Michael Dylan Foster

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore

“How do we explain occurrences that don't easily fit our everyday understandings of how things work?”

So much of our cultural creativity stems from a need for understanding, making sense of that which mystifies.

In The Book of Yokai Michael Dylan Foster painstakingly collects a few of the marvelous creatures of Japanese folklore which have come into being over hundreds of years to explain inexplicable things.

Many of the fantastic beasts embody familiar phenomenon. For example the ‘yamabiko,’ spirit that calls back when you shout into a mountain. My favorite is ‘Nurikabe’, a plaster wall that appears when we are deeply tired with physical strain. Who hasn’t suffered such a psychosomatic imposition?

Many yokai are uniquely cultural to Japan; ‘tengu’ is a mountain goblin, associated with Buddhism and mountain aesthetics. Or ‘karasu tengu’, a crow associated with mountain worship that is known for ‘spiriting away’ children.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
This exquisite outer kimono (uchikake) is from the Japanese Edo period and was made ~1870-90. With silk and metal-covered thread it depicts scenes from well-known kabuki plays which often included Yokai characters. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Yokai are dangerous and mischievous, kindly even playful. Like most cultural remnants they vary depending on geography and period.

Roald Dahl created mystical creatures he called ‘gremlins’ in the 1930s to explain the common mechanical failings in British fighter planes. As we illuminate more of our shadowed world with science – why the sky is blue, why echoes exist, why we feel something is watching us – I hope there will always be room for spirits, for magic, for creativity.