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Ghosts and Goblins: 7 Creatures From Japanese Folklore

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A Torii gate, which according to Shinto belief, marks the transition from mundane to sacred.

A Torii gate, which according to Shinto belief, marks the transition from mundane to sacred.

The island nation is home to rich folklore with a myriad of influences that include the native religion of Shintoism, the imported religion of Buddhism, and the legends that crossed the sea from China and India.

Vengeful spirits, seductive spider women, and even sentient teapots are just a few of the fantastical beings that inhabit this colourful mythological landscape.

Here are seven creatures from Japanese folklore:

1. Tengu

Meaning "heavenly dog" or "heavenly sentinel"
Western equivalent
Goblin

The tengu are guardians of the mountain and forest who revel in putting humanity's willpower and virtue to the test. Their depiction in Japanese art is a classic example of the culture's unique visual approach to the fantastical.

A tengu is the reincarnated spirit of one who was proud and arrogant in life, but he is also a skilled swordsman and a patron of martial arts. According to legend, the samurai hero Minamoto (the Japanese equivalent of Robin Hood) was trained by a tengu.

Japanese Buddhism adopted a harsher attitude toward tengu, portraying them as demonic harbingers of war. The Konjaku Monogatarishū, a collection of Japanese tales dating back to the Heian Period (794 — 1185), features tengu as antagonists who attempt to lure Buddhist monks from the path of virtue, or even abduct them.

In the Hōgen monogatari, a war epic dating back to the 14th century, Emperor Sutoku is dethroned and forced into exile, where he dies in torment, swearing to haunt Japan. The power of his curse leads to his reincarnation as a long-clawed tengu.

The tengu may have been inspired by the Chinese tiāngoǔ, a dog-like demon born from a fallen meteorite.

2. Onryo

Meaning "vengeful spirit"
Western equivalent Revenant

The ghost of a murdered woman returned to enact vengeance upon those who wronged her.

The onryo feature heavily in Japanese horror films, with the most memorable depiction being Sadako Yamamura from The Ring. The portrayal of the onryo as a woman with long, unkempt black hair dates to Japanese theatre of the Edo Period (1603 — 1867).

Although predominantly female in later tales, stories dating back to the 8th century featured male onryo. According to legend, Emperor Kammu moved the Japanese capital from Nagaoka to Kyoto in order to escape the wrath of his exiled brother's ghost.

3. Kitsune

Meaning Fox
Western equivalent The cunning fox from Aesop's Fables

Inspired by the nine-tailed foxes of Chinese legend, the kitsune are long-lived beings that grow wiser and more powerful with age. They sprout a new tail every 100 years, so the number of tails indicates the age and power of the kitsune.

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They can appear as helpful guides or troublesome tricksters. The zenko ("good foxes") are messengers of Inari, the androgynous Shinto deity that bestows fertility and bountiful harvest. The yako ("field foxes") are malicious and manipulative.

Kitsune could shapeshift, usually taking on the form of beautiful women. Villagers believed that a woman encountered alone at night could be a kitsune in disguise.

People suffering from mental illness were believed to be bewitched by evil kitsune. The 16th-century ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi wrote a letter to Inari complaining that one of the god's kitsune was sowing discord among his servants.

Since Japanese villagers and foxes lived in close proximity, tales would arise of benevolent kitsune attaching themselves to a chosen family and bestowing protection upon them.

4. Oni

Meaning "ogre" or "demon"
Western equivalent
Ogre / troll

Usually portrayed as red-skinned giants with horns, the oni engages in murderous deeds and cannibalism

Shuten-dōji ("little drunkard") is a famous oni from Japanese folklore. He terrorises the people of Kyoto from his mountain lair until the hero Minamoto Raikō confronts and defeats him. Minamoto decapitates the creature, whose severed head continues to snap at him until he buries it under a mountain.

Oni also appear as antagonists in the story of Momotarō (Peach Boy). The titular hero is born from a giant peach and adopted by an old woman who finds him floating down the river. When Momotarō comes of age, he sets out to confront a gang of oni that are terrorising the land. On the way, he befriends a talking dog, monkey and pheasant. With their help, he defeats the oni in their lair and captures their treasure.

5. Tsukumogami

Meaning "tool kami"
Western equivalent None

These are inanimate objects, such as tools or utensils, that have acquired a spirit (kami) of their own, enabling them to move about and cause all sorts of mischief. They can be benevolent or malign; attacking or protecting their owners, but most of the time they're just a minor annoyance.

An object could become a tsukumogami if it was more than 100 years old. Hence the Japanese year-end tradition of susu-harai (soot sweeping), whereby a house is thoroughly cleaned, and worn or broken items are replaced.

"Jorogumo" also refers to certain species of spider in Japan.

"Jorogumo" also refers to certain species of spider in Japan.

6. Jorogumo

Meaning "binding bride"
Western equivalent Shelob from The Lord of the Rings

A giant spider creature that can take the form of a beautiful woman in order to lure young men into its web.

According to legend, a jorogumo haunts the Jōren Falls, a waterfall in the Yugashima district of Izu city. In one Japanese folktale, a woodcutter accidentally drops his axe into the waterfall. It is returned to him by a beautiful woman, who warns him not to tell anyone what he saw there that day.

Unfortunately, he gets drunk one night and tells people what occurred. The villagers awake the next morning to find him gone. They eventually discover his dead body hanging from a web above the Jōren waterfall.

The word jorogumo is also used to refer to certain species of spider in Japan.

japanese-folklore

7. Ryū

Meaning "dragon"
Western equivalent
Dragon

The mighty serpents feature in mythologies of cultures throughout the world. In Japanese folklore, they are usually portrayed as water deities, contrary to their association with fire in European legends.

Dragons feature prominently in both of Japan's major religions, Shinto and Buddhism; usually as guardians of shrines or temples. They appear in legends dating back as far as the 7th century AD, namely the Kojiki ("An Account of Ancient Matters") and the Nihon Shoki ("The Chronicles of Japan").

Famous dragons of Japanese folklore include Yamata no Orochi ("8-branched giant snake"), an 8-headed dragon slain by the god of wind and sea; and Watatsumi ("sea god"), the ruler of the oceans.

Then there's Toyotama-hime ("Luminous Pearl Princess"), the grandmother of Japan's first emperor, Jimmu (reigned 660 — 585 BC).

In Japan, as everywhere else they appear, dragons are strongly associated with royalty and prestige. It's clear that dragon blood has served Japan's ancient imperial line well, as it remains the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world.

References

Alicia Joy. 2017, 25 October. 10 Supernatural Creatures from Japan (theculturetrip.com).

Gabriela Baban, BA Linguistics with Japanese. 2021, 28 December. Japanese Mythology: 6 Japanese Mythical Creatures (thecollector.com).

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