Books

Cataloging the creatures of the unknown

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

“Yokai dwell in the contact zone between fact and fiction, between belief and doubt … Yokai begin where language ends,” says Michael Dylan Foster in the introduction to “The Book of Yokai,” summing up what words often fail to conjure. His book takes readers on a journey into the inexplicable, mysterious, myriad variety of creatures that inhabit the realms outside accepted reality.

The Book of Yokai, by Dylan Foster, Illustrated by Shinonome Kijin
University of California Press, Nonfiction.

Foster, an associate professor of folklore and East Asian studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, has created the definitive guide to yokai (supernatural or mythical beings), informed by scholarly research and fascinating contextual information, fully illustrated to illuminate the vast sphere of the unknown.

The first part of the book places yokai firmly within both its historical and contemporary context as “part of contemporary commercial and folkloric practice.” Part two presents yokai through a fully indexed codex, covering creatures who inhabit the wilds, water, countryside, city and even your home. The book ends with Foster’s epilogue, which profoundly positions the study of yokai as something practical: “As the human world contends with seemingly insurmountable twenty-first century challenges, the otherworld of the yokai may provide an escapist dream of fantasy and lighthearted play. But more significantly, with its variety and abundance and endless change, it can also offer a metaphor for imagining the unknown, and for the possibility of transforming amorphous hopes into solid futures.”

Foster’s journey to yokai came from the wanderlust of storytelling. “A lot of students I deal with here or people I meet in Japan come to yokai from an interest in manga or anime, yet I had none of that,” he tells The Japan Times.

“My learning about anime and manga all comes from folklore itself and from studying yokai and seeing how they connect and are reinterpreted in contemporary media.”

While he was studying literature at university, Foster spent a year abroad in Scotland and, after graduating, he returned to the U.S. to gain “a variety of experiences” with the hope of becoming a novelist.

To save money, he also hitchhiked, and with thumbed appreciation, Foster discovered the first stirrings of what would become his vocation.

“I realized I didn’t really care where I was going, but what I found most interesting was talking with the local people, asking them about their day to day lives. I realized it was not my destination but the journey itself and the people’s stories I discovered along the way that fascinated me the most.”

Soon after, he accepted a position with the JET Programme, and Japan became part of his journey to discover experiences and stories. Foster soon discovered a problem: “I had to learn Japanese in order to hear the stories and learn about the everyday life that I was interested in. I guess I was interested in folklore from the start without realizing it, without realizing it was an academic field.”

It would take Foster a few more years to come to that conclusion, but yokai has long been an academic topic in Japan, a point that Foster makes clear in his book, crediting the many scholars he has met along the way — most significantly Kazuhiko Komatsu, head of Kyoto’s International Research Center for Japanese Studies, and the book’s illustrator Shinonome Kijin, an artist and scholar of yokai. According to Foster, images are at the core of yokai studies and he includes Kijin’s distinctive work throughout the book.

“I realized … original illustrations would reinforce the creative aspect of the whole yokai culture. Kijin is not only a talented artist but a profound and knowledgeable thinker on yokai.”

Leaving Japan in 1993 after nearly four years, Foster did not yet think of folklore as an area of study, although his Japanese had progressed enough to enjoy the local stories, particularly on a trip to Tohoku and Iwate Prefectures, and the city of Tono, an area rich in folkloric traditions where, coincidentally, the founder of folklore studies in Japan, Kunio Yanagita, had extensively researched. Returning to the University of California at Berkeley to start a master’s degree in “something practical,” Foster realized he could not forget the stories — particularly the stories about the kappa, a Japanese water sprite legendary in Tono. Luckily, the university offered a master’s program in Asian studies, and he wrote his thesis on kappa. After graduating and returning to Japan to study the language intensively, Foster moved onto Stanford University, graduating in 2003 where he wrote his doctorate dissertation on yokai.

His first book — “Pandemonium and Parade” — grew out of these studies and forged many of his Japanese connections in the yokai world.

“I found this whole community of people doing research on yokai, so I got to know many people in the yokai industrial complex — the kind of industry and academic world of yokai,” he says.

But Foster realized “there was a real need for a book that talked about yokai in a more accessible form without this deep academic discourse.”

And “The Book of Yokai” is just that.

“As a folklorist, I like to have ambiguity. If I get one thing across in “The Book of Yokai” it is that there are many different versions of all these creatures, and you can not say anything definitive about them except to create broad categories.”

Foster admits he was “basically laughed at” during the beginning of his career when he told people his area of interest, but gradually yokai and the study of the “monsterful” is becoming more accepted — Foster currently teaches an undergraduate class called “Monsters and the Monstrous” at Indiana University.

“There’s a lasting desire to understand this mysterious subject as it represents the possibility of the unknown.”

“The Book of Yokai” emerges as a great read on many levels: it explains the inexplicable yet leaves room for wonder; it traces history and illuminates current pop culture; it’s sprinkled with local stories that engender playful, mischievous qualities into various yokai, turning them into logical figments of reality. And it’s all told in an easily accessible, storytelling voice. Toward the end of the book, Foster defines “monsterful” as “rare, marvelous and extraordinary” and he’s fittingly written a book that matches that definition, a kotodama (word spirit) of powerful eloquence.