A Japanese island where the wild things are
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A Japanese island where the wild things are
Chubei Yagyu, a local artist, on the Japanese island Shodoshima, March 14, 2023. “I really thought if I kept drawing yokai myself, they would come out to see me,” he said. (James Whitlow Delano/The New York Times)

by Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida

SHODOSHIMA.- Most Japanese schoolchildren know the kappa as a trickster who looks like a cross between a frog and a turtle with an indented head. If you’re not careful, it could drag you into the river to drown. The tengu, identifiable by its bright red face and long nose, lurks in the woods. Beware of the tanuki, a supernatural variation of a raccoon dog, for it may make a fool of you when it crosses your path.

These mischievous, occasionally demonic, spooks of traditional Japanese folklore are known collectively as yokai. They once helped explain mysterious phenomena, such as noises in the night, missing food, or the rains and winds that damaged property. Now, as shared cultural heritage, they are ubiquitous in fairy tales, cartoons, advertising, television and film.

Yet what truly distinguishes the yokai of Japan is that they are not frozen in classical legend or restricted to a narrow roster of familiar characters. Rather, each generation invents new yokai, many of them channeling a collective unconscious of present-day anxieties.

This infinitely expanding pantheon of mythological creatures is well in evidence on Shodoshima, a small island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, where residents host an art contest and invite entrants to let their imaginations run wild as they create new yokai for the modern era.

One of the winners in the competition, held last month, was a furry blue critter with bright red hearts glowing in its eye sockets. Its creator, Rika Nakamichi, said it embodied the current obsession for collecting approval on social media.

Among the entries from previous contests, now collected in a museum on the island, was a pair of reptilian high heels bristling with rows of teeth. That creature recalled a recent campaign urging Japanese employers to stop requiring female workers to wear high heels. Another was a lizard with a long tongue that licked off the faces of subway riders in thrall to their cellphones.

Many cultures have folkloric creatures believed to live beyond the physical world, causing mayhem or terror or simple amusement. Think of the leprechaun of Ireland, the puckish forest-dwelling aluxe of Mexico, or the grisly krasue of Southeast Asia, a woman whose internal organs hang exposed from her neck down. Variations on mermaids, fairies and elves crop up throughout the world.

In Japan, yokai are characterized by the spirit of invention. “Anything can be made into a yokai, even things that we don’t know exist yet,” said Kazuhiko Komatsu, professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto and the author of “An Introduction to Yokai Culture: Monsters, Ghosts and Outsiders in Japanese History.”

Shodoshima’s contest, founded a decade ago, was staged in March for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic, with judges now free to gather on the island to select the winners. Professional artists and hobbyists from across Japan submitted 75 ghoulish and playful sculptures, down from 243 entrants in 2013, the competition’s first year.

Along with the blue “likes” monster, the finalists included a sickly green yokai that invades your mouth if you fail to brush your teeth. A yokai that looked like an aardvark covered in kanji, the Chinese pictographs used in Japanese writing, expressed the artist’s fear that these characters might disappear from a culture where everyone types phonetically on a smartphone.

“Different artists have rules within themselves of what they think yokai are,” said Chubei Yagyu, 46, a local artist and contest judge whose father, Yoshihiko, 70, a prominent businessperson on the island, finances the competition. “Creating new yokai is what is great about this contest.”

The Yokai Art Museum, also founded by the Yagyus, has now amassed more than 900 googly eyed, scaly, multi-legged creatures. The museum is lodged in four restored Meiji-era wooden buildings in an area of crisscrossing streets known as the island’s “maze” district.

Shuji Sato, manager of the yokai contest and museum, said he hoped the yokai activities would fuel a tourist boom on Shodoshima and help the island compete with Naoshima, a popular art-focused islet also in the Seto Inland Sea. That better-known destination draws travelers who come to see the iconic Yayoi Kusama polka-dotted pumpkins and the Benesse House Museum, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

On the island, it is easy to imagine yokai skulking just beyond the eye’s reach. A small shrine carved into stacked rocks overlooking the sea appears as if it could conceal spirits that emerge at night. The gnarled branches of a 1,600-year-old juniper tree form a fire-breathing dragon.

Scholars trace the yokai’s roots to literary or artistic references as early as the 11th century. In addition to offering explanations for strange events, the yokai could be thought of as objects that had come to life, in keeping with Japan’s early animist beliefs.

“Japanese people feel relieved once you put a name to something,” said Mitsuo Takeda, a judge of the Shodoshima contest and an artist who designed a large installation featuring a bug-eyed yokai large enough to walk through. “If you are pulling grass and you get a cut and you wonder what happened,” he said, “if you think, ‘Oh, it is just a yokai,’ you feel calmer.”

A significant popularizer of yokai was the 18th-century scholar and artist known as Toriyama Sekien, who compiled an encyclopedia of creatures drawn from his imagination.

In the modern era, manga artist Shigeru Mizuki’s “Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro” series spawned a world of new yokai characters that have inspired subsequent generations of yokai cartoonists and fans.

Japanese popular culture is littered with descendants of the early yokai, including the characters of the Pokémon universe and the phantasmagoric creatures of Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination, such as Totoro or the bathhouse sprites of “Spirited Away.” More recently, yokai influences can be seen in the monsters of “Demon Slayer,” the smash-hit comic book, television series and movie.

During the pandemic, artists on social media adopted the amabie, a 19th-century yokai that is said to predict epidemics and resembles a mermaid with a bird’s beak. Even Japan’s health ministry used the amabie as a mascot on coronavirus-related public health bulletins.

On Shodoshima, Yagyu said that as a child, he was entranced by Mizuki’s manga and believed that yokai existed in the real world.

“I really thought if I kept drawing yokai myself, they would come out to see me,” he said. Today, Yagyu sells paintings and takes commissions to invent new yokai based on a client’s personality.

Eiji Ishibashi, who with his wife, Makiko, and twin daughters, Mai and Mei, 23, have entered several contests on Shodoshima since 2013, said the family envisions their yokai projects as a way to express “things that you are struggling with or things that you aspire to.”

This year, the family crafted a parade of yokai emerging from an upside-down gate that symbolized a portal to an unseen world. Some looked ominous, such as a gape-mouthed green and yellow blob with two tiny legs dangling from the roof of its mouth. Others were cute, such as the baseball-size head with multiple eyeballs and a giant nose.

Mai Ishibashi said the yokai represented “many things that we now see as a society that we did not see before COVID.”

Nakamichi, 35, an artist known as Ikka who created the heart-eyed yokai, said she wanted to play with the idea that yokai could be both cute and scary. “If you meet my yokai, your Instagram post may go viral,” she said. “But you may get sucked in and addicted to the validation, so this yokai has an evil side, too.”

On the day of the final judging last month, eight judges, including a professional doll maker, an anime studio director and a collector of tin toys, gathered to inspect and rank the 32 finalists. Six artists received cash prizes, and all entrants will be displayed in the museum, where a back room stuffed with sculptures from previous years evokes the prop house for a science-fiction movie.

Daisuke Yanasawa, a judge and the founder of Kayac, a web and app design company, said he foresaw a long future for the prize entrants.

“The new modern yokai that won,” he said, “may become part of the regular yokai vernacular 100 years from now.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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