The Strange Creatures of Japanese Mythology
Updated: Jun 7
In this article, we will have a list of demons, ghosts, yōkai, obake, yūrei and other notable legendary creatures in Japanese folklore and mythology.
You can't talk about Japanese folklore without thinking of yōkai. In forests, cities, houses... these spirits are all around us.
Yōkai (妖怪) are supernatural creatures that are very present in Japanese culture. The term yōkai can be translated as "spirit, demon or ghost". There is a wide variety of them, ranging from the scary to the wacky.
Since the dawn of time, these malevolent or just plain prankster spirits have inspired many artists in the land of the rising sun. They can be found since the Middle Ages in paintings, sculptures, prints, and more recently in video games and manga.
In Western mythology, they have goblins, leprechauns, giants, gnomes, fairies, werewolves, vampires, and a multitude of more or less strange creatures populate fairy tales and their fantasy, fantastic, or horror stories.
And if you are not a great connoisseur of Japan or japanimation, you may have already heard the term yōkai…because yokai are absolutely everywhere: in movies and animes series (Pom Poko, Spirited Away, A Letter to Momo, Natsume's Book of Friends, and One Piece), in video games (Yo-Kai Watch, Pokemon, and Animal Crossing), mangas (Yokai Doctor or GeGeGe no Kitarō), American movies ( Guardians of the Galaxy).
In fact, yōkai have left Japan to invest more and more in our leisure and our imagination.
Yōkai have their origin in Japanese religious beliefs and more particularly in Shintoism, with Buddhism, which is one of the two main religions of the country.
It is in fact the set of indigenous beliefs of the Japanese archipelago, a mixture of polytheism with gods honoured everywhere and animism with local deities.
For a long time without a fixed form, Shinto was erected as a state religion with the rise of the Great Empire of Japan from the end of the 19th century to the end of the Second World War.
At that time, the Emperor was designated as the descendant and earthly representative of Amaterasu, the goddess of the Sun and of Ise at the head of the Japanese pantheon.
Moreover, the adventures of Amaterasu and her brothers Susanoo (the sea) and Tsukuyomi (the moon), will inspire popular culture with the release of the video game Okami in 2006 where the player must guide the goddess in her quest in her wolf form.
Globally, the principles of Shinto are well present in all Japanese cultural works. It is quite obvious when you look at manga, for example, because the most important thing in this religion is the sacredness of nature.
Humanity is only one element among others in the great whole that is Nature and its actions or non-actions have consequences.
According to this principle of Shintoism and the importance of nature, each vital flow will incarnate into the divine spirit of a place, an object, a person, or an animal. These spirits, called kamis, can be found everywhere and their fields of action can be either very extensive or limited. Some of these kami are so powerful that they will be worshipped in all of Japan as gods. The more local or anecdotal minds will become yōkais.
The border between yōkai and kami is very thin as proven by two of the most famous spirits outside Japan, the kitsune and the tanuki.
Many cultures around the world have all kinds of mythical creatures, but very few are as unique and creative as the mythical creatures of Japanese mythology.
Nothing gives you a better understanding of the traditional culture of Japan than learning about its mythical creatures. These unique supernatural beings, or ようかい (yōkai) as they are known in Japanese, are mischievous creatures that can be purely evil or help you in times of need.
Compared to Western mythology, Japanese mythical creatures tend to have much more creative designs, from amalgams of different animals to flying heads and inanimate objects that come to life.
Many of these mythical creatures are benevolent, but some can be terrifying and have been the inspiration for many Japanese Ukiyo-e artists as well as Japanese horror stories. Below, you can find out more about some of the strangest yōkai in Japanese mythology.
The first yōkai, and probably one of the best known, is the raccoon dog, also known as a tanuki in Japanese folklore.
Although tanuki is real animals found in the wild in Japan, they have inspired many legends and folk tales from Japanese mythology about the Bake-tanuki (literally, the monster raccoons).
The Bake-Tanuki is a powerful and mischievous creature with a cheerful and jovial personality. They are not inherently evil, but they love to use their powerful powers of transformation and possession to prank travellers and steal their money - for no other reason than to have fun.
Although they were once considered in Japanese mythology to be the guardians of nature, today the tanuki are more associated with their trickster nature.
They can transform into other humans, animals, inanimate household objects, or even elements of nature such as trees, rocks, and roots. They can take passing travellers by surprise and play tricks on them.
Japanese storytelling certainly didn't try to keep things to children: most of the time, the tanuki are depicted in art as using their oversized testicles as a travel bag, or sometimes even as drums.
This has given rise to another phenomenon in Japanese folklore, called the Tanuki-Bayashi - people hear drum or flute sounds coming from nowhere in the middle of the night, which could be explained by the mischievous nature of these mythical Japanese creatures.
You can find many tanuki statues around temples in Japan. Most often they are depicted carrying a bottle of sake, a symbol of virtue, and having a big belly and big eyes, as well as a hat to protect them from bad luck and bad weather.
The film by Studio Ghibli (one of Japan's most popular animation studios), Pom Poko, revolves around the lives of these mythical Japanese creatures and portrays them in a positive and humorous light.
Isao Takahata's animated film Pom Poko tells the story of a band of tanuki who fight against the advance of the city into their territory.
In Naruto, a tanuki demon is sealed inside Gaara and was locked inside a teapot.
In Mario 3, leaves cause Mario to grow a tanuki tail and ears, and the tanuki suit allows him to transform into a stone statue.
In Animal Crossing, Tom Nook is a tanuki and the furniture is shaped like a leaf when worn.
The Kitsune or mythical foxes are one of the most popular yōkai in Japan. It originated in India, then China and Korea and finally arrived in Japan.
They are known to be magical and highly intelligent Japanese mythical creatures that possess many powerful magical and spiritual abilities, including metamorphosis, far vision, great intelligence and long life.
In Japanese folklore, the kitsune can be a symbol of good and evil and were believed to grow a new tail every 100 years on this earth. The most powerful kitsune were the nine-tailed foxes, who were said to have acquired infinite knowledge and the power to see everything that is, was or will be. It reaches the number of nine tails after 1000 years. In other legends, they gain a tail every 1000 years or they gain them through the favour of another kitsune or the god Inari. The higher the number of tails, the more powerful the kitsune is.
The coat colours are varied. When they reach the number of nine tails, they turn white, silver or gold.
The kitsune are considered tricksters. In many legends, they take the form of a woman or possess one and seduce and deceive men. In the form of a woman, a kitsune will sometimes mate with a man. The resulting child will have certain abilities such as a talent for magic or the ability to transform. A fox transformed into a woman can be unmasked by its reflection, which reveals a tail. Another possibility is to use a dog that will detect the fox and return to its normal form. The fox's power of transformation is not limited to the human form and it can change into any natural thing (tree, stone, water, another animal, etc.).
The kitsune also have the power of illusions, which they also used to play tricks. Thanks to this, they can make a human see what they want. This power can even be extended to other senses than sight. Other legends speak of a sphere that the kitsune keep with them (Hoshi-no-Tama). Those who succeed in obtaining it can force the fox to obey them. This sphere is said to contain some of their magical power in case they transform.
Despite their prankster nature, the kitsune always keep their word and are extremely loyal to those they trust.
The kitsune are related to the rice God Inari and are considered his messengers. Statues of them guard the temples of Inari.
Japanese mythology recognizes two types of kitsune. The first type of kitsune, Zenko (literally "good foxes"), describes a type of benevolent fox with celestial powers, best known as the divine messenger of the god Inari, protector of rice fields, prosperity and fertility.
You can find many statues of these elegant, supernatural yōkai in shrines dedicated to Inari throughout Japan. Fortunately, these temples are easily recognizable by their typical red buildings and red torii doors.
Apparitions: due to its popularity, the Kitsune often appears in different media (manga, video games,...). Here are some of them:
In the manga Naruto: a nine-tailed kitsune demon is sealed in a young ninja named Naruto. He has a tendency to play tricks on the other inhabitants of his village, notably by changing into a naked woman (with a little censorship).
In the video game Pokemon: the pokemon named Goupix/Feunard is a kitsune.
In the video game Zelda: Majora's mask, a fox mask can make a kitsune appear.
Most of the yōkai in Japanese mythology are more than just animals with supernatural powers, some have an incredibly unique appearance and possess many strange abilities.
The kappa is such a yōkai, considered a Suijin (lit. God of water). Kappa is a mythical Japanese humanoid creature with some characteristics similar to amphibians and reptiles.
They tend to look different from one Kappa to another; some have adult or child bodies, with skin coloured in different shades of green. Their skin may be slimy or covered in scales, and their arms and legs are webbed between the toes and fingers.
As unique as they may be, all Kappa have a turtle shell on their back, a beak-like mouth and a bowl-like object on their head, in which they carry a liquid that is said to be their life force. If this liquid spills or the bowl is damaged in any way, a Kappa can become incredibly weak or even die.
The Kappa are not necessarily friendly and can play harmless tricks on travellers, or worse: they have been known to lure humans (especially children) into their rivers to drown them.
They feed on the entrails of humans or horses, which they drag underwater and drown. To do this, they extract or suck them out through the anus, which causes them to dilate. But its favourite food is cucumber. You can protect yourself and your family from the kappa by throwing a cucumber with your name on it into the water. The kappa will then always remember this gift and will never attack us. This love for cucumbers has led to sushi with cucumbers in its name: kappa maki.
Not all kappas are evil beings and can befriend human beings. They are known to be very good at medicine and building irrigation systems to help the people they are related to. In addition, they are trustworthy and never go back to their promises.
In Animal Crossing, a kappa can take you to an island in a boat.
In Final Fantasy 6, the "imp" status gives the appearance of a kappa
In the Goemon series, the kappa is a recurring character/enemy.
In the One Piece series, Kawamatsu the Kappa is a Japanese puffer fish-man, who is a yokozuna-ranked sumo wrestler.
The tengu is a yōkai of Chinese origin imported at the same time as Buddhism during the Nara period. The Chinese creatures from which they derive are called Tien-Kou which means "heavenly hound". Not at all resembling a dog, the name is said to come from a meteor that crashed in China in the 6th century BC, the tail formed when it fell evoking that of a dog. Their appearance was also certainly influenced by the Buddhist/Hindu bird God Garuda (Karura in Japan).
The Tengu is another Japanese supernatural being that appears in many forms throughout history. Early depictions of Tengu showed them as monsters with crow-like features, such as black kite-like wings, bird heads and beaks.
Later depictions show the Tengu as long-nosed, red-faced creatures.
In the beginning, the Tengu were considered mischievous Japanese mythical creatures, but not inherently evil or particularly dangerous, as they were fairly easy to avoid or defeat.
Many legends speak of the Tengu as bearers of war and destruction, but they were also known as protective deities and spirits of the mountains and forests throughout time.
There is another form of Tengu in Japanese mythology, the Daitengu (literally "great Tengu"). The Daitengu are an evolved form of the Tengu, with more human features and are usually depicted as a kind of monk.
The Daitengu wear long robes and have a red face with a long nose. Usually, their level of power is directly proportional to the size of their nose.
They live alone, as far away from human settlements as possible, in forests or on remote mountain tops, and spend their days in deep meditation.
The aim of the Daitengu is to achieve perfection and great wisdom through self-reflection, but this does not mean that they are always restrained and peaceful. Some Daitengu is said to have caused many natural disasters and suffering to humans in a simple fit of anger.
This attribute certainly comes from the fact that they are supposed to be descendants of the storm god Susano-wo.
They are also a master of martial arts, the Tengu being talented warriors and excellent blacksmiths. A legend says that Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune, a Japanese hero of the 10th century, learned martial arts and the art of war from Sôjôbô, the king of the tengu who lives on Mount Kurama. Some legends also mention the fact that the tengu trained the ninjas.
When they first arrived in Japan, the tengu was considered to be evil beings who devoured children, tormented Buddhist priests and only had the appearance of Karasu-Tengu. They then gradually evolved into their more human appearance and became rather benevolent, protecting temples and helping families to find their lost children. They also play tricks on arrogant priests and Samurai or people who abuse their authority, knowledge or power to gain fame or a better position in order to punish them.
According to some legends, they can be reincarnated as tengu after their death. Statues of tengu guard the entrance of some temples, showing their role as protectors. The Tengu is also closely related to the Yamabushi monks, sharing their home and their bad reputation, the latter has probably contributed to the construction of the legends. The Tengu is most often depicted wearing traditional Yamabushi clothing.
In an episode of Samurai Champloo, a group of Yamabushi attack people who cross the forest where they live wearing tengu masks.
In "Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon 2", there is a hidden village of Karasu-Tengu.
They are the equivalent of our demons and they dwell in the Buddhist equivalent of hell.
The Oni is an equivalent of our demons or ogres. They vary in appearance but are all gigantic humanoid creatures with sharp claws and teeth and two horns of varying lengths. Their heads can resemble those of a man or be those of an animal such as a monkey, a horse, an ox or even a bird. The colour of their skin varies greatly, ranging from red to blue, black or green. Moreover, their skin is reputed to be very resistant and few swords can cut it. Some of them have particularities such as having only one eye, three eyes or extra fingers.
Wild by nature, they dress in tiger skin and carry a metal mace called a Kanabō (金棒). This image gave rise to the expression "Oni ni Kanabō" meaning "Oni with a metal mace" to define someone who is unbeatable or the fact of increasing, thanks to an object, someone's "power" in an area where they are already very strong. Indeed, the Onis possess such strength that the Kanabō does not seem necessary to them.
In addition to their extraordinary strength, some Oni can change their form, notably into a beautiful woman, but are easily spotted by their strength or their enormous appetite. Some are also able to fly to cover large distances quickly. All of them bring misfortune.
In ancient legends, they were benevolent creatures who drove away evil spirits and punished criminals. They were powerful mountain spirits to whom offerings were made to protect the surrounding villages, especially from earthquakes. Their reputation gradually deteriorated until they were perceived as violent and cruel through tales and plays where they devoured men alive. Some samurai told of killing some of these creatures to gain glory and rewards. This can be compared to a large number of European legends about knights slaying dragons.
One of the most famous legends is that of Momotaro. He was a young boy born from a giant peach and taken in by a family of farmers. A band of onis was terrorizing the area where they lived. Momotaro decided to kill them and went to the island of Onigashima. On the way, he met a dog, a pheasant and a monkey to whom he gave some food that his adoptive mother had prepared for him and who then offered to accompany him. With their help, he got rid of the Onis and then brought their treasure back to his family where they lived happily ever after.
In the 13th century, Japanese Buddhism integrated them by making them the two assistants of Enma-Daiou, the king of Jigoku (Buddhist hell), one being red (the Akaoni) and the other blue (the Aooni), as well as the torturers of sinners in hell. Their appearance is probably derived from the demons of Chinese Buddhism, the original Onis having only a horse or ox head. The Onis are also closely associated with the notion of Kimon, the demon's door, which corresponds to the northeast direction and from which all the world's misfortunes are supposed to come. The Japanese also used the term Oni to refer to 'foreign barbarians'. The term "Oni" is also used more generally to refer to all demons living in hell.
In early spring, during the new year of the old lunar calendar, the Setsubun festival takes place. People wearing oni masks are symbolically driven away to ward off bad luck for the coming year. To scare away the Oni, people throw soybeans outside their houses and say "oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" (Out with the demons, in with happiness).
Remnants of their beneficial nature can still be found on the roofs of some temples where the Oni sculptures can be seen serving as protection.
In Dragon Ball, King Enma and his assistants who manage heaven and hell are oni.
In Naruto, Tayuya's invocations are also oni.
In One Piece, Oni Tribe, Kaidou and Yamato
One of the most important and unique categories of yōkai in Japanese mythology is undoubtedly the Tsukumogami.
The Tsukumogami is traditionally considered to be everyday household tools or objects that have acquired a kami (or spirit) of their own after living for at least a hundred years. Although they are generally considered to be harmless, Tsukumogami sometimes take revenge on people who have mistreated or abandoned them in their lifetime.
Among these Tsukumogami, there are a few that are the most famous in Japanese mythology. The first is the Kasa-Obake (monster/ghost umbrellas), monsters represented as one-legged umbrellas with one eye and sometimes arms and a long tongue.
Another example of Tsukumogami found mainly in illustrations is the Chōchin-Obake, a lantern that becomes sentient after 100 years. Once worn out, the lantern tears and sticks out its tongue, the opening becoming its mouth. Sometimes, the Chōchin-Obake is depicted with human faces, hands or even wings.
The Boroboroton is an excellent example of an evil Tsukumogami, it will not hesitate to harm you if it thinks you deserve it. The Boroboroton are Japanese sleeping mats (or futons) that come to life after being used and worn for 100 years.
They come alive after being abused for so many years, but some can also come alive if they feel neglected or useless. They hold a grudge against humans and come out at night to strangle sleeping humans and take revenge.
The last notable Tsukumogami is the Ungaikyō, or "mirror beyond the clouds". The Ungaikyō is haunted mirrors that show the viewer a distorted and terrifying version of themselves. They are also said to have been used to capture vengeful spirits and demons within.
In One Piece
In GeGeGe no Kitarō
In Japanese mythology, the Yatagarasu is a crow or a raven that is said to have guided the legendary Emperor Jimmu on his first journey from the Kumano region to the Yamato region (Yoshino then Kashihara). He serves Amaterasu, the Sun deity in the Shinto pantheon. He is sometimes presented as an incarnation of Taketsunimi no Mikoto. His appearance was interpreted as evidence of heavenly will or divine intervention in worldly affairs.
The Yatagarasu has three legs; one for Heaven, another for Earth and a third for people.
It is also the emblem of the Japanese football team, and at the Yuzuruha temple in Kobe, dedicated to the divine raven, there is a statue of a football bearing this symbol.
The Japanese Football Association has adopted the Yatagarasu motif on its uniforms.
In the video game, Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, Yatagarasu is a thief who is inspired by mythology as his emblem represents two raven wings and three legs. He is a vigilante who steals information from corrupt companies.
In the 11th game of the Touhou Project franchise (Subterranean Animism, 2008), the end boss is Reiuji Utsuho, whose name can be translated as "raven". She uses a spell card named "Crow Sign Yatagarasu Dive". Physically, she has two black wings which refer to the wings of a crow. Her primary power is the manipulation of nuclear energy, which may refer to the sun.
In Duel Monsters, the playing card game in the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise, itself based on the manga of the same name by Kazuki Takahashi, Yata-Garasu is a legendary card.
The Rokurokubi is a yōkai with a human appearance but with the ability to extend its neck enormously and control its movements. The vast majority of rokurokubi are female, but there are a few cases of male rokurokubi.
They are very social and live hidden within human communities as a full member. Their ability only appears at night and sometimes manifests itself while they are asleep, the Rokurokubi not being aware of being one.
Its head will then wander around the house, sometimes draining the vital energy of people and animals or frightening passers-by. In this case, the condition of Rokurokubi is a supernatural expression of the person's desire. Indeed, at the base, this yōkai is a human being who became like this following a curse. He will then feel obliged to reveal his true nature from time to time. It does this on people who are drunk, drowsy, blind or who do not remember seeing it. Because of this, the Rokurokubi usually live alone, scaring other people away when they discover their condition.
In other legends, they are cruel beings who enjoy frightening people, their faces taking the form of an oni, and who suck blood, similar to the vampires of Europe.
In Naruto, Orochimaru can extend his neck to bite his opponents like a rokurokubi.
One Piece, Sarahebi ate a snake SMILE Devil Fruit, which allows her to stretch her neck and gain snake-like fangs and tongue
In GeGeGe no Kitarō
The Kirin is a creature of Chinese origin (Ch'i-lin) often considered to be the equivalent of the western unicorn.
It has the body of a deer or a horse, an ox tail, fish scales and a single horn (sometimes two). Its body can be surrounded by flames and the kirin can breathe fire. In most representations, their head resembles that of a Chinese dragon. There are males, called ki, and females, called rin, both being grouped under the term kirin.
These mythical animals live in paradise and come down to earth only before the death or birth of an important and wise person. It is said, for example, that the mother of Confucius met a kirin before the birth of her child.
They are the personifications of all that is good, pure and peaceful. So, as well as speaking the language of humans, they can sense if someone is lying or wanting to harm. They never harm living things, including insects and the grass under their feet, but if a malevolent creature threatens a good creature, the kirin will become furious in order to defend it.
The Kirin is also the term used for giraffes, indicating that the legends may have been inspired by them when giraffes were brought from Africa to China (or the giraffes were mistaken for kirin).
In Final Fantasy 6, Kirin is a summon.
In Pokémon, girafarig (kirinriki in Japanese) is a kind of giraffe with a friendly-looking side and a dark-looking side which may correspond to the Ki and Rin side of the kirin which correspond to Ying and Yang.
There is a Japanese beer called Kirin with a Kirin logo.