Japanese folklore is a rich tapestry of mischievous spirits, child-eating monsters, and shape-shifting animals, a little knowledge of which can give great insight into the culture when you visit.
Most trips to Japan will involve visiting some (usually many) temples, shrines, castles, and other traditional & historical locations. And on many of those visits, you’ll find yourself taking pictures of statues & masks of cool looking demons & monsters, often without having much idea what they really are – that was certainly the case when I first visited Japan.
When I later went back to live there, my Japanese friends took to calling me ‘tengu’ on account of my big pointy nose. It started when we were in this soba restaurant in Tokyo’s Asakusa district:
So of course I asked them to explain what exactly tengu are, and whether it’s a good thing to be compared to them! Turns out that ‘tengu’ is often used in Japanese to describe someone of a conceited nature, so not usually a good thing to be called – I like to think my friends were being truthful when they said they were only commenting on my physical characteristics and not my arrogant personality…
I was living in Kyoto at the time, and as I looked into the tengu I learned the forest just north of Kyoto is one of their main domains, and a key location in the story of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune, Japan’s favourite tragic hero. I grew to be fascinated with these Japanese tales of heroes and demons, and eagerly lapped up all the stories I could coax out of friends and students and worked my way through a couple of books of rather dark fairytales (including this one – bit of a slog in places, but an interesting read if you’re interested).
I guess studying the folklore is a great way to learn about any culture, and it most definitely is in Japan. But when you’re there for the first time, the meanings and significance of much of what you see is easy to miss; so, if you’re visiting Japan and curious about the folklore elements you’ll probably see, here’s a primer.
(Note that the number of yokai (folklore spirits) is absolutely huge – the handful listed here are just the more prominent ones that you’re most likely to encounter. For a more extensive list see Wikipedia)
As noted above, the tengu are long-nosed creatures, and you sometimes see them depicted with a bird’s beak rather than the big nose. They also often have feathered wings, but not always; these birdmen are probably the most famous among Japan’s yokai, and have a series of interesting associations.
In folklore tales the tengu generally play the role of troublemakers and tricksters, playing pranks on Buddhist monks who stray too far into the forest or woodsmen who fail to respect their power; and sometimes they’re shown to be outright dangerous, kidnapping (even eating) young boys who wander off alone without their parents. And yet when the chips are down they seem to fall on the side of the good & honourable, most notably in the tragic tale of Yoshitsune.
When Minamoto-no-Yoshitomo was defeated by Taira-no-Kiyomori, Yoshitomo’s young son Yoshitsune was spared on the condition he was sent to live a life of exile as a Buddhist monk. This turned out to be a big mistake, as the child was sent to Kurama Temple in the mountains north of Kyoto; the forest there is enchanted, the realm of the tengu king Sojobo, and Yoshitsune took to training alone in the forest in order to one day avenge his father.
The tengu recognised his noble spirit and purpose, and so rather than kidnapping him they trained him in swordsmanship and military strategy, Sojobo himself overseeing the young warrior’s education. Thus he became the greatest swordsman who ever lived, and when he was ready he descended to Kyoto to begin his quest for vengeance.
There he encountered the man-mountain warrior monk Benkei posted up on Gojo Bridge, on his own personal quest to beat up one thousand swordsmen and take their swords; Yoshitsune was the thousandth to face him, and defeated him in a famous duel on the bridge. Benkei then swore an oath of loyalty, and together they fought and won the Genpei war against the Taira (avenging Yoshitomo in the process) before being betrayed (by Yoshitsune’s jealous half-brother) and eventually dying together in tragic glory.
The rest of the story after the start in Kurama is free of mythological elements (save for Benkei’s dramatic death, the legendary ‘standing death’ in which he was killed by volleys of arrows while guarding Yoshitsune on a castle bridge, dying upright on his feet, stuck full of arrows but never going down and thus continuing to scare the shit out of his opponents for long enough to buy Yoshitsune enough time to perform seppuku and retain his honour), but it’s a good one! (I visited Benkei’s grave in Hiraizumi on this ridiculous journey)
Getting back to the tengu, the word 天狗 literally means ‘heavenly dog’, and is thought to originate from the tiangou in Chinese mythology (written with the same Chinese characters); however, the Chinese tiangou is a fiery beast (and a harbinger of ill fortune) so is rather different from the Japanese version.
The Japanese tengu with their long noses or beaks and wings are clearly birdmen rather than dogmen. They also usually have red skin, for some reason I’ve never been able to work out.
Additionally, they’re associated with Yamabushi, mountain ascetics who still today practise some seriously hardcore training rituals (like the kaihogyo of the so-called marathon monks on Mt Hiei). The tengu are guardian spirits of the forests and mountains, hence the association, and in some stories they assume the form of Yamabushi and only reveal their true nature in the story’s dramatic climax. Note how they’re often depicted in Yamabushi robes.
The fantasy film 47 Ronin featured a battle scene between Keanu Reeves’ character and a group of tengu, though I wasn’t too keen on the portrayal:
The same movie features a battle scene with a kirin (see below), and the main antagonist is a kitsune (see bottom) who also shapeshifts into a dragon for the final battle:
It’s a pretty poor movie, but the visuals are good and you get to see a bunch of Japanese mythological creatures in action.
Of all the yokai in Japanese folklore, the tengu are for sure my personal favourites. If you spend any time at all in Japan you’ll almost certainly see them, as masks on restaurant walls or statues at temples and even train stations:
Easily mistaken for dragons, kirin are dragon-like creatures distinguishable by their antlers and hooves (the kirin is the Japanese version of the qilin in Chinese mythology).
Nihombashi Bridge (the “mile zero” point from which distances from Tokyo were traditionally measured) in central Tokyo is home to the most famous kirin statues in the country:
Although an even better known depiction is that on the label of Kirin Ichiban beer:
There was also a kirin fight in 47 Ronin:
They made sure to make this one more deer-like than dragon-like, avoiding confusion with the dragon scene later in the film.
(The scene also briefly depicts the witch in her white kitsune form)
Fujin 風神 & Raijin 雷神
Although these guys aren’t actually yokai at all (rather, they’re gods and thus belong to the realms of serious religion rather than folklore), I’m including them on this list because you’re likely to see them while visiting temples and wonder what they are.
Fujin & Raijin are the wind (fu) and lightning (rai) gods, of great importance as both protectors and destroyers. When angered they punish Japan with typhoons, yet they also fertilise the crops and saved Japan from invasion in the 13th Century by sinking the Mongol fleets (which is the root of the word kamikaze, ‘divine wind’).
They’re sometimes seen standing guard on either side of Japanese Buddhist temple gates – this role is usually performed by the Nio (see below), but at Tokyo’s Senso-ji temple (the famous one in Asakusa) you’ll see Fujin & Raijin at the Kaminarimon (雷門, Thunder Gate), the outer of the two entrance gates:
Raijin also goes by the name Raiden, and will be familiar to fans of the Mortal Kombat games or 80s cheese classic Big Trouble In Little China:
The Nio 仁王
Ungyo & Agyo, collectively the Nio, are the two fearsome temple guardians you see standing at the main gates of many Japanese temples. They’re usually portrayed with Agyo bearing his teeth and carrying a weapon while the unarmed Ungyo keeps his mouth closed, though it does vary.
Nio at Koyasan, Wakayama:
Nio at a local temple near my old place:
Osaka’s Isshin-ji has a modern take on its gate & guardians:
When visiting Senso-ji in Asakusa, you see Fujin & Raijin at the outer gate followed by the Nio at the inner gate.
Although usually translated as demon, oni are basically ogres; they’re the antagonists of many a fairytale and are frequently invoked to scare misbehaving children.
Usually depicted with blue or red skin and some configuration of horns, they’re always ugly and fierce-looking, though ultimately they’re not considered to be of great power or importance compared to some of the other yokai on this page.
February 3rd is Setsubun-no-hi, when people perform the ritual of mamemaki in which they throw soy beans out of windows while repeating the mantra “oni waaa soto, fuku waaa uchi” – roughly, “oni outside, fortune inside” (in order to bring luck for the year). If you’re in Kyoto on this date, head to Kitano Tenmangu shrine and you’ll find bean-throwing, dancing maiko & geisha, and of course a dude in an oni outfit. It’s a good bit of fun – check out this video (read more from the source here)
Up in Akita Prefecture they have a local variation of oni called namahage which go door to door on New Year’s Eve hunting for bad children to punish. As a method for instilling obedience in children it’s a bit like Santa, but instead of not getting any presents you get a big scary monster threatening to eat you. Quite effective, one imagines.
Kappa are a bit of an odd one; they’re river-dwelling reptilian humanoids with flat-topped heads, and when they leave the water they must keep the flat bit wet to keep their power – if you’re ever cornered by one, try to trick it into bending over so the water sloshes out and you can escape. They’re blamed for drownings in rivers & lakes and for general mischief around bridges, and their favourite foods are cucumbers and naughty boys.
They don’t feature nearly as frequently in fairytales as tengu do, and while travelling round Japan you’re far less likely to randomly see depictions of kappa than you are of the others on this list.
That said, in certain places they’re prominent, the most obvious being the Kappabashi kitchenware district in Tokyo, and a bridge called Kappabashi in Kamikochi, Nagano. In the latter case, Kappabashi is written 河童橋 and literally translates as Kappa Bridge (a famous novel about kappa, simply called Kappa, is set in the area).
Tokyo’s Kappabashi is written 合羽橋, with no reference to the mythological creature – however this hasn’t stopped the local businesses from engaging in a little wordplay and adopting the kappa as their mascot. The businesses in question specialise in kitchen & restaurant wares, and are all arranged along one stretch of street near Asakusa. Although it primarily exists to serve the restaurant trade, the area’s also become a popular spot with tourists seeking unusual souvenirs or just looking for something a little different to check out. The plastic food displays you see in restaurant windows can be purchased here (along with things like paper lanterns and Japanese language ‘bathroom’, ‘no smoking’ etc signs) and do make for some pretty cool keepsakes.
Walking along Kappabashi, you’ll see plenty of kappa mascots and cartoon characters, as well as a more serious statue in a recess towards the northern end of the street:
Kappabashi in Nagano is an actual bridge which crosses the Azusa river in Kamikochi, one of the best-known spots in the Japan Alps:
Kitsune 狐 & tanuki 狸
While the kitsune (fox) and tanuki (raccoon dog) are real animals, they have a host of associations in Japanese folklore and are two of the most common statues you’ll see in Japan (particularly in Kansai).
The kitsune is the guardian of Inari, the god of rice & commerce, and as such is frequently seen at Shinto shrines – the most famous examples being the hundreds of foxes at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine.
It’s also an animal sometimes depicted with magical powers, including the transmutive ability to take human form – often the form of a wicked & beautiful woman out to bewitch some unsuspecting hero and lead him astray. As noted above, the main antagonist of 47 Ronin (portrayed by the always excellent Rinko Kikuchi) is a shapeshifting witch, seen in the form of a white fox when she summons the kirin.
Meanwhile, the tanuki is depicted in folklore as, simply put, a jovial drunkard with massive testicles. Tanuki statues (with their pots of booze and oversized gonads) are usually seen at entrances to homes & businesses as their large balls are a sign of good financial fortune. They’re particularly common in the Kansai region, the statues mostly being made in Shiga Prefecture. Internationally, Super Mario fans will be familiar with the tanuki suit.
For a detailed explanation of how tanuki came to be associated with oversized genitalia and financial well-being, see this excellent letter response in the Japan Times.
Oddly, these two animals are used in Japanese to describe a woman’s ‘type’ (mostly with regards physical appearance), with kitsune denoting a sexy or sultry-looking woman and tanuki denoting a cute or bubbly woman. Seems a little inadequate to only have the two categories, but a question often asked of men (by both men & women) is whether they prefer kitsune or tanuki – and given that tanuki usually have enormous scrotums, I’ve never been quite sure what to make of this!
Any questions about Japan’s yokai? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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