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Shukaku

Shukaku守鶴
しゅかく

APPEARANCE: Shukaku was a tanuki who lived in disguise as a human priest. He worked at Morinji, a Buddhist temple in Gunma Prefecture for many decades. Shukaku is best known for his miraculous tea kettle, known as the bunbuku chagama, which he left to the Morinji as a gift.

ORIGIN: Shukaku’s story has been told by Morinji for centuries, but different versions and variations have sprung up over the years. Its popularity spread during the Edo period thanks to a booming publishing industry, and it became well known across Japan. Although Shukaku is associated with Morinji, the structure of his story—a magical animal presenting a wonderful gift to humankind—is a recurring motif throughout Japanese folklore.

LEGENDS: Morinji was founded in 1426 by a priest named Dairin Shōtsū. While he was traveling through various countries on pilgrimage, he befriended a priest named Shukaku, and they traveled together. After Morinji was built, Shukaku stayed on to act as a head priest there for many years.

In 1570, an important religious gathering was held at Morinji. Priests from all over the country traveled to Morinji. When it came time to serve tea, the priests realized that they did not have enough kettles to serve such a large gathering. Shukaku—still serving the temple 144 years after his arrival—brought his favorite tea kettle to help serve the priests.

This tea kettle was a miraculous object, for no matter how many times you dunked a ladle in it, it was always brimming with enough hot water to make tea. It also stayed hot for many days after heating it! The kettle was given the name “bunbuku chagama”—chagama being the word for tea kettle, and bunbuku meaning “to spread luck.” The name was a pun as well: the sound of boiling water is bukubuku, which sounds very much like bunbuku. Thanks to Shukaku’s marvelous tea kettle, the gathering was a great success. The bunbuku chagama continued to be used by the temple for many years. Shukaku, as well, continued to work at Morinji for many years after that.

According to Morinji’s records, On February 28, 1587, a monk walked in on Shukaku while he was taking a nap. The monk noticed that Shukaku had a tanuki’s tail! Thus, Shukaku’s great secret was uncovered: he was not a human priest, but a tanuki in disguise. He had been living among humans for thousands of years. Long ago he had traveled through India and China. Eventually he met Dairin Shōtsū, who befriended him and brought him to Morinji, where he used his magic to serve the temple as best as he could. After his secret was uncovered, Shukaku decided it was time to leave Morinji. To apologize for the great shock he had caused Morinji, he gave them a parting gift: he used his magic to present the story of the Battle of Yashima, one of the final clashes of the Genpei War. To show their gratitude for all that he had done, the priests built a shrine to Shukaku, where he is still worshipped as a local deity. And the bunbuku chagama, which Shukaku left behind, is on display in his shrine at Morinji.

Tanuki tsuki

Tanukitsuki

狸憑き
たぬきつき

TRANSLATION: tanuki (raccoon dog) possession

APPEARANCE: Spirit possession can be caused by humans and ghosts, but frequently it is the work of animals with supernatural powers. One of the most common animal possessions is called tanuki tsuki—possession by tanuki spirits.

INTERACTIONS: When tanuki possess human beings, their victims develop strange new personality traits. One of the most common changes is gluttony. Victims become intensely hungry and eat and eat, even going so far as to eat spoiled and ruined food. Although possessed humans grow vast waists from this gluttony, all of the nutrition goes to the tanuki spirits. Victims only grow weaker and weaker until finally they die from malnutrition. Other common symptoms of tanuki possession include unexplained illness, melancholy, becoming overly talkative, sudden outbursts of violence, or abnormally increased libido.

Tanuki possess humans for various reasons, but common ones include revenge for destroying the tanuki’s den, or simply just as a prank. In rare cases, some human families have harnessed the power of animal possession for their own use. Some legends tell of people offering food to old, wild tanuki, taming them, and then using their spirits to possess their enemies.

Because tanuki are powerful yōkai, it is difficult to escape tanuki tsuki. Either the tanuki must leave of its own will, or it must be driven out by a powerful yamabushi, priest, or onmyōji. Another solution is to deify the tanuki. A tanuki elevated to the level of a kami will no longer possess humans. Many villages—particularly in Shikoku—have built shrines to worship particularly troublesome tanuki.

Nue

Nue
ぬえ

TRANSLATION: none; written with a character connoting night and bird
HABITAT: onknown; only seen in the sky, accompanied by black clouds
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The nue is one of the oldest yokai recorded, having its first appearance in the Kojiki (712 CE), an account of the early histories of Japan. It also appears in the Heian-period encyclopedia Wamyo Ruijusho (938 CE), and again in the Heike Monogatari (1371 CE), a record of one of Japan’s bloodiest civil wars and most tragic family clans. It has the head of a monkey, the body of a tanuki, the tail of a snake, and the limbs of a tiger. In ancient times it was thought to be a kind of nocturnal bird — it’s call is supposed to sound like that of a White’s thrush — and thus its name is written with a kanji that contains the meanings “night” and “bird.”

BEHAVIOR: Little is known about the nue’s natural habitate and lifestyle. While sightings throughout history have been rare, nue are are considered to be pretty evil monsters. The few times that humans and nue have crossed paths, the results have been disastrous.

LEGENDS: One famous nue attack occured in the summer of 1153 in Kyoto. Emperor Konoe began to have nightmares every night, and grew very ill. Neither medicine nor prayers had any effect on his illness, and the source was attributed to some kind of evil spirit which was visiting the palace every night, early in the morning. These events climaxed some days later in a storm which appeared over the imperial palace around 2 AM. Lightning struck the roof, setting it on fire. The emperor summoned the legendary samurai Minamoto no Yorimasa, to deal with the evil spirit. Yorimasa brought his trusted companion, I no Hayata, and his legendary bow which he received from Minamoto no Yorimitsu, to hunt the best. During the night, a strange wind came over them, followed by a black cloud. Yorimasa fired his arrow into the clouds above the palace, and out from the sky came a horrible scream as a nue dropped to the earth. I no Hayata leaped upon the body, dealing it a finishing blow. The emperor immediately recovered from his illness, and rewarded the heroes with the legendary katana Shishiō for their service. This event has been immortalized in numerous paintings and ukiyoe prints.

After the nue was slain, the inhabitants of Kyoto were afraid of a retaliatory curse for killing the best, so they loaded its body in a ship and sent it down the Kamo river. The boat with the nue’s body eventually washed up on the shore near the village of Ashiya, in Hyogo prefecture. The good citizens of Ashiya removed the nue’s body, built it a burial mound, and gave it a proper funeral. You can still visit the mound, known as Nuezuka, today.