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Things Japanese/Supernatural Creatures


Supernatural Creatures of divers semi-human and animal shapes are still spoken of by the common people with a sort of half-belief, and retain an assured place in art. The Tennin, or Buddhist angels, are neither of the male sex, nor white-clad, nor. winged:—they are females, apparently of a certain age, who float in mid-air, robed in long, gay-coloured garments resembling swaddling-clothes, and who often play on flutes and lutes and other musical instruments. More popular than these—in fact, most popular of all supernatural beings—are the Tengu, a class of goblins or gnomes that haunt the mountains and woodlands, and play many pranks. They have an affinity to birds; for they are winged and beaked, sometimes clawed.[1] But often the beak becomes a large and enormously long human nose, and the whole creature is conceived as human, nothing bird-like remaining but the fan of feathers with which it fans itself. It is often dressed in leaves, and wears on its head a tiny cap. Several fine temples are still dedicated to these goblins, that of Dōryō Sama near Miyanoshita being specially beautiful. Then there are the Sennin, or "mountain genii,"—men in shape, but immortal. They are stately, not grotesque and elfish like the other class just mentioned. The Shōjō are red-haired sea monsters, given to drinking enormous quantities of liquor. The "Three-eyed Friar" and the "Single-eyed Acolyte" (his single eye glares in mid-forehead) must be uncanny persons to meet in the gloaming, nor less so the "White Woman" who wanders about in the snow. The youth of Japan has a wholesome dread of these bogies, and also fears a variety of Oni—demons and ogres—of whom blood-curdling stories are told. They have horns, but no tail, and their sole article of clothing is a loin-cloth of tiger skin. One of them produces the thunder by tapping on a set of tambourines, and sometimes he falls to the ground and hurts himself. Japanese ghosts do not walk the earth wound in sheets, for the simple reason that sheets form no part of Japanese sleeping arrangements. But their legs dwindle into nothingness, while the body is drawn out to an alarming height, and they hold their hands in front of them in a grabbling attitude. Sometimes the neck is of frightful length (rokuro-kubi), and twisted like a snake.

Of mythic beasts, the most important by far is that noble creature the Dragon,—Chinese by origin, but thoroughly naturalised in Japan.[2] His affinities are with the watery element that rules in clouds and tempests. Sometimes he will ascend Fuji, borne thither on a cloud; at others he hides himself in the waters of some river or deep secluded lake, and will cause terrific commotion in heaven and earth if disturbed. The palace of the King of the Dragons is a marvellously rich abode lying far away, many leagues beneath the ocean waves. The Unicorn and the Phenix scarcely appear except in art, and the only function of the Baku (seemingly a large quadruped allied to the tapir) is to devour evil dreams. More popular is the giant Namazu,—an eel-like creature, but thicker and flatheaded and supplied with mustachios,—which dwells somewhere in the bowels of the earth, and whose occasional wrigglings are the cause of earthquakes. Another marine creature, the Octopus, which assumes semi-human form, inspires dread by coming ashore to steal potatoes, and by other pranks. The people also believe in Mermaids, but often confound with these imaginary beings the really existing seal, perhaps because of its almost pathetically human countenance. Among birds, a purely mythical being is the Nue. When the reader is informed that this so-called "bird" (for it flies, and sings in a voice at once "hoarse, guttural, loud, and very plaintive") has "the head of a monkey, the body of a tiger, and the tail of a serpent," he will surely not scruple to admit, with the old commentator, that "it is a rare and peculiar creature."

For what is thought of magic foxes, badgers, and dogs, see page 115.

Book recommended. Japanischer Humor, by C. Netto and G. Wagener.

  1. The word tengu is written with the Chinese character 天狗 lit. "heavenly dog." But in Japan this orthography is misleading, as the supernatural creature in question is entirely bird-like.
  2. Probably the dragon's real birthplace is still further west; but from the Japanese point of view, he is Chinese. A similar caveat applies to several other things called Chinese in Japan:—China was, if not the manufactory, at least the storehouse whence Japan drew them.