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Sarugami

Sarugami猿神
さるがみ

TRANSLATION: monkey god, monkey spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: enjin
HABITAT: mountains
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Sarugami look just like the wild monkeys that are found across the Japanese islands. However, they are bigger, more vicious, and much smarter. They can speak, and sometimes they are seen wearing human clothes as well. They are thought to be the remnants of an ancient monkey worshiping cult. All that is left of this religion today are wicked monkey spirits who have degenerated into yōkai.

BEHAVIOR: Sarugami behave for the most part like wild monkeys. They live in the mountains and tend to stay away from human-inhabited areas. Because they are bigger and smarter than most of the animals around them

INTERACTIONS: When sarugami interact with humans it almost always ends in violence. Most legends follow a similar pattern: a sarugami kidnaps a young woman from a villager, and heroes are called upon to go into the wilderness and exterminate the sarugami. Like oni, giant snakes, and other monsters, sarugami are beasts meant to be slain by brave samurai.

ORIGIN: According to folklorist Yanagita Kunio, sarugami are a prime example of “fallen” gods—spirits once revered as gods, but who have since been forgotten. These beliefs never entirely vanish, though, and such spirits often remain as degenerate versions of their former selves, i.e. yōkai. Long ago, before Buddhism arrived, monkeys were worshiped as gods in parts of Japan. The southern part of Lake Biwa in modern-day Shiga Prefecture was an important center of monkey worship, based at Hiyoshi Taisha. Monkeys were seen as messengers and servants of the sun, in part because they become most active at sunrise and sunset. Because of this, monkey worship was popular among farmers, who also awoke and retired with the sun. Over the centuries, as farming technology improved, people became less reliant on subsistence farming. More and more people took up professions other than farming. As a result, monkey worship began to fade away, and the monkey gods were forgotten. Today, monkeys are viewed as pests by farmers, as they dig up crops, steal food from gardens, and sometimes even attack pets and small children.

Though the early monkey cults have vanished, sarugami worship continued throughout the middle ages in esoteric religions such as Kōshin. Monkeys came to be viewed as servants of the mountain deities, or as mountain deities themselves, acting as intermediaries between the world we live in and the heavens. The famous three wise monkey statues—mizaru, kikazaru, and iwazaru (“see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil”)—come from Kōshin and are a prime example of sarugami worship.

An apocryphal legend says that long ago the Buddha appeared at Hiyoshi Taisha. Just before this occurred, a large gathering of monkeys arrived in the area. The Buddha took the form of a monkey, and foretold the fortunes of the faithful worshipers at Hiyoshi Taisha. Thousands of years earlier, Cang Jie—the legendary inventor of Chinese writing (c. 2650 BCE)—foresaw this appearance of the Buddha. Thus, when he invented the word for god (), he constructed it out of characters meaning indicate () and monkey () to foretell this event. In other words, “monkey indicates god.” Although entertaining, this is a false etymology, and the true origin of the word for gods has nothing to do with monkeys.

LEGENDS: In Mimasaka Provice (present-day Okayama Prefecture) there was a giant monkey who lived in the mountains. Every year this sarugami would demand a sacrifice of a young woman from the villages around the mountain. One year, a hunter happened to be staying at the house of the young woman who was chosen to be that year’s sacrifice. Her family was devastated at the thought of losing their daughter, and the hunter took pity on them. He volunteered to take her place as a sacrifice. The hunter and his dog were loaded into a large chest and taken up into the mountains by some priests to be delivered to the sarugami. After some time, a giant sarugami more than two meters tall emerged from the woods, along with his entourage of over one hundred monkeys. The hunter and his dog leaped from the chest and attacked. One by one, the monkeys fell, until only the sarugami remained. Just then the creature possessed one of the priests and spoke through him. The sarugami asked for forgiveness and promised never to demand another sacrifice. The hunter allowed to sarugami to run away, and the sarugami has never asked for another sacrifice since.

In Ōmi Provice (present-day Shiga Prefecture) there lived an elderly farmer and his young daughter. The farmer toiled in his fields to exhaustion every day, while his daughter waited to be married off. But there were no suitors. One day, the farmer mumbled to himself, “Even a monkey would be ok, if only there was someone I could marry my daughter to so they would come work in my field!” Just then a giant monkey appeared and completed all of the old man’s farm work. The following day, the sarugami returned and demanded the old man’s daughter as payment for his work. When the old man refused, the saru grew angry at him for breaking his word, and he stole the man’s daughter and ran into the mountains. Back in his den, the sarugami kept the daughter tied up in a sack. Meanwhile, the old man begged a local noble to rescue his daughter. One day, while the sarugami was away from his den, the noble snuck in and freed the girl. In her place, he put his dog in the sack. When the sarugami returned to his den later he opened the sack to check on his prisoner. The dog leaped out and killed him.

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.

 

Hihi

Hihi狒々
ひひ

TRANSLATION: none; based on the Chinese name for the same creature
HABITAT: deep in the mountains
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: The hihi is a large, monkey-like beast which lives deep in the mountains. It has long, black hair and a wide mouth with long, flapping lips. Old legends say that a monkey which reaches a very old age will transform into a hihi.

BEHAVIOR: Hihi can run very fast and primarily feed on wild animals such as boars, battering them down and snatching them up just as a bird of prey snatches up small animals. The hihi gets its name from the sound of its laugh. When it sees a human it can’t help but burst into laughter. letting out a loud, “Hihihihi!” When it laughs, its long lips curl upwards and completely cover its eyes.

INTERACTIONS: While hihi primarily feed on wild beasts, they will also prey on humans if given the opportunity. They are known to catch and run off with human women in particular. If a hihi catches a human there is only one way to escape: by making it laugh. While it is laughing and blinded by its own lips, it can be taken down by striking it in the middle of the forehead with a sharp spike.

Hihi are sometimes confused with other monkey-like yokai that live in the mountains, such as yamawaro and satori. The hihi is much bigger, more violent, and far more dangerous than these. Some stories say that, like satori, hihi have the ability to speak human words and read human hearts and thoughts. They are valued for their blood, which is a vivid, bright red. If used as a dye, the bright red color will never fade or run. If drunk, the imbiber is said to gain the ability to see demons and spirits.

ORIGIN: The hihi’s origins lie in ancient Chinese mythology, where it was believed to be a supernatural monkey that lived in the mountains. It was brought over to Japan by folklorists during the middle ages. In modern Japanese, hihi is the word for baboon, which takes its name from its resemblance to this yokai.

Yamachichi

Yamachichi山地乳
やまちち

TRANSLATION: none; just the name for this monster
ALTERNATE NAMES: yamajiji, satorikai
HABITAT: deep in secluded mountains
DIET: life force (in the form of the breath of sleeping humans)

APPEARANCE: Yamachichi live in northeastern Japan and originally come from bats. A long-lived bat transforms into a nobusuma, which then, after many more years, transforms into a yamachichi. These yokai resemble monkeys with pointed mouths and sucking lips.

BEHAVIOR: Yamachichi live deep in the mountains and pay visit to houses late at night. They steal the breath from their sleeping human victims, sucking it out of their mouths with their pointed lips. After sucking away all of their victim’s sleeping breath, the yamachichi taps its victim on the chest, and then flees into the night. A human who has had his or breath stolen this way will die the next day. However, if a yamachichi should be caught in the act of stealing someone’s breath (either by the victim or by another witness), it will flee, and their victim will actually have their life span greatly increased instead.

ORIGIN: The name yamachichi only appears in Ehon Hyakumonogatari, an Edo period yokai bestiary, and thus very little is known about them. The characters used to write the name literally mean “mountainous region” and “breast” or “milk,” but these are most likely ateji — characters assigned phonetically without regard to the original meaning of the word. The original meaning of the name is mysterious and the only explanation given is that they are called yamachichi because they live hidden away in the mountains.

Because they are very similar in shape to satori, yamachichi are often confused with this yokai, and have picked up the alternative name satorikai.

Satori

Satori
さとり

TRANSLATION: enlightenment
ALTERNATE NAMES: kaku, yamako, kuronbō
HABITAT: deep in the mountains of central Japan
DIET: carnivorous; occasionally humans

APPEARANCE: Satori are strange, intelligent ape-men found in the mountains of Gifu. The are roughly man-sized, and appear similar to larger versions of the native monkeys found in the region.

INTERACTIONS: Satori appear to travelers on mountain roads, or folks living in mountain huts far from civilization. If the opportunity presents itself, they gladly dine on anyone they can get their hands on. In cases where they encounter a lone human female, they often take her away into the mountains and rape her. Satori are most well known for their uncanny ability to read people’s minds and then speak their thoughts faster than the individuals can get the words out themselves. This makes it very difficult to hunt, trick, or escape from a hungry satori. However, should something unforeseen happen, such as being unexpectedly hit by an object, satori grow very frightened and run away. One of the only ways to avoid being eaten by one of these yokai is to completely empty one’s mind; with no mind to read, the satori grows bored and wanders away.

ORIGIN: The name satori literally means “enlightenment” in the Buddhist sense. The satori, with its uncanny ability to read thoughts, comes across as a kind of enlightened being to scared travelers, which is how it got its name. This also relates to the method of escaping a satori — true enlightenment comes from emptying one’s mind of distracting, worldly thoughts, just as salvation from the hungry satori comes from an empty, zen-like mindset.

The origin of the satori is not entirely clear. Edo-period encyclopedias relate satori with yamako, apes from western China and captures women to rape or to eat. It has also been theorized that satori are cousins of yamabiko, a small monkey-like yokai. The satori’s ability to read people’s minds and the yamabiko’s ability to mimic their words are rooted in the same folklore. More recent folklorists have suggested that satori are fallen mountain gods of the ancient proto-Shinto religion which have been corrupted into yokai over the ages.

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.