Do you believe in the supernatural? Not many would at this time and age when many are turning atheist. Well, how can anyone rationalise spirits and ghosts. But don’t you think sometimes the way supernatural beings manifests in literature holds deeper meanings? For instance, youkai in Japanese culture.
For people who are reading manga, youkai is not foreign. Most of the manga in supernatural genre feature youkai, which include most of the popular ones InuYasha.
So what is a youkai? They are not your regular ghosts that scare you when sky turns dark. These are supernatural beings that can be both divine and evil or just plain harmless like a kappa. They are very unique to Japanese culture. Japanese folklores are full of them and they are used as tools to teach good and evil to young children.
Think of them as something as ‘bootham’ we use in Tamil culture, which are mostly evil and used to scare children when they do something wrong. You could say they are a tool to make children differentiate good deeds from evil. But in Japanese culture, existence of youkai is much more significant. Research on youkai to understand its significance is an ongoing process in Japan. I have skimmed couple of books and have been following anime that were based on yokai for a long time now. What interested me the most was the way people perceived youkai over the centuries and the cultural shift they represent.
My first encounter with youkai was when I read the manga InuYasha that is set in Sengoku era. The entire story is about how good youkai defeats the evil one. Then I read Noragami set in modern times. Both to some extent deal with exterminating youkai but somehow they were different. For one, how people perceived yokai in InuYasha is markedly different from that of Noragami, where youkai manifests itself in form of fear among people. For me it was interesting and I began my search on youkai culture in Japan. It lead me here, pondering over what youkai culture means to people in modern times, when over half the population does not believe in god or religion.
According to Michael Dylan Foster, the author of ‘Book on Youkai’, perception of youkai began to change from ancient to modern Japan. In the book he classifies the period into three, where the youkai’s presence is significant before 17 CE, time of their decline between 18 and 19 CE and their extinction, 21 century. Going by his definitions we can understand youkai were the most prominent during ancient times when belief in religion was at its peak. These were the times when shamans and mikos (Shinto priestnesses) played an important role in protecting their villags from evil beings.
In InuYasha, the male lead InuYasha is a half-youkai (born between a human and a youkai). He along with human friends, a kitsune and miko set out to destroy the source of all evil Naraku. During Sengoku era, where the manga is set in, you will notice that youkai is visible to everyone’s eyes. The miko Kikyo in InuYasha was considered a powerful priestess who had the ability to stop any evil as she was considered very powerfuk.
Fast forward to Meiji era, you will see that their presence was beginning to fade away as modernisation begins to take root. Dylan states that it is also in part has to do with proliferation of scientific advancements the society faced between 18 and 19th century that challenged superstitions.
As the 21th century dawned, the interest in them began to revive thanks to popular culture manga and also many scholars who took interest in learning about them. If you take popular culture it is obvious that they cannot be the same as those set in ancient. For one you cannot see them in plain sight. Rather than ugly creatures that feed on the living, youkai are things that feed on people’s negative emotions. The more negative your emotions are, you are more likely to be possessed by them like in Noragami. They drive people to kill, commit suicide, steal and instill the fear in others.
This gives raise to the question of how do people in modern times relate to them and that is probably why it fascinates many. The cultural change and its relevance in the current times is what makes youkai’s existence more interesting.