While this year alone saw the release of well over 100 English nonfiction books about Japan, ranging from accounts of the atomic bombings, to memoirs, travelogues and countless explorations of Japanese culture, one trend in particular stands out from the rest: books on Japanese myths and legends, covering yūrei (ghosts), yōkai (monsters), folklore, unsolved mysteries, haunted places and more.
“For many people, Japanese folklore seems fresh and new,” says Matthew Meyer, author and illustrator of “The Book of the Hakutaku,” a visual bestiary of hundreds of mythological creatures. “Japan has monsters and ghost story traditions that developed completely independently from Western storytelling, so the themes and patterns seem fresh and exciting.”
Over the last few decades, Meyer has seen rising interest in the supernatural genre. Meyer first started writing and drawing yōkai in October 2009 with his “A-Yokai-A-Day” project on his blog. The popularity of his site allowed Meyer to raise Kickstarter fundraising to continue drawing and writing. He also has run yokai.com, an online encyclopedia of supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore, since 2013.
The popularity of Japan’s pop culture abroad has greatly contributed to the supernatural trend. At the turn of the century, the release of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 horror film, “Ringu,” spurred a boom in Japanese horror films and a slew of Hollywood adaptations, bringing Japanese monsters to the forefront. Likewise, anime such as the “Yokai Watch” series and Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 film “Spirited Away” have added to the genre’s popularity.
This trend only accelerated throughout the 2010s with the emergence of hit manga series such as “Mob Psycho” and “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” and further sparked by the cult resurgence of older titles like “Bleach” and “Yu Yu Hakusho.” The popularity and number of these franchises continues to trend upward, resulting in the emergence of multiple quality books on the subject.
“All Japanese media are as filled with yōkai and folklore as Japan itself,” says Zack Davisson, author of “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost,” which combines the retelling of ancient ghost stories with research on their persistence in modern Japan. “Numerous articles arose pointing out the yōkai origins of ‘Pokemon,’ or explaining the characters from popular animated series. And all of us writing about it were right there, able to fill in that sudden need.”
“The response (to “A-Yokai-A-Day”) was a whole lot larger than I thought it would be,” Meyer says. “It sort of clicked for me that there were a lot of people just like me — people who loved folklore, loved Japanese art, and who had barely any knowledge at all of the world of yōkai, because it simply didn’t exist in English.”
Other authors of new books on Japanese ghosts and monsters fit into the same mold as Meyer. Davisson always had a love for the supernatural, and when he discovered a motherlode of myths and scary stories in Japan, there was no turning back. “Japan is the most haunted country on Earth,” he says.
The second edition of “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost” was released this year due to the success of the book’s initial run, and Davisson has gone on to write “Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan” and “Yokai Stories.” In addition to his own work, Davisson points to authors such as Michael Dylan Foster, Noriko Reider, Matt Alt, Hiroko Yoda, and Meyer who further opened doors for fans by introducing supernatural material in English. “People who were interested (in the genre) finally had some resources available,” Davisson says.
Accounts of Japanese ghosts and monsters, however, only scratch the surface of this year’s full supernatural roster. Tara Devlin, the author of “Bankai: Japanese Internet Mysteries,” has written numerous books covering Japanese ghost stories, myths, haunted places and unexplained mysteries, in addition to her own horror novels set in Japan.
“I appreciate the more subtle horror that Japan tends to put out compared to the West,” Devlin says. “Now that it’s easier to access Japanese (pop culture), I think that interest in the topic has definitely grown, but it was always there. My books and brand mostly started out as Japanese ghost stories and urban legends, but over time I’ve expanded more in the realm of the ‘weird’ or ‘baffling.’ There’s a lot of people out there who are fascinated with the weird and unknown.”
There is clearly market demand to propel this volume of work. “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things,” an influential 1904 book by Lafcadio Hearn featuring Japanese ghost stories, was republished last year. Three of Hearn’s stories were retold and adapted into manga by Sean Michael Wilson, titled “Manga Yokai Stories.” Cecile Brun and Olivier Pichard’s “Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter,” a children’s manga about a pair of adventurers who learn about Japanese mythology, won the Japan International Manga Award in 2018. Publisher Chronicle Books’ 2019 release, “Tales of Japan: Traditional Stories of Monsters and Magic,” is the third best-selling book in Amazon.com’s “Japanese literature” section, after Osamu Dazai’s 1948 novel, “No Longer Human,” and the “Japanese Coloring Book.”
Modern English-language writers on these subjects also make a concerted effort to avoid exoticifying Japan. Numerous academics argue that the perception of Japan as “weird” has become a new form of “Orientalism,” positioning the West as “normal.” Writing about the mysterious ghouls and bizarre legends of Japan walks a fine line. On the one hand, authors aim to educate readers and treat Japanese culture with respect, but on the other hand, they want to entertain by portraying Japan as a place of fantastic discovery.
But in the case of Japanese ghosts and legends, it’s an impossible balance to maintain: The supernatural is beyond the normal.
“We can never truly understand yōkai and yūrei of Japanese folklore,” Meyer says. “The true appeal of yōkai is not just that they are unknown, but also that they are ultimately unknowable.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.