There’s a little debate as to what specifically constitutes a “yokai.” A lot of times I will propose an idea, and my wife will yell at me, “That’s not a yokai!” And I’ll come back with, “Well Wikipedia says it is!” or some other lame retort. Wikipedia’s reliability aside, there are so many different kinds of supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore — yokai, obake, yurei, kami, demons, urban legends, and other supernatural/legendary creatures that don’t fit into specific categories — coming from so many different sources — Chinese folklore, Japanese folklore, Buddhism, Shintoism, made up by authors or artists — that it would probably be impossible to accurately catalog them all. And the fact is, while a lot of Japanese people today would say that such-and-such is technically not a yokai, many of the famous centuries-old yokai bestiaries have specifically referred to non-yokai as yokai, adding to the confusion.
So I just want to make a disclaimer now that some of these creatures may technically not be yokai; some may be ghosts, some may be kami, and other may just be legendary beasts. Today’s is a perfect example of such a “yokai.”
This bird goes by a number of different names. It is often translated as a kind of phoenix, however that’s not exactly accurate because there are two other birds which go by that name over here (the fushicho, and the Middle-Eastern phoenix which we are familiar with). Wikipedia refers to it in English with an Anglification of its Chinese name, fenghuang, or as the Chinese phoenix. Technically probably not a yokai, this legendary bird comes to Japan through Chinese mythology.
The hou-ou is a very rare and regal bird. It represents virtue, grace, and the imperial line. Physically, it is a kind of chimera. It is said to have a bird’s beak, a swallow’s jaw, and a snake’s neck. The front half of its body is said to resemble a giraffe, the back half a deer. Its back resembles a tortoise’s shell, and its tail is like that of a fish. Its body symbolizes the six celestial bodies: the head is the sky, the eyes are the sun, the back is the moon, the wings are the wind, the feet are the earth, and the tail is the planets. Its feathers contain the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, blue and yellow. It is also sometimes depicted as having three legs! It’s quite a popular motif in older Japanese art, and you can see perhaps Japan’s most famous hou-ou on the roof of Byodo-in temple, also known as Phoenix Hall, in Kyoto. That same hou-ou is also printed on the back of the 10,000 yen note, so you know it’s a famous symbol.
Its name is also quite interesting. Originally hou-ou was two different birds: the hou and the ou (or in Chinese, the feng and the huang). The hou was the male bird and the ou was the female bird. Together they represented the union of yin and yang, masculinity and femininity, good and evil; cosmic balance. At some point, they merged into one single bird. At least in China, each part of the hou-ou’s body symbolizes a specific concept: the head represents virtue, the wing represents duty, the back represents propriety, the abdomen represents belief, and the chest represents mercy. I’m not sure exactly how much of this symbology continues today in Japan, but I would imagine that when the hou-ou was initially imported it carried as much importance in Japan as it did (and still does) in China.
Alright, week 1 is finished! The first 7 yokai of the month! Tomorrow I will bring you number 8, and I will put the first week’s worth of yokai up on my Etsy store as signed, matted prints.