the online database of Japanese folkore



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

Behavior: A gentle animal, the kirin never eats the flesh of other beings, and takes great care never to tread on any living thing, even insects. When it walks, it does so without trampling a single blade of grass. Its beauty is only surpassed by its rarity; the unicorn-like kirin only appears during periods of world peace. They are seen only in lands owned by wise and benevolent people and during the reigns of noble and enlightened rulers, where they herald a golden age. Although kirin never harm good and pure souls, 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. Omens of great luck and fortune, the appearance of a kirin is believed to be a sign of the arrival of a great leader or a wise man.

Origin: Kirin were introduced to Japan via Chinese myths and legends 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 hōō and tatsu.

Giraffes are also called kirin in Japanese, named for the traits they share with the holy kirin. Their long legs, scale-like pattern, gentle nature, and the knobs on their heads must have reminded the first Japanese to see a giraffe of this most sacred of beasts.

Alphabetical list of yōkai