TRANSLATION: monkey god, monkey spirit
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.