So much of our cultural creativity stems from a need for understanding. In The Book of Yokai, Michael Dylan Foster painstakingly assembles marvelous creatures of Japanese folklore that have come into being over hundreds of years to explain the inexplicable.1
Kodama – Tree Spirit
Trees are prominent features of the landscape throughout Japan; large, unusual, or old trees are often considered sacred. In shrines throughout the country it is common to see a shimenawa rope draped around the trunk of ancient trees, indicating a divine connection. […] The kodama, which means “tree spirit,” is not set in behavior or appearance. […] In Japanese, the word kodama also means “echo.” This usage may be directly linked to the yokai kodama—from a belief that an echo is the spirit of the woods responding to a call.
Many of the fantastic beasts embody familiar, universal phenomena. Like 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.2
The yokai are dangerous and mischievous, kind even playful. Like most cultural remnants, they vary depending on geography and period.
Tsuchigumo – Earth Spider
The word tsuchigumo literally means “earth spider,” appears in the […] mythohistorical texts, and seems to have been used as a derogatory and demonizing label for the indigenous inhabitants of Japan. That is, the people writing the texts used the term to negatively described the natives they were conquering; they portrayed them as having short bodies and long arms and legs and as living in holes in the ground.
In tracing the yokai through texts, illustrations, drama, and other historical records, Foster creates a wonderful bestiary of invention. (Not dissimilar to Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings.)
One common characteristic of yokai is their liminality, or “in-betweenness.” They are creatures of the borderlands, living on the edge of town, or in the mountains between villages, or in the eddies of a river running between two rice fields. They often appear at twilight, that gray time when the familiar seems strange and faces become indistinguishable. They lurk at crossroads.
Children’s book author Roald Dahl created mystical creatures he called “gremlins” in the 1930s to explain the common mechanical failings in British fighter planes. We create stories and characters to turn experience into knowledge.
As we illuminate more of our shadowed world and our own shadowed selves with science—why the sky is blue, why echoes exist, why we feel something is watching us, why we can’t shake deep melancholy—I hope there will always be room for spirits, for magic, for creativity.