For the last year all the pieces I have written have been based on Japanese folklore and added to my ever growing collection ‘Henshin Monogatari’. I have been quite familiar with the different creatures and characters of Japan’s myths and legends for quite some while. However not everyone has had the opportunity to research all the worlds mythologies. So, I will be listing my favourite fables from Japan.
Bakeneko are a varied creature, in that each rendition gives them different properties. However the one thing that stays the same is that they are a cat that changes in some way. They are sometimes depicted as being able to change into a human, as cats standing on their hind legs wearing human clothing or just being able to speak to humans.
You can find different adaptations of the Bakeneko all across Japanese culture and has been referenced in stories, art and popular culture. A notable example would be Blair from Soul Eater, who is thought to be witch but after being defeated it is discovered she is actually a cat.
One of the reasons why the Bakeneko made it onto this list is because of a theory as to how the legends of them came to be. Cats have captivated humans for a long time due to their wild natures. So in Japan when they were found licking lamps on their hind legs rumours started to circulate as people believed they were mimicking their human owners. It was actually fish oil used in the lamps that attracted them to it as there was little else for them to eat at the time.
The Tengu is a more reclusive creature often shown to live in remote mountains. A Tengu is normally depicted as somewhere between a bird of prey, often a kite, and a human. Although the specifics do vary with them sometimes having beaks and other times shown with extraordinarily long noses.
They are seen as angry, vengeful spirits that will carry people off and leave them at the point of death. Tengu are linked with Shugendo, which is a religion primarily practiced in the mountains of Japan.
The thing I love about Tengu is that, even though they are vicious creatures, most stories about them revolve around how easily fooled they are. You can see one interpretation of Tengu in Ronin 47 by Carl Rinsch.
This is the only story to be mentioned on this list but it is definitely worth a read. The story surrounds a man who takes in an injured sparrow and looks after it while it recovers. His wife doesn’t like that they are wasting food on the bird and is jealous of it, so she decides to cut out its tongue and scare it from the house.
When the old man discovers what his wife has done he goes to find the sparrow and is led to an Inn. There he is given the choice of a large basket and a small one, being an older man he takes the small one and discovers it was filled with treasure.
His greedy wife then returns for the larger basket, this one however is filled with monsters that attacked her. It’s a moral story emphasising the idea of karma and how those that do good will have good come to them, however if you are greedy and cruel you will be punished for it. A large section of the game Okami has a variation of this story with the older couple being called Mr and Mrs Cutter.
The spider lady, Jorogumo, is a very popular legend in Japan. This is another creature which can shift forms, however the Jorogumo can only change between a spider and a woman. They are seductive and use their sexual allure to entice people to them, often so that they can be eaten.
It is believed that when a spider reaches its four hundredth birthday it will gain the power to change shape and thus become a Jurogumo. After this they begin to prey on humans, especially young men such as samurai and lumber jacks.
The Jorogumo is prolific in popular culture in Japan and can also been seen in quite a few western examples as well. The TV show Grimm had several Jorogumo in it, including a little girl. Okami, the Capcom game which centres around Japanese folklore, also included a boss called the Spider Queen which was a giant Jorogumo.
This is my personal favourite of all mythical creatures. The Kitsune is a Japanese fox spirit which has a wide array of different abilities and depictions across Japan. They can shapeshift between the form of a fox and a human, although it is said that they may not be able to conceal their ears and tails.
Other common powers include being able to control fire or lightning and in some stories they can possess humans like a demon. Kitsune unlike the other creatures listed here can be both benevolent and mischievous. Some Kitsune are the messengers of the god Inari, while others spend their time deceiving humans.
Kitsune also grow more tails as their power grows up to a total of nine, often referred to as Kyubi No Kitsune. A nine-tailed Kitsune is the most powerful and at this point are seen as godly beings that are omniscient.
As one of the most popular legends in Japanese folklore Kitsune are everywhere in popular culture. A prime example being Naruto which has a Kitsune named Nine Tails locked inside the main characters body. Pokemon also has several pokemon based off Kitsune, such as Ninetales and Zoroark.