Bakekujira by Cori Nakamura Lin

Most of my work involves yōkai, the supernatural monsters, creatures, and spirits of Japanese myth and folklore. For four months, I followed the trail of these creatures in Japan. Here are some of my favorites. (All illustrations by my sister and frequent collaborator, artist Cori Nakamura Lin.)

Bakekujira

The ghost whale

Sometimes, on rainy nights, a glowing whale will appear close to the shores of fishing villages. Everyone will gather for the hunt, for a whale can feed the entire village for many moons. But the whale will escape all the harpoons, because it is not true whale but a bakekujira, a ghost whale. The ghost whale’s enormous floating skeleton glides through the waves, surrounded by schools of spectral fish and flocks of unearthly birds. The villagers know that the bakekujira is a soul of a whale they have previously killed–and they know that they will soon be plagued by disease. The whale’s revenge.

Rokurokubi

The pulley-necked woman

In the daylight, they look like normal women: hair black and sleek, bodies hidden behind the folds of their kimono. But at night, their necks stretch until they are as long and curling as tentacles. While the women’s bodies stay motionless in bed, their heads roam in search of lamp oil to drink. They need the oil the same way vampires need blood. 

Rokurokubi are formerly human women who have been cursed because of a sin or wrongdoing. Often, it is not the woman herself who committed the sin, but her husband–yet she bears the weight of his crime for all eternity.

Baku

The chimera

People plagued by nightmares search for the holy baku, the chimera that live deep in the forest. Though their appearance is odd–they are formed from parts of the elephant, the bear, the tiger, and other animals–they are symbols of good luck. The baku feed on bad dreams and keep evil at bay. It is said that the baku were created out of all the leftover parts when the gods were creating animals. The modern tapir, with its similar appearance, is also called baku in Japan.

Kitsune

The trickster fox

These wild foxes possess a fearsome magic, whose strength is matched by cunning and intelligence. Some kitsune are faithful and good, protecting humans and serving the god Inari. Others love mischief and guile; they can shape-shift into any form, including human. The number of tails on a kitsune signifies its age, and how much strength and wisdom it possesses. Many humans have been tricked into marrying kitsune.