Like the shiro ukari, today’s yokai is one that started out just as an illustration. Unlike shiro ukari, though, nigawari originally didn’t even have a name to serve as a clue to its meaning. It started out as just a creepy looking phantom on 15th-16th century yokai scrolls.
It’s not hard to see why this particular guy was copied over and over by successive yokai painters. He looks absolutely hilarious, while simultaneously creepy and disgusting. Eventually, the name nigawarai was slapped on to this yokai, and from there the meaning became clear.
Nigawarai refers to a sarcastic or bitter smile in Japanese. The kind of laugh or smile that slips out by accident when something bad happens to someone you hate. The sarcastic snort you give when your racist uncle makes a joke you find offensive. All of those fake, bitter smiles that cause your stomach to turn as you hold down your bile—these are caused by nigawarai.
Yokai are often named or blamed for the bad things that humans do. It’s sort of the Japanese equivalent of “the devil made me do it.” So when you give a yokai a name like nigawarai, there’s an instantaneous understanding of what its intention is. It’s not quite a pun in the way that shiro ukari is, but there’s definitely an element of humor in it. Hey, maybe there’s a yokai for that feeling too! And even though he was originally an unnamed monster, I think that whoever finally named him found the perfect name to go with the illustration; this is pretty much exactly the way I would picture the embodiment of bitter laughter to look.
Click below to read all about nigawarai: