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In the tvtropes article on Youkai, the following remark is made on the meaning of "obake":

Obake is another Japanese word that can indicate some type of monster. Derived from the word for "to change", it generally covers the subset of youkai that includes shapeshifting animals (hence the terms bake-gitsune, bake-neko, etc.) as well as Animate Inanimate Objects 〔i.e. tsukumogami〕. Confusingly, however, the word obake can also be used to refer to ghosts, also known as yuurei.

The Wikipedia article on Yōkai contains the (unsourced) statement that

Yōkai that shapeshift are known as bakemono (化け物) or obake (お化け).

The Wikipedia article on Obake contains the (unsourced) statement that

Literally, the terms mean a thing that changes, referring to a state of transformation or shapeshifting.

The implication that the bakeru root of obake/bakemono is related to the ability to shapeshift is a strong one at least as far as public opinion on the internet goes, despite the inconsistencies that can be noted with this etymology. In my estimation, the less incongruous root of the term would be that it refers to beings that have undergone a change; they might also (coincidentally) have shape-shifting powers. Many (perhaps not all) of the shape-shifting animals, which are considered obake, are transformations that happen when an animal has lived for a considerable amount of time (commonly 100 years); the tsukumogami, being items, commonly attain their status by considerable age as well, in particular by having been abandoned or forgotten or not well kept. In the case of yurei, the transition is that from the living to the dead. While this etymology seems to capture all of the cases that fall under obake (shapeshifting animals, animated items, ghosts), it would also exclude some other yōkai that are shapeshifters, but have not undergone a transformation, such as most prominently the oni, which ought to fall under obake if we considered it to refer to shapeshifting.

Is my reading of obake as referring to "transformed entity", rather than to "shapeshifter", a sensible one? Is there any support for it? Any credible scholarly sources that contravene it?

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  • Your understanding should be fine, but I feel it's mostly a translation matter. お化け and 化ける are obviously related. Also, it is 'shapeshifted' rather than 'shapeshifter' (and don't read too much meaning in 'shape'),
    – sundowner
    Apr 8, 2023 at 5:39

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This may seem confusing and inconsistent if you analyze this based on the meaning of the English term "shapeshift", but it's not really a difficult concept.

In English, I think that "shapeshift" typically refers to significant transformations, such as a cat turning into a human or a human turning into a wolf (correct me if I'm wrong). However, the meaning of the verb 化ける (bakeru) in Japanese is somewhat broader. It can describe not only a cat transforming into a human, but also an umbrella or a cat transforming into their yōkai versions (kasa-obake and bake-neko), as well as a human retaining their original form and becoming a ghost. For example, in a manga, it is common for a human character to say "私が死んだら化けて出てやる (If I die, I'll come back as a ghost/yūrei)!" using the verb bakeru.

Naturally, the range of what お化け (obake; a noun version of 化ける) can refer to is quite extensive. It encompasses all sorts of creatures that have "an original form" such as a human, a fox, a cat, an umbrella, a pot, a lantern, and so on. When people say お化け without context, it typically refers to traditional Japanese creatures and human ghosts (yūrei) like these.

On the other hand, inherently unique creatures/species like kappa, oni and tengu are called yōkai, but they tend not to be referred to as obake. Note that an oni is not a shapeshifter just as western goblins and ogres aren't shapeshifters. That said, the boundaries between yōkai and obake are not always very strict, and different people may have slightly different ideas about them.

In the narrow sense of "shapeshift", such as when a human turns into a wolf or a cat turns into a human, people use 変身 (henshin). 変身 also includes transformations like a human becoming Spider-Man or Ultraman.

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