Friday, 26 June 2009

Japanese Creatures III: Henge

Hello, and welcome once again to The Obscuritan. We continue our tour of supernatural Japan with a look at the Henge, or monstrous animals. Many of these creatures have whole volumes worth of stories associated with them, and would require entire articles each to do them justice, but for now a summary will have to suffice.

Often classed as either forms of Yokai or Bakemono, the HENGE are different enough so as to deserve their own category. Much like the Bakemono, the Henge are initially ordinary creatures of their own type. However, it is not extreme emotion that usually leads to their transformation but extreme age – usually reaching the age of 100 is seen as bestowing supernatural powers and a malevolent consciousness upon an animal. These powers are apt to vary from creature to creature, and in different regions such individual creatures may be venerated in dedicated shrines much like minor Kami spirits, for fear that they should be angered into a destructive rampage.

Kitsune (Fox)

One of the most widely recognized of all Yokai, Henge and Bakemono put together, both at home and abroad, the Kitsune is an import from China, though scholars have traced possible influences as far back as India. The power of the fox is tied into the number of tails it possesses – more than one tail being the hallmark of specifically a Kitsune, a new tail is said to grow every 100 years, although sometimes a Kitsune may “earn” a new tail through great deeds. The greater the number of tails, and thus age, of the Kitsune imbues many insidious powers, typically of illusions and shapeshifting, although some are able to fold the very fabric of space in an area to create a whole home under a floorboard, for example. Many Kitsune may team up to create the illusion of whole forests of trees and villages of buildings. Folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki described there being thirteen “types” of Kitsune, in a hierarchy related to the elements. On the whole, Kitsune are ambivalent creatures, prone to proud behaviour and vindictive cruelty if angered. However, their shapeshifting is sometimes put to use in taking human form to seduce unknowing people, who may well take them for a spouse and sire (perhaps not entirely?) human children by them. However, the Kitsune is frequently fulfilling their own agendas by doing so – as a type of spirit, they are often symbiotically linked to elements occurring in nature or to shrines and sacred spaces, and if a Kitsune links itself to a human, it may suck their life-force from them. Kitsune do, however, co-operate with humans in many stories, and have even been made use of in the past by humans against their will. Witches

(usually termed tsukai or ‘users’ of various spirits) may have small fox spirits bound in pipes as Kuda-gitsune familiars, and in some northeastern regions, foxes were starved to death with food just out of their reach (similar to the Inugami we shall discuss in due time) and the food would be mixed with clay and shaped into a fox, possession of which granted prophetic powers.

A related phenomena is the Kitsune-bi or foxfire, a baleful green-glowing flame which the Kitsune can generate, and amongst other things be utilized in lamps for their nighttime processions. The name also can denote the phenomena occurring on its own or being caused by other creatures.


The Kami (deity) of fertility, Inari, is commonly associated with the Fox, and statues of Kitsune dedicated to him can be found in the vast majority of Japanese villages and towns, as well as in shrines in modern megacorps seeking prosperity.

Tanuki (Raccoon-Dog)

Of a much more friendly and humorous nature than the Kitsune, the Tanuki has found equal favour amongst the Japanese, and through media such as Miyazaki’s film Pom Poko are slowly being noticed in the west as well. Tanuki are based upon the Japanese Racoon Dog, a canine despite its similarity to the Raccoon, although Tanuki is often mistranslated as either Raccoon or Badger (for Badgers, see Mujina below). Known perhaps even more so than the Kitsune for its shapeshifting, the power of the Tanuki lies not in its tail but in its scrotum. Depicted as unusually large in artworks, their scrotums could be stretched out, shaped and to all appearances become anything from a table to a boat. Indeed, one tale recounts a man taking shelter from the wilderness for the night in the house of a friendly person. Gratefully receiving food and other hospitalities, it is only when the traveller carelessly drops their lit pipe on the floor, that the whole house and its contents are revealed to be the illusion of a somewhat scorched Tanuki. Sometimes Tanuki illusions are undone by their failure to think ahead – one for example successfully fooled a Samurai into thinking he was a tree-branch, until he spread both arms out, lost his grip and fell out of the tree. This shapeshifting often leads the Tanuki to take the form of other supernatural beings and phenomena. In the Kajawa region, the Ashi-magari, a supernatural force which trips up travellers, is envisioned to be the tail of a mischief-minded Tanuki, and others may take the form of notorious Bakemono (see last week’s article) to scare townsfolk.

The most famous tale involving the Tanuki is Bunbuku Chagama, variously known as The accomplished and lucky tea-kettle (or simply The magic Tea-Kettle in Lang’s Cimson Fairy Book version), which is illustrative of the ease with which these friendly creatures form bonds with humans.

Mujina (Badger)

These Henge have seen their place in popular consciousness fade somewhat in recent years, both due to the popularity of the Tanuki, as the similarity of these two creatures leads to a blending of the folklore, and a misappropriation of the name Mujina to the Nopperabo (a faceless humanoid Bakemono we looked at last time) by early folklorist Lafcadio Hearn. The confusion with the Tanuki has unfortunately infiltrated even the academic forum, making distinguishing lore for each distinct creature difficult.

While capable of being as friendly to those who show it favour as any other Henge, the Mujina is more ambivalent than its jovial peer, and accidentally disturbing its den or killing a mate or cub may lead to an individual being terrorized by the vengeful being in the many forms it may take. It may also take on human form for protracted periods, but unlike the Kitsune, who usually takes the form of a beautiful woman (the Fox Princess of many stories) in order to entice men, the Mujina takes the form of a man, usually a Priest or Abbot, and can live undetected for years at a time, and is not generally believed to feed upon human energy. Whether this choice of disguise is in order to allow for mischief or simply the Mujina’s desire for a quiet, civilized life is perhaps debateable. This laid-back existence is sadly prone to a rather abrupt end, as the careless creature forgets to tuck its tail under its robe, and is revealed.

Neko (Cat)

Perhaps the only purely malignant of the Henge, the many stories surrounding the Bakeneko (freak cats) are almost universally of a horrific and insidious nature. Being an animal far more pampered and nurtured than any other, and without the threat of being sacrificed that that other domesticated pet, the Dog (see Inugami below), the Cat is most likely to live to a far riper age than most wild species, and holds a special relationship with humans. Commonly living to an old age is one means of a cat becoming a Bake, in other cases it is feeding a cat in the same place for Thirteen years (in some stories only three!), or allowing it to reach around eight pounds (one Kan) in weight. This propensity may be why there are so many stories of such cats becoming malignant, and possibly also the reason why they are said to exhibit such a wide-range of powers. These powers have included the ability to reanimate the dead by leaping over the corpse (though whether as a resurrection of the soul or the creation of a revenant is unclear), the summoning of mysterious fireballs, similar to the Kitsune-bi, and the ability to mimick human voices in order to lure people to an ill fate. Cats owned by the recently deceased were also seen as suspicious, perhaps due to a link with a type of ghostly spirit, called Kasha, which fed on the corpses of the dead and often appeared to be like cats [note – The Obscuritan could find very little on these Kasha, but will continue to look. Any findings will appear alongside the Yurei in the next article].

The very oldest cats undergo another “evolution” in their lifetimes as their tails split in two, the sign of becoming a Nekomata, the most dangerous of cat spirits. These beings, monstrously large and possessing most of the powers their weaker cousins gradually accumulated, possessed one even greater trick, an example of which is found in the following story. A young man who lived alongside his family and elderly mother noted a sudden change in her behaviour – she would stay locked in her room all day, not coming down for her food and speaking little to others. Peering in through a crack, the family were shocked to see a giant goblin cat wearing the grandmother’s clothes and eating small birds and mice as any other cat would. The man was forced to slay this creature, which shrunk back down to a normal size, and upon excavating the floorboards he discovered the woman’s gnawed bones.

Nezumi (Rat)

While in China the Rat is considered a melancholy animal, generally speaking the Nezumi, like their originators the Rats, are highly sociable animals, and imitate human society to a far greater degree than most other Henge. Stories in particular make mention of their weddings (something which only the Kitsune are recorded as regularly practicing), which take place on the 19th day of the first moon, when humans will make sure to stay indoors for fear of disturbing them. Indeed, if Nezumi lived apart from humans for a long time, they were said to sometimes become massive Goblin shapeshifters. However, such shapeshifters were even more prone to discovery than the Mujina or Tanuki, as they could seldom resist scratching and gnawing at their skin as rats are prone to do.

One story in particular features a particularly large goblin rat. A young boy, training to be an artist after being obliged to leave the monastery he had lived at, was forced to seek shelter at night in an abandoned temple his teachers had warned him about. This temple had been abandoned after a colossal Nezumi had taken up residence, and had stood empty since. To comfort himself, the boy drew his favourite subject upon the walls until he slept – cats. The next day, he found the body of the Nezumi in the room with him, and bloodstained pawprints leading back to the cats upon the walls.

If this Nezumi favoured a temple lair, perhaps it could have been a relative of Tesso, the former monk and were-rat Bakemono?

Orochi (Serpent)

The most infamous serpent of Ancient mythology was undoubtedly the Yamata-no-Orochi, a colossal eight-headed wyrm from the Kojiki (the earliest of Japanese mytho-histories) which terrorized a feudal lord by devouring seven of his eight daughters until it was tricked and slain by the heroic demigod Susano.

Snakes themselves were seen as being able to take human form in order to feed upon humans, though in a more direct form of blood-drinking vampirism than the energy-leeching Kitsune. However, in later lore, snake shapeshifters were depicted in gradually more favourable light as being able to marry humans and bear children; a change which this observer would speculate as being related to the Chinese influence both of benevolent Dragons and of perhaps the goddess Nu Wa, who was part woman part snake and created the human race from clay and water droplets. Japanese dragons, taking their cues from China, Korea and the Indian Naga, are associated with the element of Water, and are apt to ally themselves with humans who earn their trust. In “The Invincible Pair” (a version of which can be found in Tyler’s Japanese Tales), a dragon is saved in its miniature form from a Tengu’s cave and certain dehydration by a monk, who he goes on to reward later in life.

Also worthy of note is the Tsuchinoko, a cryptid (form of creature which is either considered extinct or nonexistent by modern science, but believed by some to exist) breed of snake notable for its fatty body and supposed ability to bite its own tail in an Uroboros-like circle and roll around. Being a Japanese creature, it has of course been associated with the ability to talk, although it was apt to lie and had a fondness for alcohol.

Kumo/Gumo (Spider)

Instances of spiders achieving giant, monstrous form have occurred from around the 7th Century. One example (the name of which eludes us) occurred during the lifetime of the first emperor Jimmu Tenno, which stood on two legs with six arms and had long red hair and huge teeth. Able to defeat whole armies, it was finally suffocated in its den with smoke from a fire at the entrance. Regular spiders were also feared to be able to suck human blood at night. Giant spiders that can take on the form of humans have occurred in several forms, two of which are especially noted – the Jogorogumo and Tsuchigumo.

The Jogorogumo was similar to a form of ogress, lived in remote places and only revealed its spiderlike form at night – during the day it was an attractive human who dawdled outside her lair waiting for passers-by. One such man who stopped sat awhile with the maiden, only suspecting foul play when he noticed the silk winding itself around his legs. Distracting her, he slipped the silk onto a log and tightened it – the Jogorogumo, thinking its trap was secure, yanked the silk, only to find the log. The man, of course, had long since made a run for it.

The other form of the Goblin spider is perhaps not even a Henge, or indeed a creature, at all. The name Tsuchigumo, or ground-spider, was in fact applied to an early tribe of Aboriginal Japanese, the Yatsukahagi, who lived in the Japanese alps. To quote from one source:

“Quite possibly the ancient Japanese believed in Human Spiders dwelling in the ground. This, at any rate, was the name – Tsuchi-gumo, Earth-spiders – which they gave to an aboriginal tribe, whose identity has been the subject of much controversy. They appear only in the oldest “history”, and according to one record had “short bodies and long legs and arms”. An Ainu myth makes them so tiny that ten of them could easily take shelter under one burdock leaf [note – the author may be confusing the Tsuchi-gumo here with the Koro-pok-guru, a race of tiny people in Ainu folklore] […] More probably they were simply pit-dwellers of small stature and perhaps of such ugly aspect, for crude features and garb, to be considered “as repulsive as a spider”. Japanese History, at any rate, would make them a rather defiant, savage folk which had to be tackled with circumspection.” (Casal – The Goblin Fox and Badger and other Witch-Animals of Japan, pp 89)

One cannot help but mentally compare this with the idea in Occultist/Conspiracy theorist circles of subterranean or otherwise lost races such as the reptilian Lemurians, a conflation perhaps of the Indian Naga spirits, the Naga tribes of Cambodia and a host of other such “Lost Lands”, found in books such as Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. However, like almost all of the events featured in the mytho-historical early histories of Japan such as the Kojiki, the events are too vague and shrouded in mythology for there to be any comparison between the Yatsukahagi and bona-fide Aboriginal Japanese people such as the Ainu. The name Tsuchigumo was later applied to bandits and thieves who lurked in the mountains during more lawless periods of Japanese history, and thus was the idea of a race of monstrous man-spiders preying upon mountain travellers most likely born.

Although it is also called a Tsuchigumo, there is another slightly different form of the goblin spider that may be noted. This story concerns Raiko, retainer and member of the Minamoto clan, who battled with many demons, and mortals, throughout his career in the Heian period. Upon one such adventure, Raiko falls ill and is nursed for several days in a lodge. Gradually he comes to suspect the activities of the servant boy who brings him his medicine, and strikes the boy with his sword. The boy flees, and Raiko snaps out of an illusion to find himself coated in cobwebs. Upon freeing himself, he and his followers track the boy by his blood trail to a cave lair, where they find the body of a giant spider. In other versions, the spider is defeated but instead pledges fealty to Raiko, and saves his life on three further occasions.

Inugami (Dog)

We have included these creatures as Henge, although given that they are created by humans, rather than bred, one could almost call the Inugami a type of Tsukumogami.

Dogs have various supernatural connotations in Japanese folklore. Dogs are believed to be able to see spirits and bakemono, and in many stories it is heeding the dog’s alarm that saves the protagonist from calamity, or ignoring such warning which leads to it. This protective power of the dog did not always work out in its favour, since the blood of a dog was used to consecrate the ground around a newly established village, and royal processions would sometimes crush a dog under the wheels of the carriage to bless the journey. In the Oki islands, pet dogs are used like a witch’s familiar by Inu-gami-mochi (dog-god possessors) and will issue forth from their bodies to cause calamity to the owner’s enemies. However, the dog’s material body could wither and die while its spirit was in absentia, which would lead to the malevolent ghost possessing its former owner.

From this, the more widespread practice of creating an Inugami has developed for two ends. In the former, when one is faced with an overwhelming hatred and frustration against a certain foe, one either tethers up a dog or buries it up to the neck, and places food just out of its reach. When the dog is just about to die of starvation, one tells it the name of the person whom you wish to suffer and what to do, before hacking off its head. The dog’s spirit will hunt down this person accordingly, but will understandably bear a grudge against its owner. This is where the second means may come in. Often owners who wish to prevent the spirit’s hostility, or sometimes for this purpose alone, will install the dog’s head in a shrine in the home, or bury it in the garden under a statue of another deity (usually a cylindrical stone representing Jizo) and will venerate the spirit so that it will continue to serve its owner by guarding the home. However, many are the tales of such a spirit refusing this service and haunting its former owners, even after they move.

As one can see in Seiken’s illustration, he has chosen to depict the spirit itself in the afterlife, wearing courtly robes and being served as one would expect for a god.

Other creatures

These Henge I could only find a few references for, and only have a few properties associated with them.

Ao-Sagi-Bi (Heron)

Appearing from a distance to be an instance of foxfire, this fire upon the surface of a lake is in fact wreathed around a heron with glowing eyes, and often accompanied by smaller fireballs. It is rather uncommon in folkloric sources, and may just as likely be a mere manifestation of a different animal – particularly as fire is associated with the Kitsune – or a confusion with the Hito-Dama, the souls of the newly dead which hover as ghostly fireballs similar to Will ‘o’ the Wisps.

Basan (Cockrel)

Once night falls in the Ehime region the Basan, said to be a large fowl with spectral fire spilling from its mouth, emerges from the bamboo groves and stalks through the village making a rustling “basabasa” sound, though by the time people emerge to investigate, it has disappeared.

Kama-itachi (Weasel)

Deep gashes, to the legs in particular, suffered during high winds were attributed in the Koshinetsu region to an attack (Kametachi) of an unseen creature who raced along such sudden blasts, and which slashed at people it passed by. Seiken, who compiled the first written account, twisted the name with a pun to Kama-Itachi, or Scythe-Weasel. In Gifu, on the other hand, such injuries’ tendency not to bleed or be noticeably painful at first was put down to there being three creatures at work – one which stunned the victim, another who cut, and a third who applied medicine to stop the bleeding, all in the span of one instant.

Okami (Wolf)

As one may note from the name, this creature’s name derived from “great god”, though this is perhaps a linguistic slip from Kamu (which would mean “big mouth/biter”), and has been depicted as attending upon various deities. There appear to be two separate bodies of lore concerning the wolf, possibly owing to there being two (now extinct) species of Japanese wolf. The first of these two is very similar to accounts of the Bakeneko, being able to devour people and assume their form. The other generally concerns a spirit of the high mountains which, though not outright malevolent, does pose a threat to travellers of the high passes. One curious habit of the Okami is that, upon encountering an unburied corpse, it senses the impropriety of the situation and performs its own impromptu funeral by jumping over the corpse (again as the Bakeneko would to reanimate a body), urinating upon it – much as a coffin in a funeral would be sprayed with water – before devouring the body.

Ten (Marten)

A phenomena recorded in Toriyama Sekien’s One hundred demons night parade, depicting a gathering of Martens who wind and bundle together into a stacked pillar and glow with a ghostly flame similar to the Kitsune’s foxfire. As one can imagine, the Google results for Ten Martens Japan are somewhat inconclusive, but The Obscuritan shall keep his eyes peeled.

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