Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): The Japanese Yokai

02 August 2018

Area Studies | Cultural Studies | Literature

Being something of a fan of the stories of M. R James, whose heroes often come across intriguing manuscripts telling of ghosts and demons, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his work when I happened across today’s featured item, the ‘Book of Monstrosities’ (or, Nihon itai jinbutsu zu).

Featured in Adam Matthew’s new digital resource, Research Source: Area Studies: Japan, the item is part of the collection of Phillip Franz Von Siebold, currently held by the British Library. A German physician, botanist and traveller, Von Siebold achieved prominence for his work with Japanese flora and fauna in the 1820s. However, during this period he also collected a large number of trinkets, keepsakes and books, many of which would be donated first to the British Museum and later to the British Library upon its establishment in 1973. The collection is impressive to say the least and consists of 1,088 items in 3,441 volumes.

'Drawings of Monstrosities'. Image © The British Library Board

Part of this collection, the ‘Book of Monstrosities’, is admittedly something of a mystery. A book of illustrations somewhat similar in tone to the work of poet and artist, Toryama Sekiens (in particular Gazu Hyakki Yagyƍ or ‘The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons’), it features sketches of various creatures known in Japanese mythology as ‘Yokai’. A group of monsters, ghosts and demons often featured in Japanese folklore, Yokai can be mischievous, malevolent or heroic and are regularly featured in Kaiden (‘Ghost Stories’ or ‘Scary Stories’). During the Edo period, the printing press became a widely used technology in Japan and in particular, kibyoshi (a genre of Japanese picture book produced primarily between the 1770s and the early 1800s) became hugely popular. Yokai were often a popular subject featured within these works and it was during this time that a set ‘canon’ of a particular group of creatures formulated itself within the popular consciousness. During this period and onwards Yokai became the subject of books, Manga, toys and film. Interestingly Yokai are not limited simply to the traditional creatures from folklore, with each new media often inventing its own Yokai that are then absorbed into the continued mythos.

Image of a 'Kappa'. Image © The British Library Board

Certainly, one of the more arresting images featured within the book is that of the mythical ‘Kappa’. Small, amphibious turtle like creatures, the Kappa are known as mischievous troublemakers and trickster figures. Known to have an affinity for cucumber, they are often featured in stories luring victims into the water. The earliest mention of a Kappa was in 720, in some of Japan’s earliest official records though as a folk figure it didn’t emerge fully until the 1600s. The illustration featured within ‘The Book of Monstrosities’ is certainly one of the more frightening interpretations of a Kappa, adding to the lure of this intriguing but utterly fascinating item.

Research Source: Area Studies: Japan is available now. For more information or to register for a free trial, contactThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. today.

About the Author

Callum Mckelvie

Callum Mckelvie

I joined the editorial team in March 2018 and since then have had the opportunity to work on several exciting projects including; ‘Research Source’ and ‘American Indian Newspapers’. Having studied at Aberystwyth University, my primary interests lie in the field of Media History with particular attention given to examining 20th century popular culture.