Author’s Disclaimer: This guide is meant to aid parents and Christians in making wise entertainment choices. The author does not intend to advocate or oppose Yo-Kai Watch in this article, but merely seeks to present the facts. Upon localization, some terminology may change from its original Japanese context and wording.
Released in Japan as a 2013 Nintendo 3DS video game, the Yo-Kai Watch series has since spun into anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comic book) adaptations. Recently, it was announced that the first video game installment is being released to Western audiences this winter 2015, with the anime series soon-to-be airing on Disney XD sometime the following year.
The story follows young Nathan Adams (Keita Amano, in the Japanese version), a boy able to see and interact with the otherwise invisible yokai in his town, thanks to a device known as the Yokai Watch. Joined by the cat yokai, Jibanyan, and the ghost-like yokai, Whisper, Nathan goes on a mission to battle ill-intentioned yokai in his town with the help of his benevolent yokai, befriending more of them along the way.
Likened to Pokémon for its cute creatures and collect-them-all mindset, Yo-Kai Watch has literally taken Japan by storm, and the industry predicts it may sweep up Western audiences as well, even, perhaps, surpassing its spiritual Pokémon predecessor.
So what’s the scoop on Yo-Kai Watch? And why are some Christians keeping it at arm’s length?
What’s a Yokai?
For the Christian consumer, the biggest area of concern in this franchise is that mysterious word in the title—yokai. Often translated into words like “monster,” “spirit,” and “demon,” the word yokai is a fairly broad term encapsulating a variety of mythical Japanese creatures and unexplainable occurrences.
In Japanese lore, yokai are mysterious beings often tied to nature, ranging from animalistic shape-shifters to ogre-like brutes. While some yokai are benevolent and others are malevolent, most fall into a morally grey area. The relationship between humans and yokai is akin to animism—the belief that everything has a spirit and that disturbing aspects of nature can anger the spirits that inhabit them.
For example, the Kitsune (or fox spirit) comes in both “good” and “evil” variants. Good fox spirits serve the Shinto deity, Inari, protecting righteous individuals from evil spirits, acting as messengers, and providing needed wisdom. Evil fox spirits are much more common, however, and love to cause mischief, even going so far as to possess people and make them act frivolous and insane (and also in need of an exorcism).
The Japanese Wikipedia page defines Yokai as follows:
“Yokai as a term encompasses oni, obake, strange phenomenon, monsters, evil spirits of rivers and mountains, demons, goblins, apparitions, shape-changers, magic, ghosts, and mysterious occurrences. Yokai can either be legendary figures from Japanese folklore, or purely fictional creations with little or no history. There are many yokai that come from outside Japan, including strange creatures and phenomena from outer space. Anything that can not readily be understood or explained, anything mysterious and unconfirmed, can be a yokai.”
Over two-hundred types of yokai exist in Japanese lore, and all of them mesh into the Shinto religion. Many shrines in Japan feature yokai statues and decorum.
Are Yokai Demons?
Japanese media frequently features yokai. However, when this media is brought to Western audiences in English, the broad term “yokai” becomes difficult to translate. Many times, the word is translated into “demon,” though words like “spirit” or “mysterious phenomena” may be more accurate contextually. Due to the power that many yokai possess, however, the word “demon” is often the translation of choice because it implies “fierceness,” even though the word “demon” invokes a very different meaning to Western audiences.
At the very least, yokai and demons, as we Christians know them, have some noteworthy differences. Most primary is the fact that not all yokai are evil, and some act more like angelic messengers or guardians than demons. Many yokai are also mortal and capable of dying, though their lifespans outlast those of humans.
In many ways, yokai more closely resemble certain creatures of Greek mythology, such as the dryad—a spirit bound to a tree, which punished those who treated it poorly. Those who have read the works of C.S. Lewis are no doubt familiar with these “tree spirits” from the Chronicles of Narnia. In other ways, yokai resemble the baleful Fair Folk of European tales.
It’s worth considering, though, that many types of yokai are the ghosts of those whose wrath or will has resurrected their spirits in a quest for revenge or fulfillment. These types of yokai are known as Yūrei, but some scholars consider them to be separate from yokai altogether.
Generally speaking, though, there are four primary types of Yokai, as outlined by Mizuki Shigeru:
Kaiju – 怪 (kai, mysterious) + 獣 (ju; beast), meaning “monster.” Most of Japan’s famous yokai are kaiju. Godzilla is a dai-kaiju, or “great monster.”
Choshizen – 超 (cho; super) + 自然 (shizen; natural), meaning the supernatural, including mysterious natural phenomena.
Henge – 変 (hen; strange) + 化(ge; to change, transform) , meaning shape-shifters like tanuki, foxes, and old cats.
Yurei -幽 (yu; dim) + 霊 (rei; spirit), meaning ghosts, and spirits of the dead
Of these four kinds, our Christian definition of demons would be most like the Yurei or perhaps the Henge, but only due to our understanding that demons can inhabit animals (such as Lucifer’s serpent in the Garden of Eden). However, the Henge are vastly different in the sense that they are capable of directly transforming into humans and vice versa. The yokai in Yo-Kai Watch almost all fall into either the category of Kaiju (monsters) or Henge (animal shape-shifters) with a some Yurei (or humans who died and became animal-like yokai) thrown in, but we’ll talk more about that in the next section.
The evolution of yokai should also be considered when weighing their influence. The yokai that permeate Japanese media don’t always resemble their bygone ancestors; often, yokai are portrayed as cute mascots or rendered as dimensional characters driven by personality and motivation (classic yokai lack any sort of motivational power), meaning that they’re far more separated from their origin creatures.
Other creatures of lore have followed similar patterns, evolving far from their original forms. Dragons, for example, were once considered creatures of pure evil in folktales, particularly due to their similarities to the serpent. Today’s stories often feature dragons fighting alongside heroes as creatures of good. Because of that, dragons are looked at as creatures that can be shaped either way (and that can be as heroic and righteous as their counterparts are vile).
Are yokai demons in disguise? The answer to that question lies in where you divide mythological lore and spirituality, and also whether or not you consider the renovated yokai of today’s media to be the “same creatures” as their ancient predecessors. Yokai are tied directly to Shintoism and its beliefs, and while they differ in a significant number of ways from Christianity’s understanding of demons, they do have some disturbing similarities—the ability to possess people and drive them to do evil, and the common instilling of fear, for example.
What do Christians need to know about Yo-Kai Watch?
Many critics have already drawn comparisons between Yokai Watch and Pokémon—a similar franchise that received condemnation from some Christian audiences. While Pokémon also has multiple creatures designed after yokai, Yo-Kai Watch’s creatures are directly inspired by yokai.
It’s important to note, too, that some of these yokai have disturbing mythos attached to them. Perhaps the most iconic yokai in the show, a cat-looking creature named Jibanyan, is modeled after the Nekomata—a yokai that’s universally malicious toward humans, eats them for lunch, and even has the power to control human corpses like puppets. The Inugami dog spirit has an even more disturbing lore, involving the torture and beheading of a canine in order to create an oft-times violent spirit for one’s protection and bidding.
These mythos are not included in the Yo-Kai Watch franchise, but the creatures’ histories are worth noting. Regardless, Yo-Kai Watch does feature frequent spiritual content, including possessions, exorcisms, summonings, and the reincarnation of living creatures into spirits.
For example, the Jinmenken/Manjimutt (human-faced dog) yokai in the series was once a human, but after a drunken stagger caused a pile of boards to fall on him and a nearby poodle (crushing them both), he became a yokai.
Another example: Jibanyan, the cat yokai, was once a regular cat before he was killed by a car, and now he seeks revenge on the vehicle. To attack the on-coming cars, he enters into bystanders and possesses them in order to get near the vehicle. At one point in the story, Nathan is possessed by a yokai, and Jibanyan tries to “summon” himself in order to save his friend.
The yokai in the series episodically possess people (called “inspiriting” in the English version), which causes unique effects to occur on them. For example, when the Igaigaguri yokai possesses an individual, it causes them to catch a cold. In episode 16 of the Yokai Watch show, a butterfly-like yokai named Ageageha possesses Nathan’s family, causing them to act abnormally excited and amazed about their vacation (a rainstorm dispels the effects later on). In the midst of combat, yokai can “possess” other yokai, causing ill effects that aid in achieving victory.
Sometimes the possession involves literally “entering” the individual, but other times it simply entails following the individual around or clinging to them. Less frequently, the term “possession” is used to describe the bond between a yokai and its “master.” The cat yokai, Jibanyan, refers to his bond with Nathan as a “possession,” for example.
A few of the yokai are shape shifters, such as the fox yokai, Kyyubi, who has the ability to take a human form. Despite being a male character, Kyyubi looks effeminate, both in fox and human form.
“Summoning” occurs frequently in the series. After Nathan befriends or defeats previously-neutral or mischievous yokai, the yokai give him a medal which allows Nathan to summon them in battle at will. Nathan inserts the respective, yokai-insignia medal into his watch, while telling the yokai to “come forth.”
Much like Pokémon, there’s also an “evolution” system in place, where yokai can transform into higher states either through acquiring special items or merging with other yokai.
Ultimately, all negative happenings (everything from uncontrolled gossip to teen delinquency), and some positive happenings, too, are shown to be a result of a yokai influencing an individual, and in that sense the series is rather “superstitious.” As the show’s intro explains, “All unexplained phenomena in the world are caused by yokai. How will encountering yokai impact your life?”
For example, in episode one of the Yo-Kai Watch anime, Nathan comes home to find his parents fighting—something he’s never seen occur before. Once he’s given the Yokai Watch by a ghost-like yokai named Whisper (whom Nathan previously freed from its 100+ year-old imprisonment by a monk who thought him “evil”), Nathan is able to see the large, sluggish yokai that is causing his parents to behave this way. Whisper even warns Nathan that extended exposure to the gloom-inducing yokai could result in his parent’s divorce.
It should be noted that good messages often come from these encounters, as well. In this instance, for example, Nathan learns that the yokai that is making his parents fight recently had a fight with her own husband and fears he no longer loves her. Nathan encourages her to talk to him, and the relationship is ultimately mended. It brings up a conversation about how even close people sometimes fight, and that it’s healthy and normal.
Also worth weighing in is that the franchise treats even darker subjects with exaggerated effects and levity. When Jibanyan is killed by a car, for example, the memory is brought back with embarrassing comedic effects, with Jibanyan’s continued attempts to “attack” cars resulting in the feline shooting sky-high from the impact. The spiritual content rarely “feels” threatening, and even controversial topics, such as possession, usually have comedic or cartoony portrayals.
Outside of spiritual content, the Japanese version of the Yo-Kai Watch anime contains depictions of drunkenness, crude humor (a human-faced dog can be heard urinating and gets arrested for doing it in public, for example), and some sexual content (in a comedic reel, Jibanyan is shown drooling over a cleavage-bearing poster of a human girl with cat ears). It’s very likely that much questionable content will be cut in the English, televised version on Disney XD.
Should I consume, or allow my children to consume, Yo-Kai Watch?
1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” As a Christian, the question you must ask yourself is, “Does a series like Yo-Kai Watch qualify as an ‘appearance of evil?’”
Here are some questions to ask yourself when making this decision. Please consider them from your personal perspective:
Are yokai (1) mythological creatures, or (2) demons by another name?
Is the religion of Shintoism (1) part of a culture’s heritage worthy of immersion and study, or (2) a false religion and thus something that should be avoided?
Like the modern-day dragons of Western culture, are yokai in the 21st century (1) different creatures altogether, merely inheriting the names and some characteristics of their forbearers or (2) still the same entities as their origin creatures, regardless of their physical transformations or cultural interpretations?
Lastly, and most importantly, how do you define “demons” based on the Bible’s examples and descriptions? How do yokai compare and differ to the Bible’s definitions of demons?
Like Pokémon before it, Yo-Kai Watch is a franchise that will no doubt receive mixed responses from Christian audiences. Some will see the series as reflective of the Japanese culture and therefore no more offensive or spiritually harmful than the Greek mythologies of old, or even that the yokai present in the Yo-Kai Watch series have little in common with their dark origin stories. Others will be troubled by the frequent “possessing” and other spiritual aspects of Yo-Kai Watch and its mythological origins, not to mention the show’s focus on communicating with “spirits.”
Those wishing to guide their children through the Yo-Kai Watch experience can use it as a conversation starter to discuss:
The differences between Christian demons and Japanese yokai
The dangers of tampering with demons or spirits
What the Bible says about demons and guarding our hearts and minds from evil