Japan cuddles up to its demons
The manga writer Shigeru Mizuki once claimed that Japan's traditional ghouls and hobgoblins, the "yokai," had been "erased by the brightness of electricity" in post-war Japan.
It was a nice rhetorical flourish, but the monsters' burgeoning popularity in modern Japan, which Mizuki's own "Gegege no Kitaro" horror stories have played an important part in fostering, implies the yokai might not mind the light that much after all.
Depictions of yokai reach far back into Japanese history and have evolved into an extraordinarily diverse bestiary of weird beasties including "kappa" water imps balancing water in holes in their heads, one-eyed spirits that look like umbrellas, and the old man with a huge elongated cranium who is sometimes considered the leader of these monsters, the "Nurarihyon."
Professor Kazuhiko Komatsu at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies says the roots of the yokai lie in pre-modern society's attempts to describe the world around it, but he says the beliefs also interrelate in a complex way with Japan's traditional animistic religion.
People in traditional Japanese society believed spirits could run wild and cause supernatural phenomena and worshipped them as deities to mollify them. Yokai can, Komatsu says, be seen as "undesirable paranormal phenomena caused by deities yet to be enshrined."
But, while the roots of the yokai reach far back into the mists of Japanese history, they have shown a remarkable adaptability to the modern world.
In fact, the diversity of the yokai world increased significantly during the Edo Period (1603-1867). "Oni" demons, fox spirits and ghosties originating from old and worn-out items had previously accounted for most depictions of yokai, but the Edo imagination went wild.
"People who moved away from the nature because of urbanization lost their fear of the yokai, and therefore, conversely, they increased in variety. They began to regard the yokai as entertainment," says Masanobu Kagawa, curator at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History.
In the 18th century, a flourishing consumerism developed around the ghouls. Picture scrolls and ukiyo-e woodblock prints featured yokai creatures in the manner of illustrated guide books. "Karuta" cards and "sugoroku" board games featuring yokai were popular.
"In a way, they were the 'Pokemon' of our time," Kagawa says, referring to the popular anime and trading card franchise. "The yokai quickly became accepted as (anime-like) characters."
Yokai continued their dance with modernity into the Meiji Era (1868-1912) but really came into their own after the war. Since its launch in 1959, Shigeru Mizuki's "Gegege no Kitaro" manga and anime series played a major role in establishing them in the modern Japanese imagination, helping to inspire the "yokai boom" of the 1960s, which coincided with a broader fascination with fantastical monsters, or "kaiju," in Japanese popular culture. One boys' magazine even ran imaginary anatomical drawings of the beasts.
Yokai have become a stock subject for comic books, novels and movies in contemporary Japan. Museums hold exhibitions about them and tourists flock to destinations with which they are associated.
Yu Ito, a researcher at Kyoto International Manga Museum, has studied the depiction of yokai in manga and says the trend since the late 1990s has been to associate them less with fear than with friendship, romance and the difficult-to-translate concept of "moe," referring to strong feelings for the subject of a fictional product such as anime or manga.
Plotlines have also shifted from mystery-solving and killing yokai to heart-to-heart exchanges between humans and the monsters, with environmental themes and ideas of harmonious coexistence emerging as a major theme.
But, whatever the changing tides of fashion, professor Komatsu says their role in Japanese culture is remarkably constant.
"The yokai always became the focus of attention when the society was filled with a sense of stagnation and during transition times like the Muromachi Period (1338-1573) and the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (that ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868)," he says. "I think that we try to re-examine what we are from through the yokai."