the fact that the essence of yurei lies in their ability to fill us with horror.

Both yurei and yokai are manifestations of nature that exist in a world other than our own. Therefore, we should not be able to tame these phenomena to our liking and transform them into friendly beings. Humans are selfish to believe they can freely manipulate the ‘horror’ of these beings and demand they get along.

Yurei and yokai have an important duty to deepen the awareness of human beings by luring them into an abyss of horror. They ask, “Are you sure you are doing the right thing?” while horrifying humans to their core. This is why humans need to face yurei and yokai, not just fear them.

Resonance among spiritual beings

Kwaidan of Japan New Edition
Written by Lafcadio Hearn
Translated by Masayuki Ikeda

Why are people sensitive to supernatural beings such as yurei and yokai? All people, regardless of their ethnicity, carry a deep fear of nature inside them. This fear constitutes a collective, unconscious memory of the human race. Therefore, individual people carry a spiritual essence within their bodies that they may interpret as fear. When this spiritual essence resonates with the spiritual creatures of the otherworld such as yokai and yurei, it produces a sense of horror.

However, if something deep inside us enables us to sense yurei and yokai from the otherworld, is it not possible that we are also some kind of “ghostly” being? In other words, as Lafcadio Hearn thought, it is not a stretch to say that humans are yurei and yokai. What we are actually looking at when we see supernatural beings are our own hallucinations and visions

Do yurei and yokai exist?

I suppose you can say that both yurei and yokai exist. I personally believe they do. However, I am not saying they exist in our world as living beings alongside humans and animals. I think of them as external projections of people’s illusions and ghostly visions. Neither yokai nor yurei have communities on Earth where they carry on as living beings. Nevertheless, they do exist as visions and illusions that come from deep inside us.

I myself have seen a ghost. The ghost just stared at me and disappeared after several minutes without saying or doing anything. It did not even try to shake my hand. However, I sensed the ghostly vision was trying to communicate something to me. I still think back on that experience fifteen years ago and continue to ask myself what it meant. I feel that how I come to terms with this experience is very important.

It is a well-known fact that Inoue Enryo, a distinguished yokai specialist, denied the existence of yurei and yokai. Stories about yurei and yokai had always been with him since he was very young and he had even seen them himself. This was why he wanted to demystify them. According to Enryo, yokai belong to a realm of “mystery and wonder” outside the laws of nature because they cannot be explained through reason. This is why he worked to convince others to give up their superstitious belief in yokai while endeavoring to expose their true nature. In this way, the mission of Enryo’s yokai-gaku (yokai-ology) was to enlighten people and free them from superstitions.

Yurei and yokai according to Lafcadio Hearn and Inoue Enryo

Yokai drawn by Hearn

In contrast to Enryo, author of Kwaidan Lafcadio Hearn believed in yurei and yokai. He had been haunted by ghosts and otherworldly creatures since he was five years old and wrote about his experiences in an autobiographical work titled Nightmare-Touch. Hearn describes the fear of a ghost’s touch as “elements of primeval fears—fears older than humanity—doubtless enter into the child-terror of darkness.” According to Hearn, our fear of yurei and yokai is the result of not only individual past experiences, but also the collective experiences of the human race.

It can be said that Enryo devoted himself to the study of yokai in order to help Japanese people become aware of their ignorance and unscientific ways of thinking during an era of modernization. In contrast, Hearn wrote one kwaidan (ghost story) after another in an attempt to overcome the traumatic yurei and yokai experiences of his childhood.

I have stated that while Enryo denied the existence of yurei and yokai, Hearn was a believer. I want to note that when I say “the existence of yurei and yokai,” I am not referring to their existence as living organisms but rather as a kind of “vision” or “illusion.”

This way of thinking has us realize that Enryo’s denial of yurei and yokai and Hearn’s belief are just two variants of the same idea. Hearn may have believed in yurei and yokai as a kind of illusion, but I suppose he doubted their existence as living beings alongside humans and animals.

It appears to me that Enryo and Hearn held quite similar views but different approaches when it came to yurei and yokai. The only significant difference there may be between the two men is that as a scholar Enryo dismissed belief in yurei and yokai as superstition while Hearn used these beliefs as a source of inspiration, especially as a writer.

Incidentally, Enryo and Hearn met in person. They surely enjoyed talking about yokai together, but no records indicate they had heated debates or contested each other’s views. I am sure the two of them enjoyed each other’s company and their shared passion for yurei and yokai.

Coexisting with yurei and yokai

Lafcadio Hearn

Because yurei are dead spirts that used to be human, they generally only appear in front of individuals they target. Yurei often appear when they wish to take revenge on those that wronged them when they were still alive. In this instance, yurei are often women that want to haunt men that betrayed them before they died. Some female ghosts kill their targets, while others disappear once their targets become apologetic and pay a price for their wrongdoings.

However, this is not the case with yokai. Yokai are often incarnated as animals and scare anyone that happens to cross their path. They frighten anyone, regardless of whether they are good or bad.

The precise difference between yurei and yokai is very obscure and it is nearly impossible to separate the two. This is because both yurei and yokai are spiritual beings that are a part of world history and a product of human imagination. Even if it is impossible to provide factual scientific evidence to prove the existence of these precious, invaluable beings, it is not right to wipe them from human history. Both yurei and yokai are cultural assets produced from human beings.

Another important aspect is that yurei and yokai are not always necessarily negative beings. In other words, they can have positive attributes. I have mentioned the negative and destructive attributes of these spiritual beings, but I must add that they can also show us a more friendly, positive side. In fact, there are cases where yurei and yokai help and guide people.

A yurei and yokai's demeanor depends on whether a person can read the appropriate signs and understand in what ways the spiritual beings are guiding them. Yurei and yokai communicate important messages from an invisible world to the world of the living. In this regard, Hearn is an extraordinary writer that payed close attention to the messages of yurei and yokai. I, for one, feel that human beings are much scarier and more unreasonable than yurei and yokai.

I believe the way we face and relate to yurei and yokai is of great significance in our lives.

Masayuki Ikeda
Professor, Waseda University & Director, International Institute for Language and Culture, Waseda University

A Mie prefecture native, Masayuki Ikeda is a Professor at Waseda University and Director of the International Institute for Language and Culture. His area of expertise is comparative literature and comparative culture. He also serves as a consultant for non-profit organization Kamakura Terakoya and his achievements in the social action arena earned him the Hakuho Award and Commendation from the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in 2007 and the Matsutaro Shoriki Award and Tomoiki Local Culture Award in 2011. His published works include: Lafcadio Hearn no Nihon (Japan According to Lafcadio Hearn) (Kadokawa Sensho), Souzou-ryoku no Hikaku Bungaku (Comparative Literature of Imagination) (Seibundo Publishing), Fukugan no Hikaku Bunka (Comparative Culture from Multiple Perspectives) (Seibundo Publishing) and 100-pun de Meicho: Koizumi Yakumo—Nihon no Omokage (100 Minutes of Classics: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan by Koizumi Yakumo) (NHK Publishing), as well as edited works such as Kojiki to Koizumi Yakumo (The Kojiki and Koizumi Yakumo) (Kamakura Shunjusha), Oisemairi to Kumanomode (Pilgrimages to the Shrines in Ise and Kumano) (Kamakura Shunjusha), Kyosei to Junkan no Cosmology (Cosmology of Symbiosis and Circulation) (Seibundo Publishing), Hikaku Bunka no Susume (An Encouragement of Comparative Culture) (Seibundo Publishing) and Terakoya Kyoiku ga Nippon wo Kaeru (Terakoya Education Will Change Japan) (Seibundo Publishing), and translations, including Shinpen Nihon no Omokage (New Edition Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan) (Kadokawa Sophia Bunko), Shinpen Nihon no Omokage II (New Edition Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan II) (Kadokawa Sophia Bunko), Shinpen Nihon no Kwaidan (New Edition Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things) (Kadokawa Sophia Bunko), Cats (Chikuma Bunko) and Yokai Yosei Tan (Yokai and Fairy Tales) (Chikuma Bunko).