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Fascinated with Ghosts


Yokai Connections

Aida Kazunari, Tokyo


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©You Sung Gil

A neighborhood in Tokyo's Edogawa ward is home to a company that specializes in a smart phone app about yokai-the ghosts, phantoms, and apparitions that grew out of Japans traditional culture-and organizes events about them. This is the Yokaiya, created by Aida Kazunari, a devotee of yokai since boyhood who found a way to pursue his passion as a business. Four years after the company's founding, we asked Aida to tell us what he has learned from his association with yokai culture.


©You Sung Gil

Memories from Boyhood

I think I first learned about yokai when I was in first or second grade. My family runs a sake brewery in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima prefecture. I often got in trouble around then for mischief like opening merchandise in the shop without permission, and the standard punishment was being shut up in the kura storehouse. The thick-walled, windowless building was locked from outside, and I might cry or scream, but no one would come and let me out. After I gave up protesting and quieted down, I would hear the wind in the cracks, the patter of skittering mice, and all sorts of other sounds. I always sensed the presence of something else, and it was really scary. Usually my kura sentence was only about 10 minutes or so, but it always seemed like an eternity.

What is most frightening for people is something totally strange or unfamiliar. Once they get to know about it, they feel calmer and safer. So, little boy though I was, I guess I wanted to overcome my fears. I got my parents to buy me a Yokai zukan, a picture book of yokai, and there it was-kurabokko, the yokai that lives in kura storehouses! After that I would pore over the Yokai zukan, and I soon knew all the names of the yokai and when and where they were likely to appear.

As I grew up, however, my interest in yokai gradually faded, and by the time I entered junior high school, I'd pretty much put a lid on that passion. It was still there, though, because after I became an adult, it made a comeback.


©You Sung Gil
Mizuki Shigeru, Ketteiban Nihon yokai taizen: Yokai, anoyo, kamisama (Definitive Compendium of the Yokai of Japan: Yokai, the Afterlife, Deities; Kodansha, 2014), bunko paperback edition.

Starting a Business with Yokai and IT

What rekindled my fascination with yokai was participation in a seminar on business start-ups held locally by Tokyo's Edogawa ward in 2013. After graduating from university, I had been working in the IT industry, mainly in the development of online financial software packages. I had begun to wonder whether IT was the only work I could really do when I joined the seminar. If I used my imagination, maybe I could put the experience I had already accumulated to use, finding another way to be useful in society. It was also around that time that I became a parent, and I started to think of moving into a business that would incorporate my IT knowhow and allow me to contribute to childrearing.

One day the seminar leader asked me, "Aida-san, what kinds of things do you like?" That made me think a bit, but I answered, "Well, when I was little, I loved yokai, and I know the names and characteristics of a lot of the yokai." To that the seminar leader replied, "You know, that could be a useful asset for starting up a business." After that, I began to think of what kind of business I could create combining my knowledge of yokai and IT. That was how I came to make the "Yokai Collection."

Developing the "Yokai Collection"


iPhone app "Yokai Collection"

The iPhone app "Yokai Collection," a game created using location information, was released even before "Pokemon Go"-though far surpassed by it. It introduces about 100 yokai appearing in various parts of Tokyo. For example, if you go to a certain smoking room, the "Kemutakaro" yokai will appear. It is ghost that has come into being because smokers are pushed into cramped corners to smoke. I leave the creation of these characters up to the illustrators in charge, but I go around the city myself, choose the places suitable for the appearance of specific yokai, and compile the location information that goes with each one in the app.


Ghosts in the "Yokai Collection"; Illustrator: Michi Yoko]
Left: "Kemutakaro" (Its-smoky-around-here Gramps), who is known to haunt smoking areas where smoking and non-smoking sections are not segregated.
Center: "Hanmebiraki" (Half-closed Eyes) is the mischief-maker lurking around when a photo is taken, making your eyes creepily half-closed when the shutter clicks, causing everyone to laugh at you when they see the photo.
Right: "Kozeniotoshi" (Change Returner) may be the culprit when the change you put into the vending machine keeps being returned as if the coins are rejected.

"Yokai Collection" was created as an entry to the Edogawa Ward Business Plan Contest, so its use of location information is a proposal for invigorating local business. Incorporating local traditions and stories, it could help promote tourist resources, be featured for the stamp rally run by the local shopping street, and various other uses. In the future, it could be utilized, in collaboration with travel agents, to plan yokai tours in different parts of the country. I hope I can start with such a tour of my home city, Aizu-Wakamatsu. We could have local grannies tell ghost stories and folktales and even have participants get a taste of the darkness and chilly air in a closed up kura storehouse, as I did when I was a boy.

Building Networks through Events


©You Sung Gil

Anyway, after that I actually did quit my company job and founded the Yokaiya company. Now I develop apps and manage in yokai illustration production and sales projects. That alone, however, does not generate much income, so I also undertake IT work on a freelance basis. To be honest, the idea of making a profitable business featuring yokai sometimes makes me pause. So for now, what I try to do is aim for projects that will be helpful to someone, somehow.

The important thing, I figure, is to create opportunities for people to meet in the real world. That idea is what led me to plan events on the theme of yokai and build an organization that can keep such projects on-going. I quite simply love the idea of people connecting with one another, and as a sort of personal mission, I think of bringing people together as more important than increasing the number of fans of yokai.

The "connecting people" mission is something that comes out of my own experience. There was a time when changes in my work environment led to a build-up of tremendous pressures and stress, and I began suffering from depression and various psychological problems. I took some time off, went back to my parents' home, and began taking medication. Then at one point I thought to myself, "Medicine is not what I need. I need other people to help me." After that, I stopped taking the medication, and slowly I began to open up and get myself back to health.

What rescued me that time was what you might call the "tolerance" of a woman who was then a good friend and is now my wife. She stuck by me through all those difficulties and made it possible for me to make a comeback as a working man.

That experience showed me clearly that what sustains us psychologically is our connections with other people. So, connecting people is the important thing, and yokai provide the medium, the catalyst that can bring them together.


©You Sung Gil

"Kurayami" Workshop Drawing on Primal Experiences

For example, I am now holding Kurayami ("complete darkness") workshops for parents and children (see page 5 for explanation), which are designed to stimulate children's imagination and intellectual curiosity. I learned from a friend who is studying brain science that when we go into a dark room, all our five senses are stimulated and our sensibilities are greatly enhanced. The theory makes perfect sense, I thought, recalling my own experience when I was shut up in the kura. The sounds I heard in the dark were what sparked my interest in yokai. While planning various events on the theme of yokai, I often experience the curious sense of returning to the original experiences of my boyhood.

One other purpose I have in mind is to have children feel the sense of security their mothers and fathers can provide. When a child is afraid, it is their parents they reach out to, and their fear is relieved after a tight hug from mother or father. I think it is good for parents as well, to experience the sense of security they can give to their frightened child.

Mirrors of Human Foibles


©You Sung Gil

When I was setting up the Yokaiya business, I had the rather vague idea of communicating the wonders of Japanese culture to children through yokai and getting them to love that culture so much they would want to explain it to people all over the world. Four years have passed since then. Through my association with yokai as a business I feel that I've actually learned a lot from these yokai characters themselves.

Eighty or 90 percent of yokai are creations of the human imagination. When accidents happened or things did not go as desired, people had a way of declaring that it was all the mischief of yokai. So, when we set out to find out more about yokai, we end up learning how people thought at the time a yokai was created, especially we gain an understanding of their weaknesses and faults.

The World We Can Aim at through Yokai

I tell the children who come to these workshops, "Sometimes it's important to admit our shortcomings, to show our weak side." And coming from the other direction, too, we need to cultivate "tolerance"-the willingness to accept the faults and weaknesses of the people around us. In our society today, school education tends to be very harsh and intolerant of weakness: "What's bad is just bad," they say. When a child fails at something, however, it's important for others to understand his or her standpoint, recognizing that they have experienced the same kind of thing and they know what it feels like to fail in the same way.

I want children to be willing to mingle with others and not be afraid to show their weak side. I want them to enjoy together the way they can open up their worlds by being accepting of others. That is the kind of message I hope to transmit to children through yokai.

In order to get that idea across, we need to maintain a continuity of such events and other projects and increase the venues for communicating such ideas. We have really only just gotten started. Recently, though, I get the strong feeling that my friends are cheering me on. My goodness, there might be a yokai right inside me!


©You Sung Gil

Kurayami Workshop in Photographs

Kurayami Workshop
This workshop is designed to have children and their parents experience "complete darkness" (kurayami), in which we get them to use all five senses to feel the presence of yokai. This helps them imagine what it was like back in the times before electric lights were invented when the yokai were first imagined and depicted.

"Kurayami" Experience
There in the complete darkness, the participants hear the sound of adzuki beans being washed (the sound emitted by the "Azukiarai" yokai), see the glow of a will-o'-the-wisp (hitodama) floating ahead of them, and feel the fear that rises when something soft brushes against their hands, neck, or face.
(The lights are then turned on and they can see where the sounds came from, what it was that floated glowing in the air, and what brushed softly over their hands.


©You Sung Gil

Ghost Stories
After the experience with complete darkness, a professional storyteller tells ghost stories (kaidan), helping to awaken the imagination of the participants, and then we have a short "What Is a Yokai?" talk to help them imagine what yokai look like.



©©You Sung Gil

Creating Yokai Workshop
The children are then encouraged to create their own original yokai, drawing with colored pencils or using other materials provided.




©You Sung Gil

Interview: July 2017
Compilation: Koga Amiko (Escript)
©The Japan Forum

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