Katana tsuba (sword guard) with rokuro-kubi (yokai) design, Edo period, 19th century, Miyoshi City Collection

It is a busy year for Europe/ Japan relations. Another country celebrating is Spain with its 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Spain. This exhibition explores the world of Japanese demons. Yokai emerged from rich imagination of the folk world and have been a common theme in Japanese art for centuries and can still intrigue the viewer with their unique forms, and mysterious world and extraordinary behaviour.

The exhibition comprises picture scrolls, ukiyo-e, kimono, obi, netsuke,Β  inro, weaponry, pottery and other items – all from the former collection of Koichi Yumoto, which is considered to be the largest collection of yokai in Japan (some 3,000 works), which is now in the collection of Miyoshi City, Hiroshima Prefecture.

Night Parade of 100 Demons

Yokai are strange creatures brought into being by fears of the mind, stirrings sensed in the darkness, or feelings of awe for nature, which can be seen in the word yokai itself, formed out of the Japanese characters β€˜yo’ and β€˜kai’, both of which mean strange, mysterious, or spooky (ayashii). Images of yokai have been known to exist from the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons scroll was first painted. It is thought that yokai appeared in the Japanese psyche out of fears of the uncontrollability of nature – natural disasters, changing weather, plagues.

The many forms of these strange-looking creatures – including those depicted generation after generation and based on the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, as well as those newly created, were shared widely with the general public in the Edo period (1603-1868), helped by the proliferation of woodblock printing and book culture. People gradually became familiar with yokai and began to find them entertaining – they have since been turned into cute, loveable characters frequently featured in manga, animation and gaming.

Ghosts in Japanese Prints

This exhibition focuses primarily on woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) and picture scrolls from the Edo period, when yokai culture was disseminated to the masses, with a wide range of other items from objects worn on the body such as kimonos and netsuke, weaponry, including sword guards (tsuba) and knife handles, to plates and bottles, and children’s toys.

Undoubtedly, the most relevant example that led to the great development of the iconography of the supernatural in later centuries is the illustrated horizontal scroll, as mentioned previously: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (Gazu Hyakki Yagyo) attributed to the famous court painter Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). It is kept in the small sub-temple of Shinju-an located within the Zen temple complex of Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. This scroll depicts a procession of monsters and demons in a lively parade before disappearing upon seeing a luminous sphere of spiritual origin, known as hinotama, that marks the end of the night parade. It shows richness in the representation of supernatural beings that had great transcendence.

Oni in Japanese Prints

The exhibition also explores creativity connected to the genre, as well as the peculiar pantheon of Japanese supernatural beings, including Oni (Ogres) originally associated with beings in the Buddhist belief who dwell in hell and whose job it is to punish sinners. Yokai are much associated with unexplained natural phenomena, or mutated animals/beings who exert power over humans. Whilst Tsukumogami are everyday objects with a mind of their own (which some stories say they acquire when they reach 100 years of age).

The main period for the development and portrayal of the iconography associated with yokai is in the Edo, particularly between the 17th and 18th centuries. This period saw the development and establishment of a rich book culture which was supported by a high rate of literacy in society combined with a thirst for all sorts of written information.

Toriyama Sekien, Publisher of Supernatural Books

The publisher responsible for this series of works on supernatural beings was the scholar, poet, and artist Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788), who compiled the description of some 200 supernatural beings in a succession of books. He began in 1776 with The Night Parade and went onΒ in 1779 to publish the Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past (Konjaku Gazu Zoku Hyakki), and in 1780 the Supplement to the Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past (Konjaku Hyakki Shui ), culminating with the 1784 book, Illustrated Bag of
One Hundred Random Haunted Housewares(Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro).

As indicated by these titles, the books were eminently graphic works and while Sekien inherited the iconography established for supernatural beings in his execution of the illustrations, he also created many of the beings depicted. Due to the great popularity of his works, a new image of the supernatural was born and continues to be nourished by the Japanese collective imagination today.

The Development of Woodblock Printing in the Edo Period

Meanwhile, yokai also benefited from the development of woodblock printing in the Edo period, produced in much greater numbers in nishiki-e (coloured woodblock prints) and printed books. With mass production enabled by the printing process, many more people became familiar with the pictures and tales of the yokai, and yokai culture expanded into the lives of ordinary people.

Similar to the Hyaku Monogatari books of short ghost stories, Hyaku Monogatari picture scrolls were developed, in which yokai tales were recorded with an accompanying picture. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) also produced a series of Hyaku Monogatari prints. In addition, the popular scrolls which tell a single story were produced in great numbers, placed in a more general context, their image as creatures to be fearfully avoided changed: harmless, friendly beings appeared, and β€˜cute yokai’ were born. Loved by all, the yokai of picture scrolls, nishiki-e, and printed books began to appear as figurines, on kimono, and in many other places.

In Japan, you can still encounter many of these characters, either as an advertising image, on fashion brand shirts, or on the covers of magazines at a kiosk. They are alive and charged with meaning. While inheriting Japans unique iconographic tradition, these yokai characters are alive and well and continue to evolve in the modern world.

Yokai: Iconography of the Fantastical. The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons as the Source of Supernatural Imagery in Japan, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, to 23 September

If you’d like to know more about The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, a book by Matthew Meyer demystifies the ghouls, ghosts, spectres, and things that go bump in the night, or try The Book of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster. You can see a version of The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons on The Met’s website