Halloween is just around the corner, and all around us are the tell-tale signs: horror movies on TV, jack-o-lanterns in yards and fake cobwebs on porches, candy-filled aisles in stores, haunted hay-rides, and ghosts and monsters everywhere. Everyone knows Halloween as a time of witches, vampires, zombies, and headless horsemen… But how much do you know about the ghosts and monsters that come from traditional Japanese folklore?
Japan has a long tradition of stories involving ghosts, demons, and monsters. Collectively, these supernatural creatures are known as yokai. Yokai have been a part of Japanese literature for as long as writing has existed. The earliest stories feature dragons, mermaids, and demons who wreak havoc and destruction upon civilized society. Later, during the Edo period, yokai stories exploded in popularity, as the rich upper classes desired interesting stories to read. During the 18th and 19th centuries, artists and folklorists traveled all across Japan, collecting yokai stories from every corner of the country and packaging them up in illustrated monster encyclopedias to sell to the urban elite in Edo.
The yokai boom did not survive the Edo period, however, and when Japan underwent its massive modernization period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yokai stories were discarded as superstitious and embarrassing folklore. A few Western authors, Lafcadio Hearn being the most well known among them, tried to capture this vanishing aspect of Japanese literature and introduce it to the West, but only a small portion of these stories were translated, leaving the vast majority unknown outside of Japan (and for the most part, unknown inside of Japan too).
After World War 2, manga artist Mizuki Shigeru rediscovered yokai, and began to re-introduce them to a modern audience. Thanks to Mizuki’s popular manga GeGeGe no Kitaro, most Japanese today know something about the world of weird and wild supernatural monsters that exist in Japanese folklore. Yet only a few books on the subject have been published in English or other foreign languages, so yokai remain relatively unknown outside of Japan.
Through translations of centuries-old Japanese folktales and original illustrations, South Jersey-based author, artist, and yokai expert Matthew Meyer has made it his mission to bring yokai-culture to the English-speaking world. Meyer is the author and illustrator of The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: an illustrated field guide to Japanese yokai, published in 2012, which depicts over 100 Japanese ghosts and monsters in full color paintings.
Since 2009, Meyer has been painting illustration of yokai on his website in a project called A-Yokai-A-Day. For the month of October, in celebration of Halloween, Meyer paints a yokai and gives an English explanation based on old Japanese tales every day of the month. To date, A-Yokai-A-Day has showcased over 130 yokai, a new one being added each day of the month during October.
This year, Meyer’s A-Yokai-A-Day project coincides with the lauch of a Kickstarter project to fund his next yokai-themed book: The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits. The book will feature another 100 strange and scary monsters from Japanese folk tales. He will also be giving a presentation on yokai, along with a few readings of Japanese ghost stories, on October 26th at the Camden County Library in Voorhees, NJ (see our events calendar for details). Meyer’s illustrations can be seen on his website as well as on yokai.com, an online database of yokai and Japanese ghosts.
With all of these chances to learn about traditional Japanese ghosts and monsters, Halloween this year is sure to be a blast!