Tengu, the long-nosed yōkai of Japanese folklore

Recently, someone asked me “what’s yōkai in English?” and the resulting discussion went from ghosts and demons, to kappa and kuchisake-onna and then finally to the tengu (天狗 literally “heavenly dog” or “heavenly sentinel”), a familiar type of yōkai in the Japanese folk religion.

Incidentally, I’ve been reading some old (like hundred-year-old) Japanese magazines from archive.org and stumbled upon an article about the tengu from the 1922 edition of The Japan Magazine, a self-described “Representative Monthly of Things Japanese.” I reprinted the whole article below, after tidying up the text from the PDF file.

Oh, and yōkai in English is just yōkai.

Tengu and a Buddhist monk, by Kawanabe Kyōsai. The tengu wears the cap and pom-pom sash of a follower of Shugendō (from Wikipedia)

The Tengu

Reprinted from “The Japan Magazine: A Representative Monthly of Things Japanese” published in Tokyo in 1922.

The tengu is believed by the Japanese nation to really exist and it is so believed especially by the mountain people of the country. The tengu is thought to be a monster possessing divine power, and to be sometimes a devil and at other times right and good much as a god.

He is also supposed to reside in deep mountains, his most favourite dwelling being the top of an old cedar, he being human in form or being a giant with a height of about 8 feet and an extraordinarily long nose and with wings with which he can fly freely, it being quite easy for him to hide himself and to shorten his body.

It is told that a tengu grows so angry at the desecration or ravaging of the mountain in which he dwells by a human being that the latter is liable to be torn or thrown out to a strange place.

So the Japanese people think of the tengu. The concept is vague but is not so simple.

To study the word tengu, the name means a dog of heaven and came from China. The “Kansho” (a Chinese book) decribes it as like a big running star, while the “Juiki” (another Chinese book) gives a narration of a tengu having fallen down to a roof on which it stood in a form like a dog. “Ulka,” an Indian name of a comet, mentioned in a sutra, was translated in China into a tengu. In China, the tengu was at first the name of a comet, and it was believed to become a monster of the earth. Chinese believe even now that the appearance of a tengu presages a severe human struggle.

This Chinese idea was introduced into Japan exactly as it was. The “Nippon-Shoki” which is the first authentic history of Japan states about the tengu that in the ninth year of the reign of the Emperor Jomei (637), a big star flew from the east to the west with a thunder-like sound, which the people supposed to be the sound of a shooting star or to be thunder, but the priest Bunso, told them that it was a tengu with a voice like thunder.

The Japanese idea of the tengu changed later, until it came to be supposed a monster, with the introduction of the Chinese conception and of Indian thoughts, or Buddhism, which spoke of a demon, of which the tengu was thought to be a relation. It was then told that a wilful, arrogant and selfish Buddhistic priest was liable to degenerate into a tengu which always led human beings into evil ways and always exerted himself to change this world into one of devils, but he could not withstand divine power and could not do any hurt to good human beings believing in Gods and Buddha.

The “Konjaku-monogatari,” the oldest collection of traditions in Japan, which was published towards the end of the Heian Era, has the following as representative of the above conception:

Chinese tengu came to Japan and attacked in concert with Japanese tengu the Enryaku Temple, a very noted Buddhist temple on Hiyei Mountain, to corrupt the Japanese priests. They lay in wait for priests of importance in the mountain, when they saw Yokei, a priest, coming down in a palanquin. The Chinese goblins approached him under the command of their Japanese fellows, when they found nothing but fire. This horrified the Chinese tengu who retreated. They soon saw another prominent priest called Shinzen coming down the mountain. The Chinese tengu approached him in concealment, but the priest saw and chanted the spell of “Fudo-shingon,” when the “Seitaka-doji” (an attendant Buddhist of the Fudo Myo-o), made his appearance and guarded strictly the priest. This again frightened the Chinese tengu who kept themselves away from him. Another priest coming down the mountain was called Jikei. The Chinese goblins saw no one beside him and approached with confidence. To their astonishment, they were captured by many boys (angels guarding Buddhism) who appeared suddenly. This frustrated utterly the plot of the Chinese tengu.

The tengu is supposed to be a man in form with a very long nose which is a symbol of wilfulness and arrogance and to be like a yamabushi (an itinerant priest) in style. There is a sho-tengu (a small tengu), which is less in ascetic practices and divine powers than a dai-tengu (a big tengu), it being supposed to have a man’s face with a black kite beak. It is popularly called karasu-tengu (the kite-tengu). The style of yamabushi was imagined perhaps by associating the supposed life of tengu with the daily life of the priest.

The yamabushi belonged to a kind of religion originated by En no Shōkaku in the Nara Era, a combination of Shintoism and Buddhism, its priests practising religious austerities in deep mountains by meditating. The tengu being supposed to be a religious monster dwelling in deep mountains, the style of tengu was thus perhaps associated with that of yamabushi. The existence of sho-tengu was first supposed in the Kamakura period when tengu according to tradition approached men in the guise of a black kite. The “Jikinshu,” one of the collections of traditions published at that time, contains the following story as illustration of the above fact.

An old Buddhist priest residing at Saito on Hiyei Mountain in the reign of the Emperor Goreizei (1046-1068) came down to the capital and met something on a wide road, which was bound and being beaten by boys. He found it to be a black kite. He felt pity for it and got it from the boys in exchange for his fan. He then set it free. Soon, after he was walking along a suburban road, and was overtaken by a priest who told him that he was a tengu which had just been rescued by him and wished to do anything he wanted in return for his kindness. The old priest told the stranger that being too old, he wanted no fame and wealth but to see a view of Sakya’s sermon on Ryoju Mountain.

The tengu readily granted the desire, saying that he could present that view before the old bonze, but that it would not be real but simply an imitation. So saying, he asked the priest not to truly believe in it, as it would bring calamity upon him. He took the priest to a mountain summit where a view of Sakya’s sermon was presented before him. The priest was not moved by the scene, at first, as he believed it to be a wizard’s act, but presently, he was so moved by the solemn view that he truly worshipped it, clasping his hands and shedding tears of joy, when the mountain suddenly began to rumble and the vivid view before him disappeared. The priest was awakered from a dream started on his way back to Hiyei Mountain and met the tengu which complained of his faith at the vision and that he had been reproved by an angel from heaven for having cheated so faithful a man and all his fellows engaged by him ran away, he having been struck by one of the angels’ wings.

One reason for the association of tengu with a kite was probably that the kite is the most weird of all birds which are near human beings. The Sanskrit ulka which is the same in pronunciation as another Sanskrit ulka which is translated as tengu means a black kite. This is supposed by the writer to be another reason for the above fact.

The appearance of tengu is thought to presage disturbances in the Ashikaga period. This was perhaps based on the Chinese idea that the appearance of tengu is an omen of a human struggle and also on the world wide thought that the appearance of a comet foretells the world’s disturbances. An illustration of this may be seen from the “Taiheiki,” one of the war books published in the above period, as follows:

In Kyoto, the “dengaku-mai” (a comedy opera) was fashionable then. This play was performed on Shijo-gawara before thousands of men and women of the place, who were seated on a large stand. There came a tengu and it being envious at so much amusement of the spectators at the plays, shook the stand, which fell down, causing a great many casualties. This was interpreted that so much enjoyment by the citizens despite the world not being at peace was taken advantage of by the tengu to create disturbances.

The tengu is thus an object of purely national belief among the ignorant people of Japan as a really existing mysterious being. The tengu was at first conceived to be a star, and then an animal, a bird, a demon, a hermit, a mountain god or monster and men who died not being satisfied with this world, until the present idea was formed of the combination of the above conceptions. Even at present, the tengu is believed by many people to be a demon or a mountain monster, whose appearance is feared by mountain climbers.

In Mino Province, a kind of mochi is made and is offered to tengu before tree felling is made in a deep mountain, as it is believed that unless the offering is made, the felling will be prevented by an accident. The mochi is made by village people assembled for the purpose, who cook rice in the mountain. This rice is made into rice balls which are roasted on skewers and soaked miso. The 5 or 6 pieces made at first are put on leaves and are offered to tengu in a clean place, the rest being eaten by all. The mochi is simply rice balls and is not true mochi.

Once, tree-felling was done in a hill adjacent to a village, and no tengu being supposed to dwell so near human dwellings, the cutting was begun without making the mochi. Instantly, the woodmen found the metal part of their axes vanishing to their surprise. Unable to continue work, they came back to the village and made and offered the mochi to the tengu to which they apologized. Then they found their axes all right, so that they could continue work from the next day.

Another time, the woodmen set about cutting without offering to the tengu several pieces of the mochi which they made but ate entirely themselves. At night, when they stayed in a mountain a storm occurred and the mountain rumbled, preventing their sleep. This reminded them of their forgetting to offer the mochi to the tengu. They soon made it and offered it to the goblins, after which they could work as they wished.

The writer was told the following story by a witness:

There is a river named the “Kannagawa” which flows on the boundary between the provinces of Musashi and Kodzuke. This stream is covered by many cedar trees and is very dark even in the daytime. One evening, three village youths went net-fishing for ayu in the stream, and caught many of the fish in this very dark place on the river. They were absorbed in fishing and were not conscious of its being very late at night. Then, they noticed some one throwing pebbles into the stream every time they spread the nets, until the pebbles grew gradually so big that the water splashes struck their faces. They were angered at it, supposing that their friends were playing a prank on them. But they soon felt uneasy, as there was apparently no trace of such men.

Presently, they saw a flash of light half way up Chichibu Mountain, and a big fireball flying down the mountain. As soon as the ball came down to their neighbourhood, it dispersed and vanished. They were pale with astonishment, and could see the sconed faces of each other in the light. They came back running, taking the nets, fish and lanterns. For some time since then, they did not go fishing at night again. Feeling the matter too strange, they inquired about it of an old village man and were told by him gravely that it was tengu which dwelled in Chichibu Mountain that threatened them who disturbed the quietness of night which the tengu enjoyed, the throwing of pebbles and the scattering of fire being manifestations of their displeasure.

Even today, the ignorant classes in Japan believe the tengu in deep mountains and they are very timid and careful not to provoke the anger of the goblins in such mountains. This is perhaps a mental phenomenon working in them who are so struck by the mystery of the mountains that a religious spirit is aroused in them. It is evidently a superstition, but it has the advantage of keeping the mountains from being wasted or desecrated. Religious mountain climbers are purified in mind by it, which brings good consequences in their lives.