Monday, July 19, 2010

Japanese Monsters: An Interview With Richard Freeman

Just recently CFZ Press published Richard Freeman's new book, The Great Yokai Encyclopedia: An A to Z of Japanese Monsters. An appropriately Godzilla-sized book (it runs at 416 pages!), Yokai is a definitive look at the strange creatures and beasts of Japan, both in times-past and the present.

A couple of days ago I interviewed Rich about his book, which practically turned into a book-length venture too! Here you go:

Nick: Broadly speaking, what is the book about?

Rich: The book is about the monsters and ghosts of Japan. These are collectively known as Yokai and constitute a veritable supernatural menagerie. With a handful of exceptions these amazing creatures and characters are almost unknown in the west. The book looks at the cultural background that gave rise to these legends and then lists the creatures in an encyclopedic form.


Nick: What prompted you to write it - are Japanese monsters a passion of yours?

Rich: I find Japan endlessly interesting. Its folklore is fascinating, its wildlife is amazing, its culture is incredible and its women are the most beautiful in the world! Japanese monsters are just so mind bending and strange. In most folklore you can work out were the legends came from and what they mean to a certain degree, but you can do that a lot with Japanese monsters.

As to what prompted me to write it, well I was researching something totally unrelated when I stumbled upon a website called

It listed a number of yokai and I became hooked on Japanese folklore. When I realised that no one had written an English language, in depth book on yokai, I stepped up to the plate.


Nick: What are some of the more significant monsters in the book?

Rich: Some are great cultural icons like the tengu. Tengus are a man / bird hybrid. It has two basic forms, the first being a creature with the head of a bird (usually a raven or a bird of prey), a humanoid body, birds talons and birds wings. It is known as the Karasu Tengu. The second is more human like with a man’s face. A greatly elongated nose is seen instead of a beak. This form is the Yamabushi Tengu.

Their nature seems contradictory: they can spread chaos and fear but are also not averse to humble humans joining in with their merrymaking. They punish the vain and the rich and can affect the human mind leaving the victim wandering the forests or mountains in a state of madness known as tengu-kakushi. This sounds very like the effect certain fairies had on humans in western legend. In the South West of England this was known as being pixie-led. The same monster would equally be called on to help lost children find their way home. This may be because in some stories the evil tengu were converted to Buddhism and become enlightened creatures.

Another iconic monster is the oni. Oni are savage daemons embodying the worst of human nature. They can have ox like, bird like, or humanoid heads. They generally have horns and wild mane of hair. They have three claws on each hand and three toes on each foot. Some have three eyes. They may be red, green, blue, white or grey in colour. They go naked except for a loin cloth. They are usually huge in size and their favoured weapon is an iron spiked club.

Oni in Japan have a roll akin to that of trolls, giants and ogres in western lore. They walk the earth spreading terror in their wake until stopped by some hero. But like daemons they also torture souls in hell. Despite this, their unpleasant image was often carved into tiles at the end of Japanese roofs. The onigawara tiles were used to keep evil spirits away from the building.

Kappa has the shell of a turtle and frog’s arms and legs. It has a human like face but with a beak instead of a mouth. It has a fringe hair like that of a western monk about its head. The hair is known as okappa-atama. The top of a kappa’s skull is concave and holds a magick liquid that gives the water goblin its phenomenal strength. Despite being only the size of a small child, a kappa is strong enough to overpower a horse or cow.

Kappa will often challenge an unsuspecting human to a sumo match and easily overpower them with its magical brawn. The defeated victim would have his bowels devoured after they were ripped from his anus. Animals would be killed by kappas in this way as well. Kappa was particularly fond of the shirikodama, a fabled ball said to be found near the anus. A kappa victim will usually have a distended anus and is known as a Gappadoko. Some victims, oddly, seemed to be smiling after their fatal, anal violation. Kappa would often lurk in toilets and fondle women’s thighs and buttocks. Indeed Kappa were said to rape women if they got a chance.

In Japanese legend the red fox or Kitsune (Vulpes vulpes japonica) can achieve supernatural powers if it lives to fifty or one hundred years old. An ancient fox would grow a new tail with each century until it had nine. These spirit foxes could walk on their hind legs and don clothes like humans. Their powers included shape shifting and illusions. Such a state of position was known as kitsunetsuki.

Kitsune could take on the form of humans by placing a human skull on their head and preying to the constellation of Ursa Major. They would often take on the form of beautiful women and seduce men.

The Yuki-onna or snow woman is one of the best known of all yokai. She is also the most beautiful and sexually provocative. Yuki-onna is an inhumanly beautiful woman with long, silky black hair and exquisitely pale skin. She leaves no footprints in the snow when she walks and generally wears a long white robe. Sometimes she appears naked. Her skin is so pale that only her hair, face, and pubic hair show against the background of the snow.

Yuki-onna is thought to have been a woman who died in a snowstorm, possibly whilst pregnant. In some stories she manifests with a phantom baby. If a mortal holds the baby the infant sticks to their arms and becomes heavier and heavier until the victim cannot move and freezes to death.

Usually the Yuki-onna is depicted as a sort of thermal vampire sucking the heat and life out of people lost in the snow. Sometimes she will take men’s body heat by making love to them.

Those are some of the most famous yokai but the more obscure ones are the strangest. Many seem to do strange things for no apparent reason. It is likely that some details of the original stories have been lost in the mists of time. Take a look at this lot for sheer weirdness.

Mouryo is a kind of giant, bipedal, flesh eating rabbit that violates graves! It will dig up human corpses and eat their livers.

Atsuuikakura is a monster of the folklore of the Ainu people of northern Hokkaido. It is a giant flesh-eating sea cucumber that grew from the undergarments of a dead girl! It holds onto driftwood and tries to overturn passing boats.

Bake-kujira is a zombie whale! This vast and bizarre ghost turned up in the seas off Shimane prefecture in Osaka with an entourage of strange fish and birds. Whalers tried to harpoon it but the weapons had no effect on the huge phantom who swam out to sea followed by its ghostly court. Bake-kujira is supposedly several times larger than a mortal whale and will attack humans out hunting whales.

The Basan is found in Ehime Prefecture, and is a giant rooster that breaths out fire. In the day it hides in bamboo groves and at night it wanders around making an odd rustling sound that wakes up villagers.

Gashadokuro is a titanic animated skeleton fifteen times taller than a man. It is composed of the bones of people who died of starvation that have changed into a huge cannibalistic spirit. It is animated by the dead’s anger at their own horrid deaths. They stalk the night making a "gachi gachi" sound. If this monster catches a human it will bite their head off. The appearance of a Gashadokuro is foretold by a ringing in one’s ears.

Katakiriuwa takes the form of a small pig whose body is constantly aflame. Katakiriuwa has only three legs, one ear and one eye. The phantom pig casts no shadow. It appears only on Amami Island (Okinawa). One of its favourite haunts is around the city hall in Naze.

Katakiriuwa is said to run between a person’s legs and steal their soul. This activity also renders the victim’s sexual organs impotent. If you see the Katakiriuwa before it can run between your legs it will disappear. Crossing the legs also deters this nasty little yokai.

Sagari is the ghost of a horse that died beneath a nettle tree. It manifests as a disembodied horses’ head dangling from the branches by its mane. It neighs and whinnies and whoever hears its baleful vocalizations falls ill. Sagari are reported from Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures on the island of Kyūshū.

The black hair cutter or Kurokamikiri is one of the most grotesque and disturbing yokai and has a hair obsession. Kurokamikiri is vaguely humanoid. It has a bloated body with chubby arms and legs. It has no neck but a bulbous head. Its skin is deepest black and the only features visible are a wide mouth with a slug like tongue and huge flat teeth, and two tiny, evil yellow eyes spaced far apart on its dark visage. Kurokamikiri will creep up behind its victims and bite off their hair. Kurokamikiri is said to make a “mogaaaaa!”sound.

Ittan-momen flutters through the skies above Kagoshima prefecture. It resembles a strip of white cloth over thirty feet long. Innocuous as it looks, the Ittan-momen is the anaconda of the yokai world, dropping down upon its victims and winding about them in order to suffocate them.

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides albus) or Tanuki in Japan is credited, like several other beasts such as the fox and the cat, with shape shifting. The Tanuki is generally less malevolent than the fox or the cat. It can sometimes be a comical figure using it’s belly as a drum to created a ‘pon- poko’sound. In some areas the males have shape shifting testicles that they use to play outlandish tricks on humans. They are fond of saké, human women and disguising worthless leaves as money.

One story involves a tanuki who disguised his testicles as a tea shop and fooled some people into drinking tea in them. One man dropped some hot ash from his pipe ans scorched the tanuki's scrotum!


Nick: What, for you, is the most significant, or stand-out, Japanese mystery animal?

Rich: The Tatsu or Ryu, the Japanese dragon is the most ancient and powerful of all the yokai as indeed dragons worldwide are the most ancient and powerful of all monsters. Tatsu are creatures of god-like power. They are intimately associated with water and the sea in particular. Most Japanese dragons are benevolent towards mankind, but if treated with disrespect they can wield god like power. An angry dragon could cause earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, floods or droughts. The length of the largest dragons are measured in miles. Asian dragons rarely breathe fire but their breath condenses and forms rain.

Creatures resembling Tatsu are still reported in the world’s oceans and deep lakes today. The seas around Japan are no exception. In 1879 the steam ship Kiushiu-maru one of a fleet belonging to the Mitsubishi Company observed a serpentine monster attacking a whale in the Sea of Japan. Captain Davidson stated that he saw a whale leaping from the water with the monster biting into its belly. He observed the whale disappear beneath the surface as its assailant reared up thirty feet before plunging down after it. He said the creature was as thick as a junk’s mast.

In 1901 a report of a dragon was recorded in a Japanese nature magazine called Shizen Shimbun. The creature was seen by flashes of lighting during a storm at sea. It had horns, sharp teeth, large eyes and a rough hide. The Diet Library confirms the existence of both the magazine and the report. There can be little doubt that some of the creatures we call ‘sea serpents’ are one in the same as Asian dragons.


Nick: Does Japan have a similar range of unknown animals as other parts of the world, such as lake-monsters, hairy man-beasts, flying monsters etc? Or, are there many that are unique to Japan?

Rich: Japan, like all other countries has creatures from what I have called "The Global Monster Template” - these are creatures that turn up in all cultures.

Dragons = Tatsu

Hairy man-like beasts = Hibagon, Yama-chichi, Hi-Hi, Kenmon and Satori

Little people = Yanari, Koro-pok-guru

Monster birds = Tengu, Pheng, Raicho, Takagamisama, Itsumaden

Monster cats = Bake-neko, Neko-mata

Monster dogs = Inu-gami, Kajigababaa, Hito-okami

However Japan has masses of weird monsters found no were else on earth and, in the main, it was these that inspired me to write the book.


Nick: Do you cover fictional Japanese monsters such as Godzilla, Mothra etc?

Rich: I take a look at Japanese film monster such as Godzilla (or Gojira to give him his Japanese name) Rodan, Gamara and their colleagues (known as Kaiju) in the introduction to the book. Some are based on the giant monsters in Japanese legend. Godzilla has his ancestory in the Japanese dragons as much as he does in dinosaurs.


Nick: Was it difficult doing the research?

Rich: I can honestly say I have enjoyed writing this book more than any other. Uncovering all the strange bits of information was a joy. Some things I had to translate and I had help from the people on the forum at www.obakemono

Tony Eccles, head of ethnography at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum was good enough to let me digitally photograph a 17th century Japanese book on animals that included dragons and ancient turtles.


Nick: Is this is a project you have wanted to do for a long time?

Rich: There was no long-term planning for the book. As I said earlier I stumbled across yokai quite by accident. As soon as I found these weird creatures, I was addicted to yokai and I knew that I had to write a book on them as none such existed for English readers.


Nick: How old are the stories of Japanese monsters - is there a long history, folklore of such beasts, or relatively recent?

Rich: Some monsters are truly ancient. The Tatsu and the Tsuchinoko, a type of dorso-ventrally flattened snake, go back to the ancient Jōmon Period (14,000 BC to 300 BC), The earliest accounts of Tengu come from the Heian Period (794-1185).

Other folklore is more recent. In 1979 stories abounded in Japan that the Kuchisake-onna or slit mouthed woman was hunting down children. The scare stories spread via playground lore and within one year had covered most of urban Japan. She has even travelled abroad. In 2004 a similar scare occurred in South Korea.

Kuchisake-onna is said to cover her mouth with a surgical mask. She approaches victims (usually children) and asks “Do you think I am beautiful?” If they answer yes then she removes her mask and reveals the jagged tear that extends her lips all the way into her cheeks. She again asks “Do you think I am beautiful?” If the victim answers either yes or no the Kuchisake-onna will attack them and slash open their mouths with a knife or scalpel so that the resulting wound resembles the mouth of the Kuchisake-onna. Reputedly there are two ways of stopping her attacking. One is to answer her question by saying “You look normal to me," or by offering her a piece of candy.


Nick: I understand that Vol 2 is already in the works?

Rich: Recently I uncovered another books' worth of information. I have a collection of news stories from the late 19th and early 20th century concerning sightings of yokai. I need to get this translated from Japanese into English. I also have two volumes on yokai in French that I need to translate into English. Between them there is enough for a second volume. I hope this will be ready in a couple of years. If there is anyone out there that can help me with the translations I’d be grateful.


Nick: What do you hope that the publication of the book will achieve?

Rich: I hope the book will open people’s eyes to the weird and wonderful world of Japanese monsters. If you’re sick and tired of vampires and werewolves (and who isn’t; by god they have been so done to death in films and half arsed "dark romance" novels) then this book will be a breath of fresh air.


If you're in the UK, you can buy Rich's book here, for the US click here, and in Canada, here's the link.


Neil A said...

Great interview....great book.

Andrew D. Gable said...

And of course bake-kujira is also the origin of Godzilla's name in Japanese (Gojira = kujira). A lot of Toho and otherwise Japanese creatures are named in a similar fashion (Gamera and Kamoebas are derived from kame, the word for a turtle).