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TRANSLATION: dark warrior
ALTERNATE NAMES: genten jōtei (dark emperor of the heavens), showan’ū
HABITAT: the northern sky

APPEARANCE: Genbu is a large tortoise or turtle combined with a snake. Sometimes he is represented as two creatures—a snake wrapped around a tortoise—and sometimes he is represented as a single creature—a tortoise-snake chimera. His home is in the northern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the snake’s neck is located in Sagittarius. The constellations which makes up the tortoise’s shell are located in Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pegasus. The constellations which make up the snake’s tail are located in PEgasus and Andromeda.

INTERACTIONS: Genbu is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Genbu is the guardian of the north. He is associated with the Chinese element of water, the season of winter, the planet Mercury, and the color black. He represents the virtue of knowledge. He controls the cold. He is enshrined in the Genbu Shrine, north of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.

ORIGIN: Genbu is named differently than the other shijin; rather than directly describing a color and animal, i.e. Black Tortoise, his name is written as gen, meaning dark, occult, or mysterious, and bu, meaning warrior. The word tortoise is not used for his name, because it was also used as a slur in China. So this euphemistic name was used to refer to the Black Tortoise. His name comes from Chinese mythology, where it is with the Taoist god Xuan Wu (the Chinese pronunciation of Genbu). Xuan Wu was a prince who lived in prehistoric northern China. He lived in the mountains, far from civilization, where he studied Taoism as an ascetic. He learned that to achieve full divinity, he would have to purge both his mind and body of all impurities. While his mind had become enlightened, he still had to eat earthly food, and so sin remained in his stomach and his intestines. So he cut them out and washed them in a river to purify them. When he did this, his stomach turned into a large demon tortoise and his intestines into a demon snake. The demons began to terrorize the countryside. Xuan Wu subdued them, and instead of destroying them he allowed them to atone for their sins by serving him. They became his generals: a snake and a tortoise. It is these two generals which became Xuan Wu’s—and Genbu’s—symbols.

Genbu is associated with yin energy—the forces of darkness and shadow—and in ancient China was worshipped as a god of the moon (another strong yin force) in addition to being the god of the north. Because the shell of a tortoise is like a suit of armor, Genbu is also viewed as a warrior deity. The tortoise shell is a symbol of heaven and earth, with the flat part of the lower shell representing the world and the dome of the upper shell representing the heavens. As tortoise shells were a popular tool in divination, Genbu was also viewed as having soothsaying powers and the ability to travel between the lands of the living and the dead. The tortoise is a symbol of longevity and immortality, while the snake is a symbol of reproduction and multiplication. It was believed that all tortoises were female and had to mate with a snake to reproduce. The intertwining of the two was a symbol not only of long life and fertility, but also of the balance of yin and yang.

In later centuries, as belief in onmyōdō waned, the Four Symbols were gradually replaced by the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Genbu and his symbols were largly absorbed and supplanted by the Buddhist king Tamonten.



TRANSLATION: “Gong-goro,” or ghost gong, depending on the reading

APPEARANCE: A shōgorō is a kind of tsukumogami, a spirit which inhabits a household item. In this case, it is an animated shōgo (鉦吾) — a small, bowl-shaped gong that is struck with a mallet and used in Buddhist services. A shōgo gets a lot of use, being used multiple times every service. It is made of metal, and so can last a long time before breaking. A gong which has long worn out and stopped playing its note pleasantly, and gets put into storage until it is forgotten (or perhaps one is the witness to some horrible crime) is an ideal candidate for awakening into a yokai.

BEHAVIOR: Like nay tsukumogami, shōgorō are not dangerous. At most, they are startling, as they wander around at night like some kind of metal turtle, striking their bodies and ringing their notes out into the night. It is enough perhaps to cause loss of sleep, but not much else.

ORIGIN: The name shogorō is a pun. It is a combination of shōgo, the gong, and gorō, a very common part of a boy’s name. The word can also be read as a combination of shōgo and goryō (御霊), the ghost of a noble or an aristocrat from ages past. Goryō are a grade of ghost above yūrei, and play a large part in many Japanese ghost stories.

LEGENDS: In the early 18th century, there was a wealthy merchant family called Yodoya living in Osaka. For many generations, the Yodoya were the kings of the rice trade, raking in unbelievable amounts of cash. The 5th generation boss, Yodoya Tatsugorō, had so much money and lived a life of such extreme opulence that he attracted the attention of the bakufu (regional shogunate officials, something like military police).

The bakufu decided that the Yodoya family had accumulated too much wealth. They were only a merchant family, and it was improper for a lower class to hold so much wealth. Their economic power was above their station in life, and so the bakufu stripped Yodoya Tatsugorō of everything he had: his rice, his business, his house, his every last possession. The Yodoya family fell into ruin, and Tatsugorō became destitute. Even his favorite possession, an unbelievably rich and indescribably splendid golden chicken called kogane no niwatori (金の鶏, literally “golden chicken”), was taken from him. The loss of his precious golden chicken caused Tatsugorō so much grief that he died, and because of the unhappy circumstances of his death, his ghost was unable to pass on.

Normally, when a ghost lingers like this, it attaches itself to the object of its desire, be it a person, a place, or (in this case) a thing. Tatsugorō’s soul meant to attach itself to his precious kogane no niwatori. In Japanese, the words for “gong” and “golden” can both be read “kane.” Poor Tatsugorō’s ghost must have gotten confused and attached itself to a nearby shōgo instead of his chicken, and the instrument turn into a tsukumogami.