To Clean the Mirror: Why I Love Yokai

By Andrew Pappas

Monsters have always fascinated me. I used to be really afraid of them when I was a kid. My aunt and cousins like to retell the story about the time a witch mannequin at a shopping mall scared the heck out of me, so much that I refused to take another step and my mom had to take me back to the car. I was then again struck with terror that same day by a werewolf mannequin in a bowling alley till my uncle brought me over to it and pulled off the mask to reveal a cardboard cut-out of Elvira, the famous cult horror movie show hostess, and I saw there was nothing to be afraid of.

Gradually my fear of monsters grew from a fear to a curiosity and finally an affinity. I want to say that that it was due to the amount of pro-monster media I consumed like Teenwolf, Casper the Friendly Ghost, the 2004 Van Helsing movie, and direct to TV Disney Channel movies like Halloween Town, but I think Japanese media played an even greater part. I was obsessed with kaiju movies and Henshin super heroes who fought them, my favorite Kaiju being Mothra. Japanese RPG video games were always my favorite, especially ones that let you tame monsters, and when Pokemon came out I was taken by the spell of these lovable little monsters like the rest of the 90s and early 2000s youths. I think how the Japanese portrayed the monsters in their media was very eye opening. They were not scary beings of pure malice and hate like in the west, but nuanced and loveable beasts, if a bit wild. They could even be beautiful, cool, scary, or cute! There was so much variety!  The Japanese media I consumed had changed my perception of monsters entirely, especially the ones from my own culture, and I started to look at them in a more sympathetic light.

And even if I never saw an old kaiju movie or an anime, or played a JRPG, there was little chance I could not have come to this mindset. Though I didn’t realize it until MUCH later in my life, I am and was gay, and I think the kingship I felt for monsters was influenced in a large part by my latent queerness. I always thought it was just because monsters were like misunderstood superheroes or something, but it turns out goes much deeper than that. It is a little known fact that Victorian horror genre, where most of our most famous western monsters grew in popularity, is steeped in queerness.

In Victorian England and America there was a huge moral panic about the “degenerate” practices of trangenderism and homosexuality and these fears of the queers greatly influenced the horror stories of Queen Victoria’s reign. For example one of the earliest vampire novels, Camilla, embodied the fear of lesbian love, as a tale about a female vampire who feeds on the blood of other women. Bram Stoker also worked in a lot of his internalized homophobia, he himself being a closeted bisexual, in the first half of his famous novel, Dracula. The main character, Jonathan Harker, is held captive and is slowly “fed” upon by Count Dracula and his harem of vampire wives.

Besides vampires, even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was basically a low-key queer retelling of the Pigmalion myth where Dr. Frankenstein seeks to create the perfect man just as Pigmalion did the perfect woman, an aspect of the Frankenstein explored in the 1975 cult classic, Rocky Horror Picture Show. This queer coding found in Victorian horror even found its way into Hollywood movies in the 1930s and 1940s when the Hays codes, a collection of self-inflicted entertainment regulations that forbade depicting homosexuality in a positive light, ruled what was okay and not okay to show on screen. Since many of the queer directors and actors could only represent themselves through villain and monster characters, the queer coded Victorian monster gained new life as a way for queer entertainers to express themselves. Actors would gladly don the cloak of “monster” thrust upon them by society and they reveled in it.

What I didn’t know was that when I watch an old Hollywood monster movie blockbusters, I was subconsciously picking up on the subtle queer coding of these monsters and started to relate to them. For example to this day I have an HUGE affinity for werewolves. When I watch a werewolf movie, what other people see a horrible and grizzly transformation from a man into a blood thirst beast. I myself see a poor, suffering, misunderstood creature, hated by all, yet hidden in plain sight, only aloud to be their self at night under the pale full moon. Werewolves represent to me my closeted queerness, having grown up a largely straight passing gay kid in denial and in fear of his own nature. The werewolves of the big screen helped me to come to terms with my own queerness and realize it is okay to let out your “wolf” self out no matter how monstrous people might think you are. I am glad to say I am more comfortable letting my “wolf” side show these day. I even take the time out of my day to terrorize a small European villages every other Sunday!

As I became more and more interested in traditional Japanese culture through anime, videogames, and henshin superheroes, I discovered Japanese Mythology and yokai and it became my favorite aspect of Japanese culture, no contest! My personal favorite Japanese yokai are the many type of fox yokai like the Kuko or the samurai fox Keizobo, but I am also very fond of tanuki yokai, and the Senbiki-Okami, a type of Japanese werewolf that can conjure thousands of wolf spirits to do their bidding. I find it fascinating the word “yokai” in Japanese doesn’t exactly translate one to one in English. It doesn’t exactly mean monster, nor demon, nor ghost, nor angel, nor goblin, nor devil, nor even fairy. That is because “yokai” encompasses all of these English words at the same time. A yokai is something that is extraordinary beyond logical explanation, if a bit unnerving and strange. Thus natural phenomenon, animals, trees, rocks, gods, and even people can be considered yokai. I love the all-encompassing meaning of the word “yokai” so much, that I have adopted it into my own everyday English vocabulary. To me I call werewolves yokai, fairies yokai, even folk tradition figures like Punxsutawney Phil, a magic weather predicting groundhog from Pennsylvania, yokai.

The Japanese tend to revere and celebrate yokai more than any other culture. They sometimes flat up worship them as gods like Inari-Okami, the rice and fox god, perhaps the most popular god in all of Japan. They are a fun and wild part of Japanese culture and their influences can be seen all throughout Japan today from Pokemon, to tanuki garden gnomes, to Amabie, the Covid thwarting mermaid goddess that rose to popularity in Japanese art during the height of the 2020 pandemic. It’s hard to live here in Japan and not see at least one allusion to a yokai just going about your day.

The Japanese tend to boast that they have more yokai in their culture than any other culture in the world. For the most part I think that’s true, but for the reason that they seem to be the only culture that hold their yokai in such high regard, making an effort to preserve each yokai for future generations. I know for sure we have TONS of yokai in the United States, but many Americans don’t really care about them too much, though it’s starting to get a little better. However, relatively very few American Yokai have been immortalized in books and movies in the cultural zeitgeist. If you ask the average American about what yokai they know the best they could give you is probably a vampire, a witch, or a zombie, maybe a bigfoot if you are lucky. But we have so many more than that, like the Wendingo, the Mothman, the Rougarou, and the Puckwudgie to name a few.

Some of my favorite yokai from my own home region of Western Pennsylvania, are the name-lost-to-time Shawnee fairy spirits who are super strong and like to help find lost things, the Green-man, based on a real man from Elwood City who was disfigured in a power line accident, and the Pennsylvania Unicorn, which changes the color of their fur based on the seasons. It makes me sad when I see Japanese yokai inspired series like Pokemon or Yokai Watch make games set in the United States, but not do deeper research into the many yokai we do have in the states and just make up a lot of corny, skin deep monsters based on modern American culture instead of drawing from richer American yokai tradition. I think this is more a symptom of Americans’ lack of interest in yokai and not putting the information out there in more accessible forms than the Japanese game designers not doing their research. It’s quite sad really. It’s an aspect of American culture that is actually quite rich, yet largely overlooked.

I think Japan has a lot to teach Americans about the appreciation and celebration of yokai. They are a window into the thoughts and beliefs of the Japanese people, and mirror the hearts and souls of people who made them. It’s a practice I want to apply to my own culture. For many queer Americans like myself, we do see ourselves reflected in the yokai of America and revel in how they allow us to express ourselves, just like the Japanese. I think it’s important for us as inheritors of American culture to clean the mirror that is yokai so that other Americans can see themselves reflected too.

Andrew Pappas is a freelance illustrator and commission artist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. He has his MFA in Illustration and has studied Japanese language, culture and mythology as well.

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