Today’s yokai is not only awesome in its own right, but it is also the name of one of my favorite chain restaurants over here.
This is one of the most famous and most interesting yokai, with a lot of documentation, and probably more paintings and imagery than all other the yokai combined. It is interesting for a number of reasons, the first being its name.
The name tengu is derived from the Chiense tiangou, a type of black dog that lives in the sky and eats the moon (during lunar eclipses). This brought about the Chinese superstition of beating dogs during an eclipse until the tiangou spits up and the moon returns to the sky. The characters for tengu, 天狗, literally mean “celestial dog,” and the writing is the same as it is in Chinese. Like many yokai we’ve looked at, the tengu was brought over to Japan from China along with Buddhism, Confucianism, government, writing, and many other things over 1000 years ago. And also like many of the yokai we’ve seen, the tengu quickly adapted into a completely unique Japanese being. For one, although it still retains the name, the tengu has no dog-like traits whatsoever, and does not swallow the moon. In fact, other than the name it bears no resemblance whatsoever to its Chinese namesake.
So what is a tengu exactly? Well, its been described as a god, a demon, and a kami, but mostly it is accepted as a yokai. Physically it appears in a few common forms: one is that of an anthropomorphic kite-like monster (kite the bird, not the toy); another is a human yamabushi, a Japanese ascetic mountain warrior-sage; and a third is a hybrid of the previous two, usually with an enormous nose that would make even Cyrano de Bergerac blush, and a deep red face. The tengu is extremely wise, extremely powerful, and extremely dangerous. They enjoy eating humans, and they are fierce enemies of Buddhism. There are many stories of tengu carrying off monks into the mountains to be ravaged and devoured. They mislead the pious with false images of Buddha, impersonate women and try to seduce holy men, they rob temples, and they can also grant great unholy power to evil men who would worship them. They often abduct young boys and drop them in the woods, or tie them to the tops of trees, or forcing them eat feces until they go mad. There are dozens upon dozens of tales of tengus doing harm to mankind. Even the Japanese Emperor Sutoku, in the 12th century, is said to have died in torment and sworn to haunt the country forever as a great demon, and so his ghost transformed into a vicious tengu. But don’t worry — according to local lore from Ishikawa prefecture, tengu hate mackerel, so if you hang the fish up around your house, you may just be able to keep yourself safe!
So how is a tengu born exactly? Well, in most cases they are the ghosts of bad men and women whose souls cannot go to Heaven, but as Buddhists also cannot go to Hell. Often people with excessive pride become tengu after death. It is said that wise and knowledgeable men become very powerful daitengu, while ignorant people turn into the weaker kotengu. Being an important enemy of Buddhism, the priests did a lot of work to document them, and there are even a number of famous named tengu, as well as locations which are specifically infested with tengu. One of these books is the Tengu Meigiko, which documents the 17 best-known daitengu and the mountains that each one calls home. These daitengu often take on the more human-like, long-nosed appearance, while the kotengu are often more monstrous and bird-like.
But not all tengu are bad! There are, in fact, a number of good tengu written down in Buddhist parables. And in the last 300 years or so, the horrific image of tengu has given way to more stories of good — or at least neutral — tengu. Tengu eventually evolved into the vigilant protectors of mountains and forests, and they inflict terrible punishments on foolish mortals who would so much as pick a single leaf from their protected grounds. As they are often described as yamabushi, or shugenja, there have even been a number of religious cults that worship tengu as kami. Tengu are also well-known for being martial arts masters, and there are many legends of people seeking tengu out for training. These legends were popularized by later Japanese painters and printers, as well as playwrights and dramatists.
Tengu are extremely popular even today, and if you’ve even spent only one day in Japan you’ve likely seen at the very least a wooden mask with a long red nose, or a painting of a tengu on a freight truck, or a restaurant with tengu masks or sculptures. They are everywhere, a testament to their popularity and versatility as heroes and villains, monsters and masters.
Don’t forget that you can buy prints from the A-Yokai-A-Day project from my Etsy store. They make great Halloween gifts, and look incredibly stylish in any room of the house. (They also make great conversation pieces!) Originals are also available; please email me for details!