As I’ve mentioned before, yokai has always been something that has fascinated me. As a young child, I was extremely curious about mythologies and legends and this interest only grew as I got older. I first started to get into Japanese pop culture at the start of high school and then I discovered yokai. There wasn’t really a whole lot I could find on the subject in my small town so I kinda set it on the back burner for awhile. Then I came across a blog called yokai.com and my interest was renewed.
Yokai.com is run by Matthew Meyer, author and illustrator of The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons and The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits. He currently lives in Japan and is known on social media as the yokai guy. Matt has opened several Kickstarters and a Patreon for fans of his work to support him and follow him on his journey as an author and artist. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Matt about his blog and his incredible passion for yokai! Take a look at his thoughts below:
J: When did you first discover that you had a passion/interest in yokai?
M: I’ve always liked folklore, so it didn’t take much for me to get interested in yokai. The trigger was a desire to an illustration project on my blog highlighting something uniquely Japanese for Halloween. I was living in Japan and feeling “lonely” around Halloween as it’s my favorite holiday, so I came to know about yokai while doing research about Japanese ghost stories for that Halloween project.
J: How did you know that yokai was something that you wanted to pursue?
M: It was partially because it was where a lot of my interests lined up: horror, folklore, and art. The primary thing that really drove me, though, was probably that so little information on yokai existed in English at the time. European folklore is quite well known in the English speaking world, but information on Japanese folklore – particularly yokai – was very sparse. So it was not only a pleasure, but also felt like a bit of a duty to keep pursuing that path.
J: When did you move to Japan and what influenced your move?
M: I moved here in 2007, but my first experience here was a home-stay I did while still a college student. Like many people I developed an interest in Japan through pop culture while in middle/high school, and when I had the opportunity to spend a month in Japan during college I took it. That first home-stay experience is what drove me to come back and live here.
J: What is your favorite part about living in Japan?
M: Professionally it helps for me to be close to my subject. In the US it is possible to come by yokai stories and artwork, but it is much more difficult than it is here. In Japan there is an active community of yokai fans who are as in to the subject as comic and video game fans in the US. It’s exciting. I also enjoy many aspects of life in Japan. It’s a clean, safe country, with very advanced infrastructure. The architecture, art, and design senses here generally appeal to me as an artist.
J: Do you have any favorite places to visit? What about favorite activities to do?
M: I live in Fukui Prefecture, which has a lot of amazing natural spots to visit. You’ll find a lot of Fukui scattered among the backgrounds of my illustrations. I also very much enjoy visiting history museums and looking at the dioramas of past lives and different worlds. My favorite activity is walking around and taking in the scenery, building up a visual library. You never know when you’ll stumble upon something visually inspiring and want to include it in a painting. If you’re not constantly exposing yourself to new places and things, you’ll miss out on a lot of potential inspiration.
J: What was the hardest part of learning Japanese and do you have any tips for anyone who wants to learn?
M: Japanese is so very different from English, not in just grammar and vocabulary, but in communication style and structure. There’s a big leap between simply translating English phrases into Japanese and actually communicating in Japanese. You sort of have to forge a new way of thinking and comprehending, which can be very difficult to do but is a necessary step.
I think everyone is looking for a magic solution to learning a new language, no matter what the language. Everywhere you go you’ll see “10 easy steps to master…” or fancy software and apps, blogs that promise success in only 3 months, and so on. The only way to learn a language is to hunker down and study hard. There’s no short cut, and the only “easy way” is the one that you enjoy doing, so it doesn’t feel like a grind. I think the best advice you’ll ever get for studying a language is to stop spending time looking for better apps and better books and better ways to study, and to instead spent it actually studying.
J: When did you start yokai.com and what went into the decision to have a blog for you?
M: I’ve had a blog for… ages. Since before blog was a word. I made my first website when I was in middle school and only had a 14.4k modem. So that’s always been a part of me. When I started doing yokai, at first I was posting all my yokai to matthewmeyer.net, which is my personal blog and website. But as my traffic grew (mostly thanks to people Google searching for yokai), it eventually made sense to split my yokai posts off on to their own website. I bought the domain in 2013.
J: What is the hardest part of maintaining your blog?
M: I enjoy painting and creating, so the part of the job that is grueling for me is the “office work” stuff: maintenance, bookkeeping, filing, documenting, matting and packaging prints, mailing orders, all that stuff. Being a freelancer means you have a lot of freedom, but you also have a lot of responsibility. The blog itself is a pleasure to run when it’s operating smoothly, but anything that distracts me from the act of creating/painting/translating is the most difficult part of the job.
J: What does a typical day look like for you?
M: It’s unfortunately not that exciting. I wake up, have breakfast and take a shower, then assess what needs to be done — whether it’s sketching, translating, inking, painting, or posting. I usually have a large volume of emails to go through, as there are many people with questions about yokai. I tend to camp down in front of my work and tune out the rest of the world until I’m done with what I need to do. Sometimes I even forget to eat. So I try to force myself to take little breaks every now and then, to stretch my body or change my scenery. I also try to limit myself to working 9-6 most days, but there are days when I’m painting from the moment I wake up until past midnight.
J: What is the process for one yokai and how long does it take both in total and for each part (i.e. research, sketching, etc.)?
M: Each yokai starts with research. I have a number of favorite yokai encyclopedias which I refer to as primary sources, and I also usually search for websites for folklore that may not be in the books I have. The tricky thing about folklore is that it is always changing and not set in stone, so I sometimes need to look into whether or not the contemporary understanding of a particular yokai has changed since its creation. There’s a big range in how long it takes, because some yokai have no more than a single sentence to their entire story. Others have volumes and volumes of legends. So that process can take anywhere from a few hours to a number of days.
After that I outline the story I want to tell. My goal is to be as faithful and inclusive with regards to the folklore as I can, including contradictions and inaccuracies as I find them, because they too are a part of the lore. However, I also can’t possibly include every “fact” about a particular yokai. My goal is to keep everything to a one page limit where possible. Sometimes I need to go over that. But I do often end up having to cut out bits and sections. When I do this, I try to preserve the essence of the yokai while trimming down legends to their bare bones, or removing details that don’t really add anything. Translations, too, can take anywhere from an hour to a whole day, depending on how long it is and how many sources I have.
Next I do a pencil sketch. I post these to my Patreon so many people will be familiar with them. The sketches vary depending on my mood at the time. Some are extremely loose, 10 minute sketches that are really just to get the composition down. Others I’ll spend a few hours moving through different thumbnails figuring out what I want to do.
After the sketch, I scan the yokai and begin inking them digitally. I used to hand-ink them, but it takes much longer and is far less forgiving than digital. Inking can take anywhere from a couple hours to a whole day, depending on the level of detail.
Finally, the picture gets painted. This too can be as fast as a few hours, and sometimes as many as 10 or 12 hours depending on the level of detail.
After that there’s some image processing, resizing, uploading, and posting to the blog, Patreon, and social media which adds another hour or so on to the process. So all in all, a yokai can take anywhere from 8 to 20 hours on average, and depending on how difficult the subject matter, translation, and the illustration are, sometimes up to a whole week.
J: Do you have a favorite yokai? If so, why?
M: My favorite yokai is aoandon, which is a blue-skinned demon woman which appears after the 100th story is told at a ghost story telling party. Only, because everyone is so scared of her appearing and what she might do, the parties always finish after the 99th story so she never has a chance to appear. So nobody actually knows what she does. I like her because she is the embodiment of fear itself. People are afraid of her, but she’s only scary because of what she represents — the fear that has built up from the previous 99 stories. It’s a good illustration of the reason we tell ghost stories — we want to feel fear, but not too much fear. Only enough that we still feel safe at the end.
J: What about a least favorite?
M: I can’t say that I have a least favorite. There are certainly yokai that I find unappealing or disgusting, but every yokai says something about the time and conditions under which it was created. Like all folklore, they tell us something about what it means to be be human, and so there’s something to learn inside of each yokai, no matter how weird or unappealing it is. Yokai are a degenerate, gross reflection of humanity. In that way, I think all yokai have value.
J: Do you have any tips or tricks for anyone who wants to start up their own blog?
M: It’s kind of the same advice as the question about studying Japanese above: just start it. You don’t need fancy tools, or a fancy domain name, or the best software. If you’re reading this and you want to start a blog, go start one! And keep at it! It’s not so much about education, or skills, or natural born talent as it is about elbow grease and will to work. In most cases, the people who are successful at what they do got that way because they took those first few steps and kept working at it.
You don’t need to have a fully realized vision to start doing something. I certainly didn’t when I started doing yokai. My Kickstarters, my books, my Patreon, yokai.com, all of these started out because I wanted to do a Halloween project on my blog. I had no idea that a few yokai illustrations in October would turn into what it did. I just did it because I loved it, and eventually that turned into something bigger. But it never would have happened if I hadn’t taken those first steps.
J: Lastly, any general advice you could give to the readers?
M: When I was in college, my friend told me something that sticks with me today: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it right.” It’s not a fancy maxim or anything, but it resonates with me in part because I’m naturally a pretty lazy person. Many times when I start a painting, I’m so excited that I want to dive right to the final steps. But if you skip all of the harder work – the research, the thumbnails, the preliminary planning, the end result will be junk, and any time you spent on it will be wasted time. So I try to hold that idea in my mind that no matter what I’m doing, if its something I consider worth doing, then it’s worth taking all of the steps required to do it properly, instead of looking for shortcuts. I’m giving painting as an example, of course, but it applies to just about everything in life. If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing the right way.
You can support Matt on his Patreon and follow him on Facebook and Twitter for important updates on his books and future Kickstarter projects! I support him on Patreon and I adore every postcard and print that I get in the mail! I’m always really excited to see his new work and I’m so happy that I can help support him! Make sure to check out his blogs and stay tuned for part two of this interview coming soon!