the online database of Japanese folkore

Ijū

異獣
いじゅう

Translation: strange beast
Habitat: mountains
Diet: omnivorous

Appearance: Ijū are big, strong, hairy beasts that live deep in the mountains. They are larger than humans and resemble monkeys, with long, hairy manes that flow down their back.

Behavior: Despite their size and strength, ijū are surprisingly shy and gentle yōkai. They mostly stay hidden away, deep in the mountains away from people. They seem to have some strange powers, but because ijū are so rare these are not well documented.

Interactions: Ijū are occasionally encountered by couriers and other people who frequently travel across the mountains. Although they appear frightening, ijū do not attack people; the most they do is beg for food. In return, they sometimes offer help to people who are kind to them.

Origin: Ijū come from the folklore of Niigata Prefecture. The two best-known stories about ijū appear in Hokuetsu seppu, a 19th century book that details the daily lives of people living in Japan’s “snow country.”

Legends: One summer in the village of Horinouchi, a man named Takesuke was tasked with delivering a large order of fabric to Tōkamachi—nearly 30 kilometers away across the mountains. Midway through the grueling trek, Takesuke stopped in a valley to rest and eat his lunch. Suddenly, a nearby thicket of bamboo trees parted, and a huge, hairy ijū stepped out. The ijū looked hungry and was eying Takesuke’s lunch. Takesuke split his lunch in half and offered to share a portion. The ijū happily gulped it down.

Takesuke sighed with relief. He smiled at the ijū and promised it half of his lunch on the return trip as well. Then he reached for the delivery pack to continue on his journey. But before he could take it, the ijū hoisted the pack onto its shoulders and began walking ahead of Takesuke. When the village of Tōkamachi came into view, the ijū placed the delivery pack on the ground and then dashed off into the mountains as swiftly as the wind. Thanks to the ijū, Takesuke crossed the mountains without much effort.

Since then, that same ijū was seen from time to time by villagers in the mountains, sometimes stopping at their homes to ask for food.

Another tale tells of a girl from Tōkamachi with such skill at the loom that wholesalers would request her weaving by name. One winter while she was home alone weaving, an ijū appeared just outside of her window. The girl was terrified, but because she was strapped into her loom she was unable to run away. However, the ijū did not appear threatening. Instead, it was hungrily staring at the rice cooking on her stove.

The girl slowly extricated herself from the loom, then went over to her stove and made several rice balls. She offered them to the ijū, who happily ate them and then scampered off into the mountains. From then on, whenever the girl was weaving alone, the ijū would emerge from the mountains and beg for food. She gradually became used to its presence, and no longer feared it.

One day, a rush order for fabric came from a very high ranking customer. It specifically requested the girl’s weaving. However, the girl’s period had just begun that day; and because menstruation was considered unclean, it was taboo for her to work. If she waited until she was able to work again, the deadline would be missed.

On the third day, her family left her home alone and went to work in the fields. Once again, the ijū appeared. The girl offered it some cooked rice which it happily ate as usual, but this time the ijū seemed to sense the girl’s anguish for her desperate situation. Instead of leaving immediately after eating like it usually did, the ijū sat down and seemed to concentrate or to medidate for a time. Then, it stood up and ran back into the mountains.

That night, the girl’s period miraculously ended. Astonished, she quickly purified herself and worked all night long to finish the order. In the morning, her father rushed to the wholesaler with the order. Everything was delivered it on time. Then, as soon as the payment for the order was made, the girl’s period began once again. Thanks to the ijū, the girl was able to complete her order.

Alphabetical list of yōkai