Think You Know Japanese Folklore? Check Your Knowledge of These 5 Animal Yokais

  • TRADITIONAL
  • CULTURE
  • Yōkais are famous elements of Japanese folklore and are considered to be a class of supernatural demons and spirits. The word itself is made up of the characters meaning “bewitching; attractive; calamity” and “an apparition; mystery; suspicious.” Together, these characters form a word meaning something like “bewitching, mysterious apparition.”

    Yōkai can take many forms and many of them, called bakemono, can even shapeshift. Most of the time, they are harmful to some degree or mean bad luck, but some of them can bring good fortune and these days it’s popular to mix the scary with the cute. Here is a list of five animal-type yōkais for you to get familiar with.

    1. Kitsune, the Fox Yōkai

    The kitsune is one of the most well-known yōkais as they are often featured in Inari shrines or even in pop culture. It is a powerful spirit and a great shape-shifter. Similarly to a normal fox, the kitsune is also associated with mischief. Tales are told of kitsune shifting to human form to appear as a lost traveler and get into human homes only to rob them of their food or valuables. Oftentimes, illusions and other seemingly supernatural happenings are attributed to the kitsune as well.

    2. Nekomata, the Cat Yōkai

    One of the most famous of the yōkai types is the cat type yōkai. It has monstrous power, including shape-shifting into human form, among many others. A distinctive feature of this spirit is its two tails. Like normal cats, nekomata deems itself superior to other beings.

    They are said to eat humans or control corpses with their necromancy. They are cruel and very feared. Although most live in cities and villages, the most powerful of the type live in mountains and are the size of leopards. They usually are evolved of wise house-cats.

    3. Yosuzume, the Bird Yōkai

    The night sparrow is a small bird type spirit that lives in remote mountain passes or roads. Mostly they will appear in flocks and will swirl around lone travelers at night. Although they are not much harm by themselves, the implications are pretty bad. It is said that one who is surrounded by the yosuzume will have seriously bad luck or that they are the sign for other powerful yōkai or ghosts around.

    4. Uwabami, the Snake Yōkai

    The uwabami is a gluttonous giant snake spirit with strong powers, including shapeshifting into a human. It gets its giant size by eating a lot, including humans, as well as drinking a lot. They are famed to be capable of drinking a lot of sake. They can set up traps for lone travelers but some might outwit this spirit and live to tell what they saw.

    5. Okuri-Inu. the Dog Yōkai

    This is a yōkai that takes the shape of a kindly dog. It is called an escorting dog, as they will often escort or follow lone travelers at night. They will keep the humans safe from other nearby creatures and accompany them through their journey. However, should one stumble or hesitate on their way, the Okuri-Inu will attack and eat the person. The trick is to pretend that one is taking a rest if they have fallen down; then the dog spirit will patiently wait.

    It is still a custom in some places to say out loud “thank you for guiding me” when one has reached their destination so the spirit will disappear without harming them.

    These are some of the many many types and forms of yōkai spirits. Some are more malicious than others, but for sure they are deeply rooted in Japanese folklore and you might recognize that a lot of them have inspired modern pop culture elements such as games or anime. Hopefully, you will only meet the good fortune yōkais on your travels!