Japanese Folklore Creatures: Nine Popular Characters Explained

Japanese classic tales are one of the most imaginative, fascinating, and sometimes terrifying stories you’ll ever hear.

Compared to Western tales, expect to encounter Japanese folklore creatures that are way beyond your imagination.

Some of them will even haunt you in your dreams!

Surely, you’ve seen yokai and ghouls from dark fantasy manga series or anime.

But if you’re thirsty for more mind-blowing, spine-chilling, and sometimes quirky characters, you should start reading Japanese folklore stories.

Let's introduce you to the nine most popular folklore creatures in Japan.

Learn what they are, what they depict, and why they are still relevant to modern Japan.

Japanese Folklore Creatures

Many Japanese folklore stories include spirits, ghosts, supernatural creatures, and monsters, also known as yokai.

1. Tengu: Demons Turned “Gods

Image Source: Tofugu

Among yokai demons, the Tengu is perhaps the most popular in the Western world.

If you’ve been to Japan, you’re probably familiar with those red-faced masks with angry brows and long noses featured in festivals or often hung in houses.

Some people find them funny, but most find them really scary.

While depicted as demons or monsters, tengu is basically a Shinto kami or mini-god.

This fascinating folklore creature is also deeply intertwined into Japanese culture and religion.

Ancient Origins

You'll find some of the oldest texts about tengu in the Nihon Shoki or Japanese Chronicles.

These mythical monsters traditionally depicted the characteristics of both humans and birds.

The earliest tengu was pictured as having a beak. However, in more recent depictions, the beak was often "humanized" as an unnaturally long nose. 

Evil-to-Good Transformation

In early folklore stories, the tengu is regarded as a typical yokai or an evil monster.

They had the reputation of robbing temples, possessing women to tempt holy men, and abducting Buddhist monks.

That said, this mythical creature has gone through a positive transformation.

Over time, they lost their monstrous depictions and now regarded as good spirits that protected the Buddhist temples.

Today, people use Tengu masks to celebrate Shinto festivals.

They also use them as decorations since they are believed to scare away bad spirits and bad luck.

Awesome transformation, right? Who says bad creatures and people can't be good?

2. Tsukumogami: Household Objects Turned Into Spirits

Image Source: Uncanny Japan

Imagine you’re boiling water, then suddenly, the pot screamed and poured the hot water onto the floor and ran away.

In Japanese folklore, nothing seems impossible. Even inanimate objects in your home can turn into living creatures!

These spirits can be good or bad. They can become your best allies, but they can become your worst nightmare.

According to Japanese myth, all things, living and non-living, have souls.

On their one-hundredth birthday or after serving people that long, objects gain souls.

Most objects have good spirits. The only problem is when their owner or previous owners neglect them.

If it has been mistreated during such a period, an object grows a vengeful spirit that causes havoc in the current owner.

In short, it becomes haunted.

This Shinto belief has declined since the middle ages, but tsukumogami remains a favorite subject among modern artists in Japan.

We still see these folklore creatures in animes, mangas, and other illustrations.

Also, they still get to our minds somehow. Many people find antique objects creepy.

If there’s one lesson that this Japanese folklore creature teaches us, we should never take things for granted. Even that old kettle of yours.

3. Shikigami: Servant Spirits of Onmoyji

Image Source: Wikipedia

Another famous folklore creature in Japan is the Shikigami which we also typically see in anime.

They are spirits taught to be summoned by gods or used in a ceremony.

These spirits have no form, but they usually possess paper manikins or paper dolls.

Depending on their masters, they can also possess other objects, as well as animals and humans.

In the form of paper manikins, Shikigami is harmless.

In most folklore stories, onmyōji referred to a person in the Heian period who performed divination and magic.

A Shikigami’s power is dependent on its master. If the onmyōji has lots of skill and experience, the Shiki can possess animals and people, manipulate and even kill them.

In Japanese tales, Shikigami took risky orders from their masters, such as stealing things, spying around, and tracking enemies.

While completely folklore, Shikigami somehow symbolizes the divination of ancient Japanese.

4. Onryo: Vengeful Spirits

Onryo

Onryo

Japanese makes some of the scariest, morbid ghost stories. The movie "The Ring" is proof of that.

While undoubtedly modern, the concept of wrathful ghosts has long ago existed in ancient Japan.

Known as Onryō, this supernatural being is driven by the desire to get even to a person or persons who have done them wrong.

Japanese ghost lore has been recorded as early as the eighth century.

One story reflected in history books is that of Emperor Kammu.

He was the 50th Emperor of Japan. According to Onryō legend, the Emperor accused his brother of disloyalty, which resulted in the latter's exile and death.

It was said that the Emperor has since been haunted by his brother's wrathful spirit.

As such, he moved the capital of Japan from Heijo to Keian-kyo (Kyoto) 10 years later in his attempt to escape from it.

While Onryō spirits are pure Japanese folklore, they reflect perceived wrongs, extreme jealousies, and crimes of passion.

Like the Tsukumogami, this folklore creature has its roots in Shintoism.

Specifically, the Shinto belief that both animate and inanimate things have some kind of spirit.

It is believed that the only way to "defeat" an Onryō is to appease it or by giving the ghost justice.

It seems like it’s true what they say “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” 

We can think of it as karma. In the world of spirits, what goes around comes around.

5. Shinigami: The God of Death

Image Source: Ancient Origins

If you're a fan of Japanese anime, you must be so familiar with the Shinigami.

Shinigami is a relatively new addition to Japanese folklore, having entered the scene around the 18th or 19th century.

Before Shinigami, there was Izanami: the goddess of death in Shinto and Japanese myth. Even Buddhists believed in a demon called Mrtyu-mara.

However, when Easter and Western culture met, the notion of "grim reaper" begun.

With that, a whole new god of death appeared in Japanese folklore. They called it Shinigami.

While they have similarities, the Grim Reaper is different from the Shinigami.

The Grim Reaper is associated in Western folklore as a terrifying creature that brings death to people.

In Japan, Shinigami is more like an agent necessary to facilitate the cycle of life.

Shinigami was not meant to be feared. In fact, in one classic tale, a man who was about to commit suicide was visited by a Shinigami who told him that it isn't his time to die yet.

The Shinigami explained that life is like a candle. Once the flame runs out, then it's the only time to go.

This suggests that the God of Death in Japanese folklore doesn't control a person's death.

6. Komainu: The Lion Dog

Image Source: YABAI

Lions or dogs? Wander around the streets of Okinawa, and you'll see statues of those mythical beasts almost everywhere.

In Japan, they are called Komainu.

While considered a Japanese folklore creature, the Buddhist faith heavily influenced the Komaino.

Lions first appeared in Indian temples and later on in Chinese temples. It is argued, though, that the Komaino, which translates to "Korean dog", originated from Korea.

In Japanese myth, Komainu were guardians and messengers of the Shinto deities.

In modern Japan, Komainu symbolizes power, strength, and protection, as they are associated with places of worship.

The lion dogs always come in pairs, as represented by statues at the entrances of shrines and temples in Japan.

These statues are typically facing each other: one has its mouth open and the other closed.

They're believed to speak the word "a" and "un", a sacred Buddhist sound.

7. Oni: Wicked Humans Turned Demons

Image Source: Ancient Pages

If Western folklore has ogre, Japanese folklore has Oni. It's a monstrous creature regarded as the enemy of humans.

In Japanese myth, truly wicked humans who die are sent to the Buddhist hell to turn into Oni.

They become demons and brutal servants of the Rule of Hell.

Oni’s job is to punish or destroy humans solely for enjoyment.

The way they punish humans is ruthless. For example, they will peel off their skin or crush their bones.

In some folklore stories, utterly wicked humans become Oni even before they die.

While they retain their human form, they are actually demons who pose the most danger to humankind.

In the modern world, Oni has become a symbol of protection. During festivals or parades, Japanese people wear Oni costumes.

Oni decorations are also placed in Japanese buildings to ward off "bad luck."

Popular culture also projects "good" oni, such as one of the characters in Dragon Ball Z named King Yemma.

He was the King of all Oni who decides which souls get sent to heaven and hell.

King Yemma had a soft spot for Goku and has helped him many times.

You'll also find this famous folklore creature in Japanese fashion; many retailers of clothing and apparel use oni patterns and images on their products.

8. Inari: The Fox

Image Source: Japanese Objects

Kitsune, which means "fox" in Japan, is represented in many Shinto sanctuaries, such as the world-popular Fushimi Inari shrine.

Mount Inari is believed to be where Inari or the Deity of Rice first descended to earth from the heavens.

In ancient Japanese, rice was regarded as a measure of wealth. Thus, Inari is also associated with business, money, and success.

In folklore stories, foxes are either good or evil.

In the story "The Love of the Snow-White Fox", ninko foxes were ogre-like creatures that possessed humans who had the misfortune to cross their path.

They robbed victims of all they had, bewitched the maidens, and took their little children.

Meanwhile, there are the rare snow-white Inari foxes that protected humans from the ninko foxes.

In modern Japan, statues of kitsune (foxes) represent Inari shrines.

They are intelligent foxes that possess paranormal abilities.

It is believed that if you do these creatures a favor, they will give you a great reward. In modern Japan, people give kitsune gifts to family and friends to wish them "good luck" or prosperity in their careers.

9. Hōō: The Phoenix

Image Source: Onmark Productions

Like the lion and fox, the mythical phoenix has been embedded in Japanese culture for centuries.

The phoenix, also called sunbird, takes on various names in Japanese folklores.

It also represents many things, such as justice, obedience, and fidelity.

It is believed that Hoo only goes down to earth to do good deeds or during prosperous times. Therefore, its coming is a representation of peace.

In other folklores, specifically Chinese, the phoenix represents disharmony and destruction.

In modern Japan, the phoenix is heavily tied to Shinto beliefs. This mythical bird can be seen on top of a mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine.

It's a significant feature that represents a journey to another world. More importantly, it suggests that the end is only the beginning.

Ancient legends portray the phoenix as a magical bird that lives for several hundred years and then dies by bursting into flames.

It is then reborn to start a new life. Thus, the phoenix symbolizes rebirth.

Summary

The folklore creatures in Japan are some of the most bizarre yet interesting ones in the world.

They come in many forms, human-like, animals, monsters, and even household objects!

Most of these mythical characters have religious origins. In particular, many of the folklore features were representations of Shinto beliefs and Buddhist practices.

What makes these Japanese folklore creatures more amazing is their social relevance.

We see them depicted in a variety of ways in modern Japan, from Shinto shrines to anime and fashion.

While these creatures certainly give us chills, other times laughter, they are far beyond interesting.

Folktale creatures are important pieces of Japan’s rich history and culture.

They have shaped the country’s past and made massive influences on its current culture.

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