In Western folklore, there are ghost, demons, elves, trolls and fairies. In Japan, there are yokai -- a uniquely Japanese pantheon of sometimes spooky, sometimes helpful, but always mysterious beings. If you've read manga or watched anime, you may recognize yokai -- the nine-tailed fox in Naruto, the tengu in Black Bird, and the numerous creatures in Spirited Away.
So while you may recognize a yokai or two, do you know what they really are, what they can do and where they came from? That's where a book like Yokai Attack! can help. Yokai Attack! provides a field guide to yokai, great and small, fearsome and fearful alike. Tokyo-based translators, authors (and spouses) Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda teamed up with manga artist Tatsuya Morino to share yokai lore with fans of Japanese pop culture and things that go bump in the night.
As part of the Halloween celebrations at New People Center in San Francisco, Alt is presenting Yokai University, an introduction to these uniquely Japanese creepy creatures and spooky spirits. I wrote to Alt and Yoda, and got their take on yokai, and their adventures in the documenting the spookier side of Japanese folklore.
WHEN MATT MET HIROKO...
Q: First a little bit about you two: Can you share a bit about your background? You both live in Japan, right? Matt, how did you find yourself living in Japan? And how did you two meet?
Matt Alt: We met in the United States, actually.
Hiroko Yoda: I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland at College Park and we met at a party there.
I grew up in Japan, in Tokyo, but I spent a lot of time in the USA, about ten years in total. A year as an exchange student in high school, then three years at Maryland, then grad school; about a decade all in total.
Matt Alt: My interest in Japan began almost at birth. I was really into robots as a little kid, something that was just totally stoked by Star Wars, and then when my parents happened to give me a Japanese robot toy as a little kid -- a Jumbo-sized "Shogun Warrior" that was almost as big as I was -- it was love at first sight.
I was really fortunate to be able to start studying Japanese in my public high school; it was one of the first public schools offering it in the late Eighties. And then I majored in Japanese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Hiroko Yoda: I was finishing up a Masters' program at American University and Matt was working at the US Patent and Trademark Office when he landed his first video game translation job.
Matt Alt: We did a bunch of other freelance projects before incorporating and then going into business for ourselves. Eventually I was able to quit my day job and focus on it full time, and that's when we moved to Tokyo.
WHAT ARE YOKAI?
Q: I enjoyed reading your book, Yokai Attack! It was great to see the stories behind the creatures that we see in manga and anime. But for people who are new to yokai -- how would you describe them? Are they demons? Ghosts? Nature spirits?
Hiroko Yoda: They are most definitely not demons, or at least not in the sense of the English word, which has a lot of religious baggage.
Matt Alt: The academic definition would be "creatures from Japanese folklore," I suppose. The way we describe them is "the things that go bump in Japan's night."
Hiroko Yoda: They have a deep connection to the natural world and natural phenomena, but they aren't "spirits," exactly, either. And definitely not ghosts -- those are "yurei" and are a "someone." yokai are a "something." The definition is pretty vague, but that's also part of their charm. There's a lot of overlap between yokai and kami (gods) in Japan.
Q: Are yokai good, evil or just misunderstood?
Hiroko Yoda: Not evil at all! That whole good-versus-evil concept is very monotheistic, very Western, I think. Japan's belief system is more polytheistic; there are uncountable gods, spirits, and other things out there.
Some yokai tend towards the dangerous and some towards the weak and wimpy. There is a whole broad range of them. So you can't really pin a single word like "good" or "bad" on them. Some of them are actually friendly, or things you WANT hanging around, like the Zashiki Warashi -- a child-like yokai that brings good fortune to a household.
Matt Alt: They're more like the faces behind natural phenomena than they are like demons or ghosts.
The kappa is a perfect case in point. Frog-like humanoids with tortoiseshell backs, they were once believed to live in ponds and rivers and such throughout Japan. Often translated as "water sprite" or "water goblin," it's sort of a personification of the concept of water. Sometimes they are helpful, other times very dangerous -- just like water itself. We can't live without water, but it can also drown you if you aren't careful.
Q: How did you get interested in yokai?
Hiroko Yoda: I've loved yokai ever since I was little. They're cute and weird and fun all at the same time. They never scared me. I always loved them even as a kid. And as I grew up, I started realizing just how deeply connected they were to Japanese culture and tradition. That made me like them all the more.
Matt Alt: I'd known about yokai very generally even before meeting Hiroko but my knowledge was limited to pop culture, like anime and manga. The more Hiroko explained the history and traditions to me the more amazed we both became that there really wasn't much of any information about them in English.
Q: There are demons and ghosts in every culture around the world -- what makes yokai different than monsters in the Western folklore traditions?
Hiroko Yoda: I think yokai have a really strong connection to the natural world. Many of them are specifically personifications of natural phenomena. And a lot of them live in specific habitats in Japan: the mountains, forests, rivers, oceans, and places like that.
Matt Alt: They sprang from the attempts of the human mind to place some kind of order and explanation on the world around them in an era before science.
Hiroko Yoda: That's right. If you see a light in the distance that you can't explain, maybe it's a kitsune (fox spirit) or a tanuki (raccoon dog). If you get lost and disoriented hiking in the mountains, maybe an Azuki-Arai or Tengu was involved; that sort of thing.