Beginning with 2008’s “Yokai Attack!,” translators Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt have been on a quest to bring an aspect of Japanese culture that has lurked in the shadows to the world at large.

Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien, Edited by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.
336 pages

Yōkai, the ghouls, goblins, specters and sprites of Japanese folklore, are shape-shifters, each with a unique modus operandi: Some make it their business to blow out lanterns on moonless nights, while others might manifest as floating balls of flame. Yōkai have been kept alive, so to speak, in the modern era by the works of manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, and more recently by the “Yokai Watch” franchise of video games, manga and animation.

With their latest effort, Yoda and Alt have produced the first-ever annotated English translation of a late 18th-century illustrated yōkai compendium that is at once the undisputed cornerstone of the subject and a kind of Rosetta stone for the broader cultural milieu of its time.

“Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien” collects four volumes inked between 1776 and 1784 by Toriyama Sekien, an influential genius, largely unheralded in Western scholarship, whose students went on to lead the vanguard of Japanese art.

On their surface, the books are a parade of otherworldly creatures and phenomena, such as the “Hihi,” a fierce mountain-dwelling beast that preys on apex predators, or “Shinkiro,” a name given to a mirage seen over the ocean’s horizon. Each page features Sekien’s rendering of a given yōkai and a translation of his text where it appears, while translators’ notes provide crucial context. Each book in the collection also features fascinating introductions by Sekien and his contemporaries.

It quickly becomes clear that this is much more than a mere catalog of the paranormal. Sekien’s words and images teem with what were then contemporary cultural references spanning the Chinese classics, Buddhist scripture, noh plays, poetry, and a palette of folk sayings and idioms, all of which are subject to his unique brand of wordplay, posing a challenge for the translators.

“Japanese is a highly contextual language to begin with, but these books are super-contextual. Contextual on steroids. And they were written by and for extremely literate urbanites,” says Alt.

As the pair worked, it dawned on them that Sekien’s encyclopedias were largely misunderstood in the West as demonology. “The fact is, it’s not,” Alt says. “What it really is, is more like literary parody or literary homage, and it was intended as entertainment for people back then. They would read it in the same way that people today would read a New Yorker cartoon. … Some of the most moving and touching moments of us working on this were when we basically reassembled a joke that we knew nobody had laughed at in 200 years.”

The translation process took about one year and saw Yoda and Alt travel the globe consulting scholars and sources to crack what Yoda calls the “Sekien code.” Yoda says she understood the enormity and importance of the undertaking early on, and felt both daunted and thrilled by it. “When we were pitching the book ‘Yokai Attack!” I knew that all this stuff, now it’s called ‘Cool Japan,’ but all this stuff went abroad, except for the yōkai concept. Nobody outside Japan knew yōkai,” she recalls. “I kind of knew this was (really) something. If you like yōkai, this is it.”

“In a very real sense the book is a time capsule of 1770s Edo,” Alt says, using the old name for Tokyo. “All of these things that were happening, all of the books that were being read, all of these different news stories and events and people — it’s like a window back 240 years into what made Edo and Edoites tick. And that’s what makes Sekien’s books fine literature.”

The pair hope that by delivering Sekien into English, other translators will be inspired to put him into new languages. “We would love to see Sekien get his due after all these centuries,” Alt says, pointing out that Utagawa Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, both students of Sekien, went on to change the art world. “Van Gogh and people like that would see Utamaro’s illustrations of geisha and kabuki performers. It literally changed the direction of Western art, and Sekien is definitely a pivotal character in that transformation,” he says.

Being rather large, “Japandemonium” is the kind of book best poured over slowly, preferably at home. The often intricate images have room to breathe and the text is trim, making it a genuine page-turner. It’s the kind of book that, opened to a random point, will always present some hitherto unnoticed detail, and in the manner of the best entertainment, it can be enjoyed by children and scholars alike for vastly different reasons.

In a 2005 interview with The Japan Times, manga artist Mizuki, who was born in 1922 and took yōkai quite seriously, mused that electric lights were the cause of their disappearance. “The darkness, with a touch of light like that of paper lanterns and oil lamps, was great for yōkai, and it inspired people to imagine yōkai,” he said. With “Japandemonium,” Yoda and Alt have done more than their bit to keep yōkai alive, in part because, illuminating though it is, the book still retains a good deal of shadow.

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