American illustrator tells all about ‘yokai’ monsters in encyclopedias

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FUKUI – Amabie, a folkloric sea monster with the power to repel plagues, has become a global sensation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long before the supernatural mermaid-like “yokai” became famous, however, an American-born illustrator living here began introducing Japanese ghouls and hobgoblins to the world while providing commentary in English.

After drawing more than 400 varieties of monsters, 39-year-old Matthew Meyer released the fourth installment in his yokai encyclopedia series last summer.

Meyer visited Kanazawa, the art capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, in 2004 while studying at an art school in the United States.

He was struck by the techniques of making ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

Three years later, he moved to Fukui, which is close to Kanazawa, to work as an English conversation teacher.

Meyer gradually spent more time working on his illustrations, and he got the idea to draw Japanese monsters during the Halloween season in October of that year.

“I learned that there are many varieties of yokai, such as ‘hyosube’ and ‘nurarihyon’, and I started posting one illustration a day on my blog,” he said. “My website was inundated with comments from visitors from the English-speaking world, who said they wanted to know more and wanted my artwork published. Finally, my blog attracted 2 million visitors per month.

The first installment of his encyclopedia series, titled “The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons”, was completed in 2012.

“I spent over a year drawing about 100 types of yokai,” Meyer said. “Because it was an introduction, I tried to include kappa, ‘yuki onna’ (the snow woman) and other well-known yokai as much as possible.”

For the local yokai, the artist incorporated notable buildings and plants from their home territory for the background art.

It also featured Tojinbo Cliffs in Fukui Prefecture, Kenrokuen Garden in Ishikawa Prefecture, and other famous places.

To study the yokai’s origins and other background information, Meyer delved into folk tales and interviewed locals.

“It’s unfortunate to see some yokai fade into oblivion when we don’t even know the origin of their names,” he said. “Yokai is the mirror of the human spirit. I want to save them and keep them.

Meyer launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of publishing the fourth episode featuring Amabie, a plague fighter, and other monsters.

It raised approximately $600,000 (87 million yen) worldwide and printed over 10,000 copies.

The actual number of copies released is much larger, however, as the Italian and French versions are published in Europe, he added.

Meyer thinks the yokai craze continues to grow outside of Japan.

He held autograph signing sessions at bookstores and libraries when he visited Italy in May this year, and he often lectures at universities in the United States.

When asked why his books are in such high demand, Meyer said that not only yokai, but also origami, “shoji” paper screen doors, and other forms of Japanese culture enjoy deep popularity. rooted in the United States and elsewhere.

“However, there aren’t many commentary books in English,” the artist added.

Although Yakumo Koizumi’s works are available in English, they are difficult to read because they were written over 100 years ago.

Koizumi is the name that Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) adopted after taking Japanese nationality. He is best known for his books on legends and ghost stories.

“There’s a need for easy-to-understand commentary,” Meyer said.

Meyer is already preparing his fifth book, in which he should present 100 types of sea-themed yokai.

“Because Japan is an island nation, it has an abundance of sea-related folk tales. In Obama, Fukui Prefecture, there is a legend about Yaobikuni, a nun who lived to be 800 years after eating the flesh of a mermaid.

He continued, “When I look at a yokai, I find three or four more. I feel thrilled every time. I want to continue drawing yokai for the rest of my life.

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