When attempting to explain something about a culture, the experience can fall into one of two categories: 1) extremely easy or 2) extremely painful. There’s very rarely any middle ground. And, unfortunately, explaining Japanese youkai falls into the second sector more commonly. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to explain (kill me for my diction later).
If you’ve read my recent review on Natsume’s Book of Friends, you probably noticed how painfully long the mythical/theoretical section was. Sadly this was because I had to cram a rushed attempt at a youkai explanation in there. And while it’s good enough in a pinch, a bit more explaining can’t hurt.
Contrary to most English translations, youkai are not ghosts or spirits. Not usually. Youkai are actually their own brand of creature. Honestly. They are not created when a human dies. They already exist. They have their own realm, too. And, interestingly enough, the best parallel phenomenon to youkai can be seen in Ireland. No joke.
Ireland, and old school England, has a lot of faerie mythology that mirrors the youkai. For example, they have leprechauns, fairies and banshees. All of which do not exist because a human or animal died. They already exist and are always there, they just can’t be seen by normal human eyes. They are creatures that have powers humans don’t and can be either benevolent or malevolent. The youkai in Japan follow these rules as well. They are always there, unseen by normal humans, they have various abilities and some are good and others evil.
The biggest difference between Irish faerie folk and youkai is that, while not all are considered gods or part of Japanese religions, youkai tend to cross over into the god/demi-god terrain more often than their very distant Irish cousins. So while the good part is that one can get to know a lot of folklore and religion all in one go, the bad part is knowing the difference. For example, Yuki Onna (which literally means Snow Woman/Lady) is always portrayed as a simple, though deadly, youkai. The kappa (a kind of water sprite/monster), on the other hand, tilts between a youkai and a god. There are even kappa temples in some places of Japan and the consensus on them varies from them being relatively harmless creatures to being vicious monsters that drown children in rivers and lakes. Thus Japanese folklore and religion can become a pretty tangled mess if one isn’t careful.
In any case, youkai continue to play a large role in Japan and understanding them and many of the stories surrounding them is a good step towards understanding Japanese culture.
For more information on youkai and Japanese culture, check out this site full of translated stories of various youkai!