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Saturday, January 06, 2018

An Introduction to Yōkai Culture: Monsters Ghosts and Outsiders in Japanese History

by Komatsu Kazuhiko (Author), Hiroko Yoda & Matt Alt (Translators)

Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (JPIC), 2017
ISBN: 978-4-916055-80-4
Hardback, 196 pp

This book is an example of the growing trend of translating academic Japanese texts into English. This is a trend to be welcomed, because it adds to the richness of the intercultural knowledge base, but this particular work is not without its frustrations.
Komatsu has tried to write an accessible cultural-anthropological guide to yōkai culture - the colourful folklore of Japan's monsters, ghosts and goblins that he rightly sees as embodying more general Japanese cultural beliefs - yet his style veers between curious non sequiturs of overgeneralization and an academic's fastidiousness that often results in him reeling off lists of academic articles likely unavailable in English.
The latter issue can be excused given the text's origins, but the former is a real barrier to readability. Here is one example. Having clearly described the general characteristics of one of the most well-known types of yōkai creature, the kappa, as "child-sized humanoids, with shells on their backs, and dish-shaped indentations atop their heads, filled with water", Komatsu then unnecessarily states: "On the other hand, a strange waterside presence without these characteristics would not have been identified as a kappa." But within a few sentences, this apparent truism is contradicted by another sweeping statement: "Any strange creatures that appeared in or around water were labeled kappa…."
Despite being accompanied by a handsome collection of illustrations, such confused prose frequently dulls the point of Komatsu's research, sadly limiting the appeal of this volume to only the most persistent yōkai fans. Such an introduction needs to be extensively reworked to be palatable for the English lay-reader. Instead, the average punter with an interest in Japan's eerie folk culture would do better to begin with the earlier work of Komatsu's translators Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, who put together the much more accessible guide Yōkai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.

Richard Donovan

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