In Japan, yokai (supernatural spirits) often appear as motifs, even in anime, manga, and video games. One type is characterized by umbrella-like shapes; in Japanese, kasa yokai. We turned to Komatsu Kazuhiko, the former director-general of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies and the foremost expert on yokai, to learn more about the origin of yokai, along with kasa yokai and more.
Yokai are entities representing strange, abnormal phenomena incomprehensible to the unaided mind, which have been given physical form. While much folklore concerning yokai had been found in various parts of Japan, the belief became more prevalent after artists in cities began painting works such as the Hyakki Yagyo Emaki (“Night Parade of the Myriad Goblins Picture Scroll”)* around the 14th century. In this picture scroll, yokai taking the forms of various old worn-out tools take center stage, shown in procession. Among them is a yokai peeking out from under a damaged umbrella. Stories associated with the paintings also formed, saying that the tools and other objects formerly used in daily life had transformed into yokai out of resentment toward people after they wore out and got discarded.
While depictions of yokai range from frightening to humorous, this kasa yokai (yokai with an umbrella form) features a startlingly endearing expression. Within the ukiyo-e form that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries is a genre called omocha-e, or “toy”-like prints for children. These omocha-e also present a range of different kasa yokai, with appearances ranging from adorable to comical.
The conception of yokai fundamentally stems from nature worship, or animism, practiced in Japan since the distant past. This includes the belief that all things—from flora and fauna to rocks and even tools and so on —while they may have different outward appearances—experience emotions and have a spirit.
Umbrellas are implements originally meant to repel rain. In Japanese, two words, both pronounced kasa, refer to different types: kasa hats worn directly on the head, and handled kasa umbrellas; (see “History of the Umbrella in Japan and Meaning of Umbrellas in Festivals”). There is also a form of kasa hat worn in Bon Odori dance festivities,** kagura ritual dances,*** and so on. These kasa worn for dancing often have shapes that cover the wearer’s face. Covering the face is equated with concealing one’s true form, which has given the kasa hats impressions of being tools enabling the wearer to assume different forms, as well as being frightening, as the wearer’s true form cannot be seen.
Kasa umbrellas with handles, similarly, are considered to function as yorishiro **** due to the similarity of their shapes with mountains, where spirits were believed to descend.
There is speculation that the invention of kasa yokai may stem from the way people saw Japanese kasa hats as frightening since they concealed the wearer’s true form, combined with how people thought of hand-held kasa umbrellas as yorishiro.
In modern Japan, wagasa (traditional Japanese umbrellas) are considered traditional implements with graceful beauty. The fact that they once even lent their forms to yokai, however, might be taken as a sign of Japanese people’s fertile imagination with regard to objects.
* Hyakki Yagyo: The procession of a myriad (literally “hundred”) widely varied yokai jostling along through the night. Emaki: an ancient Japanese form of painting in which sheets of paper or silk are lined horizontally to create a very long canvas where sequential representations of scenes or stories can be painted.
** Bon (O-Bon): A period when deceased ancestors return to the world of the living and grave visits are practiced. Bon Odori: Dances performed at festivals that take place during this period.
*** Kagura: Odori or mai dances performed at Shinto shrines as offerings to kami deities with musical accompaniments played with instruments including Japanese traditional flutes and taiko drums.
**** Yorishiro: Objects that draw or summon kami deities and spirits.