Godzilla's Older, Creepier Cousins

The Japanese fascination with Halloween is lighthearted, but a long list of "otherwordly" monsters -- 'yokai' -- makes for a much spookier tradition.Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 31, 2008

TOKYO -- Halloween is a frothy foreign import in Japan, an excuse to have a party and eat sweets.

Monsters, though, are a more serious matter. They are indigenous and reputed to be everywhere. One is called Akaname, the Filth Licker, and he haunts dirty bathrooms. Using his long, lascivious tongue, he eats bathtub scum.

As if that were not scary enough, there is also the matter of shame. In this exceedingly well-scrubbed country, if word got out that there's a Filth Licker in your bathroom, your reputation would be ruined.

The Halloween season, then, is an opportunity to shine a festive light on the Filth Licker and his creepy kin. There are thousands of them, and collectively they are known as yokai, a word that is formed from the Japanese characters for "otherworldly" and "weird."

Yokai were tormenting and delighting the Japanese hundreds of years before Halloween chocolates and pumpkin-colored cupcakes showed up in this country's supermarkets.

Yokai emerged from Japan's polytheistic culture as personifications of superstitions and fears. The most widely known yokai is the oni, or demon, which is extremely powerful but not always dangerous.

As Japan has modernized, there has been a tendency to transform even the scariest of the yokai into cuddly creatures suitable for children. An extreme example of this cute-ification is onibaba, or demon hag. She is the horribly unbalanced elderly woman who collects livers of unborn children. In recent years, she has been reborn as the friendly mascot of a theme park built near onibaba's traditional haunts.

Professional chroniclers of yokai say the spooky creatures are remarkably similar -- in their folkloric origins and unspeakable powers -- to the ghosts, zombies, skeletons and assorted night stalkers who have wandered for centuries through the Western imagination.

"Anything that is unexplainable, anything that is scary, anything that is really weird can be considered the doings of a yokai," said Kenji Murakami, author of a yokai encyclopedia and 19 other yokai-related books. "We do not have a tradition of Halloween, but I think yokai are perfectly appropriate for Halloween. They help explain the inexplicable, and they are fun."

Part myth, part tall tale, part pop culture, yokai haunt mountains, swamps, subway stations and toilets across Japan. One yokai likes to plunge a large, hairy disembodied foot through the roofs of rich people's houses. Another is made entirely of discarded dinnerware and is more dangerous to himself than to others.

While Western ghosts and ghouls tend to surface during the Halloween season, yokai are almost always hanging around.

One is featured on the label of Kirin beer. Another -- a raccoon dog with super-size testicles -- is depicted in statues that stand outside thousands of restaurants and bars. Yokai-like imagery is found in the best-selling novels of Haruki Murakami and the internationally honored animated films of Hayao Miyazaki.

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