Edo Japan: Contextual & Mythological Research

The short story we have been given for our task is in the style of a folk or fairytale, and as such I wanted to look at themes within Japanese mythology from the Edo period specifically. As my chosen character is the soothsayer, I homed in on the spiritual and magic elements in Japanese folk stories, and on yōkai (spirits and demons) legends and myths in particular, as I could see how they would tie very well into Mercy and the Hunters of the Green Lake. In a Japanese setting, the hunters could be depicted as monstrous yōkai, possibly performing a form of Hyakki Yagyō (which would tie very neatly into how villagers have been “spirited away”, only to return once banished by the orphan girl), and the badger potentially a friendly shapeshifting yōkai. Likewise, the soothsayer could be a yōkai in disguise, or perhaps under the influence of a spirit, hence their magical ability to sense the future.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi – The Earth Spider Generates Monsters at the Mansion of Lord Minamoto Yorimitsu, 1843

The Edo period of Japanese history was when tools such as the printing press came into being, and when a culture around publishing began to form. Among these published works were kusazōshi, various forms of illustrated literature that were often derivative and/or inspired by folklore. It was also during this time where people’s perceptions of Japanese yōkai became more fixed due to their visual depictions and written descriptions within published works. The Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (1776) by illustrator Toriyama Sekien was a bestiary of yōkai that was heavily influential in creating set images of certain Yōkai within the public’s collective consciousness. Yōkai also became a popular subject matter for ukiyo-e, woodblock prints and paintings that came to flourish during the Edo period, and were often depicted by artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and Katsushika Hokusai.

Kawanabe Kyōsai

Left: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi; Right: Katsushika Hokusai – The ghost of Kohada Koeiji

Gazu Hyakki Yagyō, 1776
The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons

In order to better inform my knowledge of the different kinds of yōkai within Japanese folklore, so that I may consider how I would incorporate this element into my silhouettes, I have looked at the illustrations of Toriyama Sekien and selected yōkai which I find the most visually interesting or applicable to my sooth-sayer character.



Deep in the mountainous forests of Japan, the souls of the trees themselves are animated as spirits called kodama. These souls can wander outside of their hosts, tending to their groves and maintaining the balance of nature. Kodama are rarely ever seen, but they are often heard – particularly as echoes that take just a little longer to return than they should. When they do appear, they usually look like faint orbs of light in the distance; or occasionally as a tiny, funny-shaped vaguely humanoid figure. A kodama’s life force is directly tied to the tree it inhabits, and if either the tree or the kodama dies, the other cannot live.” [Meyer, 2013]



Yamauba are the old hags and witches of the Japanese mountains and forests. A kind of kijo, yama uba were once human, but were corrupted and transformed into monsters. They usually appear as kind old ladies. Some sport horns or fangs, but most often they look just like ordinary elderly women, with no sign of their evil nature until they attack.” [Meyer, 2013]

“Kori” – Tanuki & Kitsune

Tanuki (raccoon dogs) and kitsune (foxes), while both real animals, have a long tradition within Japanese folklore as being yōkai that can shapeshift into other forms, often that of humans (though not always). Though often this is done in order to trick humans, it is also shown that a tanuki or kitsune’s shapeshifting can be used as a means to guide and protect people. Kitsune and tanuki are also sometimes depicted as bitter rivals due to the similarities between the two’s powers. [Davisson, 2013]

During the Edo period in particular, foxes were seen as being related to witchcraft, and were not to be trusted. [Casal, 1959]



Ao bōzu are generally depicted as large, one-eyed, blue-skinned priests with a strong connection to magic. However, local accounts vary greatly in details such as size, number of eyes, and habitat. In Okayama, they are described as two-eyed giants who take up residence in abandoned or uninhabited homes. In other stories, they appear in wheat fields, or on dark, lonely roads. Children who go running and playing through the fields in the evening might be snatched up and taken away by an ao bōzu.” [Meyer, 2013]



Casal, U. (1959). The Goblin Fox and Badger and Other Witch Animals of Japan. Folklore Studies, [online] 18, p.1. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1177429 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2017]

Davisson, Z. (2017). Kori no Tatakai – Kitsune/Tanuki Battles. [online] 百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. Available at: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/07/30/kori-no-tatakai-kitsunetanuki-battles/ [Accessed 31 Oct. 2017]

Meyer, M. (2013). [online] Yokai.com. Available at: http://yokai.com [Accessed 30 Oct. 2017].



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