The Japanese horrors that inspire Yo-kai Watch

This popular series draws from Japanese monster myths much more directly than Pokemon ever did.

Yo-kai Watch 2 has hit American markets just in time for Halloween, and once again 3DS owners CAN sally out into Springdale to placate the tortured souls of the wandering damned and win them as familiars. There’s your buddy Jibanyan, a cat who can raise a puppeteer the dead. Manjimutt, a human-faced dog who died in a road accident. And of course Walkappa, who drowns children and eats their livers -- after ripping them out through their anus, of course.

Okay, that’s not exactly what happens. The characters in Yo-kai Watch don’t wholly resemble the yōkai legends that inspired them -- they’ve been neutered a little, much like the similar yōkai-based Pokémon.

In fact, shared inspiration isn’t the only thing these two games have in common. Though different in many respects, Yo-kai Watch games follow the Pokémon model where players explore, capture creatures, and use them to battle. The game even has similar systems for evolving creatures and cataloging them in a Pokédex-like Yo-kai Medallium. This might make the Yo-kai series appear to be a Pokémon imitator, but there’s a difference: here, the player isn’t chasing made-up monsters, but the literal horrors of Japanese folklore -- and that makes a difference.

The way Yo-kai Watch uses Pokémon-style game mechanics is consistent with Japanese traditions regarding ghosts. The game’s structure mirrors beliefs about death and the spirit world, and follows a long history of creating monster encyclopedias. But despite its centuries-old touchstones, Yo-kai Watch is also turning yōkai into global force, and helping export Japanese spirits overseas.

Mutability and Death

Yōkai stories about goblins, spirits, and monsters have been a staple of Japanese folklore for centuries, though at first glance these creatures appear to share little in common. Variation is natural in folklore -- regional differences arise in all stories -- but the isolation of early Japan and fragmentary nature of its feudal past spawned a bewildering number of local goblins that haunted a specific village or stretch of road. Combine that with Shinto animistic beliefs, where every rock and tree has a kami (resident spirit), and yōkai can become incredibly specific in their spiritual roles.

The mokumokuren, illustrated in the 1700s. The mokumokuren, illustrated in the 1700s.

Many yōkai emerged as folkloric just-so stories that explain natural phenomena, odd personal behavior, or vague feelings of dread. Take the makuragaeshi, a mischievous child ghost who sneaks up at night and pulls the pillow out from under your head. Others like the mokumokuren -- eyes that appear in walls -- explain the feeling of being watched. There’s also the kamaitachi, a sickle-clawed weasel responsible for the scratches you get while walking through the underbrush, but don’t notice until later. These “just so” relationships appear in Yo-kai Watch as well, though they’re mostly tied to rude or dangerous personal behavior -- Jibanyan possesses people and forces them to cross streets without waiting for the signal, whereas Bakurobaa forces its victim to blurt out embarrassing secrets. Fart in public? Blame Cheeksqueek.

With this incredible variety, its understandable that there’s even some scholarly debate as to what separates yōkai from similar entities. Indeed, in his seminal book Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai, folklore professor Michael Dylan Foster argues that, rather than looking for physical similarities, we should consider mutability and transformation as the characteristics that tie all yōkai stories together. These spirits and monsters are changing things, physically unstable, which begin as living or inanimate objects and shift into new forms through death, tragedy, or extreme age. Though this physical instability might seem odd to the western mind, it makes sense when you consider Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls. In Eastern religious thought, there’s nothing novel in the concept that a human might die and return to life as a frog or rabbit.

This definition of yōkai as shape-shifters is particularly interesting in the context of Yo-kai Watch, since here the yōkai are not only transformed animals or objects, but change further when the player evolves or combines them. While this is also a feature of the Pokémon series, Yo-kai Watch takes its folkloric inspiration more seriously than its predecessor -- and it doesn’t stop there.

To win the loyalty of a ghost in Yo-kai Watch, the player must first feed the entity its favorite food -- a major component of Japanese death rituals. For example, during normal ritual practice, families provide offerings to ancestors at the family butsudan or during the Bon Festival. The theme also appears in exorcism, where Buddhist and Shinto priests employ rice offerings as a way to “bribe” malicious spirits into behaving. It also surfaces in a similar but darker tradition of black magic, where witches create the vicious dog ghost inugami -- which appears in Yo-kai Watch -- by starving a dog nearly to death, decapitating it, then instructing its spirit to attack enemies in exchange for meat.

But in addition to food, the game also exploits a cultural link between ghosts and coins. In many East Asian folktales, ghosts will reveal a cache of buried coins to humans who lay them to rest -- adding significance to the fact that in Yo-kai Watch, allied ghosts give the player a unique medal once they’re collected in the player’s “Medallium,” or encyclopedia of yōkai.

Which draws us even deeper, since it turns out that fictional bestiaries are a major part of the yōkai tradition.

Cataloguing Yōkai: From the Edo Period to Nintendo 3DS

While we think of Pokémon as the originator of the Pokédex and the Medallium as a pale imitator, that’s not exactly true. While Pokémon was the first to draw inspiration from Japan’s stable of mythical creatures, both Pokémon and Yo-kai Watch follow a centuries-old Japanese tradition of creating an encyclopedia of fictional creatures.

A page from the Illustrated Night Parade of One-Hundred Demons. A page from the Illustrated Night Parade of One-Hundred Demons.

As Foster describes in Pandemonium and Parade, Japanese academics have attempted to catalogue and create typologies for yōkai since at least the Edo period. The first was the scholar-artist Toriyama Sekien’s 1776 book Gazu Hyakki Yagyō  (“Illustrated Night Parade of One-Hundred Demons”), a multi-volume work that provided a picture of each entity and an encyclopedia-style description of its habitat and behavior. Not every bestiary was as serious as Sekien’s, of course. During the Edo Period a parlor game involving ghost stories -- you’d tell them on hot summer nights to “shiver” and cool down -- triggered a boom in for-entertainment-only yōkai literature with monsters that were satirical, cute, or even sexy. But Sekien and his contemporaries largely tried to catalogue yōkai as real creatures, unifying disparate regional myths under one banner just as the Tokugawa Ieyasu had tried to unify Japan as a single entity.

As Foster notes, Yōkai classification became a popular theme in Japanese literature, with the encyclopedias changing to reflect their own eras. In the Meji Period, when Japan began to reject superstition in favor of western science, a new slew of “scientific” bestiaries focused on creating scientific typologies of monsters. By the early 20th century, a rapidly modernizing Japan returned to the yōkai encyclopedias as a way to recapture the customs and culture it had lost.

This wish to catalogue and typify monsters crops up in both Pokémon and Yo-kai Watch, which both feature extensive bestiaries that owe much to Sekien’s 1776 encyclopedia and the later “scientific” versions. After all, both games structure their monsters around a biological classification system, whether it’s the elemental “types” in Pokémon or the yōkai “tribes” of Yo-kai Watch -- but the latter’s explicit connection with yōkai tradition means that the encyclopedic format feels right at home.

So if you’ve ever flipped through the Pokédex or Medallium for entertainment, you’re participating in a centuries-old Japanese cultural practice. That’s not only cool, but it raises interesting questions about how globalization might change the yōkai.

Selling Yōkai in Indianapolis

As Japan marched into the 1970s and 1980s, yōkai seemed less relevant to the immediate life of the people and more of a cultural relic -- which oddly gave them a second life. Manga artists pounced on yōkai as a massive commercial opportunity while also enshrining them as a link to the past.

The most prolific author of these new yōkai myths was author and manga artist Mizuki Shigeru, who not only used yōkai in his popular manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō (“Kitaro of the Graveyard”) but also authored two illustrated yōkai encyclopedias. While not the first artist to re-popularize Japanese folklore in Manga form, Mizuki took the genre a step further by imbuing his yōkai with personalities and turning them into fully-rounded characters. In doing so, he also engaged in some mythmaking of his own, casting the monsters as holdovers from Japan’s innocent past, synonymous with the countryside and endangered by the modern world. In one of his encyclopedias, he joked that the himamushi-nyūdō -- a baby-like entity that licks up lamp oil -- had nearly gone extinct due to adoption of electric lights. It’s thanks to Mizuki that the ghosts in Yo-kai Watch have distinct personalities (even favorite bands) and the game’s small-town setting of Springdale arises from his insistence that yōkai are products of the countryside rather than the big city.

But while Mizuki was pitching the older, sillier side of yōkai to Japanese audiences, a new terror was rising in the cities -- and these new entities would be the ones to propel yōkai around the world.

By the 1970s Japan loved reading about Mizuki’s cute, rural yōkai, but they were also folkloric antiques that no longer spoke to modern fears. That changed with the arrival of Kuchisake-onna, the slit-mouthed woman, a specter who prowled dim streets. The basic story went like this: on the way home from school, a child might run into a beautiful woman with a surgical mask over the bottom of her face.

The Kuchisake-onna was depicted this way in the 2007 Japanese horror film The Kuchisake-onna was depicted this way in the 2007 Japanese horror film "Carved."

“Am I beautiful?” the woman would ask. When the child said yes, she would strip off the mask to reveal that her raggedly cut mouth stretched all the way back to her ears. “Am I still beautiful?” she’d ask.

If the child said yes, Kuchisake-onna would slit their mouth like hers -- if they screamed, ran, or said no, she cut them in half with a scythe.

During her heyday in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Kuchisake-onna stories created a panic in Japan, with mothers volunteering to walk children home. During this period other modern yōkai emerged, preying on students in bathrooms or at train stations -- in other words, isolated locations that already carry a hint of vulnerability. One of the weirder specimens from this period was the human-faced dog jinmenken, who appears as a major character in Yo-kai Watch. It was these modern yōkai who helped inspire the J-Horror genre, which has had massive success exporting the Japanese ghost story around the world.

This globalization is the next stage in the yōkai evolution -- and Yo-kai Watch is playing a major part. While the game hasn’t proved a hit in North America quite yet, it’s important to remember that North America isn’t the world. Anecdotally, I’ve seen an absurd amount of merchandise for it in Hong Kong -- so the game and anime are connecting to a certain degree, if only in culturally-similar regions of East Asia.

That crossover is interesting, since the game’s origins are so specifically Japanese that even if it’s not a runaway success, the cultural exchange may still lay the groundwork for future yōkai media to spread beyond Japan as more than isolated curiosities like Spirited Away and The Great Yōkai War, or Americanized remakes like The Ring. In the future, we may even see yōkai media pitched at the western market, aiming to land in the same crossover territory kaiju or samurai films did in the 1960s. But the first hurdle to yōkai becoming accepted worldwide is to introduce the concept.

And while it isn’t alone in the effort, Yo-kai Watch is doing that, drip by drip.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp