Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ubume, the Yōkai Who Was Once Human

And now we have come to the end of our week of element-based yōkai.  Today's yōkai features that most crucial element of all, the human element (a neo-Japanesque thought if ever I had one).

I've stated before that yōkai are unlike anything else in any other country's lore, and even within Japan.  They are not revered like kami, they are not feared like ghosts, they are not avoided like demons.  Ghosts are one thing, monsters another, and yōkai are just yōkai.  They're kind of the lower rung of odd Japanese beasts, as the humourous stories many possess show.  They may attempt to explain or personify a natural phenomenon, they may just be mischievous being who wants to mess with humans, or they may just be some random, distinctive creature who happens to live in Japan.  Like I said in this week's first entry, just because we don't see yōkai so much anymore doesn't mean that they aren't still there.  Today's yōkai is no exception.

While yōkai are just inhabitants of the country, be they natural or supernatural, the creatures themselves are simply different than most things that roam Japan:  that's what makes them yōkai.  However, we've seen Tesso, who was once a man that let his unnatural death turn him into an onryō, except that it became rather monstrous, so he is viewed as a yōkai instead.  But that is a single happening: there is only one Tesso, and he only really wanted to spook one or two people.  So he isn't a breed of yōkai, he's just a guy that became monstrous in death.  That's pretty common in Japan.

What is uncommon is that certain element of humanity that enables anyone to become a yōkai.  There are only two such yōkai that I can think of, and today I will discuss one of them.

What is it about the human spirit that holds such unique power?  Today's yōkai exemplifies this quandary.  Japanese live in a wonderful country inhabited from great gods to lowly demons to bugs to pesky yōkai to ghosts to wolves to people.  Everything lives there and interacts with one another on different levels.  We know that some animals can be born, or some objects can be improperly purified and cared for and, after a long time, they become yōkai.  Some humans live unfortunate lives and have no power to control their own destiny until they are dead, wherein their spirit lingers on, hoping for some retribution.

But what if a human spirit is able to pass on, their body properly purified and cared for, but their feelings remain?  What if those feelings then manifest themselves into something frightening?  What if those feelings are able to change themselves into a yōkai all its own?  While incredibly rare, this sort of transformation is exclusively human.  What makes a human being become a yōkai?  Let's let the ubume tell us.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Raijū, the Shinto Storm God's Lightning Companion

So now it's Day 6 of Yōkai Week, and I've run out of the Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy.

"Well, that's obvious," you may be saying, "we were wondering why in the world you made such a big deal about the five elements when you knew you had a week's worth of entries to do. That was a pretty bone-headed decision."

Hey now, no need to be hurtful. I can just switch over to the Five Elements of Japanese Philosophy, which conveniently have two different elements.

"Why didn't you just do that in the first place?"

Good question. Actually, that would mean that today's element would be air (風) or nothingness (空).

"Hey, nothingness, that sounds pretty scary. What a great concept for Halloween!"

Yes, I do have projected conversations with myself quite a bit, but it's nothing to worry about. But you're right, nothingness is an extremely terrifying concept. Too terrifying for me to cover, in fact, without a bit more religious education.  Though some insight can be gained from people like Miyamoto Musashi or a high-ranking Zen monk like the one in Lone Wolf and Cub, it only really reinforces the fact that I am nowhere near capable of understanding it myself, let alone possessing the capacity to explain it to you, accompanied by witty comments and interesting pictures.

I think instead I'll just combine the remaining two elements, air, and use the alternate reading of nothingness for sky or heaven, and how about the additional element of electricity, for all you Pokemon fans out there?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Umi-bōzu, Monster Monks from the Sea

Our next element is water, 水.  I did a water ghost before, and in fact, the Funa-Yūrei have a bit in common with today's yōkai, but they are vastly different in appearance, location, lore, and whatnot.  They are, however, sometimes considered to be partners-in-crime, if for no other reason than because a lot of really freaky things exist in the ocean.

This is not a yōkai.  This thing is definitely swimming around in the water right now.  Tastes damn good, though.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tesso, the Iron Rat

Today's yōkai represents the Chinese element 金.  As we've seen before, this means gold.  However, since I've already talked about a gold yōkai, it also means, and is taken here in the gogyou ideology to mean metal.

So let's talk about Tesso (鉄鼠), the Iron Rat!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Konaki Jijii, A Yōkai Ripe with Superstition

Today's element is earth, 土.  Today's yōkai is also kind of popular in Japan.  Though perhaps best known from the ever-popular and all-encompassing series, Mizuki Shigeru's GeGeGe no Kitarō, sightings and stories of today's yōkai have been related all throughout the country.  Commonly attributed to Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku, because of that island's association with the wild, natural locations in which this yōkai is known to dwell, in fact he has been spotted nationwide, and many rural villages have their own superstitions regarding... the Konaki Jijii (子泣き爺).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Akurojin no Hi, Mie Prefecture's Roadside Phenomena

We're on Day Two of our week-long tour of Elemental Yōkai.  If you missed yesterday's entry, the Jubokko, please check it out.

The second element of traditional Chinese philosophy is fire, 火.  Today's yōkai, while not so much a yōkai as an unusual phenomenon, comes from my birth prefecture.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jubokko, the Japanese Vampire Yōkai

Ah, it's been a while, hasn't it?  Well here, have seven new entries.

Really.  You'll recall last year at this time, the week leading up to Halloween, I posted an entry a day detailing Japanese ghost stories and folk tales.  Well, I'm ready to do it again!  But instead of ghost stories, this year I'd like to tell you about seven yōkai.

Now, you may recall that yōkai aren't necessarily a "scary" thing in Japan.  Of course, I think some of the yōkai I will cover this week will be quite scary, but some yōkai are just troublemakers, and some are even helpful.  But we won't talk about those since it's near Halloween.  I'll stick to ones that are generally frightening or, barring that, at least manage to cause death and destruction.  Even though the word "yōkai" is often translated into English as "monster," in Japan they run the gamut from the horrifically demonic, to helpful house-keepers.  Mostly they leave humans alone and want to be left alone, and only strike out with anger if they are disturbed, or wronged, or bored.  Mostly, yōkai are just creatures, things, unique to Japan, part of the odd and wonderful nature of things that dwell within our country.  We fear them, we respect them, we put up with them.  Many yōkai scholars describe yōkai as the embodiment of strange or unexplainable phenomena.  "What is that strange sound outside of my house?"  "Oh, it must be one of those types of yōkai that makes sounds like that."  "Why do I have an ache in my ear?"  "Oh, it must be one of these yōkai that like to mess with humans' ears."  Many such yōkai came about this way.  But then, what about the particularly well-known and disturbing ones whose stories seem to have spread throughout the country on their own?  Thousands of people across Japan don't just happen to come up with the same stories and ideas about the appearance and habits of yōkai simultaneously.

Well, it's because they're real, of course.

It's true, they're not seen so often as they were back in the days of Old Edo, but it's not because of new scientific understanding or loss of interest.  Yōkai are still everywhere in Japan, people just forget how to see them, because they don't know what they're looking for.  But yōkai should never be forgotten.  They are essential in the preservation of Japanese folk culture, and an important and fascinating element of the country.

So, let's do a series of yōkai corresponding to the elements!