A-Yokai-A-Day: Shiranui

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There have been a lot of yokai lately dealing with the dragon god of the sea—Ryūjin. Wani, suiko, shinkirō, and ryūtō are all closely related to him. Of course today’s is as well! Why are there so many? Well, remember, Japan is an island nation, and the is incredibly important. The fact that Japan is an island chain is the reason it is so unique, so it is only fitting that there should be a lot of lore about the sea. And of course, by extension, of Ryūjin.

So who is Ryūjin exactly? Well, legends about him go way way back to before recorded history. Ryūjin is merely his title; it ryū means dragon, and jin means god. His actual name is Ōwatatsumi, although in most cases he is simply referred to as Ryūjin. He lives in a palace made of red and white coral, deep under the sea. He possess two magical jewels, known as kanju and manju, which respectively control the ebb and flow of the tides. He is served by jellyfish and sea turtles, as well as other aquatic creatures. As a dragon, he has domain over water. Farmers pray to him for rain, fishermen pray to him for a large haul. He is central to a number of important Japanese industries.

Politics below the sea reflect those above it. There are noble courts, dignitaries, parties, probably even war. Ryūjin has been known to bring human guests into his undersea palace, like in the myth of Urashima Tarō and Toyotami hime.

Today’s yokai, shiranui—”unknown fire”—is a manifestation of the power of the dragon god. They were viewed as a sign that the dragon god was nearby, so on days that shiranui appeared, fishermen came in and catching fish was forbidden, lest the god be disturbed. It is, of course, closely related to yesterday’s ryūtō.

Shiranui is really similar to other sea-based mirages and will-o’-the-wisps from English folklore. It seems that many cultures have fantastic stories about strange lights out at sea or on the land. Scientists usually attribute these stories to bio-luminescent creatures, such as algae or jellyfish or squid, or else to illusions caused by refraction of moonlight over the humid sea air. Whatever the cause, I happen to really like this particular interpretation of mysterious lights.

Click below to read about shiranui on yokai.com!