Japan’s population of ghouls keeps coming back to haunt us

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Caught up in the rush of modernity, it is sometimes easy to forget just what a unique and unusual country Japan is. An exhibition such as “Yokai: Demons, Folklore Creatures and GeGeGe no Kitaro” serves to remind us, by peeling back the surface of everyday life and showing us the “collective subconsciousness” represented by the country’s longstanding supernatural beliefs.

Held at Tokyo’s Mitsui Memorial Museum, the show brings together antique scroll paintings, noh masks, and ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting Japan’s rich world of yokai — ghouls, monsters, and other things that go bump in the night. An attempt is also made to bring it up to date by including some excellent artworks by the manga artist, Mizuki Shigeru, showing ghoulish characters from his famous comic series, centered around its eponymous hero GeGeGe no Kitaro.

Of course, every country has its spooks, but few, if any, can match the incredible multitude and diversity of supernatural beings that seem to infest or enrich Japanese folklore. There are several reasons that account for this. First there is the religious basis of Japanese culture, namely Shintoism and Buddhism.

Shintoism, as a form of animism, is associated with the expression “yaoyorozu no kami,” an expression that literally means “eight million gods or deities.” This is testament to the idea that almost everything has some kind of sentience or spiritual presence.

While Shintoism points to a multiplicity of spiritual identities and essences, Buddhism by contrast emphasizes the process of metamorphosis that spirits or souls undergo on their long journey to nirvana.

This Shinto sense that almost anything can have a soul is expressed in a long emaki picture scroll, “Hyakki Yagyo” (“Night Parade of One Hundred Demons”) by Kano Gensen Masanobu (1689-1755). Among the anthropomorphized animals, conventional devils, and strange biomorphic forms, there are also everyday objects — including musical instruments, umbrellas and writing implements — animated into life. Masanobu’s paintings have a comical feel that makes you wonder if he ever seriously believed in these creatures.

The Buddhist influence has a darker and more truly ghostly atmosphere. This is because the manifestation of the supernatural is connected to the way that passions and emotions distort and transmogrify humans and other creatures. This is much closer to the modern Western sense of the supernatural, namely that ghosts are linked to intense emotional states such as suffering, guilt, or a desire for vengeance.

A good example of this is a picture scroll by an unknown artist from the Edo Period (1603-1867). This shows several scenes from the Legend of Dojoji Temple, also famous as a noh play by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu.

In this tale, a young girl falls in love with a Buddhist priest, who, true to his spiritual calling, rejects her. The young woman, transformed by her frustrated passion, turns into a dragon that crosses a river and pursues the priest, who then hides in a bell, around which she then wraps herself. In the story this leads to her end as the bell turns red hot and burns her to death.

Another source of the fecundity of the Japanese supernatural imagination seems to stem from the ambiguities of language. It is well known that Japanese, as a language with a comparatively narrow range of sounds, is particularly prone to punning. Also the historical complexities of the writing system — Chinese characters of various meanings sometimes used phonetically — has given rise to many unexpected meanings that have then taken on a life of their own.

This can be seen in the works depicting tsuchigumo, horrendous spiderlike yokai, who appear in several works, such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodblock print, “Minamoto no Yorimitsu and the Earth Spider” (1865). This shows a ghoulish-looking spider monster perched over the famous general as he sleeps, while two yokai armies engage in a battle that seems intended to mock the wars fought by men.

It is telling that the tsuchigumo always seem intent on terrorizing the mighty and powerful. Originally the word referred to local clans that asserted their independence from Japan’s early imperial government, but, over time, through a dislocation of meaning and metaphor, and thanks to the ambiguities of the Japanese language, the word was transformed into its more supernatural meaning. But there is still a hint of this earlier meaning. Kuniyoshi’s print seems to express the reluctance felt by the ordinary man to be swept up in the schemes of the great man.

The overall impression this exhibition gives is that Japan’s abundance of supernatural beings is a direct expression and reflection of a society in which a multiplicity of identities and desires, combined with ambiguities of meaning, have created a rich world of supernatural avatars.

“Yokai: Demons, Folklore Creatures and GeGeGe no Kitaro” at the Mitsui Memorial Museum runs till Sept. 1; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. (except July 18, Aug. 12), July 16. www.mitsui-museum.jp