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Yōkai (妖怪, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity" (妖) and "apparition; mystery; suspicious" (怪). Yōkai range eclectically from the malevolent to the mischievous, or occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Often they possess animal features (such as the Tengu, which has wings), other times they can appear mostly human, some look like inanimate objects and others have no discernible shape. Yōkai usually have a spiritual supernatural power, with shapeshifting being one of the most common. Yōkai that have the ability to shapeshift are called obake.
Japanese folklorists and historians use yōkai as "supernatural or unaccountable phenomena to their informants". In the Edo period, many artists created yōkai inspired by folklore or their own ideas, and in the present, several yōkai created by them are wrongly considered as being of legendary origin.
There are a wide variety of yōkai in Japanese folklore. In general, yōkai is a broad term, and can be used to encompass virtually all monsters and supernatural beings, even including creatures from European folklore on occasion (e.g., the English bugbear is often included in Japanese folklore to the point that some mistakenly believe it originates from said folklore).
Many indigenous Japanese animals are thought to have magical qualities. Most of these are henge (変化), which are shapeshifters (o-bake, bake-mono) that often appear in human form, mostly women. Some of the better known animal yōkai include the following:
- Tanuki (raccoon dogs)
- Kitsune (foxes)
- Hebi (snakes)
- Mujina (badgers)
- Bakeneko (cats)
- Tsuchigumo and jorōgumo (spiders)
- Inugami (dogs)
- Ōkami (wolves)
One of the most well-known aspects of Japanese folklore is the oni, which is a sort of mountain-dwelling ogre, usually depicted with red, blue, brown or black skin, two horns on its head, a wide mouth filled with fangs, and wearing nothing but a tigerskin loincloth. It often carries an iron kanabo or a giant sword. Oni are mostly depicted as evil, but can occasionally be the embodiment of an ambivalent natural force. They are, like many obake, associated with the direction northeast.
A goblin from Japanese mythology that has several supernatural powers and skills in martial arts, the tengu were originally extremely dangerous demons and enemies of Buddhism, but over centuries, their behavior changed from spirits of the damned to active defenders of Dharma.
Tsukumogami are an entire class of yōkai and obake, comprising ordinary household items that have come to life on the one-hundredth anniversary of their birthday. This virtually unlimited classification includes straw sandals, paper lanterns, old umbrellas, and tea kettles.
There are a large number of yōkai who were originally ordinary human beings, transformed into something horrific and grotesque usually during an extremely emotional state. Women suffering from intense jealousy, for example, were thought to transform into the female oni represented by hannya masks, and humans able to elongate their necks during the night. By this definition, vampires (吸血鬼 Kyuuketsuki) like Count Bloodeau and Nosferatu can be considered yōkai.
Some yōkai are extremely specific in their habits, such as Ashiarai Yashiki, a gargantuan foot that appears in rooms and demands the terrified home owner wash it, and Tofu Kozo, a small monk who carries a plate with a block of tofu.
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