Recently I was covering a unit in my English Listening class and the subject that was used to teach the lesson was about mythological creatures. It referred to various creatures such as the Lochness Monster, Sasquatch, and Banshee. These are some of the more well-known mythological creatures, but as with most content I use, there was a lack of background knowledge for my students. To help connect any unit to the students I teach, I have them brainstorm on the topic and how it relates to them. In the course of this brainstorming session, the students were able to teach me about some of the Japanese Mythological creatures they know.
Having this discussion peaked my interest further. What follows are three of the more well-known and interesting yokai that I have come across. Yokai loosely translated means ghost, spirit or apparition. They are among one class of supernatural or mythological creatures in Japan.
The Kappa, loosely translated as “river child” is a creature that lives in rivers and streams. As with any mythology, there are a number of names and descriptions that are associated with the creature. The most common descriptions say that it is bluish green, with scales and a cup-like feature on its’ head which holds water. If it ever ventures onto land this water ‘reserver’ ensures its survival and retains magic powers. The lore indicates it eats children (although they apparently love cucumbers more), so parents in some parts of Japan still warn their kids of the Kappa so they stay safe around rivers and streams. There are signs still posted in many parts of Japan warning of the Kappa. In fact, the streams (flood canals) near my apartment have signs posted.
They are depicted in many different ways. Some images have them fitting right into kawaii culture, but if you look at older versions of the stories regarding this creature and the pictures to accompany them you’ll find that the more cutesy the picture the further from the original tales it is. Most of what I know about them is that they are more kowai, scary, and menacing; however, there are stories that the Kappa can be quite helpful and bring good crops. Either, way, best stay alert near the rivers if you seen a sign warning you of the Kappa.
Another of the more well-known mythological creatures is the Oni. They are described as demon-like with red, blue, brown or black skin, two horns on its head, a wide mouth filled with fangs; they wear nothing but a tiger skin loincloth and often carry a kanabo. Oni is considered to be evil. Many places in Japan have ceremonies or events that are meant to drive away the Oni. People throw soybeans from their houses with a chant intended to send the evil away and bring good luck.
Over time, the fear of the Oni has given way to a feeling that perhaps it is also protective. Some festivals now have people dressed as Oni that is meant to drive away other evil spirits and protect those in the parade. Oni can be found on roof tiles of houses to protect people’s homes from evil spirits also. There is a fairly consistent description regarding the Oni and are portrayed similarly just about everywhere in statues and pictures. Some people may think that this creature looks very familiar. The Oni has been depicted in various forms in many different manga stories and more popularly in the U.S as the creature fought in the animated serious Hellboy: Sword of Storms.
The last one I’d like to tell you about is one of the more odd creatures I came across during my research, the Nuppeppo. This is a sort of monster or goblin. The name is interesting as it’s originally from a derogatory word for a woman who wears too much makeup, not that that has much bearing on how you would describe this odd creature. It is depicted as being extremely fleshy and fat, a blob of sorts. While it has no clear gender or even face, it does often have a face-like appearance within its volumes of skin folds.
The Nuppeppo is said to be harmless but is quite repulsive due to the smell of decaying flesh that wafts from its body. It lives alone, wandering the streets, but calls graveyards or abandoned temples home. There are some who say if you eat the flesh of the Nuppeppo you’ll have eternal youth. I wish you luck with that one
Be on the look out for signs warning you of various things or places, that could be linked to Japanese mythology that may include one of these strange creatures or several others. A sunekosuri could trip you up in Okayama. You could get trapped by a shidaidaka in Yamaguchi and you probably want to watch your back entering a shrine or home guarded by an otoroshi, they eat wicked people as well as small animals.
There are hundreds of different kinds of spirits, monsters and demons that are said to live in Japan. I’ve only named three of the ones that I found interesting. Some are similar to ones you might see in lore around the world and some are incredibly unique to Japan. They roam the streets, guard the temples and live in the rivers. No matter where you go in Japan keep your eyes peeled you never know what may be lurking around the bend.