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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

RICHARD FREEMAN: The Preserved Yokai of Japan

Guest Blogger time for Richard Freeman again. It almost seems silly introducing Richard to you all once again when he makes an appearance as guest blogger several times a week. However our viewing audience/readers (whatever you like to call yourselves) is growing so fast that it is certain that some of you missed the last time I introduced him.

Some of you may know that I have recently finished writing a book on Japanese monsters or Yokai as they are collectively known.

In a number of Japanese temples keep alleged specimens of yokai in a mummified state akin to the cats that are sometimes found in old buildings in the UK.

There are a number of different types of mummified yokai, mermaids being the most common. In Japan the mermaid is not the beautiful creature of popular western imagination. It looks more like the ancient Greek triton. It has a fish’s body, humanoid arms and a head that looks like a cross between a monkey and a carp. It is covered with shining golden scales.

A Ningyo’s voice is said to sound like a flute and if it ever sheds tears it will be transformed into a human. Fishermen would usually throw he creature back if they caught one as they generally papered before a storm. Dead ones washing up on beaches was thought to be a bad omen. The flesh of the Ningyo is said to greatly extend human lifespan if ingested.

A fisherman from Wakasa (now Obama town in Fukui prefecture) once caught a Ningyo and not knowing what it was served it up at a meal for his friends. The men refused to eat the flesh after they saw the strange appearance of the ‘fish’ their colleague had netted. But one man, drunk on sake accidentally took some of the meat home.

The man’s sixteen year old daughter ate the Ningyo flesh and stopped ageing. She married many times and had many children. Time and again she had to suffer seeing her family grow old and die as she stayed unchanged. Finally she could stand it no longer and became a reclusive Buddhist nun and lived alone in a cave. She finally died at the age of eight hundred. She is called the Happyaku Bikuni or Yao Bikuni, the "Eight Hundred Nun".

A number of mummified mermaids are held in temples. One is at Zuiryuji Temple in Osaka, which was bestowed to the temple as an offering from a Sakai-area trader in 1682. It is a withered creature with an outsized head. Another mummified mermaid is preserved at Myouchi Temple in the city of Kashiwazaki in Niigata prefecture. This mermaid is about a foot long. It has a mouthful of sharp teeth and is holding it’s hands up by its face as if in alarm. Yet another mermaid mummy is preserved at Karukayado Temple outside the city of Hashimoto in Wakayama prefecture. The it is nearly one and a half feet long and has fangs that protrude from its wide open mouth. Both of its hands are raised to its cheeks. Its lower body is covered in scales, and there appear to be the vestiges of fins on its chest, as a pair of nipples.

A fourth mummy is owned by a Shinto sect in the city of Fujinomiya near the base of Mt. Fuji. At nearly 5 feet cm tall and 1,400 years old, it is the largest and oldest known mermaid mummy in Japan. The mermaid has an unusually large head that is bald, except for some hair growth that extends from its forehead to its nose. Its eyes and mouth are open. It has webbed hands with sharp claws. The lower body has a bone structure similar to that of a fish, but it is unclear whether or not the upper body has a bone structure. The entire body shows signs of having been ravaged by moths.

The mummy has a legend attached to it. The mermaid appeared to Prince Shotoku Taishi as he was passing along the shores of Lake Biwa 1,400 years ago. The creature told the prince about how it had been transformed into a mermaid as punishment for making a living as a fisherman within the boundaries of an animal sanctuary. The mermaid claimed that over many years it had come to a clear understanding of the horrors of destroying life, and that it was prepared to move on to the next world. As a final wish before dying, though, it asked the prince to establish a temple using the mermaid’s body as a centerpiece, where it could be used to educate people about the sanctity of life. The mermaid then died. The prince took the mermaid’s body and set up a temple as requested. But after a number of strange occurrences, the mummy was passed on to another temple. The mummy changed hands several times before ending up at its current location at the base of Mt. Fuji.

Another mermaid mummy is claimed to be the cadaver of the creature met by Prince Shotoku Taishi is held at the Kannon Shoji Temple in Shiga prefecture, which is nicknamed the “mermaid temple.” This temple professes to be the one established by Prince Shotoku at the request of the mermaid. The temple mummy is much smaller than the one owned by the Shinto sect and is a little above a foot long.

In Victorian times it was not uncommon for explorers to bring back stiffed ‘mermaids’ from the Far East. These bore little resemblance to the beautiful creatures of European myth because hey were meant to represent the ape-like Ningyo. Most were skilful composites were the top half of a monkey is stitched onto the bottom half of a large fish. This is done with such skill that the stitching can only be seen via an x-ray. In Europe they were dubbed nondescripts.

The most famous was created in 1810 by a Japanese fisherman. It was bought by Dutch merchants who then, in 1822, resold it to an American sea captain, Samuel Barrett Eades, for $6000 (at the time, a huge amount of money). Eades had to sell his ship in order to afford the mermaid, but he hoped to make a fortune by exhibiting it in London. Unfortunately he didn’t own the ship and spent the rest of his life in debt!

His son sold the mermaid to PT Barnum who exhibited it in the UK and the USA. It was destroyed in a fire.

This was one of several mermaid mummies to make it to the west. The one held in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden was brought by Jan Cock Blomhoff while serving as director of Dejima, the Dutch trading colony at Nagasaki sometime between 1817 and 1824.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology owns an excellent specimen skillfully created by the special effects wizard Alan Fizwell. Thankfully he did no use a real fish or monkey!

The Raijū or thunder beast is an animal said to fall to the earth in a blot of lighting. It can take the form of a tanuki, a weasel, a monkey, a cat or a wolf. It is wreathed in lightning. It can also fly around in the form of a ball of lightning.

The Raijū is said to be the companion of Raijin the Shinto god of lightning. Were lighting strikes the Raijū has clawed the ground. Raiju leaves claw marks in trees. People did not hide under trees during storms in case the thunder beast leapt upon them.

A school teacher from Kanayama Town, Gifu Prefecture was scratched on the face by a Raijū during a thunderstorm. It left a scar.

Raijū were rumored to live atop Kaga Province's Mt. Hakusan and Shinano Province's Mt. Asama. One was captured and put on show in either Osaka or Kyoto. It resembled a fox and was kept in an iron net. It refused to eat or drink but it’s hair stood on end before the evening rain.

Another was captured in Lord Nagai's fiefdom of Iwatsuki, whilst running through a vegetable patch after a storm. It refused to eat and drink and thus died. It was then stuffed. It looked like a puppy with bear’s claws. Its feet had many knuckles and folds. The pelt was thin except beneath the legs were it thickened.

The bodhisattva Kokūzō captured one of these beasts after it came down in a thunderbolt at Satoshō Town, Asakuchi District, Okayama Prefecture. From then on no more thunderbolts fell. The great full locals held a festival on the 13 th day of the first old month each year in calibration.

For some unfathomable reason the Raijū hates camels. If images of camels are erected then the thunder will not come.

The Raijū also has the odd habit of sleeping in people’s navels. When Raijin wants to awaken the beast he fires arrows into the unfortunate mortal’s belly button. This the Superstitious sleep on their bellies during storms.

A bird called Kaminari-no-tori is the favorite food of the thunder beast.

In Volume 2 of Kasshi Yawa (“Tales of the Night of the Rat”), a collection of essays depicting ordinary life in Edo (now Tokyo), Matsuura Seizan writes that a cat-like creatures would sometimes fall from the sky during thunderstorms. The book includes the story of a family who boiled and ate one such creature after it fell onto their roof.

In the Saishōji Temple in Niigata prefecture a supposed Raijū mummy is held in the hall of treasures. It seems to be no more than a mummified cat like those sometimes found in the walls of very old buildings in Britain.

The same can be said of the Raijū preserved at Yūzanji temple in Iwate prefecture. This was presented to the temple by a parishioner in the 1960s. Were the parishioner found it is not recorded

The kappa is one of the most famous of all yokai and along with the Tatsu (Japanese dragon), Tengu (the bird men) and the Oni (Japanese daemon) the most well known outside of Japan. Kappa has the shell of a turtle and frog’s arms and legs. It has a human like face but with a beak instead of a mouth. It has a fringe hair like that of a western monk about its head. The hair is known as okappa-atama.





The top of a kappa’s skull is concave and holds a magick liquid that gives the water goblin its phenomenal strength. Despite being only the size of a small child a kappa is strong enough to overpower a horse or cow.

Kappa will often challenge an unsuspecting human to a sumo match and easily overpower them with it’s magickal brawn. The defeated victim would have his bowels devoured after they were ripped from his anus.





Animals would be killed by kappas in this way as well. Kappa was particularly fond of the shirikodama, a fabled ball said to be found near the anus.





A kappa victim will usually have a distended anus and is known as a Gappadoko. Some victims, oddly, seemed to be smiling after their fatal, anal violation!

Kappa would often lurk in toilets and fondle women’s thighs and buttocks. Indeed Kappa were said to rape women if they got a chance. In Matsuzaki village, Iwate Prefecture, women bore hybrid children from Kappas for two generations. The creatures were so grotesque that they were hacked to pieces upon birth and buried in wine casks.

National Museum of Ethnology, at Leiden in the Netherlands has a mummified kappa, seemingly made of parts of a monkey and a stingray.

Zuiryūji temple in Osaka holds a preserved kappa with a very human like ribcage and a fish like head. It may be a fish head on a monkey body. The arms and legs look simian. It is 70 cm long and dates to 1682.

In a shrine in Kumamoto prefecture there is an alleged mummified kappa hand. It looks like it may have come from a Japanese otter, now feared to be extinct.

In the Matsuura Brewery in Imari, Saga Prefecture, a whole mummified kappa is on show. It was discovered in a box during plant renovations over fifty years ago. It is known as kahaku. It has a cat like body with no shell but a long neck and odd looking skull with eyes set far apart. Its nose recalls a softshelled turtle.

One of the best known yokai, the Oni feature in many Japanese legends. Oni are savage daemons in bodying the worst of human nature. They can have ox like, bird like, or humanoid heads. The generally have horns and wild mane of hair. They have three claws on each and three toes on each foot. Some have three eyes. They may be red, green, blue, white or grey in colour. They go naked except for a loin cloth. They are usually huge in size and their favored weapon is an iron spiked club.

Oni have their ancestry, like so many other yokai, in China. Here the ruler of Jigoku the Buddhist hell is called Emma-Daiō. He has two Oni henchmen, one green and one red known as ao-oni and aka-oni respectively.

Oni in Japan have a roll akin to that of trolls, giants and ogres in western lore. They walk the earth spreading terror in their wake until stopped by some hero. But like daemons they also torture souls in hell. Despite this their unpleasant image was often carved into tiles at the end of Japanese roofs. The onigawara tiles were used to keep evil spirits away from the building.

In the festival of setsubun, that marks the start of the new year and spring in the old lunar calendar, people don Oni masks to ward off evil and bad luck for the coming year. The Oni themselves are said to be driven off by the smell of burning sardines (and who can blame them?) and soya beans, which they cannot abide. Folk throw these and yell Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with demons! In with happiness!").

Zengyōji temple in Kanazawa ,Ishikawa prefecture holds the head of a three faced oni. Its origins are unknown and it was supposedly found by priest in a temple storage chamber in the early 18th century. It has two faces (but only 3 eyes) at the front of the head and one at the back. It is put on show at the spring equinox.

Another preserved oni can be found at Daijōin temple in Usa, Oita prefecture. It is a thin creature with a long face and neck. Its hands and feet bear three claws. The mummy heirloom of a noble family. But after they were forced to get rid of it after some kind of misfortune.
The oni changed hands a number of times before ending up with a Daijōin temple parishioner in 1925. After the parishioner fell extremely ill, the mummy was suspected of being cursed.
The parishioner quickly recovered from his illness after the mummy was placed in the care of the temple. It has remained there ever since. Today the enshrined oni mummy of Daijōin temple is revered as a sacred object.


Rakanji Temple at Yabakei ,Oita prefecture, once had a mummified baby oni . The creature bore horns on its head. It was destroyed in a fire in 1943.


One of the best known off all yokai, the tengu is a man / bird hybrid. It has two basic forms, the first being a creature with the head of a bird (usually a raven or a bird of prey), a humanoid body, birds talons and birds wings. It is known as the Karasu Tengu. The second is more human like with a man’s face. A greatly elongated nose is seen in lue of a beak. This form is the Yamabushi Tengu On occasion tengu are portrayed as red skinned men with long noses but no avian features. This may spring from a confusion with the Shinto god Sarutahiko who shares these features. If defeated they are said to transform into birds. Tengu seem invariably male.

Their nature seems contradictory they can spread chaos and fear but are also not averse to humble humans joining in with their merrymaking. They punish the vain and the rich and can affect the human mind leaving the victim wandering the forests or mountains in a state of madness known as tengu-kakushi. This sounds very like the effect certain fairies had on humans in western legend. In the South West of England this was known as being pixy led. The same monster would equally be called on to help lost children find their way home. This may be because in some stories the evil tengu were converted to Buddhism and become enlightened creatures.

Tengu hatch from huge eggs. How these are laid is unclear as the race seems to have no females. When Dutch travelers brought an ostrich egg to Japan locals thought it to be the egg of a tengu. Some say that the daemon Ama-no-zako begat the Tengu. They generally make their homes in Cryptomeria trees. They generally wear small black caps and sashes with pom-poms. These can be traced to a sect of warrior monks known as yamabushi or shugenja. These mountain dwelling ascetics sought enlightenment in the harsh environment of the wilderness. They held the bird yokai’s image as sacred. Tengu were supposed to be great martial artists and were said to have schooled many ninja and samurai.

The Hachinohe Museum in Aomori prefecture in holds a tengu mummy, which is said to have once belonged to Nambu Nobuyori, a Nambu clan leader who ruled the Hachinohe domain in the mid-18th century. It has a simian head with a bird’s body and legs, with long toes. There are also many feathers, in poor condition. The feet and feathers suggest a pheasant or similar bird. The mummy originated in Nobeoka ,Miyazaki prefecture. The Hachinone tengu bears an uncanny resemblance to Owlman!

The Japanese dragon known as the Tatsu or Ryū looks very like it’s Chinese counterparts. It has a head with piercing eyes and jaws furnished with formidable teeth. It has branching antlers on its head and barbles like those of a catfish on the snout. Its vast body is elongate, scaled and serpentine. Japanese dragons usually lack the massive bat like wings of their western relations but some sport small fin like wings, or wing like fins just behind the front legs. The dragon’s four legs are small in comparison to its immensely long body. Unlike the Chinese dragon that has four (or five if it is the Imperial Dragon) claws on each foot the Japanese dragon has only three.

Japanese dragons are less aerial than other Asian dragons but like those on mainland Asia they are intimately associated with water and the sea in particular. Most Japanese dragons are benevolent towards mankind but if treated with disrespect they can wield god like power. An angry dragon could cause earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, floods or droughts. The length of the largest dragons are measured in miles. Asian dragons rarely breathe fire but their breath condenses and forms rain.

Japanese dragons hatch from eggs that resemble gems. They take 3000 years to hatch. Unlike the Chinese dragon with its long, staged development in several forms, Japanese dragons generally grew to a great size almost as soon as they hatched. In some stories snakes grow into dragons.

Japanese dragons hatch from eggs that resemble gems. They take 3000 years to hatch. Unlike the Chinese dragon with its long, staged development in several forms, Japanese dragons generally grew to a great size almost as soon as they hatched. In some stories snakes grow into dragons.

Some legends contradict this and have Japanese dragons evolving through stages like their Chinese cousins. A standard dragon changes into a Kakuryu, a horned dragon after 500 years. A Kakuryu changes into an Ouryu, a yellow, winged dragon after 1000 years. The Ouryu is defined as the highest form of a dragon.

Black dragons guarded the north, red ones the south, white the west and blue the east. The yellow dragon ruled the center. Four great dragon kings governed various aspects of the world. They were the Celestial Dragon, the Hidden Treasure Dragon, the Earth Dragon and the Spiritual Dragon.

The Zuiryuji Temple in Osaka houses a small stuffed dragon several hundred years old. It seems to be a composite of eel, lizard and bird.

Despite the many dragon legends and their spiritual significance in Japan, dragon mummies are rare. This is perhaps because of the large size of the creatures made them difficult for early taxidermists to fake short of getting their hands on a dead crocodile

3 comments:

Yanurama said...

Thanks for your insightful article

Des said...

Interesting article. Please proof-read for grammar, spelling, etc. The errors in this article really ruin it for me.

Charles said...

Hi Richard,
Just received a copy of The Great Yokai Enclyclopaedia and I am most impressed.
I became interested in yokai after first seeing Gegege no Kitaro. Then when I worked in Japan had the opportunity to expand my interest. I lived in a rural part of Japan and often saw interesting folklore evidence - shrine, stones, etc. I also had a couple of interesting experiences.
Your publication is one of the best on the subject that I have come across.
Best wishes,
Charles