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Spirited Away: Ghosts and demons of Japan

Japanese ghosts and goblins haunt everything from anime to comic books.

Ghastly and funny, monstrous and mild, these Asian spirits will infest Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art starting on Sunday, Dec. 8.

“Yokai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan” spans prints, toys, kimonos and masks capturing these spirits of Japanese culture dating as far back as the first century. The exhibition will hang through Jan. 10, 2021.

Tengu Toy Figures (Kokeshi). Tohoku District, Japan, ca. 1960, wood, paint. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

Yokai is a catch-all word for ghosts, demons, spectres, monsters, tricksters and supernatural beings. They straddle the boundary between belief and amusement, fear and fun. Their stories may make you sleep with the lights on, empathize with their tragic lives or laugh out loud.

Japan is famous for its variety of yokai. Early imagery appeared in religion; they materialized as oni (demons or goblins), complete with horns and fangs.

“White Hannya” Noh Mask by artist TERAI Ichiyu. Kyoto, Japan, 2017 Cypress wood, natural paints (shell, mercury, carbon, ocher, gold), cotton cord. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

The roots of many of the stories and images extend back to Muromachi Period scroll paintings from about 1336 to 1573. A scroll from the Edo Period (1603-1867) describing “The Night Parade of 100 Demons” also helped set the stage. Yokai may range from the malevolent to the mischievous.

During the Muromachi Period, some of them embodied tools.

“The story was about these tools that are discarded by their owners,” curator Felicia Katz-Harris said. “When the tools came to be 100 years old, they obtain a spirit. They were discarded without being thanked for their service. They came to life and haunted the people who discarded them.”

Aside from haunted hammers, the scrolls’ original intent was to spread Buddhism. Instead, it promulgated little monsters and demons from objects. The texts incorporated sarcasm and witty banter.

Netsuke in the form of a Demon. Japan, late 19th early-20th century, ivory. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

“They’re trying to teach morals; be respectful of your things,” Katz-Harris said. “But at the same time, people were having fun with these monsters.”

Some of the more supernatural tales came from old stories of people walking through a forest and hearing someone washing beans in the river who wasn’t there.

“They’re these weird, inexplicable shared experiences,” Katz-Harris said. “Then there becomes this yokai that becomes the bean washer.”

By the Edo period (1603-1867), artists began depicting these phantoms in woodblock prints, then books. Kabuki theater and puppets expressed the yokai on stage.

“This was a time of relative peace,” Katz-Harris said. “There were new markets for leisure activities like books.”

Illustrated graphic novels and comic books appeared in Japan long before their occurrence in the West.

By the time of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan’s 250-year-old feudal isolationist policies crumbled with the overthrow of the government. Social issues began to surface in yokai arts.

“Yugao” from “The Tale Of Genji,” woodblock print from the series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” by Taiso Yoshitoshi. Japan, 1886, paper, ink. Gift from the collection of Else and Joseph Chapman, Museum of International Folk Art. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

“The Tale of Genji,” a story about a women who is rejected by a married womanizer, appears in Taiso Yoshitoshi’s 1886 woodblock print of a ghostly woman sitting on a tangled vine.

Equal parts sexist and yokai, a mask of the ghost Hannya by artist Terai Ichiyu depicts a woman who transforms into a demon through jealousy and rage.

An advertisement for a kabuki theater tells the story of “Actor Onoe Waichi II as a Tofu Boy and a One-Legged Ghost.” The plump Tofu Boy gestures at a one-legged umbrella turned spectre.

Ema (votive offering) with image of an Oni. Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan, ca. 1960, wood, paint, ink, cord. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

“Maybe they’re more annoying than they are dangerous,” Katz-Harris added.

A red demon mask fringed in waves of horsehair seems considerably less benign.

“Actor Onoe Waichi II as a Tofu Boy and a One-Legged Ghost,” by artist Toyokuni III (also known as UTAGAWA Kunisada). Japan, 1857, paper, ink. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

“He’s more like a demon considered a deity,” Katz-Harris said. “He brings good fortune; he’s meant to be very scary.”

In the 1960s, Japan’s Oga City created a New Year’s Eve festival based on his story. Groups of adults move from door to door wearing his mask, calling the children by name and scolding them for their misdeeds.

“If they don’t behave, they’ll be taken away,” Katz-Harris said.

More adventurous museum patrons will discover a Japanese ghost house (obake yashiki) at the end of their visit.

“It’s complete with jump scares and ghosts,” Katz-Harris said. “It’s like walking through a haunted house. But it won’t be for everybody.”


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