Japanese folklore is filled with many beautiful creatures with powers, personalities, and roles to play in everyday life.
Japanese literature has recorded dozens of dragons, oni, and sprites, to the point that even ancient writers found it necessary to create an encyclopedia.
For the Japanese, these creatures were not just for children’s stories – they played a vital role in their religious beliefs and explained the natural world around them.
Government departments were made for the mystical arts, and shrines would feature statues and reliefs at which food sacrifices would be made.
Here are the nine most popular Japanese mythical
1. Yatagarasu: the Three-Legged Crow
This crow god symbolizes rejuvenation and appears after great battles or natural disasters to help clear the land and allow people to move on. It is also a symbol of guidance.
It is said that its first appearance was when it came down from heaven to guide Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.
While Yatagarasu does not appear in the Kojiki, it does appear in the Wamyo Ruijusho. Depictions in Japan are relatively modern. It is seen in Edo wood art but rarely in works before 1800.
However, the three-legged crow also appears in other Asian mythology. In Korea, it is known as Samjogo, while China has the Sanzuwu, which appears as far back as the Neolithic period of history.
2. The Hoo: The Phoenix
The Phoenix is a pan-Asian mythological creature that goes by many names. In Japanese mythology, the regenerative bird appears in lands blessed with peace and has become the most important bird in the pantheon.
Hoo are described as having five distinct colors in their plumage – white, black, red, yellow, and blue. They have the legs of a crane and the beak of a rooster. Unusually, some texts describe them as having the shell of a tortoise.
Hoo is popularly depicted in artworks around Japan, and examples of its image have been found as far back as the mid-17th century. Today you can see this mythological bird spirit on the back of the ten thousand yen note.
3. Kirin: The Chimera
The Kirin, Kilin, or Qilin, is a strange chimera – part dragon and horse- but with antlers and a curly tail. Chinese versions of this creature are said to have lived during the 5th century CE and were described as early as the 10th.
The Chinese myth of the Qilin includes bringing Confuscious to his parents, much like the modern story of the Stork.
The Japanese Kirin is slightly different in appearance from the Chinese Qilin. Its body is closer to a deer than a horse, and its “antlers” are often horns that are “swept back” from the head. Some Kirin has wings or a mane of fire.
The Kirin brings justice to ordinary people through blessings or punishments. For the Japanese, this makes it the most powerful of all the mythological beasts, including the phoenix.
In modern times, the Japanese use the word “Kirin” for giraffes. This is likely due to the body’s appearance similar to the mythological creature’s.
4. Ugajin: The Snake-person
The Ugajin is a fertility spirit that appears with a snake-like body with the head of a person. This can be a male or female spirit, and the head differs in each scenario.
In the Buddhist tradition, the Ugajin is closely associated with the “goddess of eloquence,” Benzaiten. This goddess became a popular deity to worship during the 6th century CE, and sometimes she is depicted with the head of a snake or dragon.
The Ugajin are often presented as wooden statues, with the snake coiled into a tower, with the human head sitting on top.
Sometimes the chin of the head rests on the tail of the snake. Today, people can find a much larger version of this statue at the Bentendo Temple devoted to Benzaiten.
The temple has a large pond surrounded by lotus flowers and is known for holding ceremonies of compassion, in which fish and turtles are released into it.
5. Kappa: The Water Sprite
Kappa, or “river children,” are ugly, reptilian creatures with webbed feet, turtle-like shells, frog faces, and human bodies.
Like many creatures in mythology, they can range from mischievous, looking up women’s kimonos, to downright deadly. For this reason, kappa have been used to convince children to keep away from the edge of rivers.
Stories of kappa, while often filled with violence, are also quite humorous. There are two common ways to defeat these creatures. The first is to bow to them – the kappa is so obsessed with politeness that they will let go of whatever they hold to bow back.
The other, more juvenile, solution is to pull down your drawers and repel them with flatulence.
Kappas are also obsessed with cucumbers, and many people would offer cucumbers to shrines, so those friendly kappas would help irrigate their farms. The modern cucumber sushi roll is often called a “kappamaki.”
6. Kitsune: The Fox
According to some Japanese folklore, all foxes can shapeshift into humans, but the kitsune hold special powers. The first recorded mention of supernatural foxes was in 720 CE, in the Nihon Shoki, but archeological evidence points to the fox being important to Japanese culture long before this.
The Kitsune can have up to nine tails, each growing as they become older and more powerful. It is said that a fox with nine tails is over a thousand years old and is all-knowing. Zenko, or Inari foxes, are benevolent creatures, while the Yako are mischievous creatures similar to Irish faeries. Ordinary humans can undergo “Kitsunetsuki” when the fox possesses a body by creeping under the fingernails.
There are famous kitsune in Japanese mythology, like “Tamamo-no-Mae”, a courtesan to Emperor Toba. Appearing as a young woman, this nine-tailed kitsune would offer sage advice to the emperor but, in return, he would grow ill. The most famous telling of the story of Tamamo-no-Mae was “Tamamo no sōshi,” written in 1653.
7. The Shikigami: The Conjured Spirits
The Shikigami are complex creatures because they have no agency of their own. Instead, they are conjured up by the onmyoji, a government official of ancient Japan.
Like European divination and curses, the Shikigami can be used to spy, steal, and even track the conjurer’s enemies. While invisible, they can be trapped in paper.
According to some folklore, a power onmyoji may summon up the greatest Shikigami, the “Shikiōji.” These powerful spirits can ward off all illnesses and protect people from harm. However, if the onmyoji weakens, the spirit may gain free agency and cause far more destruction than if they were never conjured in the first place.
8. Oni: The Ogre
Big, grotesque, and with a head full of horns, the oni is the most feared of the Japanese mythological creatures. Often with red or blue skin, the oni wear loin-cloths of tiger skin, carry big iron clubs and sometimes have a third eye in the middle of their forehead.
Much like the trolls, giants, and ogres of European mythology, the oni is a regular villain in stories for children. In “Momotaro, the Peach Boy,” an island of oni kidnap people as slaves. Momotaro, who was born out of a giant peach, defeats the oni by engaging the help of a monkey, a dog, and a friend.
However, not all oni are evil. A famous story called “The oni that cried” is about an oni who pretends to be evil so that their friend can save a village and be looked upon as “a good oni.”
9. Ryu: The Dragon
Dragons and dragon-like creatures are found in mythology worldwide, and it is no different in Japan. As well as their own traditional dragons, Japanese folklore has often incorporated Chinese dragons and dragons from Hindu mythology.
Dragons are first mentioned in Japanese literature in 680 CE and are traditionally described as large, serpent-like creatures. The “Yamata no Orochi” was an eight-tailed dragon that held the “ Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi”, the legendary sword and one of the three imperial relics. “Watatsumi” was the sea god of Japan and lived in an underwater dragon palace where he held the magical gems that controlled the tides.
Dragons are closely associated with Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples. Depictions are commonly found in even the smallest shrines, as dragons are seen as powerful protectors. The dragon governs the success of fishermen and farmers, and many contemporaries attributed the great earthquake of 1185 to the dragon powers of Antoku, the emperor of the time.
It is fascinating to see how many mythical creatures found in the folklore of Japan are like those of Europe or North America. Around the world, the fox is seen as a mischievous creature, there is a form of a scaly dragon, and there is some tremendous ugly beast that children must fight.
However, some mythical creatures of Japan are unique to the area; no other ancient stories have flatulent frog-people or three-legged crows.
The ancient history of Japan is wrapped up in these creatures and their stories, and the modern temples of today reflect these stories.
Even in modern language, we find shadows of these tales, from the giraffe to the cucumber sushi roll. In this way, Japanese folklore lives on, making the world a far more vibrant place.
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