Yo-Kai Watch and Contextual Demons

August has been a month for discussing context here at Beneath the Tangles, and I highly recommend looking at both articles recently written on this subject: Annalyn’s article about historical/cultural context, and Kaze’s article about man’s context VS God’s context. Here, I’ll be adding my humble contribution and completing the proverbial “Context Trinity.”

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Growing up in the 90s, while attending a private/Christian school, I received my first taste of franchise demonizing. The school faculty sent out word that anything Pokémon—be that lunchboxes, trading cards, action figures, or even roleplaying during recess—would henceforth be banned at the school on account of the series’ demonic influence and focus on evolution.

Fifteen years later, I’m witnessing the advent of Yo-Kai Watch, a game-turned-anime-and-manga franchise about a boy with the ability to see and tame yokai with the help of a magical Yokai Watch. The new series has already overtaken Japanese audiences (and surpassed Pokémon—its spiritual predecessor—in popularity), with an official Western release scheduled for the games and anime next year.


Recently, I saw a post on my Facebook feed that I couldn’t scroll past. A fellow Christian acquaintance had posted about Yo-Kai Watch, warning other Christians that it was demonic and that children should stay away from it. They referenced an article written by Gamesradar+, which stated, “There’s a real playfulness to each of the [yokai’s] designs, most of which are based on Japanese folklore demons, otherwise known as yokai.”

That terrible word “demon” is like a red flag to Christians. I can understand why reading this single article about the series might raise serious concerns in someone’s mind, but this particular Christian was mistaken in that they assumed the word “demon” was cross-cultural—that Eastern and Western demons were compatible entities.

The truth is, though, that the word “yokai” does not precisely equate to “demon” (though “demon” is often the translation of choice when Japanese franchises are brought to English-speaking audiences). In fact, many agree that the closest possible translation is “mysterious phenomena,” but given the wordiness of that, “demon” is much more practical and invokes a sort of “fierceness” that alternative choices like “fairy” or “spirit” might not.

Having spent some time researching this particular aspect of Japanese lore, I’ve concluded that yokai are much closer kin to the baleful Fair Folk of European tales or the dryads and other mythological creatures of Greek mythology than they are to Satan’s henchmen. (If you want my full analysis on the subject, please check out my article over at Geeks Under Grace.) What’s ultimately important, though, is that assuming yokai to be the same as the demons found within Scripture is to overlook their original context.

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I think, as anime fans, we’re exposed to this concept of context more than many other sub-cultures around us. Consuming anime introduces us to a manner of viewing the world that is different than our culture’s own. For example, most of us understand the significance of a “nosebleed” in anime, while first-time viewers might think the character is suffering from a brain hemorrhage rather than a romantic infatuation.

On a more serious level, though, we’re also exposed to words like “yokai,” which are literally demonized in our native tongue, much to the fear-mongering of uninformed Christian consumers. The reason? Context. To Christians, the word “demon” carries with it a context of evil or Satanism, and when a nigh un-translatable word like “yokai” is converted to “demon,” we immediately raise our red flags, not realizing that much of our speculation comes from a contextual error; namely, that yokai and demons, at least on a rudimentary level, are by no means the same thing.

It’s said that people fear what they don’t understand. I often see this in practice within Christian circles, where anything resembling magic is condemned, sometimes without any real research and only the most biased of sources used as “proof.”

That’s not to say that some concern isn’t warranted. Ultimately, I can’t determine what’s right for anyone besides myself, and I fully respect those who have done their research and decided to abstain from something because of their findings. Those who research yokai, for example, and find them spiritually troubling are better stewards of context than those who merely see the word “demon” and do nothing to seek out the truth behind its conceptual use. Ignorance is not a shield that we can afford to hide behind, especially as Christians. Doing so undermines our credibility and makes us appear closed off, rather than open-armed, to the world at large (see John 17:16).

So why is it so important to keep a strong focus on context? Because beyond offering accurate comprehension of a subject matter, context is key in relating to others. Jesus understood this principle and frequently used it when connecting with those around Him in order to spread His teachings. In the book of Matthew, for example, Christ explains how riches and worldly goods can distract us from heavenly things:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)

Notice that Jesus uses metaphors that His audience understands. Despite having all knowledge, Christ doesn’t say “It is easier for the Milky Way to go through the rings of Saturn, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Instead, he references objects that everyone in his audience can connect with: camels and needles. This way, His application can be grasped by those He’s speaking to.

If we want to connect with others, we must first pinpoint where they’re coming from: what parental, cultural, religious, and societal contexts are they living within? How successfully we befriend and comprehend others depends upon how intimately we’re able to relate to them (and how genuine our efforts are in the process).

On a spiritual level, understanding another person’s context is also the key to sharing our Faith with them. We’re often able to bridge our differing contexts with something we have in common—something we can both reference. For those who regularly read Beneath the Tangles, that “something” is likely anime. Perhaps a concept like grace or unconditional love is a difficult matter to explain to someone unfamiliar with the Christian Faith, but compare those concepts with anime characters like Naruto Uzumaki or Kaori Miyazono or Vash the Stampede, and suddenly the lights come on. Gearing our messages and discussions toward another person’s context is a method that Christians have been using since the time of Christ—a method, in fact, that the four Gospels use quite proficiently.

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Anime like Death Note, which features multiple allusions to Christianity, can be excellent contextual points for spiritual truths.

Several books in the Bible are written entirely from a contextual standpoint. Once this context is grasped, the books can be even more accurately understood. For example, Mark is written to a primarily non-Jewish audience, which is why his book takes the time to explain certain Jewish customs and uses more common language than the other four Gospels; compared to the other Gospels, Mark’s book is also much more fast-paced, filled with miracles and action that would hold the interest of those who did not relate with the teachings of Christ on a religious level. Oppositely, the Gospel of Matthew is written to Jews, and thus takes a much more Jewish perspective, detailing important lineage and pointing out references to the Torah within Christ’s teachings.

All too often, we Christians try to force spiritual truths upon people who have no contextual grounds for grasping them. When we do that, though, we force people away. (People fear what they do not understand, remember?) Then, rather than try to meet people where they are and understand their contexts, we condemn them as “lost” without daring to bridge the gap between us.

The Bible warns that some truths can be harmful to those who are not spiritually mature enough for them, and compares those who are young in their Faith to babies that must consume milk for nourishment (1 Peter 2:2). We don’t put steak on a baby’s plate and expect him/her to eat it (in fact, this could be very dangerous for one so young). In much the same way, we should not expect non-Christians (or even newborn Christians) to be able to grasp heavier spiritual truths right away, and we would do well to realize that trying to force such weighty, spiritual truths on others could do more harm than good.

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The Yo-Kai Watch anime will be airing on the Disney channel sometime next year.

Likewise, when we immediately throw up our red flags and shut away anything and anyone—people and entertainment alike—that rubs us the wrong way without attempting to understand them, we only do ourselves, and our Savior, a disservice. Christ was not above ministering to people of all spiritual backgrounds, comprehensions, and contexts, trying to relate to them on their level. Certainly, we cannot do better that.

Looking back at Pokémon, I see that some of the assumptions made by Christians led to the franchise being demonized on a boarder level. I hope that, with the advent of Yo-Kai Watch, Christians will do a double-take and question whether or not their concerns with the franchise are truly valid by biblical standards.

But regardless of whether the new franchise is accepted or shunned by individual Christians, I don’t believe that anyone on either side has the right to claim ignorance or “assumption,” just as we do not have the right to remain ignorant or “assume” when it comes to reaching out to those around us and trying to connect with them on a contextual level.

16 thoughts on “Yo-Kai Watch and Contextual Demons

  1. I was indeed going to say that I don’t know of a direct Japanese analogue for Western “demons” in the sense of servants of the devil or fallen angels. But I think that term’s definition is easy to get mixed up across contexts. I think Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass / His Dark Materials) — http://www.philip-pullman.com/questions-frequently-asked/ — might have also had some controversy over his use of the term “daemons”*, which I define in the sense of “familiars.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/familiar

    * When I see “dAemons,” I think not of Satanic demons but the Greek term: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemon_(classical_mythology) (topless-woman-painting warning, not sure if that bothers you or not, but I have seen some people complain over what to me is not inherently perverse)

    Blessings to you!

    1. I agree. “Yokai” is perhaps the most “misinterpreted” word when it comes to localization, largely because anything that cannot be explained is considered a yokai–literally everything from Godzilla, to Kitsune, to resurrected spirits, to sudden earthquakes or “UFOs.” Many scholars believe that “mysterious phenomena” is the perhaps the most accurate translation, but that’s neither impressive nor concise when it comes to English dubs, haha.

      I’ve yet to read the His Dark Materials series, but I recall a lot of controversy rising from that as well, especially around the time the movie was released for The Golden Compass. I can’t give a personal opinion on the matter because of that, but I remember hearing a lot about the “daemons” in the story being “demons.” While, again, this could easily be a matter of mistaken contextual use, I also recall Christians having issues with the series because it ultimately advocated diecide and humanism, where the main characters are on a quest to “kill god” either figuratively or literally. I haven’t read the series, so I can’t say, but that’s what I recall hearing.

      Thank you for the links to the “daemons” article. That definitely seems closer to the true definition of a “yokai” or “daemon” in that it is not a universally evil spirit, but a supernatural being on a wider moral spectrum (much like the guardian spirits or spirit animals of Native American lore).

      Blessings to you, as well, and thank you for taking the time to read and leave such a thoughtful comment. I’ve learned something new 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading, commenting, and reblogging! That’s the highest honor for a piece of writing, I think 🙂

      This is the first time I’ve come across the word “akuma” but, after doing a quick search, I see that it does relate closely to what we in the West would consider a demon or devil. It’s not listed in the yokai database, so perhaps that’s further proof that our perception of “demons” are even further apart from yokai.

      I believe perhaps the closest thing yokai has to our version of “demons” is the Oni, essentially really wicked humans who die, end up in one of the Buddhist Hells, and are reincarnated into servants of the ruler of Hell. I believe there are other creatures similar to the Oni, as well, though the Oni is probably the most well-known among them.

      1. Your welcome! ^^
        It makes me happy that it makes you happy XDD
        Yes, ‘Akuma’ are quite different from ‘Yokai’. In some context it even does mean ‘devil’ as far as I know but I’m not really sure.
        Oh yeah Oni. Those are really bad. But I didn’t know about that ‘servants of hell’ thing. Thanks to you I learned something new today! :3

  2. Yeah, in a lot of contexts “Akuma” literally means “The Devil,” or sometimes “king of demons,” because “aku” just means “evil.” Kind of like how “Mara” almost works in Indian subcontinent languages because it refers to the Buddhist personification of illusion and worldly ways, literally bread and circuses.

    “Yokai” definitely refers to a more impish, Fae-like kind of spirit than “akuma” would. Calling them “demons” as a Christian understands the word would definitely be a mistake, but it comes of Christianity stating that only either good or evil spirits exist. Many cultures tend to interpret certain spirits as neither good or evil, but instead as liminal Trickster-esque beings who might do good or evil things depending on their (Often completely incomprehensible by human standards) goals.

    The “Trickster god, manipulator entities” explicitly being evil in Judeo-Christian religions (And Satanic figures in media quite often take on the physical and mental characteristics of tricksters) is something I’ve come to rather disagree with anyway, but that’s an issue of doctrine and not semantics.

    1. Akuma is definitely something I’ll look into for additional research. At the very least, it seems there’s a clear distinction between “akuma” and “yokai,” which are, as you very well said, “impish, Fae-like kinds of spirits.”

      The observation of good and evil is one I’ve also made in the past, and it’s something that greatly confused and unsettled me when I first began looking into anime. Growing up in a Christian home, I’d been taught about absolute good and absolute evil in terms of the spiritual realm. Christianity has no “go-between” or “grey” area when it comes to spirituality. Humans, of course, are painted in a much more grey light, but that comes from the Christian belief that humans are constantly in a war between their flesh and spiritual sides (which creates an individual who strives to practice morality, but often falls into a trap of sin). Even so, Christ once said that being “lukewarm” is the most abominable of all, and that He’d prefer we either follow Him entirely or turn away from Him entirely as opposed to following Him in a spiritually grey lifestyle (where our Faith becomes contextual depending upon our environment and life events). See Revelation 3:16.

      In anime, though, you more often have spirits who seem “evil” from a Christian standpoint (because they possess or torment an individual, or cause mischief), but are actually “neutral” instead (take the Nine-Tailed Fox Spirit in Naruto for example). When I began to research Japanese culture, I discovered more about their view of spirituality, and how the spiritual realm often has a grey tint to it. Contextually, this helped me better appreciate anime, and kept me from throwing up a “red flag” every time something spiritual “grey” popped up in a franchise.

      Very insightful. Thank you for taking the time to read and leave such a thoughtful comment.

  3. Thank you so much for the article I hope people would learn to understand that Yo-Kai-Watch is based off Japanese Folklore and not our own beliefs.

    1. I think that discernment is different for each person, and also something we “grow” into as we mature spiritually. Each person has their own form of stumbling block, and they should be cautious in engaging media that entertains that stumbling block. There’s no shame in a Christian deciding that Yokai Watch isn’t right for them or their children, but I think that looking into the “why’s” behind our media choices is a vital step we can’t afford to overlook. As is the case with Yokai Watch, sometimes our beliefs may not be in as much “danger” as we first assume, if given a little research. Yokai Watch is based on Japanese folklore. That’s an important fact that Christians need to take note of, I agree.

      I take a very detailed Christianity-meets-Japanese-folklore look at Yokai Watch in this article of Geeks Under Grace if you would like further reading on the matter: http://www.geeksundergrace.com/gaming/what-christians-need-to-know-about-yo-kai-watch/

  4. I saw this in a different light. Nate as a Christian, whisper as the Holy Ghost, and the yo Kai as evil spirits that Nate is trying to fight or protect his city from. Not sure what jibanyan would represent. Evil spirits are what make us sin, for instance the spirit of gossip would be telltell.

  5. I can’t help but feel that part of the problem is the old world bias that gave us many of our translations. A simple litmus test would be: is it a denizen of hell, if no, then not a demon. Maybe an Oni could be considered a demon being they are from an underworld, but even that can be problematic in that some Oni can be beneficial protectors. Most Yokai would better be termed as ordinary run of the mill monsters. These are the sort that can be handled by the B team in the world of the MCU in most cases. We don’t call werewolfs demons, demonic in nature, but not a demon. Why then do we call the Japanese monster cat a demon? Or any of the myriad of supernatural bogymen who go bump in the night. The Japanese Bakeneko is just a cat with freaky supernatural powers. Not a demon. Better translations would go a long way towards assuaging many Christians. It might even help cool down some of the Neo-pagans who see Shinto as the “New Religion” and immediately try to reshape it to suit their biases. Not that I have much hope for someone who gets there answers from a pendulum. And yes, I’ve had that conversation.

    As for anime and video games, I’d advise parents to view the content for themselves as I’ve talked to far too many parents who view anime as harmless cartoons. Some of it is. Some of it is meant for an older audience and comes with teen adult ratings for a very good reason.

    1. With how impractical it is for parents to really view all the content their children are consuming, I would say it becomes increasingly important for Christian sites to provide context and give information that will help them make informed decisions. The same could be said for commentary such as yours. Thank you for the insight!

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