Obake, Bakemono: monsters in Japanese folklore

Like many others, we have developed a real passion for Japanese culture. Its customs, its traditions, its code of honor… We like everything about the essence of this ancient civilization.

Between the proud samurai and the beautiful geishas, ​​there is a very specific point of Japan that caught our attention: the monsters of its folklore.

Whether we're talking about ghosts, demons or spirits, Japanese legends are full of amazing fantastical creatures that, to a European, can seem straight out of a fairy tale. However, millions of Japanese people have been exposed to these images since their earliest childhood.

For us, it was clear: we cannot understand the soul of Japan without being at least interested in each facet of its culture. We have therefore learned about the monsters of Japanese mythology and will now give you a short but precise summary of the main things to remember.

Contents :

So, what is an obake?

The figure of the obake and the transformations

What about Bakemono?

Monsters and demons in Japanese folklore

Poster showing black and white Japanese ghostly spirit.

So, what is an obake?

Japan has several special terms for ghosts and monsters.

Among the main ones, we can cite:

  • Youkai : this term includes almost all “physical” monsters such as ogres.
  • The yūrei : we are talking here about spirits and therefore in particular ghosts
  • The obake : this is a fairly general term which includes the two previous groups without distinction

With its rich culture, Japan has thousands of stories and legends recounting the adventures of the obake.

Sometimes, these beings can be benevolent towards men. Sometimes they will also be in a more neutral posture.

However, an obake will generally be a prankster, or even downright evil, creature who will play on the misfortune of its victims.

Three Japanese lucky charms: a Maneki Neko figurine, omamoris and a daruma doll

The magical power of Japan

by these ancestral Japanese lucky charms

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The figure of the obake and the transformations

Etymologically, the word obake comes from “bakeru”, which translates as “to transform”.

We thus understand that the obake are creatures whose essence (some will speak of the soul) and physical appearance are very different, as if they had transformed.

For some, the Obake this would also demonstrate the Obake's ability to change shape.

You should know that, in the Japanese imagination, this idea of ​​“transformation” is directly linked to the concept of nature.

For the Japanese, in fact, nature is made up of a series of transformations.

The leaves fall in autumn and grow back a few months later. This changes the appearance of the tree.

Rain follows good weather, and vice versa. It is here that the sky is transformed.

This makes us understand why, despite sometimes frightening aspects and malicious intentions, the Japanese are not really afraid of obake: for them, these beings are a “normal” facet of nature, in the same way as a tree or a bird.

This is a very profound reflection that Japan offers us!

If you too are passionate about the richness of this country, you will undoubtedly appreciate the collection of objects from Japanese culture on our site.

Drawing of a bakemono that comes out of a lake to frighten a young woman.

What about Bakemono?

In reality, bakemono are extremely close to obake.

From a linguistic point of view, the first arise from the second (we find the same root “bake”).

Bakemono actually means “to change things”. Thus, there is also in bakemono a notion of transformation of others or the outside world.

Some people better visualize their power by comparing it to a kind of transmutation magic.

While, as we have said, obake can be healthy and benevolent creatures, a bakemono will always be harmful to humans.

Many see them as bizarre beings, aberrations bordering on the unhealthy, products of unnatural transformations that should not occur.

We could probably say that Frankenstein's monster is a good example of bakemono!

In short, in Japanese tales, these beings often (rightly) occupy the role of villain, enemy of the heroes and divinities who protect men.

Wall of a store where a collection of obake masks hangs.

Monsters and demons in Japanese folklore

We now know more about the obake and bakemono figures… Good.

But in the end, what is their real importance?

Does any of this really have weight in Japanese folklore?

The answer is simple: yes, their influence is enormous.

Some stories including these creatures have left a lasting impression on the hearts of the Japanese.

You should know that before its first contacts with the European world, Japan's spirituality was made up of a clever mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism.

This second religion had the particularity of being animist. Very concretely , the Japanese of the time believed that millions of spirits were found everywhere on Earth.

Thus, obake were a reality for them. We therefore understand better why, yes, these beings did occupy a major place in their vision of the world.

If you are interested in the subject, here is a list of some of the most famous spirits in Japanese mythology.

In short, despite the current modernity of the archipelago, the ancient beliefs of the past are still found in many traditions and customs.

For example, we can cite the Obon festival during which the spirits of the past are honored.

Every year around mid-August, the Japanese prepare ceremonies and offerings in honor of the spirits who populate their beautiful country. Sometimes also, fireworks are set off and large family celebrations are held.

Even closer to us, many monsters or spirits that we can see in manga and anime are inspired (or sometimes even are carbon copies) of famous obake.

It is now obvious: understanding the message of the obake and the bakemono is already understanding part of the soul of Japan.

author picture(Cyril Gendarme)

Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.