Japan’s Supernatural creatures part 2
It took more time than I expected but here we are, with the part 2 finally featured. I hope you will like it. If I leave out any animal yokai please let me know.
Yokai and magical thinking
Crucial information that I failed to mention in my previous post is, that yokai is initially said to be created from spirits of unwanted thoughts, unspoken words and children. In this way, they are thoughts that come through. In the field of psychology, this phenomenon is called magical thinking and is normally attributed to children’s thinking in the case of healthy adults. Yet, in Japanese culture, that’s so strictly governed by behavioral rules, where thoughts can generally not be told yokai is used to represent the Japanese subconscious mind with all the bad things, wishes and thoughts personified.
The various types of Yokai:
After careful consideration I’ve decided to represent Yokai in the following categories:
- Yokai as supernatural creatures – check out Part 1 of the Yokai series
- Yokai in real life animals
- Yokai which lives in objects
- Yurei – human-like ghosts with a big appetite for eating people
- Yokai in real life animals
There are plenty of real-life animals that do have Yokai powers attributed to them. I enlist some of the most important of these.
The Tanuki –the real-life animal vs. the drunk yokai with huge testicles
There is probably not a more famous and popular Yokai than the Tanuki, which happens to be a real animal as well. But worry not, the real like Tanuki has barely anything to do with Takuki as the Yokai. Tanukis are Japanese mammals that resemble a cross between a badger and a raccoon. They are regarded as mischievous creatures with high sex drives and magical powers that enable them to change their shape at will. Statues of fat, jolly tanukis holding a bottle of sake are the Japanese equivalent of garden gnomes.
According to folklore tanukis can change their shape and drum their stomachs. They appear more often in Japanese legends and fairy tales than almost any other animal. They are often tricksters who play practical jokes and set traps—especially if it helps them get some food—crash parties and drink up all sake and then pay with dry leaves instead of real money. Many stories revolve around battles of wits between tanukis and farmers or are fantastic tales with tanukis changing into monsters or beautiful women.
The testicles: according to dozens of folk stories the testicles of tanukis have magical powers, for instance, they can stretch as much as they want to and can carry or pull a great deal of weight too, when in need. There are plenty of stories when tanukis save someone with the strength of their testicles. Learn more about the magically stretching testicles and other stories about Tanuki here.
There is some kind of a confusion as to the fox as Kitsune is attributed with all the bad things, while the Inari Fox ( which is also said to be the divine development of the Kitsune fox fairy) is doing all the good things for the people. I did my very best to make a distinction and represent the two separately. A weird thing is, that despite these clear differences, the real-life foxes and their beholders are feared the same way. In Japan, keeping a fox is signaling a straight connection with black magic.
Kitsune –the Fox Fairy
Yo-kitsune is the Japanese word for the dangerous fox yokai or spirit. “In contrast to the favorable agricultural Inari Fox, the Kitsune foxes have also been traditionally imagined as clever tricksters and shape-shifters. This yo-kitsune can be encountered in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Like cats and many other Japanese fairy animals, their magical powers grow stronger with age. After living for a century or two, yo-kitsune become able to possess people, causing illness or insanity, and also to temporarily shape-shift into incredibly glamorous women. Stories abound of men falling hopelessly in love with and marrying these “foxy ladies.” [Ibid]
“In one famous story, a 10th-century nobleman saves a fox from a mob bent on killing it for its liver. A few days later, a beautiful woman mysteriously appears at his door. They fall madly in love, get married and have a son. Three years later, the woman suddenly disappears, leaving a note explaining to her husband that she was really just the fox whose life he had saved. Their son grows up to be Abe no Seimei, the famous Onmyoji Yin-Yang wizard who protects the imperial court and the capital city from all sorts of wicked spells and disasters. [Ibid]
“After living for a full millennium, fairy foxes may attain a formidable style with nine tails. Nine-tail foxes, or Kyubi no Kitsune, are of Chinese origin but have also been active in Japan as well. During the Edo period (1603-1867), motifs depicting heroes ridding the land of these often ill-tempered nine-tail foxes were widely adopted into the traditional theater, literature, and art. [Ibid]
The kitsune and mental illness in Japan
Until quite recently, mental illnesses and emotional instability were frequently attributed to possession by fox spirits, especially in isolated rural villages. Even more frightening, there are families, called tsukemono-mochi, which are rumored to keep tiny fox spirits in vases or bamboo tubes. These spirits can be sent out on various missions, such as searching for gold or treasure, stealing, spying on people, or just causing all sorts of trouble and misfortune. The secrets of caring for and controlling these fox spirits, or in some cases similar dog or weasel spirits, are passed down from generation to generation among women of the household. Families which are rumored to possess fox spirits are feared and shunned and this is true to this day. In fact, the outcast of Japan called.
The Kitsune-Burakumin rumored connection
Burakumin who despite all civilizational improvements are still outcast is rumored to be related to Fox related magical activities. This may be a myth but it’s also served as a scapegoat and another reason for these people to be still outcast in the real sense of the word.
An interesting peculiarity of fairy kitsune foxes is that they tend to emit strange lights at night. This is said to be a sign of dealing with a fox fairy instead of a real person.
Despite other magical creatures the Kitsune the evil fox spirit is not helpful to the humans in anyways. All of the stories are about bad things being caused by the Kitsune Yokai to the people.
There is a fantastic Hungarian movie about the Fox spirit and its deadly effect on people called Lisa the Fox Fairy. It’s a fantastic and pretty unique movie, check it out to learn more about the Fox fairy.
Inari Fox – the divine creature
Inari foxes are way different from the dangerous Kitsune image. The Inari Fox is a divine helper and messenger of the God of farmers and harvest called Inari. Inari foxes also serve as guardians that’s why their statue is often featured guarding temple entrances.
In Japanese folklore, the divine foxes also called Inari Foxes are regarded as clever and magical animals who act messengers for the gods, particularly the God of the Harvest, and are symbols of fertility. Killing one sometimes results in punishment by the gods. Small shrines for rice and harvest gods are found at Shinto shrines and some Buddhist temples. They are invariably guarded by foxes. Foxes are believed to have the power to change their forms, possess humans and cause people to have hallucinations so they can trick them. Their favorite entry point is under the fingernails. Their favorite food is said to be deep-fried tofu, which is often found in shrines next to fox statues.
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Foxes are among the great perennial stars of Japanese folklore. To begin with, they are considered to be familiar spirits serving the immensely popular rice deity Inari. A set of two stone foxes stand watch in front of every Inari shrine. Some folklorists believe that foxes became associated with rice farming because of their role in controlling mice, hares and other agricultural pests. In the past farmers would even leave out food to attract foxes to their rice paddies. Foxes are thought to be especially fond of abura-age, thin slices of deep-fried tofu soybean paste. Pockets of abura-age stuffed with rice are known as Inari-zushi. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, May 10, 2012]
Where to find or spot the Inari Fox:
One very famous spot for kitsune-bi fox-fire is the Inari shrine at Oji in Kita Ward, Tokyo. Every New Year’s Eve foxes from all over the Kanto region are believed to assemble here under an ancient hackberry tree. The local farmers predict the yields of the coming season’s crops by the number of glowing lights they count.
Inari shrines for foxes are very common. Some have thousands of images of foxes. These places are thought to be haunted and best avoided after dark.
As for the real fox, there are whole parks dedicated to this lovely animal. Check out this video featuring the Fox village of Japan.
The MOST IMPORTANT WAY to differentiate between a good and a bad fox image is by looking at the two extra dots or lines over the eye. The good fox ( Inari fox) does have them while the dangerous Kitsune spirit doesn’t.
Snake – the messenger of Benzaiten
Snakes are animals that are attributed with the role of being messengers of the goddess called Benzaiten. This goddess has the role of guarding all water, especially the rice fields.
Snakes Considered Mystic Messengers of Japanese Water Spirits
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “In addition to being one of the 12 animals of the traditional Asian almanac, snakes are widely revered as messengers and familiars of local deities. Here in Japan, they are primarily associated with water spirits. A good place to look for spiritual snakes is at tame-ike irrigation ponds. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, January 3, 2013]
Japanese civilization was built on irrigated rice cultivation, and Tame-ike irrigation ponds have traditionally been treated as sacred places, inhabited and protected by spirits known generically as Suijin (literally water deities). Very interestingly Kappa is also enlisted as a creature belonging to Suijin.
Suijin is typically revered in shrines constructed on small islands in the pond, or at least on chunks of land jutting out from the shore. The Suijin enshrined here is an extremely popular Buddhist deity known as Benzaiten. Benzaiten is sometimes depicted with a coiled snake sitting on top of her head. In rare instances, she also appears in a very special avatar, with the body of a coiled snake and the head of a human being. This avatar is known as Jatai-Benzai, or “Snake-body Benzai.” A closely related Suijin, also often revered at irrigation ponds, is called Ugajin. [Ibid]
Nure Onna – snake woman
I was very hesitant to include Nure-onna here as to me she is rather in the ghost aka Yurei category. But being heavily connected with a snake, I may mention her at both places.
The Nure onna is like a wholly negative picture of a mermaid that has the body of a serpent and an upper body of a woman with wet hair. Having its hunting ground next to lakes, ponds, and rivers, the Nure onna’s appetite can only be fed with human blood. According to the legends, the Nure Onna would disguise herself as a woman holding a baby. She is asking her potential victims to hold the baby for her to rest a minute or two. As soon as they help the bag, disguised as a baby entraps them. Some of the stories say that this Yokai is stronger than humans but it may be easy to trap, that’s why it rather tries to outsmart people instead of being overly violent.
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