Yōkai, roughly translated as monster or demon, and yūrei, roughly translated as ghosts, are so well integrated into Japan that it’s inconceivable to imagine them removed from the cultural landscape. While Pokémon reinvented the idea of yōkai for new generations at home and introduced the concept to a global audience, recent decades have seen yōkai appear in mainstream cinema and cartoons. From The Ring to Harry Potter, yōkai can be found everywhere. The phenomena of yōkai and yūrei have been recorded since pre-Heian times, but their popularity exploded in the era of Ukiyo-e prints. Some attribute social, political and economic unrest as a reason for yōkai’s widespread prevalence in the Edo period. Poet and ukiyo-e artist Toriyama Sekien (1712 - 1788) helped popularise yōkai as we know them today through his illustrated catalogues, an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge
detailing every possible monster, demon and ghost. Audiences devoured these books, and the line between which yōkai were ancient folklore and which were of his own creation became increasingly blurred. Sekien also went onto inspire later artists like Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831 - 1889) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892), which can clearly be seen in their supernatural, playful and sometimes dark works.
This influence is apparent in one of Yoshitoshi’s most famous series, New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts (新景三十六怪選 Shinkei Sanjurokkaisen). The penultimate print in the series, depicts the legendary Oiwa. She is such a prolific yūrei, that it is hard to believe her origin only goes back to 1825. Oiwa is the protagonist of the fiercely popular kabuki play Tokaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, the most adapted ghost story in Japan. It tapped into the Edo people’s unease at a time of economic and social turmoil for the Tokugawa government and the harsh Tenpō Reforms that followed. This was solidified not just through civil unrest, but a public fear of ghosts leaving temples and aristocratic homes and entering the world of common people, which is reflected in Yotsuya Kaidan’s plot. The story has several versions, but all see Oiwa poisoned by
her husband Iemon or co-conspirators, disfiguring her and leading to eventual death. She proceeds to haunt Iemon until he descends into madness, unable to distinguish between dream and reality.
Born from the effects of the poison, her image is that of a drooping eye and long, straggling hair falling out in clumps. She is often paired with, or even becomes, a lantern, a motif from the play which shows Oiwa appearing in lanterns lighting Iemon’s way. He is unable to escape her haunting even in the apparent safety of the light. Yoshitoshi’s rendition shows Oiwa still in her beautiful state, a snake-like sash draped in a foreshadowing of what is about to befall her.
Oiwa is known in Japanese as an Onryō, or ghost that seeks revenge. One of Japan’s finest Horror films, Ring, pays obvious homage to Oiwa, evidence of her lasting influence and terrifying appeal to audiences.
A far older Onryō depicted in the Thirty-six Ghosts series is the Hōsōshin, the Smallpox Demon. First appearing in the Shoku Nihongi (an official text of Japanese history) in 797, not long after the introduction of smallpox into the country. By the medieval period, Hōsōshin were commonly believed to be the cause of smallpox, combatted with music, dance and, strangely, their aversion to the colour red. Yoshitoshi’s rendering of this demon is grotesque and slightly comical, particularly when paired with the skilled twelfth-century archer, Minamoto no Tametomo. The warrior is supposedly warding off the demons from an Okinawan village.
Naturally, Yoshitoshi has done a few prints centred around Tsuchigumo, or The Earth Spider. A term that goes back to the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the idea of a Tsuchigumo as a giant, monsterous spider began to form in the middle ages. Most people knew the tale where the Tsuchigumo faces off with Minamoto no Yorimitsu, another Heian period warrior of the Fujiwara Clan.
By the Edo Period, this fearsome spider was a well known yōkai and became the subject of one of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s (1798-1861) most famous prints. Here again we can return to the idea of yōkai as reflection of social instability. Kuniyoshi’s triptych became notorious as an allusion to the Tenpō Reforms. The sleeping Yorimitsu (far right) was widely considered to represent Tokugawa Ieyoshi, who was ruling Shōgun at the time of the print’s publication.
The man next to Yorimitsu, Urabe no Suetake, supposedly represented Mizuno Tadakuni who implemented the reforms. He watches the procession of yōkai, who audiences took to be the common people suffering under the changes made by Mizuno. This highly provocative reading saw the publishers quickly recall the artwork and destroy the woodblocks, making this an incredibly valuable piece in both subject and rarity.
These stories only scratch the surface of the Yōkai world. There are every variety of these magical, sometimes horrifying, sometimes endearing characters. Perhaps these monsters reflect our fears in the real world, but yōkai also remind us of realm beyond ours. Tapping into our curiosity for the spooky, the unexplained, the unknown.