If you like creepy, spooky things—ghosts, goblins, and shapeshifters—Japan is the place to be! For centuries the Japanese have enjoyed tales of mysterious happenings: umbrellas and tea pots with a will of their own; foxes that transform into alluring women and spiders that do, too; water imps that terrorize; and vengeful ghosts that never leave. All of these fall under the category of “yōkai,” a general term for the strange and inexplicable. All cultures have their own set of monsters and mysteries. One fun feature in Japan is the fact that the denizens of the yōkai world continue to grow. New yōkai are added, and old ones adapt to new environments.

A few years ago, Linda Ehrlich and I co-edited a book on one such yōkai, the yamamba or mountain witch. We collected original works inspired by the yamamba. In Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch, we found the venerable yōkai appearing in the Blue Ridge mountains, on the modern dance stage, and conversing with Mexican traditions.

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the webinar “Fear and Folklore” organized and convened by Alex Rogals of Hunter College. Alex is a scholar of Japanese theater with specialty in Kyōgen, often described as a comedic mode. He is himself a playwright and actor. At Hunter College he teaches classes on Japanese myth and folklore, horror, and mystery. He created the webinar to engender a discussion on the different aspects of yōkai and the way it has become a worldwide phenomenon.

Fear and Folklore poster

Michael Dylan Foster was another member of the webinar panel, and Alex could not have chosen a more renowned expert. Michael wrote his dissertation on modern Japanese novelist, Dazai Osamu, but in the course of conducting his research, found his interests shifting to the rich field of Japanese folklore. He has subsequently written a number of award-winning books and a multitude of articles on this fascinating topic. See for example, his 2015 volume The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.

In addition to Michael and Alex, the panel also featured Zack Davisson, a veritable encyclopedia of all things yōkai. If “yōkai” finds its way into the English lexicon—represented by placement in Webster’s Dictionary—it’ll be thanks to Zack’s hard work. Zack has published widely on the topic. He has translated as well and has traveled the world lecturing on his favorite yokai.

Spending the evening talking to Michael, Zack, and Alex was a delight. I stared out madly scribbling notes after each panelist spoke, until I remembered that Alex was recording the event. So, don’t take my word for it. If you have the time, enjoy the webinar for yourself!