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Shachihoko

Shachihoko
しゃちほこ

TRANSLATION: fish-tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: shachi
HABITAT: oceans
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Shachihoko are fearsome sea monsters. They have the body of a large fish and the head of a tiger. Their broad fins and tails always point towards the heavens, and their dorsal fins have numerous sharp spikes. Shachihoko live in colder, norther oceans. They are able to swallow massive amounts of water with a single gulp and hold it in their bellies. They are also able to summon clouds and control the rain.

INTERACTIONS: Shachihoko are often found adorning the rooftops of Japanese castles, temples, gates, and samurai residences. They are placed facing each other on opposite ends of a roof. They serve as protector spirits, similar to the oni roof tiles also commonly found on castles. It was believed that in the event of a fire, the shachihoko could protect the building by summoning rain clouds or by spitting out the massive amounts of water they had previously swallowed.

ORIGIN: Shachihoko as an element of construction evolved from shibi, large, ornamental roof end tiles. Shibi originated in China during the Jin dynasty and were popularized in Japan during the Nara and Heian periods. During the Sengoku period, when castles rapidly began appearing all over Japan, shibi were reimagined as large fish, and the image of the shachihoko was popularized. From them on, shachihoko remained popular elements of Japanese roof construction.

The shachihoko’s origins may go even further back, to India. In Hindu mythology, there is a large sea monster named Makara who is half-fish and half-beast (sometimes depicted as an elephant, a deer, a crocodile, or another animal). Makara was a powerful protector and servant of various deities. Images of Makara were commonly used in temple architecture, particularly over archways and doorways, or as rain spouts. Japanese versions of Makara tend to resemble the shachihoko more than they resemble the original Hindu creature.

Today, the Japanese word for the orca is shachi—no doubt because of its similarity to this creature.

Ōmukade

Oomukade大百足
おおむかで

TRANSLATION: giant centipede
HABITAT: mountains and caves; any dark and humid place big enough to hold it
DIET: carnivorous
CRITICAL WEAKNESS: human saliva

APPEARANCE: Ōmukade are monstrous mukade–centipedes (Scolopendra subspinipes) with dark bodies and bright orange legs and heads. They are often depicted with dragon-like features. While their non-monstrous cousins can grow up to 20 cm in length, the upper size limit on yōkai mukade is not known.

BEHAVIOR: Like their smaller relatives, ōmukade are vicious and highly aggressive. The bite of a regular mukade is venomous and very painful, but rarely fatal. Ōmukade, on the other hand, are much more venomous and very strong. They have even been known to torment dragons.

An ōmukade’s exoskeleton is so tough that it can’t be pierced by weapons. They do have one weakness though: human saliva is toxic to them. A weapon coated in saliva may be able to pierce through its armor and wound it.

INTERACTIONS: Ōmukade are extremely rare. When they are seen, they pose a threat to all in the area. Throughout history, the responsibility of exterminating these monsters has fallen on the shoulders of brave warriors.

LEGENDS: There is a famous bridge in Shiga Prefecture known as Seta no Karahashi. Long ago, a great serpent appeared on the bridge and would not move. The villagers were too afraid to approach the serpent, and so they could not cross.

One day, the brave warrior Fujiwara no Hidesato came to the bridge. He was not afraid of the serpent, and he crossed the bridge, crunching its great body under his feet. The serpent slithered back into the lake, and the bridge was clear again.

That night, a beautiful woman visited Hidesato. She introduced herself as the daughter of the dragon king of Like Biwa. The dragon king had sent her to Hidesato to ask for his help. Her family was being tormented by an ōmukade who lived on Mount Mikami. She knew that Hidesato must be a brave warrior, because he had so fearlessly trampled her body. Hidesato agreed to help the dragon king. He took up his sword and his bow and headed to the mountains.

Upon reaching Mount Mikami, Hidesato saw an enormous centipede coiled around its top. Its was so long that its body wrapped around the mountain seven and a half times. He fired his arrows at it until only one arrow remained, but he was unable to pierce the beast’s armor. Hidesato coated the tip of the arrow in his saliva, and said a prayer to Hachiman, the god of warriors. This time his arrow struck true, and he brought down the ōmukade.

The dragon king’s daughter was so grateful to Fujiwara no Hidesato that she gave him marvelous gifts: a bag of rice which never became empty no matter how much rice was taken from it; a roll of silk which never ran out no matter how much was cut from it; a cooking pot which always produced the most delicious food without the need for fire; and a large temple bell, which Hidesato donated to Mii-dera. The grateful dragon king also told Hidesato the secret to defeating Taira no Masakado, the rebel whom Hidesato had been charged with bringing down.

Karyōbinga

Karyoubinga迦陵頻伽
かりょうびんが

TRANSLATION: a phonetic rendition of its sanskrit name, kalaviṅka
ALTERNATE NAMES: myōonchō (exquisite sounding bird)
HABITAT: Gokuraku jōdo, a realm of paradise
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Karyōbinga are celestial beings from Buddhist cosmology. They have the head and arms of a bodhisattva, the body of a bird, and long, flowing tail feathers similar to that of a hōō. They live in a realm of paradise called Gokuraku jōdo.

BEHAVIOR: Karyōbinga possess voices of incomparable beauty. They begin singing while still inside of their eggs. After they hatch, they begin to dance and play heavenly musical instruments as well. They sing of the holy scriptures and the words of the buddhas.

ORIGIN: Karyōbinga come from Indian mythology. They originated in Buddhist scripture, which was brought to Japan from China. They differ very little from their Indian counterparts. They are usually used in paintings and sculpture as symbols of paradise and the Buddha’s words. They are a reminder that by living a holy life, one can be reborn into Gokuraku jōdo after their death. Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism make reaching this paradise their goal. Gokuraku jōdo is a pure land of utter bliss–a celestial kingdom created by Amida Buddha. Its inhabitants can practice Buddhism directly under Amida’s tutelage, listen to the songs of karyōbinga, and achieve enlightenment themselves.

Kotobuki

Kotobuki寿
ことぶき

TRANSLATION: congratulations, long life
HABITAT: unknown
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: The kotobuki is an auspicious chimera whose body contains parts from all twelve animals of the zodiac. It has the head of a rat, the ears of a hare, the horns of an ox, the comb of a rooster, the beard of a sheep, the mane of a horse, the neck of a dragon, the back of a boar, the shoulders and belly of a tiger, the front legs of a monkey, the rear legs of a dog, and the tail of a snake.

ORIGIN: The kotobuki was first documented in the Edo period. Woodblock prints of it were popular gifts. Almost no explanation about the creature was included in these prints, other than that it was said to come from India, it could understand human speech, and was called kotobuki. Merely possessing an image of the kotobuki was thought to be enough to protect a person from sickness and disease.

Good luck charms featuring the animals of the zodiac were popular during the Edo period. Even without a description, customers would recognize the twelve zodiac signs hidden in this beast. Further, the name kotobuki is a celebratory and congratulatory word, which makes this creature instantly identifiable as a powerful and auspicious creature.

 

Kōjin

Koujin鮫人
こうじん

TRANSLATION: shark person
ALTERNATE NAMES: samebito
HABITAT: oceans; particularly the South China Sea
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Kōjin are aquatic humanoids that closely resemble ningyo. Unlike the merfolk of Western legends, Asian merfolk are monstrous in appearance. Kōjin have black, scaly shark-like bodies, and ugly, human-like facial features and arms.

BEHAVIOR: Kōjin are native to the South China Sea, where they live a life similar to other merfolk. They are well known for their skill at weaving, and they spend much of their lives working on their looms. The sea silk that they weave is of the finest quality and doesn’t get wet even in the water. They are very emotional, and cry frequently. When they cry, pearls (or precious gems, by some accounts) fall from their eyes instead of tears.

ORIGIN: The kōjin is better known in the West by the alternate reading of its kanji—samebito. This is because of Lafcadio Hearn, who included a story about a samebito in his book of Japanese folk tales, Shadowings.

LEGENDS: Long ago, a man named Tawaraya Tōtarō lived on the shore of Lake Biwa. One day, he came across a strange looking creature crouching near the base of a bridge. It resembled a man, but its body was inky black, it had the face of a demon and the beard of a dragon, and its eyes were like green emeralds. Although Tōtarō was scared, the green eyes seemed gentle to him, and so he approached the creature. The creature introduced himself as a samebito. He had served as an officer under the Eight Great Dragon Kings in the dragon palace of Ryūgū-jō, but was banished from the palace and exiled from the sea due to a small mistake he had made. Since then, he had been wandering, unable to find food or shelter. He begged Tōtarō for help.

Tōtarō pitied the samebito. He took the samebito back to his home, where he had a small garden with a pond. He told the samebito that he could live there for as long as he wanted, and he could have as much food as he wanted to eat. For six months they lived together, and every day Tōtarō brought the samebito fresh food fit for a sea creature.

During the seventh month, Tōtarō went to a festival at Mii-dera, where a great pilgrimage of women had come. There, he met a woman of extraordinary beauty and refinement, with skin as white as snow, and a voice like a nightingale. Her name was Tamana, and Tōtarō fell in love with her at first sight. Totaro followed Tamana home, and discovered that she lived in the same town in which he had met the samebito. He also learned that she was unmarried, and that her family wanted her to marry a man of rank. They demanded as a betrothal gift a casket of ten thousand jewels from whomever wished to marry Tamana.

Tōtarō fell into despair, knowing that even if there were ten thousand jewels in all of Japan, he would never be able to procure them. Though it seemed impossible that he could ever make Tamana his wife, he could not get her lovely face and sweet voice out of his mind. It haunted him so much that he refused to eat or sleep, and became so ill that he could not even lift his head from his pillow. It seemed that he would die of a broken heart. The samebito, whom Tōtarō had cared for in his time of despair, entered the house to care for Tōtarō in his last days. Tōtarō apologized to the samebito, fearing that after his death, the samebito would lose his home and his means of survival, and would die as well. The samebito was so touched by Tōtarō’s compassion that he began to cry. Great tears of blood spilled from his green eyes and down his black cheeks, but by the time they hit the floor they had hardened into splendid rubies.

At this sight, Tōtarō instantly found new strength, and began to gather the jewels. The samebito, astonished at Tōtarō’s recovery, stopped crying. Of course, the flow of jewels also stopped. Tōtarō begged the samebito to continue crying until he had ten thousand jewels, but the samebito regretfully replied that he could only weep when he felt true grief in his heart. Seeing that Tōtarō’s sickness was cured, the samebito was filled with nothing but relief, and thus could not cry anymore. The samebito suggested that they visit the bridge where they had first met to reminisce, and perhaps he could cry again.

The next day, Tōtarō and the samebito visited the bridge. They ate fish and drank wine, and watched the setting sun. Seeing the sun set over the sparkling sea, and with a little help from the wine, the samebito thought about his former life in the sea and his happy days in the dragon palace. He was overcome with homesickness and began to weep profusely. A great shower of jewels covered the bridge. Tōtarō began gathering them up. When he had collected ten thousand jewels he shouted for joy. At the same moment, a delightful song was heard far away in the sea. Like a cloud, a glorious palace made of coral the color of the setting sun rose out of the water. The samebito leaped with joy. He explained to Tōtarō that the Eight Great Dragon Kings must have granted him amnesty and were calling him back home. He bade his farewell to Tōtarō, thankful for his kindness and their friendship, and then dove into the sea.

Tōtarō never saw the samebito again. He brought the casket of ten thousand jewels to Tamana’s family and presented them as a betrothal gift. Shortly after, Tōtarō and Tamana were married.

Hanzaki

Hanzaki鯢魚
はんざき

TRANSLATION: Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus)
ALTERNATE NAMES: ōsanshōuo, hanzake, hazako
HABITAT: rivers and streams
DIET: mainly insects, frogs, and fish

APPEARANCE: Hanzaki are monstrous versions of the Japanese giant salamander. These animals normally grow up to one and a half meters long, however the yōkai versions of this animal can grow much larger. They have rough, mottled, brown and black skin, tiny eyes, and enormous mouths which span the entire width of their heads. They live in rivers and streams far from human-inhabited areas.

INTERACTIONS: Hanzaki and humans rarely come into contact with each other. When they do, it is usually because the hanzaki has grown large enough to eat humans or livestock and is causing trouble to nearby villagers.

ORIGIN: The name hanzaki is a colloquialism for the Japanese giant salamander. They are called hanzaki for their regenerative powers; it was believed that a salamander’s body could be cut (saku) in half (han) and it would still survive. The call of the salamander was said to resemble that of a human baby, and so the word is written with kanji combining fish () and child ().

LEGENDS: There was once a deep pool in which a gigantic hanzaki lived. The hanzaki would grab horses, cows, and even villagers, drag them into the pool, and swallow them in a single gulp. For generations, the villagers lived in fear of the pool and stayed away from it.

During the first year of Bunroku (1593 CE), the villagers called for help, asking if there was anyone brave enough to slay the hanzaki. A young villager named Miura no Hikoshirō volunteered. Hikoshirō grabbed his sword and dove into the pool. He did not come back up; he had been swallowed by the hanzaki in a single gulp! Moments later, Hikoshirō sliced through the hanzaki and tore it in half from the inside out, killing it instantly. The slain creature’s body was 10 meters long, and 5 meters in girth!

The very day the hanzaki was slain, strange things began to happen at the Miura residence. Night after night, something would bang on the door, and something screaming and crying could be heard just outside the door. However, when Hikoshirō opened the door to check, there was nothing there at all.

Not long after that, Hikoshirō and his entire family died suddenly. Strange things began to happen through the village as well. The villagers believed the angry ghost of the dead hanzaki had cursed them. They built a small shrine and enshrined the hanzaki’s spirit as a god, dubbing it Hanzaki Daimyōjin. After that, the hanzaki’s spirit was pacified, and the curse laid to rest.

A gravestone dedicated to Miura no Hikoshirō still stands in Yubara, Okayama Prefecture. The villagers of Yubara still honor Hanzaki Daimyōjin by building giant salamander shrine floats and parading them through town during the annual Hanzaki Festival.

 

Karura

Karura迦楼羅
かるら

TRANSLATION: derived from the Hindu deity Garuda
ALTERNATE NAMES: konjichō (golden winged bird)
HABITAT: Shumisen (aka Mount Meru)
DIET: dragons

APPEARANCE: Karura are a race of enormous, fire-breathing demigods. They are humanoid in appearance, with the heads and wings of eagles. They have red skin, and red and gold feathers. Karura are fearsome. They breath fire from their beaks. The flapping of their wings sounds like thunder, and creates gusts of wind so strong they can dry up lakes, knock down houses, and cover entire cities in darkness. Their gigantic wingspans are 330 yojanas wide, and they can leap 3,360,000 li in a single bound. (The lengths of one yojana and one li vary greatly from country to country and era to era—a yojana can measure anywhere between 1.6 km to over 13 km long, and one li can measure anywhere between 400 m and 3.9 km.)

BEHAVIOR: Karura inhabit Tendō, the realm of heaven. They are found on Shumisen (known as Mount Meru in English), a sacred mountain with five peaks which exists at the center the universe. They make their homes in trees, and live in cities rules by kings. They are the mortal enemies of the naga—a group of beings which includes dragons and serpents—and feed upon them as their main diet.

INTERACTIONS: Karura are are worshiped in some branches of esoteric Buddhism. Because karura are the enemies of dragons and serpents, they are seen as a counter to things associated with these creatures. They are guardians who keep venomous snakes and dragons away. They protect against poison and disease. They are even helpful against excessive rains and typhoons. Because they are such fierce predators, they are also viewed as destroyers of sin, devouring the spiritual impurities of the faithful just as they devour dragons.

ORIGIN: Karura comes from the Hindu deity Garuda, a giant eagle who served as the mount of Vishnu. Garuda was incorporated into Buddhist folklore, where he became a race of powerful eagle-like devas. They were then later brought along with Buddhism to China, and finally to Japan. The name karura comes from the Japanese pronunciation of Garuda.

Karura are one of the hachi bushū—the eight legions. These are the eight classes of supernatural beings who were converted to Buddhism by Buddha. The eight races of the hachi bushū are the ten (deva in Sanskrit), tatsu (naga), yasha (yaksa), kendatsuba (gandharva), ashura (asura), karura (garuda), kinnara, and magoraka (mahoraga). All of these creatures are inhabitants of Tendō (the highest state of existence) except for the ashura, who live in Ashuradō (the third highest state of existence).

Genbu

Genbu玄武
げんぶ

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.

Byakko

Byakko白虎
びゃっこ

TRANSLATION: white tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: baifū
HABITAT: the western sky

APPEARANCE: Byakko is a celestial white tiger. His home is in the western sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the rear of the tiger is located in Andromeda and Pisces. The constellations which makes up the middle of the tiger are located in Ares and Taurus. The constellations which makes up his front legs and head are located in Orion.

INTERACTIONS: Byakko is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Byakko is the guardian of the west. He is associated with the Chinese element of metal, the season of autumn, the planet Venus, and the color white. He represents the virtue of righteousness. He controls the wind.

ORIGIN: Byakko and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Byakko and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Suzaku

Suzaku朱雀
すざく

TRANSLATION: vermilion bird
ALTERNATE NAMES: sujaku, shujaku, chūchue
HABITAT: the southern sky

APPEARANCE: Suzaku is a large, scarlet, phoenix-like bird. His home is in the southern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the left wing of the bird is located in Gemini. The constellation which makes up his head feathers or comb is located in Cancer. The constellations which make up his head, beak, and body are located in Hydra. The constellation which makes up his right wing is located in Hydra and Crater. The constellation which makes up his tail feathers is located in Corvus.

INTERACTIONS: Suzaku is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Suzaku is the guardian of the south. He is associated with the Chinese element of fire, the season of summer, the planet Mars, and the color red. He represents the virtue of propriety. He controls heat and flame. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō and Heian-kyō were each guarded on the south by a large gate called Suzakumon (Suzaku Gate). Beyond Suzakumon was a wide avenue called Suzaku Boulevard, which served as the main north-south road. In Kyoto, this road ran from the Imperial Palace to the gate at the southern end of the city, Rashōmon. Today, though the gates are long gone, Suzaku Boulevard (now called Senbon Avenue) remains an important road in the city.

ORIGIN: Suzaku and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Suzaku and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Because they look very similar, Suzaku is often confused with hōō, the Chinese pheonix. The attributes and symbolism of one are sometimes mixed or swapped with each other. Though it has been suggested that they may share a common origin—perhaps going back to the mythical bird Garuda in Indian mythology—there is no strong evidence linking these creatures to each other.

Seiryū

Seiryuu青竜
せいりゅう

TRANSLATION: azure dragon
ALTERNATE NAMES: shōryū, seiryō, sōryū, chinron
HABITAT: the eastern sky

APPEARANCE: Seiryū is a large blue-green dragon with a long tongue. His home is in the eastern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellations which make up the horn and neck of the dragon are located in Virgo. The constellation which makes up the chest of the dragon is located in Libra. The constellations which make up his heart, belly, and tail are located in Scorpius. The final constellation makes up his dung, and is located in Sagittarius.

INTERACTIONS: Seiryū is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Seiryū is the guardian of the east. He is associated with the Chinese element of wood, the season of spring, the planet Jupiter, and the colors blue and green. He represents the virtue of benevolence, and symbolizes creativity. He controls the rain. He is enshrined in Kyoto at Kiyomizu Temple, in the eastern part of the city.

ORIGIN: Seiryū and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō, and Heian-kyō were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Seiryū and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Yatagarasu

Kinu八咫烏
やたがらす

TRANSLATION: eight-span (i.e. giant) crow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sansokuu (three-legged crow), kin’u (golden crow)
HABITAT: the sun
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Yatagarasu is a three-legged which inhabits the sun. It is found across East Asian folklore.

ORIGIN: A three-legged crow has been used as a symbol of the sun since neolithic times in China. It may have originated as a personification of sunspots by ancient astronomers. In Japan, the crow has also been a symbol of the sun since ancient times, appearing in Japan’s earliest written works. It is a holy creature and a servant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The name Yatagarasu means “eight span crow.” One “span” was the length between the outstretched thumb and middle finger—roughly 18 centimeters—but this moniker is mainly just a poetic way to say “very large.” Originally Yatagarasu was depicted with two legs, but in the 930’s CE, the Chinese myth of the three-legged crow was merged into the story of Yatagarasu. Since then, Yatagarasu and the three-legged crow have been synonymous with each other.

The three-legged crow has long been used in religious and astrological symbolism across China and Japan, particularly among those involved with sun worship and onmyōdō. The three legs of the bird represent heaven, the earth, and humanity, while the crow itself represents the sun. This symbolizes that heaven, earth, and mankind all come from the same sun, and are like brothers to each other. They are also said to represent the three virtues of the gods: wisdom, benevolence, and valor. The three legs may also represent the three powerful clans of ancient Kumano—Ui, Suzuki, and Enomoto—who use a three-legged crow as their clan crest.

LEGENDS: Yatagarasu is an important figure in the mythical history of Japanese. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi—today enshrined in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. As Yatagarasu, he led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, through the mountains to establish his country.

Jimmu’s clan originated in Kyushu, in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture. He and his brothers led an eastward migration from along the Seto Insland Sea, looking for a better homeland, and subduing the various tribes they encountered along the way. They suffered many hardships. When they reached Naniwa (present-day Osaka), Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse, leader of the expedition, was killed in battle. Jimmu realized that they had lost because they were fighting facing eastwards, fighting against the sun. He led his troops around the Kii peninsula, to Kumano (present-day Mie Prefecture), and began a westward push. His expedition became lost in the mountains of Kumano. Seeing this, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Takamimusubi, one of the creator gods, ordered Kamo Taketsunumi to act as a guide to Jimmu. Kamo Taketsunumi took the form of a giant crow, and flew to Jimmu’s side to show him the way. With Yatagarasu leading the way, Jimmu was able to navigate the mountains of Kumano and reach Yamato (in present-day Nara Prefecture), where he would found his capital and become Japan’s first emperor.

According to legend, Jimmu’s great-grandfather Ninigi was the grandson of Amaterasu. Thus, Jimmu, and the entire Japanese imperial line are the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Yatagarasu, as a guide to Jimmu, played a small roll with a very big impact on the future of the imperial dynasty.

Uwabami

Uwabami蟒蛇
うわばみ

TRANSLATION: giant snake, great serpent
ALTERNATE NAMES: orochi, daija
HABITAT: wilderness
DIET: carnivorous, very fond of alcohol; gluttonous

APPEARANCE: Uwabami are enormous serpents. Apart from their incredible size, they closely resemble ordinary snakes. They make their homes in the wilderness, far from civilization.

BEHAVIOR: Uwabami’s most notable feature is their appetite. They are capable of eating things that are much larger than their bodies, and in quantities that seem like more than they should be able to eat. They are also extremely fond of drinking, and can consume huge quantities of sake. Like many animals, snakes are believed to have a variety of magical powers. They can shape-shift into various objects and creatures, including humans. They can even control the elements to some extent. Natural disasters such as floods and rock slides are often attributed to uwabami.

INTERACTIONS: In addition to eating large volumes of food and alcohol, uwabami also like to feed on people. They set up ambushes and assault travelers in mountain passes. Because of their size, they can easily swallow a full grown human whole—and they often do. However, they are sometimes outsmarted by clever people, who live to tell others of what they saw.

ORIGIN: Snakes have been a part of Japanese mythology since the earliest times, in part to their peculiar behaviors. Snakes are symbols of life and death, and eternal youth—the shedding and regrowing of their skin was viewed as a magical ability. Because they can slip into the tiniest cracks, and can penetrate deep, dark places that are inaccessible to humans, they are viewed as tenacious and clever creatures. Because of these traits, snakes have long been considered to be kami or yōkai. During different periods of history, they have been referred to as orochi, daija, and uwabami, but all of these refer to the same creature.

The name uwabami has roots going back to archaic Japanese. The first part of the name, uwa, meant skillful or superior. Gradually this shifted to a similar sounding word, uha, which meant great or large. The second part of the name is from an archaic word for snake, hami. This word derives from the word for eating, hamu, which refers both to the snake’s fondness for biting and its ability to eat things that appear much larger than it. So uwabami were “skillful eaters” which over time became “giant snakes.”

Another linguistic point of interest is that the word “uwabami” also has the colloquial meaning of “heavy drinker.” The reason for this is the uwabami’s great love for sake and its ability to drink in far alcohol more than even a creature as large as it should be able to.

LEGENDS:  A famous tale comes from Ōnuma Lake in Nagano Prefecture.

Long ago, there was an daija who lived in Ōnuma Lake. Every year he would transform into an extremely handsome young man and travel to the eastern mountains to view the cherry blossoms. One spring, he spied a beautiful young woman all by herself under the blossoms. The woman was Kuro hime, the daughter of Takanashi Masamori, a powerful lord of Shinano Province. Kuro hime also spied the handsome man who was watching her and found him irresistable. The two became acquainted and soon fell in love.

Some time later, the handsome young man paid a visit to the castle of Takanashi Masamori. He introduced himself as the great snake who lives in Ōnuma Lake, guardian deity of the Shiga Highlands. He explained that he and Kuro hime were in love, and asked the lord for her hand in marriage. Masamori immediately snapped that he would never give his daughter to someone that was not human.

The young man did not give up, and returned day after day to ask for Kuro hime’s hand in marriage. Finally, the lord relented and gave his conditions: “If you can keep up with me on horseback and complete seven laps around my castle, I will give you my daughter.” The young man eagerly accepted and agreed to return to the castle in a few days for the race.

Masamori was not about to let his daughter marry a snake. He devised a plan to kill the creature so it would leave him and his daughter alone forever. He had his servants plant swords in the grass all around the castle. Masamori was an expert rider and knew where the swords were hidden, so he would easily be able to avoid the traps.

When the day of the race came, the young man showed up at the castle as promised. The race began, and Takanashi Masamori spurred his horse into action. He was indeed an expert rider, and the young man could not keep up with the lord. He had to transform back into a snake in order to keep pace with the horse. The swords planted around the castle perimeter pierced and tore the snakes body, but he did not give up. Finally, the lord and the snake completed their seven laps. The snake’s body was ragged, and rivers of blood flowed from his body. Immediately upon finishing his final lap, the daija collapsed. Masamori’s trap had worked.

After some time had passed, the daija awoke. It looked around, and seeing nobody it realized that Masamori had lied. Trembling with rage, the daija returned to the Shiga Highlands. It summoned all of its family, servants, and clan members. All of the spirits of the Shiga Highlands arose and summoned a great storm. Rain the likes of which had never been seen before fell. Ōnuma Lake swelled in size and burst forth, flooding everything around. All of the villages surrounding the lake were annihalated. Houses were knocked down. Fields were flooded and washed away. No humans or animals were able to escape destruction. However, the mountains around the Takanashi Masamori’s castle acted like a shield, and the castle stood firm.

Kuro hime looked down from the castle and watched the torrent wash away wash away the entire region. She heartbroken when she saw the destruction. Realizing that only she had the power to stop the disaster, she left the castle by herself and traveled down to Ōnuma Lake. Kuro hime threw herself into the flood and was never seen again. When the daija realized what had happened, it immediately scattered the storm clouds and caused the flood to recede. Ōnuma Lake shrank back to its original borders.

The daija is still worshiped today as the guardian deity of the Shiga Highlands. There is a small shrine called Daija Jinja located near Ōnuma Lake where the snake is enshrined. Every August, the villagers gather there to perform the Daija Matsuri and remember the story of Kuro hime.

Atuikakura

Atuikakuraアトゥイカクラ
あトぅいかくら

TRANSLATION: the Japanese reading of its Ainu name, atuy kakura
ALTERNATE NAMES: atsuuikakura
HABITAT: Uchiura bay in Hokkaido
DIET: mainly a scavenger; occasionally eats ships

APPEARANCE: Atuikakura is an enormous sea cucumber which lives deep in Uchiura Bay in Hokkaido.

BEHAVIOR: Atuikakura is rarely seen due its underwater lifestyle. It spends most of its time deep in the water, occasionally attaching itself to chunks of driftwood and floating to other parts of the bay.

INTERACTIONS: Despite rarely being seen, Atuikakura can be very dangerous to ships on the bay. When Atuikakura gets startled, it thrashes about wildly, smashing or capsizing ships which happen to be bear it. It also sometimes mistakes a wooden boat for a piece of driftwood, attaches its mouth to it, and drags the ship under the waves.

ORIGIN: Atuikakura is the Japanese transcription of its Ainu name, atuy kakura. Atuy is the Ainu word for the sea, and kakura means sea cucumber. According to local legend, Atuikakura was formed when a mouru—the traditional undergarment of Ainu women—washed down a river and into the bay. The mouru settled at the bottom of Uchiura Bay and and turned into a giant sea cucumber.

Akkorokamui

Akkorokamuiアッコロカムイ
あっころかむい

TRANSLATION: this is the Japanese version of its Ainu name, Atkor Kamuy
HABITAT: Uchiura Bay in Hokkaido
DIET: omnivorous; it can swallow ships and whales whole

APPEARANCE: Akkorokamui is a gigantic octopus god which resides in Hokkaido’s Uchiura Bay. When it extends its legs, its body stretches over one hectare in area. It is so big that it can swallow boats and even whales in a single gulp. Its entire body is red. It is so large that when it appears the sea and even the sky reflect its color, turning a deep red.

INTERACTIONS: Any ship foolish enough to sail too close to Akkorokamui will be swallowed whole. Therefore, for generations, locals have stayed away from the water when the sea and sky turn red. Fishermen and sailors who had no choice but to be on the waters would carry scythes with them for protection.

ORIGIN: Akkorokamui comes from Ainu folklore, where it is known as Atkorkamuy. Its name can be translated as “string-holding kamuy.” String-holding likely refers to the octopus’s string-like tentacles, while kamuy is an Ainu term for a divine being—similar to the Japanese term kami. In Ainu folklore, Akkorokamui is both revered and feared as a water deity, specifically as the lord of Uchiura Bay.

LEGENDS: Long ago, in the mountains near the village of Rebunge, there lived a gigantic spider named Yaushikep. Yaushikep was enormous. His great red body stretched over one hectare in area. One day, Yaushikep descended from the mountains and attacked the people of Rebunge. He shook the earth as he rampaged, destroying everything in his path. The villagers were terrified. They prayed to the gods to save them. The god of the sea, Repun Kamuy, heard their prayers and pulled Yaushikep into the bay. When the great spider was taken into the water, he transformed into a giant octopus, and took over charge of the bay as its god. Ever since then, he has been known as Atkor Kamuy, or Akkorokamui in Japanese.

Ikuchi

Ikuchiイクチ

TRANSLATION: none; just the name for this monster
ALTERNATE NAMES: ayakashi, ikuji
HABITAT: open seas
DIET: unknown; but it is big enough to eat anything it wants

APPEARANCE: Ikuchi are colossal sea monsters that roam the open seas off the coasts of Japan. They appear in numerous stories from the Edo period, where they are described as enormous fish or monstrous serpents of some kind. Their bodies are covered in a slippery oil, which sheds as they swim the ocean.

INTERACTIONS: When an ikuchi’s path crosses a boat’s, the sea monster envelopes the boat in its tentacle-like body. It slithers over the sides and across the deck, slowly sliding its whole body over the boat. Ikuchi are so long—many kilometers, by some accounts—that it can take hours for an entire one to slither over a boat. On a few occasions, boats have been tangled up in this monster for days. During this time, sailors must constantly bail the monster’s oily slime off of the deck to avoid being capsized by the heavy goo.

ORIGIN: An ikuchi is depicted in Toriyama Sekien’s bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi, where it is called ayakashi. This yōkai is often referred to by that name. Ayakashi is more commonly used as a term for other strange creatures and supernatural phenomena and has nothing in particular to do with ikuchi. Toriyama Sekien may have just been listing the ikuchi as an example of an ayakashi. For whatever reason the name stuck.

Yamata no Orochi

Yamata no Orochi

八岐大蛇
やまたのおろち

TRANSLATION: eight-branched serpent
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Yamata no Orochi is a gigantic serpent with eight heads and eight tails. It has bright red eyes and a red belly. The beast is so large that its body covers the distance of eight valleys and eight hills. Fir and cypress trees grow on its back, and its body is covered in moss.

ORIGIN: Yamata no Orochi appears in the earliest written Japanese documents, the Kojiki and the Nihongi. Without a doubt, the legend goes back even farther into pre-history.

LEGENDS: Ages ago, the storm god, Susanoo, was thrown out of heaven and descended to earth at Mount Torikama near the Hi River in Izumo Province. There, he came upon an elderly couple of gods named Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi, who were weeping. When Susanoo asked why they were crying, they explained that they once had eight daughters, but every year the eight-headed-eight-tailed serpent Yamata no Orochi demanded one as a sacrifice. They were now down to their eighth and final daughter, Kushinada hime. Soon it would be time for Yamata no Orochi to demand a sacrifice.

Susanoo explained that he was the elder brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and offered to slay the beast in return for Kushinada hime’s hand in marriage. The elderly couple agreed, and Susanoo set in motion his plan to defeat the serpent.

First, Susanoo transformed Kushinada hime into a comb, which he placed in his hair. Then, he had Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi build a large fence with eight gates. On each gate they raised a platform and on each platform they placed a vat. They poured extremely strong sake into each vat. When this was finished, everyone waited for the serpent to arrive.

When Yamata no Orochi appeared, the great serpent slithered into the fence and noticed the powerful sake. It dipped its eight heads into the vats and drank the alcohol. Soon, the monster fell into a deep, drunken sleep. Susanoo used this chance to make his attack. He sliced the enormous beast into tiny pieces with his sword. The carnage was so great that the Hi River flowed with blood. When Susanoo had cut the creature down to its fourth tail, his sword shattered into pieces. Examining the part of Yamata no Orochi’s tail which broke his sword, Susanoo discovered another sword within the creature’s flesh: the legendary katana Kusanagi no Tsurugi.

Susanoo eventually offered Kusanagi as a gift to his sister, Amaterasu, and was allowed to return to heaven. The sword was passed down through the generations in the imperial line of Japan. It is one of the three pieces of imperial regalia, along with the mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. Today, the sword which came from Yamata no Orochi’s tail is said to be safeguarded in the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Ōnamazu

Oonamazu

大鯰
おおなまず

TRANSLATION: giant catfish
ALTERNATE NAMES: jishin namazu (earthquake catfish)
HABITAT: rivers, seas, oceans, and subterranean caverns
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: As their name suggests, ōnamazu are gigantic catfish which live in the muck and slime of the waterways around Japan. They also inhabit large caverns deep underground.

BEHAVIOR: Ōnamazu behave much like their smaller cousins. They dig in the muck, and thrash about when disturbed or excited. Due to their titanic mass, the thrashing of ōnamazu is considerably more violent than ordinary catfish, to the point where they are dangerous to humans. When these monstrous fish get excited, they shake the earth with their violent thrashing, causing devastating earthquakes in the areas near where they live.

INTERACTIONS: Ōnamazu do not normally interact with people, however during the Edo period they were popularly depicted in newspaper illustrations. Usually these pictures showed a huge, grotesque catfish being subdued by a large number of people, gods, or even other yokai, desperately trying to calm its thrashing.

ORIGIN: Long ago, common belief was that earthquakes were caused by large dragons which lived deep in the earth. During the Edo period, the idea of catfish causing earthquakes gradually began to displace dragons in popular lore as the origin of seismic activity. By the 1855 Great Ansei Earthquake, the ōnamazu had become the popular culprit to blame for earthquakes. This was due mostly to the hundreds of illustrations of thrashing catfish which accompanied newspapers reporting the news of that disaster. They were so popular they spawned an entire genre of woodblock print: namazu-e (catfish pictures).

The reason catfish came to represent earthquakes was due to a large number of witnesses observing catfish behaving oddly—thrashing about violently for seemingly no reason—just before the earthquake. Rumor quickly spread that that catfish had some kind of ability to foresee the coming disaster. Since then, the catfish has regularly appeared as a symbol for earthquakes—either as the cause or as a warning sign of the coming disaster. Recent studies have shown that catfish are in fact very electrosensitive and do become significantly more active shortly before an earthquake hits—showing that there is more to this myth than meets the eye!

LEGENDS: The Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki prefecture is the source of a famous story about ōnamazu. The deity of the shrine, a patron deity of martial arts named Takemikazuchi, is said to have subdued an ōnamazu. He pinned it down underneath the shrine, piercing its head and tail with a sacred stone which still remains in the shrine today—the top of the stone protrudes from the ground. Earthquakes that take place during the 10th month of the lunar calendar—”the godless month,” when the gods all travel to Izumo—are said to be due to Takemikazuchi’s absence from the shrine.

During the 2011 Tōhoku disaster, the Kashima Shrine was badly damaged by an earthquake. The large stone gate was destroyed, stone lanterns were knocked down, and the water level in the reflecting pond changed. The gate was rebuilt in 2014.

Wani

Wani

和邇
わに

TRANSLATION: none; this is the creature’s name
HABITAT: oceans, seas, and lakes
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Wani are sea monsters that live in deep bodies of water. They have long, serpentine bodies, fins, and can breathe both air and water. Wani are able to shapeshift into humans, and there are even tales of wani and humans falling in love.

BEHAVIOR: Wani are the rulers of the oceans and gods of the sea. They live in splendid coral palaces deep on the ocean floor. Wani have a complex political hierarchy which mirrors that of the surface world. There are kings and queens, princes and princess, courtesans, servants, and so on. Ōwatatsumi, also known as Ryūjin, is the greatest of them. He rules the sea from his palace Ryūgū-jō. He controls the ebb and flow of the ocean using the tide jewels kanju and manju.

ORIGIN: Wani appear in the earliest written records of Japanese myths, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Their stories almost certainly date back even further, into the mists of prehistory. Scholars disagree over whether the earliest legends of wani originated in Japan or were imported from other cultures, citing similarities between wani and the Chinese long or the Indian naga. Wani play an important role in Japanese mythology, including in the mythological founding of Japan.

The word wani first appears in the Kojiki written with man’yōgana (an archaic phonetic syllabary). Later it came to be written with the kanji . Wani came to refer to sharks and other “sea monsters” that sailors and fishermen might encounter out at sea. The sea was a dangerous and mysterious place, and sailors may have thought that sharks were the powerful serpents of legends. Over time, the meaning of the word expanded to include to crocodiles as well as sharks, and then shifted to refer only to crocodiles. Today both the kanji and the name wani mean “crocodile” and are rarely used to refer to sea dragons.

LEGENDS: One of the most famous wani legends is the story of Toyotama hime, the daughter of Ōwatatsumi. She married a surface dweller named Hoori. Hoori and his brother Hoderi were grandchildren of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. One day Hoori borrowed and lost Hoderi’s fish hook. Hoderi insisted that Hoori find and return the lost hook, so Hoori went into the ocean to look for it. He was unable to find the hook, but instead he discovered the palace where the dragon king of the sea, Ōwatatsumi, lived. Hoori visited the palace and asked Ōwatatsumi for help finding the hook. With the dragon god’s help, Hoori found the hook, but in the meantime, Hoori had fallen in love with Toyotama hime, the daughter of the dragon god.

Hoori and Toyotama hime were married, and they lived together at the bottom of the sea for three years. Eventually, Hoori became homesick and longed to see country again. Together, he and his wife returned to the surface world with Hoderi’s lost hook. While on land, Toyotami hime gave birth to a son. When she went into labor, she asked Hoori not to look upon her, because she had to change into her true form in order to bear her child. Hoori became curious and sneaked a peak at his wife while she gave birth. He was shocked to see, instead of his wife, a huge wani cradling their newborn son. The wani was, of course, Toyotama hime in her true form. Toyotama hime was unable to forgive his betrayal, and was so ashamed that she fled back into the ocean and never saw Hoori or her son again.

Although Toyotama hime abandoned her son, her sister Tamayori came to raise him in her absence. The boy, Ugayafukiaezu, grew up to marry Tamayori, and together they had a son. Their son was Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.

Itsumade

Itsumade以津真天
いつまで

TRANSLATION: “until when?”
ALTERNATE NAMES: itsumaden
DIET: the lamentation of the dead

APPEARANCE: Itsumade are kaichō, or strange birds. They have the face of a human with a pointed beak, and the body of a snake with wings, and terrible claws. Their wingspan is 4.8 meters.

BEHAVIOR: Itsumade appear in the night sky during times of trouble—such as plagues and disasters, or flying over battlegrounds where many have died. In particular, they fly over places where there is suffering or death, yet little has been done to alleviate the pain of the living or pacify the spirits of the dead. The strange birds fly about in circles all night long, crying out in a terrible voice.

ORIGIN: Itsumade make their first recorded appearance in the Taiheiki, a fictional history of Japan written in the 14th century. According to the Taiheiki, a terrible plague spread during the fall of 1334. The suffering of the plague victims is what summoned the itsumade.

Itsumade’s name is not written in the Taiheiki; it was added later by Toriyama Sekien. He named this yōkai for its horrible cry of “Itsumademo?” which means, “Until when?” The birds appear to be asking those below how long will this suffering go unnoticed. It is thought that the spirits of the dead and suffering form into onryō which take the shape of these birds. They demand recognition of their suffering and torment.

LEGENDS: One night during the fall of 1334, the itsumade suddenly appeared above the hall for state ceremonies, crying out, “Itsumademo? Itsumademo?” Panic erupted amongst the people of the capital. The same creature came back the next night, and every night thereafter. Finally, the imperial court decided that something had to be done. They recalled Minamoto no Yorimasa’s triumph against the nue many years earlier, and decided to summon the warrior Oki no Jirouzaemon Hiroari. Hiroari was an expert archer. He used a signal arrow that let off a loud whistle as it flew, and shot the monster out of the sky. Afterwards, Hiroari was given the name Mayumi, meaning true bow.

Mayumi Hiroari went on to become a famous warrior, and settled down in what is now Mayumi, Miyama City, Fukuoka Prefecture, where his grave still stands. The area was renamed in his honor after he died.

Hakutaku

Hakutaku白澤
はくたく

TRANSLATION: white marsh; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
ALTERNATE NAMES: kutabe
HABITAT: remote, holy mountains
DIET: unknown; likely herbivorous

APPEARANCE: The hakutaku is a wise chimerical beasts that resembles a white ox. It has nine eyes  — three on its head, and three on each of its broad sides — and six horns. Hakutaku live in remote mountains, and only appear in eras and countries where the ruler of the land is a wise and virtuous leader. They are extremely good omens and symbols of good luck. Hakutaku can speak human languages, and are highly knowledgeable about all things in creation.

INTERACTIONS: Because of its incredible knowledge of the various kinds of yokai and monsters, paintings of the hakutaku were very popular in Japan during the Edo period. They were sold and used as good luck charms and as wards against evil spirits, disease, and other yokai. Because the hakutaku knows all, it was believed that evil yokai would stay away from him.

ORIGIN: The hakutaku, like many other holy beasts, comes from Chinese legends. In China, it is known as the bai ze.

LEGENDS: One of the most famous accounts of a hakutaku comes from the legendary Yellow Emperor (2697–2597 BCE) of China. The emperor was performing an imperial tour of his lands, and in the east near the sea, he climbed a mountain and encountered a hakutaku. The two spoke, and the hakutaku told the emperor that in all of creation there were 11,520 different kinds of yokai. The emperor had his subordinates record everything the hakutaku said, and it was preserved in a volume known as the Hakutaku-zu. This volume recorded each kind of yokai, along with what kind of evils they do, or disasters they bring, as well as how to deal with them — a sort of demonic disaster manual. Unfortunately the Hakutaku-zu was lost long, long ago, and no surviving copies exist.

A legend from Toyama prefecture tells of a Japanese sighting of a hakutaku. It appeared on Mount Tateyama, one of the tallest and holiest mountains in Japan. This creature, called a kutabe in this legend, warned of a deadly plague that would soon sweep through the lands. It told the villagers how to create magical talismans that would protect them from the plague, and they were saved. Since then, the hakutaku has been revered as a symbol of medicine.

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.

Shīsā

Shiisaaシーサー
しいさあ

TRANSLATION: the Ryukyuan pronunciation of shishi, another name for komainu
HABITAT: shrines, castles, graveyards, villages; found on rooftops in particular
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Shīsā are small, lion-like yokai which are found throughout Okinawa, in close proximity to humans. While they are very similar to Japanese komainu, there are a few notable differences. Shīsā are native to Okinawa, and are thus only found on the Ryukyu archipelago and the southernmost islands of Japan. Shīsā are smaller and more dog-like than their Japanese (medium sized dog-lion hybrids) and Chinese (large and very lion-like) cousins.

INTERACTIONS: Lion-dogs are commonly depicted in East Asian sculpture as guardian deities. Komainu and shishi are nearly always found in pairs, yet it is common to find solitary shīsā perched on the roofs of houses that they guard. Chinese shishi are usually used as imperial guardians, Japanese komainu are usually used as shrine guardians, and Ryukyuan shīsā are usually used as house or village guardians, perched on rooftops, village gates, castles, or gravesites.

Shīsā are also depicted as shrine guardians, with male/female pairs representing the “a” and “un” sounds. This behavior was likely imported from Japan after the Ryukyu islands were conquered. However there is disagreement over the genders. In most depictions, the right, open-mouthed shīsā is the male, beckoning good luck and fortune, while the left, close-mouthed shīsā is the female, protecting the village from natural disasters and evil spirits. In other depictions, the open-mouthed shīsā is the female and the closed-mouthed shīsā is the male.

ORIGIN: Shīsā are very close relatives to komainu, and share the same ancestor: China’s imperial guardian lions. However, while komainu arrived in mainland Japan via Korea, shīsā were imported to the Ryukyu islands directly from China, before Okinawa was part of Japan. In fact, the name shīsā is actually the Ryukyuan pronunciation of their Chinese name, shishi, which is also sometimes used for komainu in Japanese.

Ningyo

Ningyo人魚
にんぎょ

TRANSLATION: human fish; mermaid, merman
HABITAT: seas, oceans, and other large bodies of water
DIET: omnivorous; fish, seaweed, and other aquatic foods

APPEARANCE: Mermaids are known as ningyo in Japanese, but they are very different from the mermaids of Western tradition. Ningyo more closely resemble fish than humans, with a varying level of human-like features, ranging from just an ugly, deformed fish-like face, to an entire human torso with long, bony fingers and sharp claws. They can range in size from the size of a human child to the size of a large seal. Unlike the mermaids of the Atlantic and Mediterranean legends, ningyo from the Pacific and the Sea of Japan are hideous to behold, resembling more of an otherworldly nightmare than a seductive siren.

Mermaids resembling the breeds known throughout the West – with an attractive human torso and a piscine lower body – are not unheard of in the Japanese islands. Particularly since the end of the Edo period and the opening of Japan to the West, more and more Western-style Atlantic mermaids have been seen in Japanese waters. However, the most common Japanese mermaid is more beast than beauty.

INTERACTIONS: Ningyo sightings go back to the earliest written histories of Japan. The first recorded mermaid sightings in Japan are found in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history, dating back to 619 CE. The flesh of a ningyo is believed to grant eternal life and youth to those who eat it, and thus it is the subject of many folk tales. However, it carries with it a danger that most people are not willing to risk. Ningyo can place a powerful curse on humans who try to wound or capture them, and some legends tell of entire towns that were swallowed by earthquakes or tidal waves after a foolish fisherman brought home a ningyo in one of his catches. While their grotesque appearance and supernatural powers make them an intriguing subject, they are best avoided at all costs.

Shōjō

Shoujou猩々
しょうじょう

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: coasts, islands, and shallow waters; found throughout Japan
DIET: omnivorous; extremely fond of sake

APPEARANCE: Along the mountainous coasts of Japan lives a race of ape-like, intelligent, red-haired sea spirits known as shōjō. They look like man-sized apes, with long, shaggy red hair, and reddish faces blushed with alcohol. They are bipedal like humans, and occasionally wear clothes or skirts made of seaweed.

BEHAVIOR: Shōjō spend their lives playing in the sea and on the sand of secluded beaches, drinking large quantities of alcohol. They revel in drunken silliness, singing, dancing, and enjoying life. Despite their silly appearance and demeanor, they are said to be very wise. They are extremely fond of sake and other types of alcohol. In fact, they are excellent brewers themselves, and can distil a powerful brine wine from seawater. The taste of the wine varies depending on the imbiber; if he is a good person, the wine will be delicious, but if he is a wicked person it will taste like a foul poison, and even may kill him if he does not change his evil ways.

INTERACTIONS: Shōjō can understand human languages and even parrot a number of words, and they are curious and gentle towards friendly humans. They are generally gentle and peaceful, and keep to themselves, preferring to remain apart from the world of mankind. Occasionally there have been stories of groups of shōjō harassing sailors and ships which stray too close to their homes, but these stories are rarely violent. Usually the shōjō flee into the water after they have stolen a few barrels of sake from the ship.

ORIGIN: The name shōjō is the Japanese version of the Chinese name for these ape-like spirit. Its name connotes liveliness, a fitting match for the lively personality of this creature. These days, the name is applied to the orangutan in both Japan and China, due to the ape’s physical resemblance to this yokai. Additionally, the term shōjō can be used to refer to a person who is a heavy drinker. The famous artist and yokai painter Kawanabe Kyōsai jokingly referred to himself as a shōjō in this way.

Nozuchi

Nozuchi野槌
のづち

TRANSLATION: wild mallet (named for its mallet-like shape)
HABITAT: fields and grasslands; found all across Japan
DIET: carnivorous; usually feeds on small animals like rats, mice, rabbits, birds

APPEARANCE: Nozuchi are one of the earliest known yokai recorded in Japan histories. They are powerful and ancient snake-like spirits of the fields known for their bizarre shape and habits. They are short, fat creatures shaped like mallets, about fifteen centimeters in diameter and just over one meter long. They have no eyes, nose, or any other facial features save for a large mouth located on the top of their head, pointing towards the sky. Their bodies are covered in a bristly fur, much like a hairy caterpillar.

BEHAVIOR: Nozuchi make their homes inside of large trees, particularly on the tops of hills. They are slow movers, and move about by rolling and tumbling down slopes, then slowly inching their way back up. They most often feed on wildlife – mice, rabbits, squirrels, and other small animals – however they are able to eat things much larger than they are. In Nara, they are known to feed on deer, which they can devour in a single bite, pulling the whole animal into their small, stumpy frame.

INTERACTIONS: Nozuchi have been known to attack humans who come near their nests, rolling downhill and snapping at their feet. Their bites are very dangerous to humans, resulting in terrible, mangled wounds which quickly lead to a high fever and death in most cases. A person who is touched or even merely seen by a tumbling nozuchi can contract this fever and possibly die. Fortunately, nozuchi attacks are easily avoided by sticking to higher ground where they cannot tumble, or by climbing a tree quickly if no other high ground is available.

OTHER FORMS: Nozuchi can transform into a humanoid shape, though they rarely are seen in this alternate form. They take the shape of a human priest, but with no eyes, nose, hair, or ears. The only feature on the head is a large gaping mouth pointing upwards towards the sky. Wicked monks who are banished from their temples to live in the wilds sometimes gradually turn into nozuchi, and are more likely to maintain a humanoid form than a serpentine one. Care should be taken not to confuse a shape-changed nozuchi with a nopperabō, which has a similar appearance but poses a different threat.

Koma inu

Komainu狛犬
こまいぬ

TRANSLATION: Goryeo (an ancient Korean dynasty) dog
ALTERNATE NAMES: shishi (stone lion); refers only to the left-hand koma inu
HABITAT: shrines, temples, and holy areas
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Koma inu are noble holy animals which are usually employed as guardians of holy areas. They can range in size from a small dog to the size of a lion, and due to their resemblance to both creatures, are often called lion dogs in English. They have thick, curly manes and tails, powerful, muscular bodies, and sharp teeth and claws. Some koma inu have large horns like a unicorn on their heads, however many are hornless.

BEHAVIOR: Koma inu are fierce and noble beasts. They act like watchdogs, guarding gates and doorways and preventing the wicked from entering. They live together in male-female pairs, and are always found together. In their pairs, the female usually guards those living inside of the place they guard, while the male guards the structure or place itself.

INTERACTIONS: Koma inu are a ubiquitous symbol at holy places in Japan. Stone koma inu statues are almost always found at the entrance to Shinto shrines, often with more inside the shrine guarding the important buildings. The pairs are usually carved in two poses: with mouth open, in a roaring position, and with mouth closed. Symbolically, these creatures represent yin and yang, or death and life. The open-mouthed koma inu represents “a,” while the closed-mouthed koma inu represents “un.” These sounds are the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit “Om,” a mystical syllable which symbolizes the beginning, middle, and end of all things. A western analogy would be alpha and omega.

ORIGIN: Koma inu were brought to Japan via Korea, which in turn received them from China, which in turn received them from India. China is where they first began to symbolize the dharmic philosophics of Indian religions. In China, these dogs are called shishi, which means “stone lion.” This name is often used in Japan, too, though it only refers to the left one (the one with its mouth open). The right one and the two of them collectively are always referred to as koma inu.

Baku

Baku
ばく

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: deep in thick forests
DIET: bad dreams

APPEARANCE: The baku is a strange holy beast that has the body of a bear, the head of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the tail of an ox, and the legs of a tiger. Despite their monstrous appearance, baku are revered as powerful forces of good, and as one of the holy protectors of mankind.

BEHAVIOR: Baku watch over humans and act as a guardian spirits. They feed on the dreams of humans – specifically bad dreams. Evil spirits and yokai fear baku and flee from them, avoiding areas inhabited by them. Therefore, health and good luck follow a baku wherever it goes.

INTERACTIONS: The baku’s written name and image have been used as symbols of good luck in talismans and charms throughout Japanese history. In the old days it was even common to embroider the kanji for baku onto pillows in order to keep bad dreams, sickness, and evil spirits away. Fearsome baku images are commonly carved into the pillars above temple doors and on the columns supporting temple roofs. It is one of only a handful of holy creatures frequently honored in this manner.

ORIGIN: Legend has it that when the world was new and the gods were making the animals, the baku was put together from the leftover bits and pieces at the end of creation. That is why it has such a bizarre appearance, and why it is considered a favorite of the gods.

Today, the Japanese word baku also refers to the tapir. The animal was named after its uncanny resemblance to this holy chimerical beast.

Tatsu

Tatsu
たつ

TRANSLATION: dragon
ALTERNATE NAMES: ryū, ryō, wani; known by many specific individual names
HABITAT: rivers, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, seas, and palaces deep in the ocean
DIET: capable of eating anything

APPEARANCE: Tatsu, Japanese dragons, are very similar in appearance to the dragons of China and the rest of the world. They have long, scaled bodies, serpentine tails, sharp teeth and claws, and often have horns, antlers, spines, and beards. They are strongly connected to water – be it rain, rivers, seas, or oceans – and are considered to be water gods. Some have multiple limbs or heads, and many disguise themselves as humans and are never seen in their natural forms.

BEHAVIOR: Tatsu live in splendid palaces at the bottom of deep seas, or in other secluded places. They usually live far from human-inhabited areas, but occasionally they live near Buddhist temples. They hoard vast amounts of treasure and keep powerful magical artifacts in their homes, occasionally allowing worthy heroes to visit them, or lending their magical items to noble warriors. Many are great villains, tormenting mankind out of spite, while others are pure and kind, offering their wisdom and power to those seeking it.

INTERACTIONS: Tatsu rarely concern themselves with human affairs unless they affect them directly, but they do accept worship and sacrifices from humans. Many temples maintain the holy grounds of local dragons, and countless Japanese make pilgrimages to holy mountains inhabited by tatsu every year. Tatsu receive prayers for rain, protection from floods, and other water-related requests. Fireworks festivals, ritual dragon dances, and other local celebrations in honor of these dragon gods occur all over the Japanese islands.

ORIGIN: Tatsu are one of the oldest supernatural creatures known in Japan; the first recorded stories go back to the Kojiki and the Nihongi, the earliest written accounts of Japanese history and mythology. Over the centuries, more dragon legends were imported from other countries, incorporating the Chinese long and Indian naga into Japanese mythology. Today’s Japanese dragons are an amalgamation of these imported myths with the indigenous water deities of prehistoric Japan.

LEGENDS: The Japanese imperial family, the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, is supposedly descended from dragons (as well as other gods). The monarchy is said to have been founded in 660 BCE by Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first ruler of Japan. His father was the son of Toyotama-hime, who in turn was the daughter of Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. So the emperor of Japan is, according to legend, the direct descendant of a dragon.

Hōō

Houou鳳凰
ほうおう

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: paulownia trees; only appear in lands blessed by peace and prosperity
DIET: only bamboo seeds

APPEARANCE: Hōō are beautiful, peaceful phoenix-like creatures which are honored across East Asia and worshiped as divine spirits. They are described as having the beak of a rooster, the jaw of a swallow, the head of a pheasant, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, legs of a crane, and the tail of a peacock. They are brilliantly colored with the five colors of the Chinese elements – white, black, red, yellow, and blue – and have five distinctive tail feathers.

BEHAVIOR: Hōō are creatures of utter peace and they never cause harm to other living things. They eat only bamboo seeds, and nest only in paulownia trees. When a hōō flies, it is said that the wind stops, dust settles, and birds and insects grow quiet. Because of their purity, they only appear in lands that are blessed with peace, prosperity, and happiness – they flee to the heavens during times of trouble. The appearance of a hōō is an extremely good omen, said to signify the beginning of a new era in history.

INTERACTIONS: The hōō is a popular motif in Japanese paintings, crafts, kimonos, and on temples and shrines. As a symbol, it represents fire, the sun, and the imperial family. It also stands for the virtues of duty, propriety, faith, and mercy. Its five colors represent the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

ORIGIN: Hōō come from Chinese mythology, where they are known as fenghuang. Originally they were considered to be two distinct birds: the male hō (feng) and the female ō (huang), symbolizing yin and yang and the duality of the universe. Eventually the two creatures merged into one term and their combined name was used. The combined creature is still considered to be female, and is often partnered with the tatsu, which is considered to be male.

The hōō is one of the most revered and holiest animals in Japan. Second only to the kirin in terms of power, it is the most sacred bird of all.

Kirin

Kirin麒麟
きりん

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader
DIET: purely vegetarian; never harms another creature

APPEARANCE: One of the rarest, most awesome, and most powerful creatures ever known in East Asia is the unicorn-like kirin. It is a regal animal, holy and highly revered, and often considered a god in its own right. The kirin is a chimerical beast resembling a deer with scales like a dragon’s covering its body. It has a tail like an ox’s and a flowing mane. Its body and mane are covered in brilliant holy fire. Its face is the picture of utter serenity.

BEHAVIOR: A gentle animal, the kirin never eats the flesh of other beings, and it takes great care never to tread on any living thing, even lowly insects. When it walks, it does so without trampling a single blade of grass. Its beauty is only surpassed by its rarity; kirin only appear during periods of world peace, during the reigns of noble and enlightened rulers, in lands owned by wise and benevolent people, or as heralds of a golden age. Kirin never harm good and pure souls, but they are swift and fierce to attack if threatened, breathing holy fire from their mouths.

INTERACTIONS: Because kirin are beasts of purity and goodness, they have been used in carvings and paintings as symbols of these virtues since early times. They are also seen as symbols of justice and wisdom. Because of their holiness, images of kirin frequently adorn temples and shrines. They are omens of great luck and fortune, and the appearance of a kirin is often believed to be a sign of the arrival of a great leader or a wise man.

ORIGIN: Kirin were originally introduced to Japan via Chinese myths and legend, where they are known as qilin. Over time, the Chinese and Japanese version diverged into slightly different creatures. In Japan, the kirin is considered to be the most powerful and sacred beast of all, surpassing the hō-ō and tatsu in power.

The giraffe is also called kirin in Japanese, named for the traits it shares with the holy kirin. Its long legs, scale-like pattern, gentle nature, and the knobs on its head must have reminded the first Japanese to see a giraffe of this most sacred of beasts.