When I was in my teens, I decided I was going to follow Shintoism, completely overlooking the fact that it is more a set of nuanced, culturally-specific customs ingrained in the collective Japanese psyche rather than a religion that one could simply “join”. Upon further research into the rituals and practices it entailed however, I changed my mind. The emphasis on cleanliness put me off, as I simply couldn’t commit to taking daily showers since I was tied up with the arduous task of existing during high school.
Despite this, I did end up read a fair bit about Japanese folklore, which is a truly fascinating subject. There’s no shortage games that explore these myths and legends, ranging from those that just reference them lightly, to those that delve deep into them, such as the epic Okami. A more recent addition to this list, is the long-awaited English localisation of Yo-Kai Watch. For those of you unfamiliar with the premise of Yo-Kai Watch, it’s a game of the mon-collecting genre, with an enormous range of spirits—or yo-kai—to befriend. There is a clear emphasis on creatures which are derived (or straight-up lifted) from Japanese myths and legends, and right now we’re going to examine the backstories of some of them.
Komasan the Lion-Dog
To begin, let’s have a look at my own personal favourite: Komasan. Arguably the best yo-kai in the whole game due to his irresistibly cute design and personality that mirrors my own almost perfectly, Komasan is not in fact based on a cat yo-kai or bakeneko, but rather on a temple guardian lion-dog or koma inu. The lion-dogs are the protectors of holy areas and shrines in Japan, where they guard in pairs (one male, one female), comprised of an open mouthed lion-dog with, and a lion-dog with mouth shut tight, representing the meditative sounds of “a” and “um” respectively. In the game, Komasan has left his shrine in search of something more exciting, eventually finding himself in the big city.
Komasan’s design seems to be based more heavily on a traditional cat than the guardian lion-dogs, but one aspect of his design that incorporates Japan’s traditional mythology is the inclusion of hitodama on his head. Hitodama roughly translates to “human soul” and they are usually blue/white. Not dangerous, they are part of a family of supernatural fire, which also includes onibi (demon fire) and kitsunebi (foxfire - more on that one later). These fires usually appear at night, though occasionally will in the day, and have a variety of different attributes and purposes depending on their type and origin.
Jibanyan: Nekomata, the Forked Cat
Jibanyan, our other feline friend, does indeed come from the family of Japanese cat yo-kai, the bakeneko. The bakeneko come in many different varieties and develop when normal domestic cats take on supernatural qualities through old age or extensive growth. The specific kind of bakeneko that Jibanyan is based upon is the nekomata, or “forked cat”. Their tail forks into two separate tails when they transform from normal cats into yo-kai, and they are the oldest and most intelligent of all the bakeneko.
Unfortunately, they are also the most dangerous of the cat yo-kai, and while Jibanyan does not share with nekomata many of their evil habits—such as arson, murder and necromancy—Yo-kai Watch clearly shows that Jibanyan possesses a great desire to exact his vengeance on the truck which caused his demise. Similar to Komasan, Jibanyan’s design features hitodama, though on the end of each fork in his tail, a not uncommon feature to nekomata, and perhaps a factor contributing to Jibanyan’s fire-attribute.
Walkappa appears in the Yo-Kai Watch world as all cute duck lips, big eyes and comical voice. In spite of this, the kappa of Japanese lore can be a bit more sinister. Often mischievous and crude, and occasionally violent, they are a well-known and revered member of the Japanese folklore family; shrines of offerings of cucumber (their favourite) can often be seen by rivers and lakes, where kappa reside. Walkappa even lampshades this in the anime by claiming that kappa loving cucumbers is a stereotype.
Kappa have decorum to a fault, and since they are incredibly strong creatures, this is a trait which humans must exploit to avoid their onslaught. A very well-known way to escape a kappa is to bow to it, as its sense of duty will compel it to do the same, thus tipping the water out of the dish atop its head and paralysing it. Walkappa prefers to stay out the water rather than swim around, so he keeps the bowl in his head filled up to avoid such a fate.
Tengloom the Heavenly Dog
Tengloom’s solitary nature and Japanese name Nekuramatengu are both indicators that this morose yo-kai was inspired by the kurama tengu, blue-skinned beasts which hail from Mt. Kurama in Japan. While the name tengu means “heavenly dog”, tengu are usually depicted in media as having bird features than any sort of dog-like qualities. Tengloom’s design is based on this, most likely with particular reference to kotengu, a class of tengu that take on more animal qualities than their higher caste counterparts: daitengu. This is reflected in Tengloom’s lower rank (C) than the more humanoid yo-kai Tengu, who holds the S rank.
Tengu often hold fans and are thought to be able to employ magic to summon winds with them, which explains both Tengloom and Tengu’s wind-attribute. Throughout Japanese folk tales, they are depicted of trouble makers; vehemently against buddhism, they were kidnappers and the general antagonists of Heian Japan. Vain creatures, “to be a tengu” is a Japanese phrase which basically means that you’re a bit up yourself.
The Oni Family
“Oni with an iron club” is a Japanese phrase which denotes something impassable or invincible, something which anyone who’s played the randomly generated “Terror Time” sections in Yo-Kai Watch can understand when faced with Gargaros, Orgalus or Orcanos. Each of these yo-kai’s designs, as well as those of Leadoni and Suspicioni, come from a traditional portrayal of oni, which in turn comes from an ancient Chinese notion that the northwest was the compass direction through which demons and evil spirits passed. As this is the direction of both the ox and the tiger in the Chinese zodiac, the oni eventually developed traits that pertained to those creatures, such as their horns, fangs and animal printed loin cloths.
Oni are exclusively evil; where they go, death and destruction follow without fail. They are born from the souls of wicked men, and while they usually transform into oni in the deep pits of hell, on occasion they will do so in the land of the living. In the game, “Terror Time” is based on the idea that if children disobey their parents—as the player-character is by remaining out after dark—that they will be punished by a higher force. The ruthless, aggressive oni will chase down the player character, and are some of the most powerful yo-kai in the game, making them forces to be reckoned with.
Baku, Nightmare Devourer
Baku is another creature which Yo-Kai Watch keeps fairly true to original mythology surrounding it. In folklore, it is said that once the gods had finished creating their many fabulous beasts, that they took all the parts which were left over and put them together to create baku, so leaving us with its particularly unique appearance. Just as Baku in the game, the baku of folklore are benevolent creatures: they help humans by eating the nightmares that plague us in our sleep. In days gone by, the people of Japan used to stitch baku’s kanji character onto their pillows as a means to summon it to come feed on their bad dreams.
Baku shares the trademark snout with other dream-eating creatures in pop culture, perhaps most notably with members from the most popular series of the mon-collecting genre: Pokémon. Drowzee, Hypno, Munna and Musharna are all based on baku as well, probably due to the special standing it holds in Japanese culture. Baku are often featured in the designs of sacred spaces and temples, and it remains a popular symbol in Japan today, though in modern times, more often than not resembles a real tapir—rather than its chimeric origins—which is also known as baku in the country.
Venoct, Orochi & Susanoo
The mysterious and stoic Venoct (or in the Japanese version, Orochi) uses his serpentine scarf to engage in battle; his soultimate move is called “Octo Snake” in English, and “Yamata no Orochi” in Japanese. Yamata no Orochi means “eight forked snake” and is a reference to the hideous dragon slain by Susanoo, God of Storms and brother to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. The story goes that after being exiled from Heaven for tricking Amaterasu, Susanoo fell to earth and promptly wasted the eight-headed snake that had been terrorising Japan.
Venoct’s scarf is clearly based on Yamata no Orochi, and it seems that with his kimono, thunder-attribute, and incredible power, his humanoid design is meant to reference Susanoo. It’s possible that Venoct is meant to be a depiction of Susanoo having defeated Yamato no Orochi and taken possession of its power, hence the multiple-headed dragon scarf that attacks for him.
Kyūbi no Kitsune
The striking and powerful Kyubi is derived from the kyūbi no kitsune, or nine-tailed fox. Kyubi is able to control fire, an ability which relates to the notion of kitsunebi, or foxfire. A kyūbi is still a kitsune, but its nine tails denote an extremely high level of power, and come from age: one new tail grows every century. Just like the humans that they transform into at will, kitsune have varying personalities, and can be good, as are those operating under the rice god Inari, or a bit more wicked, as the many wild foxes in Japan generally are.
Once in high school, a girl told me I had a face that made me look like I was a fox wearing a mask, which I thought was the most fabulous compliment one could receive. Kitsune are able to possess humans, a state known as kitsune tsuki, and causes individuals to behave strange and erratically. Oftentimes, exorcisms were performed at shrines to Inari, and could range from the human suffering from kitsune tsuki being burnt or violently beaten, to being licked from head to toe by dogs, in order to scare the inhabiting fox away. Before modern times, mental illness in Japan was often misdiagnosed as kitsune tsuki. So next time you need to see a shrink, just think, at least you’re not getting the evil mouthed out of you by a shiba inu.
For updates, gaming insights, and an aggressive number of selfies, follow Cal on Twitter. All illustrations in this post are by Gojin Ishihara and all “Yo-Kai Watch” images are from the Yo-Kai Watch Wikipedia.