Academic Book Review: Pandemonium and Parade

Review: Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai
Michael Dylan Foster (University of California Press, 2009)
By A. Johnson

Both fascinating and vexingly diffuse, Michael Dylan Foster’s Pandemonium and Parade is an important contribution to the small body of scholarship in English on the phenomenon of Japanese yokai. Diffuse, because it addresses the conceptualization of yokai from the eighteenth century through the twenty-first, touching on the disciplines of natural history, literature, folklore, and history, and fascinating because it somehow succeeds, despite its unwieldiness, in offering readers an effective introduction to yokai as well as a compelling analysis of four particular manifestations of yokai during that period. Among the book’s virtues is its introduction of untranslated Japanese research to English-language readers and its movement among an enviable range of disciplines.

Using four extended cultural “moments,” Foster links a particular efflorescence of yokai to a particular area of study: natural history, science, museums, and contemporary media. He argues that yokai discourse at these moments was “especially prominent and characteristic of wider cultural concerns” (4). Rather than making a fully-elaborated argument about yokai as representative of Japanese national identity, however, Foster’s central project is the deceptively simple one of developing a way of talking about the slippery creatures operate under the banner of yokai.

“Yokai” was not always—and to some degree still isn’t—a clear-cut category of creature. They have, for example, been linked to monsters, ghosts, demons, and kami, among others. Yanagita Kunio identified yokai as “fallen” kami, while Komatsu Kazuhiko as unworshipped kami (15 review). But yokai are delightfully, sometimes creepily, simultaneously all and none of these, something utterly other. Foster argues that yokai are partly “a vocabulary for articulating” the human emotion of fear, “a process similar to the production of a metaphor” (11, 12). And yet, yokai also incorporate a tension between the fearful and the comic. Foster describes them as “supernormal” rather than supernatural, “within the bounds of the ‘natural’ but still out of the ordinary” (16).
As Foster points out, the “history of yokai is very much the history of efforts to describe and define the object being considered” (2). Indeed, attempts to define yokai often result in lists of examples. Foster argues that “ultimately, a list may be the only possible answer: the meaning of yokai, their very existence, comes only with naming, listing and organizing and the implicit interpretation such practices demand” (12). Thus, the first efflorescence Foster examines uses the lens of natural history, describing eighteenth-century encyclopedias and catalogs of yokai.

For eighteenth-century scholars, what is most satisfying about Foster’s book is the extensive discussion of Toriyama Sekien’s Gazu hyakkiyagyo (1712 – 1788), a four-volume encyclopedia-cum-catalog of yokai, and its creative milieu. Hyakkiyago translates roughly as “night procession of one hundred demons,” a tradition that goes back to at least the thirteenth century in which the “unseen (unseeable) is transformed into a spectacle” (10). Not only is the late eighteenth century the high point of yokai popularity before their twentieth-century resurgence, but, Foster argues, it is the moment yokai become a separate category of creature, distinct from demons, more substantial than ghosts.

It is Sekien’s catalogs that provide the clearest example of Foster’s claim about yokai, that they combine “two seemingly contradictory modes of discourse, the ‘encyclopedic’ and the ‘ludic’”—the respective parade and pandemonium of the book’s title. Foster’s examination of yokai in this chapter, “Natural History of the Weird: Encyclopedias, Spooky Stories, and the Bestiaries of Toriyama Sekien,” does not encompass all Tokugawa-period attitudes towards yokai, but it does offer an excellent introduction to Sekien’s version. And since, in addition to his hyakkiyago’s own worth, Sekien’s yokai have been incredibly influential ever since their first appearance, this section is particularly valuable. Foster focuses on Sekien’s works rather than pursuing a historical or materialist avenue of investigation—the relationship between yokai and the developing sense of a Japanese nation, a complex narrative involving both the Chinese heritage of a significant amount of yokai lore, as well as the encyclopedic compulsion; the place of yokai catalogs within the bustling industry of books; or the catalogs’ relationship to contemporary poetry, for example. The chapter opens up these and many other intriguing areas ripe for research in English, but does well sticking to ground it can effectively cover.

Among the notable aspects of Sekien’s catalogs are that they are of specifically Japanese creatures and that each one of those creatures is presented separately, an entry, rather than part of a parade. Sekien, like previous compilers, pulls together “previous documentation, folklore, and his own observations to flesh out his entries” (62). These entries move from “straightforward” in the first volumes to “circuitous and witty commentary” in the latter, in which he even offers some yokai of his own imagining (70). Foster argues that it is also Sekien’s catalogs in which we can observe yokai “progress[ing] from abstract phenomena to more concrete beings, from strange occurrences to strange things.” An example of this shift is Sekien’s visualizing of yanari, a “phenomenon of mysterious sounds emit[ing] from a house.” In Sekien’s drawing, yanari become “tiny anthropomorphic creatures rattling the outer walls of a house” (62). In addition to this concretizing of previously unknowable phenomena, Sekien also synthesizes yokai from different regions, making them more “Japanese” and less locally specific.

According to Foster, “The yokai Sekien shaped or fabricated are members of a distinctly Japanese pantheon of weird creatures, specifically suited to the Japanese landscape, and the encyclopedic mode he toyed with has become the standard format for their articulation” (74). We can see this in the eighteenth-century yokai karuta, a memorization card game in which the goal is identifying yokai based on a description of their characteristics, to the twentieth-century phenomenon of Pokémon.

In English:

Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan (U of CP, 1995)

Gerald Figal, Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan (Duke, 1999)

Noriko Reider, Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present (Utah SUP, 2010)

Works Cited

Figal, Gerald. “Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai (review).” The Journal of Japanese Studies. 36:1 Winter 2010: 158 – 162.

Shimazaki, Satoko, “Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai (review).” Monumenta Nipponica 64:2 Autumn 2009: 405 – 408.

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