I’m probably in a minority of Pokémon GO! players, in that I never watched the anime, or played the card game or the many video games while growing up. Only when the Niantic game came out in the summer of 2016 did I have my first real encounter with the world and mythology first created by a Tokyo game developer named Satoshi Tajiri in 1995.
But it wasn’t my first encounter with a certain breed of ghosts and monsters unlike any found elsewhere in the world: yōkai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore.
To define yōkai is like trying to reach out and grasp one: a slippery, ephemeral experience. They can be anything from ghosts to ogres, animal tricksters and shapeshifters, monsters to transformed humans, deities to diseases, even inanimate objects come to life. The folklore of yōkai is ancient, found in folktales and literature, in pop culture and old scrolls and woodblock prints.
And, it turns out, in iPhone AR games.
As ubiquitous as yōkai are, it would be surprising if Pokémon — or any kind of creature / monster mythology of Japanese origin, for that matter — did not incorporate some level of yokai folklore. It’s interesting to notice these origins, whether they’re super obvious like Shiftry and Ninetales, or much subtler like Slowbro and Exeggutor.
I’ve compiled a list of yokai that show up in some form in Pokémon GO!, as the game currently stands, having released three generations of the creatures. I will most likely have to update this list when more Pokémon are added: more likely sooner than later.
For now, this list can serve as an eye-opening glimpse into the macabre world of Japanese folklore for those who haven’t been inducted in the mysteries of yōkai. Or, for those who are already aware of them, an insight into yet another of the myriad ways that yōkai folklore has been adapted, expanded, and explored in the modern age.
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Tengu are semi-divine, semi-monstrous creatures that haunt the mountains of Japan. Their form is a blending of human and birdlike features: usually wings, and sometimes beaks. They are often tree-dwellers. Shiftry is based on the dai tengu (“great tengu”), the most powerful and wise of the tengu, which tend to be more human in appearance and less bird-like — although the long, sometimes bulbous nose remains a visible, if symbolic, indicator of their avian nature.
In this form, tengu usually wear the clothing and accessories of the yama-bushi, a type of hermetic Buddhist monk who trains and meditates in the mountains, away from the comforts of civilization. This association is clear in Shiftry’s sandals, which are the single-toothed geta worn by both the yama-bushi and the dai tengu. Another link is Shiftry’s leafy hands, an allusion to the ha-uchiwa (“feather fans”) wielded by tengu as a source of power that controls the winds.
I gave my Shiftry the nickname Sōjōbō, which is traditionally the king of the tengu.
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Though not as obvious as with Shiftry, Nuzleaf is definitely based on the ko tengu (“small tengu”), also called karasu tengu (“crow tengu”), which is the basic, more avian form of the creature. This connection is visible mostly in Nuzleaf’s long, pointed, beak-like nose, and in its relation to Shiftry. Like Nuzleaf, ko tengu is a lower form which only “evolves,” so to speak, after reaching an immense level of age and power.
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This yokai’s name means “two-mouth woman,” which gives a good idea of what she’s about. Stories about her often begin with pantries that are always bare regardless of how much food has been stored up. After a while someone will discover that one of the women in the house is really a futakuchi onna, who eats normally during meals but at night comes out to raid the house’s stores and eat them with her second, hidden mouth, attached to the back of her skull. Often her long hair will form tendrils that help her feed.
Mawile seems to illustrate these ghostly origins pretty well. In Pokémon GO!, she’s nearly always seen with her back to the player, or to her Pokémon opponents. When battle begins, her long ponytail opens up to reveal a fearsome, gaping jaw.
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Kyubi no Kitsune
While kitsune is the Japanese term for a fox, kyūbi no kitsune is specifically a nine-tailed fox.
The fox itself is such a central figure in Japanese folklore that it’s impossible to do it justice in the scope of a short article. Foxes are among the many animals traditionally believed to be capable of shapeshifting and incredibly long life. As a fox grows older and more powerful, it can grow more tails. The oldest and most powerful foxes have nine. (This progression in power is seen in the evolution of Vulpix, which has only six tails, into Ninetales, which of course has nine.)
The typing of these two Pokémon reflects the Japanese lore that foxes are capable of producing fire (kitsune bi), seen famously in Hiroshige’s famous woodblock print Foxes Meeting at Oji. This is one of the many varieties (in the folklore of cultures worldwide, not just Japanese) of ghostly fire.
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This one is pretty obvious, since they are visually so similar: the segmented body and tail, the two clawed arms, the lack of legs, and flying as the primary means of transportation. Oddly, amikiri have a penchant for using their claws to cut nets, which is actually the literal meaning of their name.
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Slowbro is less obvious. While its main component, the vacuous pink bear, seems to bear little resemblance to the horrifying seashell woman of Japanese folklore, the real connection is the shell itself. Slowbro’s tail-eating shell is a spiraling chamber covered with spikes, just like the sazae snail (Turbo cornutus) that the yokai is based on. Slowbro’s water typing also suggests a connection with sazae oni, which of course is a type of water demon.
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A legendary being based on the tapir, a real animal native to Asia, the baku is known as the eater of dreams. Generally a positive creature, it can be summoned by children to either avoid nightmares, or to devour ones that one has just awakened from. It’s thought to be a symbol of good luck, guardianship, and protection of the weak.
A darker side to the baku is seen in in lore that if it is summoned too often it can devour hopes and dreams as well as nightmares, if it remains hungry enough afterward.
Either way, it’s easy to see how both baku and Drowzee are based on the tapir, and why Drowzee has a psychic typing.
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Jinmenju, or ninmenju, are trees that have human heads for fruits, which are capable of smiling and laughter. The heads continue to laugh even after they fall from the tree itself, an image which parallels the official Pokémon lore that Exeggcute is formed from heads that have fallen from Exeggutor.
If you doubt that Exeggutor comes from the jinmenju, take a look at Shigeru Mizuki’s illustration of this yokai. It’s pretty hard to deny the resemblence there.
The fact that Exeggutor takes the form of a palm tree, specifically, is fitting when you consider that the folklore behind these trees originally comes from the Arab world. The fruit of the jinmenju is also said to be both sweet and sour.
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This one may not be as obvious, as Jynx bears more superficial resemblance to certain stereotypically racist depictions of black women than to an old mountain hag. But Google “yamanba fashion” and you’ll start to see the connection. This trend usually involves artificially darkening one’s skin — in a very blatant way, not simply a spray-on tan — as well as lighter hair and colorful makeup, all of which upend traditional Japanese beauty ideals of the pale, dark-haired woman. It’s this inversion of the ideal that forms the connection between yamanba fashion (and Jynx’s appearance) and the yokai which served as its namesake.
Yamanba are old hags that live in the mountains of Japan. If a traveler comes upon its lonely hut, it will invite them in and give them hospitality, only to reveal their true nature when their guests fall asleep and are at the yamanba’s mercy.
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As with the fox and many other animals, cats in Japanese folklore can have supernatural abilities if they are old and powerful enough. Yōkai cats, called bakeneko generically, can be benign creatures; but nekomata in particular are often hostile. They can generate fire, control corpses, and even kill and devour humans.
The distinct feature of the nekomata is its split tail, and this is where the connection to Espeon comes in. While Espeon (and the rest of the Eeveelution family) is not necessarily feline in nature, Espeon specifically has the dual tail, suggesting a similar kind of acquired power to the bakeneko and nekomata — appropriate for its psychic typing.
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Kama itachi, literally “sickle weasels,” live in cold, mountainous places where they travel in threes and form whirlwinds, attacking people as they pass, then using a magical salve to heal the wounds they have caused. This yōkai is probably an explanation for the way a cold, icy wind feels like it cuts one’s skin even though no apparent damage has been done.
Sneasel is, of course, a weasel with very prominent (if not exactly sickle-like) claws, reflecting the typical depiction of kama itachi in folk art. Even the name Sneasel, a portmanteau of “sneeze” and “weasel,” suggests a connection with wind that is appropriate for the kama itachi, as is the Pokémon’s ice typing.
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The chochin obake in the art above (which actually depicts three different types of tsukumogami) is the hanging lantern in the top right corner.
Though Duskull resembles the chochin obake’s basic shape more, Dusclops is clearly the closer in overall looks. Duskull, with its single eye of flame (even though there are two eye holes, it’s clear there’s only one tongue of fire behind them), is quite clearly a lantern. The connection to Dusclops is seen in the single eye and the horizontally-striped body, reminiscent of Japanese paper lanterns.
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Despite the lack of visual similarity, Suicune’s official description contains some clear links to its kirin roots.
Suicune embodies the compassion of a pure spring of water. It runs across the land with gracefulness. This Pokémon has the power to purify dirty water.
Kirin, which is based on a Chinese legendary animal, is a creature of holiness, goodness, and purity. It is so gentle, in fact, that it floats through the air rather than walk on the ground, having too much compassion to injure even a single blade of grass.
Though Suicune is one of the Legendary Dogs, while kirin are usually portrayed with more of a deerlike form, both creatures possess horns or antlers, and the kirin’s flowing tail and mane could be the inspiration for Suicune’s undulating white tails.
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Yuki Warashi / Yukinbo
A less commonly known yōkai , yuki warashi or yukinbo are both names that essentially mean “snow child.” However, the two names go with two different stories. Yuki warashi is a child-sized snowman built by an old, lonely, childless couple, which comes to life, lives with them in happiness, then melts when spring comes. Yukinbo, however, is a one-legged yōkai who hops in circles around trees, explaining the natural phenomenon of why tree wells form.
These yōkai appear as pale children wearing traditional snow jackets made of straw, which have pointed hoods so that the snow cannot build up on top of them. This is one relationship that’s quite apparent, at least visually.
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As kappa are among the most iconic yōkai out there, it’s a little surprising that there wasn’t a kappa-inspired Pokémon until Generation 3. Green-skinned, with the body of a child and the beak and shell of a turtle, kappa are river creatures whose interactions with people are ambivalent at best. They will often drown children and eat them, but they like cucumbers, too, which may sometimes placate them if you have one handy.
The lilypad-like dish atop Lombre’s head is a reference to a key aspect of kappa lore. These yōkai have a bowl-like impression on the top of their heads which they must always keep filled with water, the source of their power. Kappa can be defeated if you bow to them, since they have to return the gesture, causing the water from their head dish to spill, and thus making them nearly helpless. Every stage of this Pokémon’s evolution cycle — Lotad, Lombre, and Ludicolo — has some kind of a dishlike head feature.
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Another creature based in Chinese mythology, the hakutaku is a monstrous nine-eyed ox that lives in the mountains, with horns and a second face embedded in each of its sides. They are good and holy creatures and only appear when a good ruler is in power. Hakutaku are thought to be all-knowing. In one story, a hakutaku warned of a coming plague and provided talismans against the disease.
Not only does Absol bear a strong resemblance to the hakutaku, its official description borrows heavily from the yōkai’s lore: “Every time Absol appears before people, it is followed by a disaster such as an earthquake or a tidal wave.” Though this is a reversal of the hakutaku — suggesting Absol has a role in causing disaster, rather than warning against it — the connection nonetheless seems pretty clear.
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It’s pretty hard to argue that Ho-Oh isn’t based on the hō-ō, or hōō (same pronunciation, just different romanizations). It’s quite literally right there in the name. Yet another originally Chinese creature, the hō-ō is a sacred bird associated with fire, the sun, and the Japanese imperial family. Just as Ho-Oh is said to bring happiness to those who encounter it, the sight of a hō-ō is a good omen, portending peace, prosperity, and justice in the land. It is never seen during times of conflict. Like kirin, the hō-ō refuses to harm any living thing, and only eats bamboo seeds.
The hō-ō represents duality, the balance and flow of yin and yang. While Ho-Oh itself contains no echo of this lore, it is often paired with another Pokémon, Lugia, which is a being of water and night — in many ways the exact reverse of Ho-Oh. One might say, the yin to Ho-Oh’s yang.
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Another Pokémon whose appearance seems to have been borrowed whole-cloth from yōkai lore, Dunsparce has a legless body and tiny wings. While tsuchinoko‘s appendages seem more like flippers than wings, the link is still clear. These snakelike yōkai have bodies that are fatter in the middle, with a tapering tail and a discernible neck. This basic structure is apparent in the segmented Dunsparce as well.
The usual translation of tsuchinoko’s name is “earth child,” which makes sense as snakes slither on the ground; but an alternate meaning is “hammer child,” perhaps suggesting another link to Dunsparce, whose tail is apparently a drill.
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While Rayquaza is also based on the Hebrew monster called Ziz, its appearance clearly also draws on the Eastern dragon, or tatsu. In countries like China and Japan, dragons are not creatures of fire, but of water and air, and are known not for their villainy as in the west, but for their great wisdom. They also appear more like serpents than giant winged lizards, and often have no wings at all, whether they fly or not.
Rayquaza is part of the Weather Trio or Elemental Trio: Groudon governs the earth, Kyogre the water, and Rayquaza controls the air. Dragons are often believed to dwell in the heavens, as they are creatures of order, so Rayquaza’s atmospheric dominion isn’t surprising.
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Much like Rayquaza, Gyarados is based on the Sino-Japanese image of the dragon. Where Rayquaza reflects the dragon’s air aspects, Gyarados reflects its water aspects. (Again, dragons in the East are not typically not creatures of fire.) The fact that it takes 500 candies to evolve a Magikarp to a Gyarados in the game also hints toward the dragon’s immense level of age, power, and wisdom in Japanese folklore.
Wani are dragonlike sea monsters. One of the most famous is the Dragon King, Ryūjin, who rules the palace at the bottom of the sea where Urashima Tarō is taken in a popular Japanese folktale.
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Basan are large, chicken-like birds found only in Shikoku in Japan. They breathe fire and only eat charred wood and embers, especially from bonfires, although they shun the company of humans.
All of which draws a pretty clear arrow to Magmar, a fire type chicken-like Pokémon rarely seen in the game, whose head and tail give off flames of their own.
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Zigzagoon is a small and common Generation 3 Pokémon with bushy fur and mask-like markings around its eyes. While its name might suggest a closer link to the raccoon, the official Japanese description of Zigzagoon is mame danuki, the name for a type of small tanuki which covers itself in its massive, expanding scrotum in order to shapeshift — or sometimes just to get out of the rain.
Along with the tengu and kappa, tanuki are among the most well-known of all yōkai, probably due to their trickster nature and ability to transform into an unlimited number of forms, from humans to giants and monsters, and sometimes even inanimate objects like teapots. According to folklore, they have voracious appetites and a weakness for sake (perhaps why Zigzagoon can’t seem to travel in a straight line?).
The tanuki is actually a real animal (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus), often appearing in older translations of stories as “raccoon” or “badger,” though it is neither; it’s actually a member of the dog family.
The artist of most of the images in this article is Matthew Meyer, whose website, Yokai.com, is a highly-recommended, thoroughly-researched guide to the monsters, ghosts, and creatures of Japanese folklore. Used with permission of the artist.