Portraits Of The Afterlife: The Eerie Costumes Of Japan’s Folklore Festivals

Charles Fréger’s photographs focus on the unforgettable masquerades of Japanese communities celebrating their local spirits.

The world is full of gods and demons, and it’s the mission of French photographer Charles Fréger to capture them on film. In his latest series of photos, Yokainoshima, Fréger has turned his lens on the yokai of Japan–a class of spirits in Japanese folklore that are often adapted as costumes for local festivals.


Shot over a span of two years and five separate trips, Fréger’s photos aim to capture the art and ethnography of Japan through the lens of its monsters. In the north of Japan, there are over 30 small festivals each year, usually clustered around the New Year, in which people from the local villages dress up in elaborate straw costumes to resemble yokai spirits.

According to Fréger, these yokai spirits are roughly equivalent to Krampus and other devils that appear around Christmas in Nordic European traditions. “These spirits are demons that come down from the mountains to deliver a message, usually about the dangers to the collective life of the community,” he says. “They’re supposed to scare the kids into behaving properly.”

Fréger says that his work photographing Japanese spirits was a natural follow-up to his previous series, Wilder Mann, which explores the north-European masquerade tradition of dressing up as mythical monsters and savage beasts. The tendency to dress up as spirits of folklore, says Fréger, is one that unites almost every culture in the world.

“My work is a bit of an encyclopedia,” Fréger says. “I’m not an ethnographer, but I take photographs of the traditions around the world because I feel connected to the customs. I feel as though my work explores the contrast between life and the city and these rural communities, which continue to keep the old traditions alive, even if most of us are not aware of it.”

Fréger’s photographs have been published by Thames & Hudson as Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters. It is available for pre-order here.


[All Photos: Charles Fréger]