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On Halloween, Japan fears home-grown spooks

Halloween is an import but it gives the Japanese a chance to celebrate home-grown spooks.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Halloween is a frothy foreign import in Japan, an excuse to have a party and eat sweets.

Monsters, though, are a more serious matter. They are indigenous and reputed to be everywhere. One is called Akaname, the Filth Licker, and he haunts dirty bathrooms. Using his long, lascivious tongue, he eats bathtub scum.

As if that were not scary enough, there is also the matter of shame. In this exceedingly well-scrubbed country, if word got out that there's a Filth Licker in your bathroom, your reputation would be ruined.

The Halloween season, then, is an opportunity to shine a festive light on the Filth Licker and his creepy kin. There are thousands of them, and collectively they are known as yokai, a word that is formed from the Japanese characters for "otherworldly" and "weird."

Yokai were tormenting and delighting the Japanese hundreds of years before Halloween chocolates and pumpkin-colored cupcakes showed up in this country's supermarkets.

Yokai emerged from Japan's polytheistic culture as personifications of superstitions and fears. The most widely known yokai is the oni, or demon, which is extremely powerful but not always dangerous.

As Japan has modernized, there has been a tendency to transform even the scariest of the yokai into cuddly creatures suitable for children. An extreme example of this cute-ification is onibaba, or demon hag. She is the horribly unbalanced elderly woman who collects livers of unborn children. In recent years, she has been reborn as the friendly mascot of a theme park built near onibaba's traditional haunts.

'They help explain the inexplicable'
Professional chroniclers of yokai say the spooky creatures are remarkably similar -- in their folkloric origins and unspeakable powers -- to the ghosts, zombies, skeletons and assorted night stalkers who have wandered for centuries through the Western imagination.

"Anything that is unexplainable, anything that is scary, anything that is really weird can be considered the doings of a yokai," said Kenji Murakami, author of a yokai encyclopedia and 19 other yokai-related books. "We do not have a tradition of Halloween, but I think yokai are perfectly appropriate for Halloween. They help explain the inexplicable, and they are fun."

Part myth, part tall tale, part pop culture, yokai haunt mountains, swamps, subway stations and toilets across Japan. One yokai likes to plunge a large, hairy disembodied foot through the roofs of rich people's houses. Another is made entirely of discarded dinnerware and is more dangerous to himself than to others.

While Western ghosts and ghouls tend to surface during the Halloween season, yokai are almost always hanging around.

One is featured on the label of Kirin beer. Another -- a raccoon dog with super-size testicles -- is depicted in statues that stand outside thousands of restaurants and bars. Yokai-like imagery is found in the best-selling novels of Haruki Murakami and the internationally honored animated films of Hayao Miyazaki.

This fall, yokai are featured in a new book, "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," by the husband-and-wife team of Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.

Yoda, 37, grew up in Tokyo, where she says she spent a good part of her elementary school years devising strategies to avoid being mutilated by one of Japan's best-known yokai, Kuchisake Onna, the Slash-Mouth Woman.

This yokai is a shapely and well-dressed but violently insecure young woman who wears a mask over her monstrously disfigured mouth, which reaches from ear to ear and is bursting with teeth.

"First of all, she asks you if she is pretty," Yoda said. "If you say, 'Yes, you're pretty,' she's going to cut your mouth just like hers. But if you say she is not pretty, she is going to cut your mouth anyway."

While Yoda was debating this horrible conundrum in Tokyo schoolyards, Alt was growing up in Potomac, where he was desperate to read Japanese comic books.

"This was during the era of Japan-bashing, when everyone was afraid that Japanese corporations were going to take over the United States," said Alt, 35. "At Walt Whitman High School, the other kids took Japanese-language classes because they wanted an edge in business. I just wanted to read about Godzilla in his native language."

Godzilla is the most famous kaiju, or "strange beast," and is considered to be a younger cousin of yokai.

Shared interests
Alt and Yoda met when she was in graduate school at the University of Maryland and he was working at the U.S. Patent Office, translating Japanese patent applications. He moonlighted translating Japanese video games.

At a party, he asked her to help him with the videos, and their collaboration soon turned into a marriage. In short order, they moved to Tokyo and formed a successful two-person company that specializes in the translation of comic books and video games. Their work includes the English-language version of "Dead or Alive Xtreme 2."

They turned to yokai, they said, because they wanted to do original work and because they love them.

Since she was a child, Yoda has been reading yokai tales of terror and studying yokai art. Alt traces the roots of Japanese pop culture, including anime, manga and films, back to yokai cards that Japanese children played with in the 1800s.

Breezy summary of the well-known beasts
Their book is a breezy summary of what the average Japanese adult probably already knows about yokai.

Such as kappa: a short, green, flatulent monster with a tortoise shell on his back and a cup of water on his head, from which he draws his terrible powers. He likes to eat human entrails. Kappa are said to live in rivers, lakes, swamps and wetlands.

To keep their offspring from playing in these dangerous places, parents over the years have told chilling tales of what an angry kappa can do.

But kappa, like many yokai, have a weakness that is characteristically Japanese.

"They are very polite creatures," Alt said. "If you encounter a kappa, the best way to survive is to bow. He will bow back, and the water will spill out of his head dish, thus rendering him completely harmless."

And what about Slash-Mouth Woman, the one who cuts your face if you are nice and cuts your face if you are not?

"She likes candy," Yoda said. "The best way to escape is to always carry candy, and when she comes near, throw it as far as you can and run like crazy."