King of Monsters

With the class coming to an end soon, I would like to take this time to write about something near and dear to my heart, the weird and sometimes city destroying monsters known as kaiju.

Kaiju is a term meaning “strange beast” and was popularized in America when the movie Pacific Rim was released, featuring many different monsters who were all designed to destroy the human race.  Although this film by Guillermo Del Toro is not Japanese, it is clear to see that it takes a lot of influence from Japan.  Kaiju fighting giant mecha screams anime origins, and in my opinion, it did a good job blending Japanese themes with Western cinema.

A much more famous kaiju though, the King of Monsters, is Godzilla.  When it comes to kaiju, Godzilla will always win in my heart, and it is the real reason I wanted to write about kaiju.

Known as Gojira, this poster comes from its movie debut in 1954

One of  the reasons I love Godzilla so much is because as a child I could use the films to bond with my older brother.  Being six years apart, movies like Godzilla were a perfect middle ground for things to watch that we could both appreciate.  So right of the bat, I’m definitely a little sentimental about the big monster.  The real reason I’m bringing Godzilla up today though, is the symbolism involved.

To put it simply, Godzilla was made as a commentary on nuclear weapons.  Being a city destroying monster with a signature power called “atomic breath” this allegory makes complete sense.  The attacks against japan in WWII with the use of atomic bombs was key inspiration, especially with scene destroying Tokyo.  Further and lesser known inspiration came from a much smaller incident though, that still caused immense fear and uncertainty.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru fishing boat (Lucky Dragon 5) was getting further and further away from its point of origin, in desperate search for more fish.  in the process of doing this, the ship and her crew came close to the Bikini Atoll nuclear test site where a thermonuclear bomb was being detonated.  Due to the fishing boat’s accidental close proximity, the crew experienced a large dose of radiation, along with the fish they had caught.  After getting back to Japan they were rushed to local hospitals, showing heavy signs of radiation sickness.  At the same time, there fish had somehow been accidentally offloaded, and accidentally sold.  All but two tuna were found, likely having been consumed.  The sick fisherman and the chance of consuming irradiated fish caused a mass panic, and it was suggested not to consume from the ocean for a while due to these tests.  This confusion and terror from nuclear weapons fed the modern myth of Godzilla and helped create the most famous kaiju today.

This historical background makes Godzilla an important character in media, and shows how stories are adapted to show modern issues in the world.  With over 30 films based on Godzilla, and the resent reboots involving the 2014 American Godzilla film, and a 2016 Japanese Godzilla film (using the Fukushima meltdown as a major plot point), Godzilla shows no sign of going away.

-Will Sarros, Group Naga


Swenson, Tommy. “Lucky Dragon 5 And The Terrifying Truth That Inspired GODZILLA.” Birth.Movies.Death. N.p., 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

Last Minute Research and Discoveries with Group Heian

Good evening everyone!

We are in the final stretch of Centre Term and Group Heian is putting the finishing touches on our podcast. While we have mostly completed our research, we are still finding some really cool historical context surrounding our topic. I have been particularly interested in discovering as much as I can regarding the manifestation of the subdued role of women in Japanese Yokai and folklore.

As many of you know from past posts, the Yokai, the Yamamba and Ubume, have both proved excellent case studies for Confucianism’s influence on the role of women in Heian, Kamakura, and Muromachi Japan.

This week, as I was conducting in depth research for my long essay, I found a great article, Transformation of the Oni: From the Frightening and Diabolical to the Cute and Sexy, which presents a lot of fantastic information about depictions of the Yamamba in Muromachi Japan, a time period spanning from the mid 1300s to the late 1500s AD. During this time, an artist by the name of Zeami produced a play entitled the “Noh Play” (Reider, 146). The play portrayed the Yamamba as a protagonist in contradiction to the popular depiction, which illustrates her as villainous and bizarre. Zeami created a character that was lonely, invisible and strived to assist humans with chores. This portrayal contested the Confucian values that were present in the original folklore interpretation of the Yamamba. This is great for our group because it proves that these values were present and being debated in Japanese culture during the Muromachi period.

Since we found this information late in the term, we may not include it in our final script and production. However, we are definitely considering it. We will just have to see what the editing process looks like this weekend.

In other news, we have begun planning for our final presentation on Monday or Tuesday of next week and look forward to finalizing that over the weekend.

See everyone in the morning,


Works Cited

Reider, Nokito. “Transformation of the Oni: From the Frightening and Diabolical to the Cute and Sexy.” Asian Folklore Studies 62, no. 1 (2003): 133-157. Accessed January 17, 2017.

The Tanuki: An Obscure yet Enduring Legacy of Shape-Shifting Tomfoolery… and Big Balls

Yuko Shimizu, “The Tanuki”


Japan’s youkai are a veritable pantheon of assorted oddities and wondrous creatures, which is a commonality in mythologies from all around the globe. As such, it comes to reason that the intermingling of other cultures with Japan – particularly Western cultures – would allow them to become acquainted with at least some of the youkai present in Japanese myths and legends. To some extent this has indeed happened, as especially popular youkai like kitsune (fox spirits) and yurei (human ghosts) have been able to somewhat cross over into foreign media. But obviously, they are only two examples from an entire mythology’s worth of entities, and even with the foreign attention that their fame has won them, not all famous youkai have been so lucky. One of the foremost examples of just how difficult it can be for a youkai to really “make it” non-domestically is a creature that has basis both in myth and in reality, yet most people outside of Asia likely haven’t heard of at all: the tanuki. An uncommon concept to foreigners but a household name in native Japan, tanuki are one of the most well-known examples of youkai in Asian folklore that have unfortunately gotten the short end of the stick in terms of depictions of popular youkai worldwide. This is largely due to dissonance in cultural translation or the sheer absence of tanuki in the eye of Western culture, period, but despite their obscurity, the tanuki have a enduring legacy that has made them iconic in their native Japan. What are they, and how do they figure into Japan’s overall mythos of supernatural beings? Let’s have a look.

General Characteristics & Common Depictions

Physically, tanuki are dog-like creatures with thick fur of different shades of brown, and bushy tails. As seemingly normal animals, they walk on four legs by default, but as youkai they can become bipedal at will. In older depictions they were shown as being small or compact in comparison to other animals such as foxes, but this depiction has since escalated to the point where modern media typically portrays them as being downright potbellied (Smith, 251). The portrayal of tanuki as fat creatures has become symbolic over time, signifying calmness and a bold personality, but it also has practical uses in some myths where tanuki will drum on their rotund bellies for fun, or to pique the interest of curious passersby. This is is a common enough trope in stories about tanuki that the Japanese even gave it it’s own name, hara-tsuzumi, which translates literally to “belly hand drum” (Weinstock, 527).

The most prominent part of the tanuki, which can seem incredibly off-putting to those unfamiliar with the creature, is its cartoonishly large scrotum. Even with the advent of more stern censorship policies, it’s still quite difficult to hear about the tanuki without it being mentioned that the creature has very large testicles, which it can manipulate at will and use like a makeshift tool (Ashkenazi, 119). While it seems too outlandish to be based on anything in real life, this aspect of the tanuki myth actually does have basis in the Japanese language, being derived from a Japanese play-on-words that was coined by feudal metalworkers. At the time, it was common practice to use the skin of tanuki in the process of smelting gold nuggets, which are called kintama in Japanese. This word can also mean “testicles” in Japanese, which was acknowledged so often that the tanuki became heavily associated with the body part in myth. Fittingly, this has also earned the tanuki some status as a symbol of fertility & prosperity, which is why it’s not uncommon to see statues of them adorning stores and restaurants in modern day Japan (Foster, 187).

In terms of personality, tanuki are quintessential in their characterization as trickster archetypes (Foster, 186). Mischief is an extremely common raison d’etre for youkai in legend, with countless tales concerning people being subjected to their fun-fueled torment, but few are reputed as being as prone to it – or adept at it – as the tanuki. A masterful shapeshifter, tanuki are able to transform both themselves and other things into any shape or form, in particular changing the shape and size of their oversized testicles to perform any number of tasks. They often make use of this transformative ability in folklore to either help or hinder people, depending on their portrayal. It’s somewhat difficult to apply a certain morality to tanuki in general, as tales throughout history have varied their exact alignment broadly between being kind & helpful, ambivalent & bumbling, or explicitly malicious (Weinstock, 528). Two famous Japanese stories that present tanuki with very different temperaments are Kachi-Kachi Yama and Bunbuku Chagama. The former story depicts the tanuki as an malevolent beast that murders an innocent woman and tricks her husband into eating her remains before being slain for its evil, while the latter depicts it as a benevolent acquaintance to an impoverished monk who brings him fame and fortune in exchange for a home (Foster, 187). However, modern Asian culture generally chooses them to represent a more light-hearted and fun-loving prankster than smiliar youkai like the kitsune, which has a much more cunning and dangerous reputation in folklore and contemporary media. In fact, tanuki and kitsune have been compared so heavily that they have come to represent a sort of duality in the popular trickster archetype of Japan. They are often shown together in artwork, and their collective legacy has caused them to even lend their names to a Japanse word, kori, which can refer to a sly or deceptive person and is simply a compound of the kanji for tanuki and kitsune.

Origins & Evolution of the Myth

Just as the mythical kitsune is analogous to real-life foxes, the mythical tanuki is a direct analogue to the real life animal of the same name, which is typically referred to as a “raccoon dog” in other parts of the world due to its passing resemblance to a raccoon. This comparison is sometimes taken so far that tanuki are expressly referred to simply as “raccoons” in the West, even though this is inaccurate. Contrary to that moniker, tanuki are not closely related to raccoons at all. They are instead canids with close evolutionary relations to some species of fox, such as the bat-eared fox, which is oddly appropriate considering how tanuki and kitsune are often depicted together in folklore. The first documentation of the tanuki was recorded in the Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. One of the oldest known texts on Japan’s history, the Nihon Shoki describes the tanuki changing into humans and making merry, showing that the representation of tanuki as magical beings dates back almost two millennia (Weinstock, 527).

Tanuki began appearing in short stories in the Heian (794-1185 CE) and Kamakura (1185-1333 CE) periods of historical Japan. The Uji Shuui Monogatari, a well-known collection of such short stories, contains a specific tale in which a Buddhist hermit is visited by the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, which turns out to be an illusion created by a tanuki (Weinstock, 527). Stories like Bunbuku Chagama and Kachi-Kachi Yama, where they where starting to be depicted in specific character roles, became prominent later on during the Edo period (1603-1868 CE). By the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE), they had obtained a similar spot in Japanese culture as the ghosts or aliens have in America, being a catch-all fantastical explanation for any odd phenomenon. An incident in 1889 involving an incident with Japanese steam trains was attributed to tanuki, wherein the driver of one train reported seeing another train on the same track set to collide with his own, but this second train suddenly vanished at the moment of impact. Two tanuki were found to have been run over by the driver’s train during the event, which resulted in many attributing the ordeal to the creatures trying to frighten the train driver with their magic (Foster, 190).

Modern Interpretations & Exposure to Other Cultures

Today, tanuki are still very present in Asian culture. As previously stated, Japan has adapted them as popular symbols of various positive character traits, and they crop up frequently in many facets of contemporary media such as advertising and fiction. They remain the subject of some superstitions and religious practices in different parts of Japan, with shrines dedicated to them still existing even in the capital of Tokyo. In effect, they have evolved from simple mythological beasts into icons of a sort.

However, this generous cultural attention doesn’t extend far beyond Asia, wherein tanuki are comparatively obscure. While they have been introduced in limited numbers to specific parts of Europe (Foster, 186), tanuki remain distinctly absent in most of western nature, which has been a large contribution to the limited exposure of Western media to the mythical creatures or the real ones. In light of this, pop culture in the past few decades has been able to better establish and improve the tanuki’s image in the Western world, primarily through their modern depictions in animation and video games. Japanese animation or anime, as well as products made by Japanese gaming companies (i.e. Nintendo), have exploded in popularity in the West, making it inevitable that a creature so prominent in Japan’s folklore would make it into those mediums, and would therefore be introduced to other cultures where such things gained lots of attention.

Some examples of Tanuki appearing in

  • The Mario Bros. franchise created by Nintendo, a franchise so popular the world over that it’s synonymous with video games in general to many, contains some homages to tanuki folklore. Tanuki appear in some entries of the series as supporting characters, and Mario himself has among his many abilities a form known as the “Tanooki Suit”. With it, Mario can levitate and transform into a Buddhist statue, both of which are skills which are commonplace in the repertoire of mythical tanuki. This homage is taken even further in that Mario’s brother Luigi instead has the ability to adopt the form of a kitsune, referencing the closeness of the two youkai in culture.
  • Nintendo has made references to the tanuki in some of its other popular game franchises, as well. The Pokemon series has the Pokemon species Zigzagoon and Sentret, which are designed to resemble different depictions of the tanuki. Animal Crossing is a series of games that all feature the character Tom Nook, who is presented as a raccoon in English translations but is obviously a tanuki regardless, as his name and appearance suggest. While not explicitly magical, Tom Nook still shares some of the tanuki’s reputation as a trickster by forcing the player into massive debt, and also has his own kitsune counterpart named Crazy Redd.
  • Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto is an anime that has become one of the most popular examples of the medium since its inception, garnering a huge fan base in the West. In it, one particular antagonist is the chaotic Shukaku, a giant demonic entity made of sand in the form of a tanuki, which weaponizes the tanuki’s hara-tsuzumi as a method of firing deadly air bullets.
  • The Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, most famous for films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke which have garnered praise in many foreign audiences, released the film Pom Poko in 1994, which directly addresses the relationship between tanuki (and to a lesser extent, kitsune) and modern Japanese culture. In it, a clan of tanuki youkai must find a way to stop their natural habitat from getting demolished to build a golf course, and in the process they invoke a huge array of tropes from different tanuki myths, as well as many other Japanese folktales. The film depicts modern society as having lost touch with myths and legends as a legitimate aspect of itself, in favor of presenting it as merely a part of popular culture, which is a blatant reference to the modernization of many myths into cultural icons.
  • Tom Robbins’s novel Villa Incognito is an example of the tanuki actually appearing in a standalone Western work. The novel features a tanuki as an important character in its backstory and makes many references to the multiple uses for it’s scrotum.


Even with all this background, it’s still impossible to say with absolute certainty why the tanuki remains comparatively more obscure in world pop culture than some other youkai. Once again, the fact that tanuki don’t exist in most western habitats and thus haven’t been seen by most people in the West likely has something to do with it. It may also have to do with censorship, as the tanuki’s deep-seeded link to genitalia is treated with far more tolerance in Japan than it likely would be in other places. The lack of a centuries-long cultural backbone in the form of old legends doesn’t help, either, though as we’ve seen here, none of this truly stops the tanuki from being introduced to the world as it does slow the process considerably. Regardless of whether the tanuki ever truly catches on in other places or not, it’s evident that Asia has every intention of keeping its legacy preserved in some way or another. In addition, the mere existence of this article (written by an American college student) shows that, in an age of information, the tanuki and potentially all youkai can be introduced to people all around the world, if they so choose to become informed on such things. In short, the tanuki may be able to vanish into thin air, but it’s definitely not going anywhere any time soon.


Works Cited

Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.

Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Youkai. University of California Press, 2015. Print.

Yuko Shimizu, The Tanuki. Discovery Channel Magazine (Singapore):

Smith, Evans Lansing and Nathan Robert Brown. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Mythology. Penguin, 2008. Print.

Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko). Directed by Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli, 1994.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrews. The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014. Print.

“Yanagimori Shrine: Going balls out in Akihabara.” Yoda, Hiroko. CNN Travel. Cable News Network, 21 April, 2010,

Bakemono No Ko

Language and culture are difficult to interpret for non-natives of any country. In Japan, the language and culture are distinctly different from what most westerners are used to. As anime and manga become more popular in America, the difficulty in understanding Japan becomes
less daunting. However, introducing Buddhism into the mix creates new challenges in understanding Japanese culture.   The Japanese film Bakemono No Ko, uses language and helps showcase Japanese culture and Buddhism equally. It shows specific Japanese cultural values and how they interact with Buddhist values to create a story that can show the importance of both.

As is the case with many languages, translating from Japanese to English can create many different translations and interpreting issues. This is seen almost immediately when trying to translate the title Bakemono No Ko, which can be translated in a few ways. The popular translation is The Boy and The Beast which is very different from the literal translation of The Shapeshifters Child. The obvious difference between the two translations is how one is possessive whereas the other is not. But neither really describe what the bakemono are like in this story, other than a general translation. Bakemono are a type of yokai that are usually shapeshifters which is directly seen within the story. Yokai themselves are prevalent in Japanese culture, and can be portrayed in a variety of ways. Oni for example are brutish demons that are usually malevolent in most folklore. However, in this film, they are more like humans, usually even more benevolent than the humans themselves. They live in their own separate world from the humans, which is another distinct way of showing how there are often two worlds in Japanese culture, the human world and the spirit world. A lot of Japanese stories show how fluid the border is between the two worlds, and how easily it is to cross between the two of them.

The two worlds themselves are also very different from one another. The human world is set in what is assumed to be modern day Shibuya, whereas the spirit world called Jutengai (Bitter Heaven Town) is set in feudal Japan. Most of the story is spent in Jutengai, and involves martial arts training or a quest to learn from masters. The time spent in the human world mostly involves the main protagonist interacting with his estranged family, and studying to make up for his time spent growing up in the spirit world. The main protagonist lived solely in the spirit world from age nine to seventeen, and spent his time training and interacting with various bakemono. It is only in the final act in which the two worlds start to overlap, which is reminiscent of how Japanese culture and Buddhist culture overlap throughout most of the film.

The film shows Buddhist influences near the beginning with the protagonist initially being named Ren. “Ren” in Japanese can mean either “lotus”, or “love” depending on the kanji used, but both have direct ties to Buddhism. The lotus flower in Buddhism is possibly the most sacred symbol, indicating purity and beauty. (Ward, 138) The Lotus Sutra is also considered to be the most important Sutra for many East Asian Buddhists. This isn’t the only time the lotus symbol shows up in the film however, as it is seen multiple times on the grandmaster, who throughout the film is seen as a Bodhisattva like figure, and is even awaiting to be reincarnated as a god. In Japanese culture to explain how Buddhism melded with the local religion, a theory was created that gods in Shintoism where Bodhisattvas and Buddha’s who were there to try and save the Japanese people. (Shirayama) In many ways the grandmaster fills this role, often offering guidance to the protagonists, and even giving away his chance at godhood so the protagonist doesn’t have to sacrifice himself to defeat the antagonist.

The antagonist himself also represents Buddhist ideology, specifically from the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land Buddhism) sect. (Dobbins, 14) The antagonist, like the protagonist, is a human living in the spirit world. Unlike the protagonist though, he is unaware of his heritage, and believes himself to be a bakemono. This causes him to be filled with uncertainty and hatred as he does not feel like he belongs but he doesn’t know why he feels this way. Throughout the film humans are seen as unworthy or impure by the people of Jutengai. This is because all humans are filled with darkness and are susceptible to falling to this darkness. An example of this is seen in the beginning when Ren is running away from home as a child due to his mother passing away and not wanting to live with the main branch of his family. During this time his heart is filled with hatred and darkness, and he leaves an imprint of that hatred on a shop window that he doesn’t notice until much later in the film. The film also uses the novel of Moby Dick, and how the protagonist of that novel is consumed by his hate, to show how dangerous it can be to allow yourself to be consumed. This directly references Pure Land Buddhism, which understands that the main cause of suffering in the world is this hatred, and that by letting go of it you are able to cease your suffering. (De Bary 125) The Protagonist is able to do this, and let go of his anger, which allows a god to enter his body and reside there. However, the antagonist is unable to do so. He becomes so consumed by his hatred for the protagonist, and his uncertainty of where he belongs in the world, that he morphs into darkness. The shape that he takes is the whale, which not only has a direct connection to the novel Moby Dick but also again ties into Japanese culture, as whaling was so prevalent to Japan.

Throughout the film there are also symbols that indicate this melding of Japanese culture and Buddhism. One of the protagonist’s mentors is a bakemono that is very clearly meant to portray a Buddhist monk. He is often the one who gives advice, and seems to be the wisest of the group. There are also the other grandmasters that they meet when they go on their quest in order to get strong. Strong is a relative term though, as the various masters show that strength can come from a variety of sources. One of the grandmasters is even depicted to be meditating in a Zen Buddhist rock garden. The climactic battle scene in the movie takes place in Shibuya, which is a district in Tokyo that is incredibly urban and compact. Yet this scene takes place in front of a distinctly Buddhist temple, and even has the protagonist purify the antagonist with the use of a Tsukumogami, or a good of tool. All of these directly tie in Buddhist beliefs and ideology with Japanese culture, whether it be modern or feudal.

Bakemono no Ko is a film that uses Japanese culture and Buddhist ideology to create a story that is able to showcase both of their values. It is able to clearly show how Buddhism was able to influence Japan’s culture back during certain time periods, and how Japanese culture was able to evolve over time Overall, I think this is a fantastic film, and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Japanese culture.


A link to the trailer if anyone is interested in watching it:



Works Cited

                Bakemono no ko. Dir. Mamoru Hosoda. By Mamoru Hosoda. Prod. Yuchiro Saito. Perf. Kōji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Shōta Sometani, & Suzu Hirose. Toho, 2015. Film. Web.

De Bary, Theodore, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Second ed. Vol. One. New York: Columbia U, 2006. Print.

Dobbins, James C. Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in medieval Japan.    Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1989. Print.

             Shirayama, Yoshitarō (2007). “Han-Honji Suijaku Setsu (Anti-Honjisuijaku thought)”. Encyclopedia of Shinto. Accessed January 15, 2017

Ward, William E. “The Lotus Symbol: Its Meaning in Buddhist Art and Philosophy.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 11, no. 2, 1952, pp. 135–146.

All translations were done by the author

All images come from google images


Don’t Go Into the Mountains Alone… Without Rice

It is a dark night. The moon is full, shining bright among the stars. A campfire is set in the middle of a dark wood with the History 435 class all huddled close together sharing spooky tales from Japan and China. Suddenly, a cloud covers the moon and a shadowy figure emerges from the woods and takes a seat among the students and begins to tell a tale from the mountains….

Many moons ago, long before your time, there were tales of people who used to die in the woods. They would go out and explore the trails of the mountains, hiking up, far away from civilization or just passing through a pass to get to a village on the other side. Some were smart and brought enough food, but others didn’t plan properly. These foolish people would soon run out of food and begin to starve. Those unlucky enough to not make it down the mountain would die and their bodies were never recovered even though their families searched for them. Unmarked and unmourned, these souls rose up and began finding each other. Soon, in their hunger, they travelled around the woods and trails of the mountains, finding any traveller in their path and making them feel the pain of starvation. Many a traveller were unlucky and died during this encounter, joining the ranks of the Hidarugami, hunting to spread their hunger. And it could be anytime before they come across a small campfire, in the middle of the woods… (que the clouds to cover the moon completely, the shadowy figure fades away, screams can be heard in the distance, frightened students running everywhere, dropping their s’mores)

While this isn’t necessarily a super scary story, you probably didn’t drop your s’mores, and there would be no way for me to post this blog from the woods 😉 I will just have to tell you of this interesting tale/creature that brings up both the topics of ghosts, which we have been going over in class, as well as yokai, which is what Group 6 is heavily focusing on.

The hidarugami are a type of ghost that can be found in the mountains of Japan. They are the souls of those, like my super scary story said, who died from starvation while being up in the mountains. They are not properly buried and so this can cause unrest among the spirits, allowing them to leave their bodies and haunt the mountains on which they died. Hidarugami will be near trails and mountain passes, making hikers suffer the same hunger pains that they suffered before death. If a hiker dies during this encounter, they join the ranks of the hidarugami, haunting the mountains forever.


So how does one defend themselves while traveling alone in the mountains?? Well first off, try not to travel alone, but lets not state the obvious. There is a simple way for preventing and/or surviving an attack from the hidarugami. All one must do is carry around a staple crop, a mouthful of rice or other grain. (They can also carry a bento or a couple of rice balls). When the hunger strikes, the prepared traveller will eat a bit of rice or part of their bento and the hunger will fade. However, exercise control and don’t eat all of the rice in one sitting. You never know when you might need more (que the ominous music).

The hidarugami occupies a special place in Japanese horror/warning tales because of the debate on what type of creature the hidarugami actually is. The way hidarugami is written uses both the katakana ヒダル (hidaru; most likely tied to the word 饑い hidarui which means hunger) and the kanji 神 (kami; god). This makes the word “hunger-god.” It is also fascinating to note that other “evil” gods are referred to in a similar way, namely the Binbogami (貧乏神; God of Poverty) and Shinigami (死神; God of Death). But is the hidarugami a god or a vengeful spirit? Is it a yokai or a yurei (ghost)??

Careful not to think too hard, your head might explode… It’s a trick question!! The answer, in this case, is always yes!


As a yokai, it is a type of Tsukimono, or a yokai that possesses the ability to possess people (pun intended). As a yurei, the hidarugami can be called either an evil spirit (akuryo 悪霊) or a vengeful spirit (onryo 怨霊). But they aren’t typical yurei since they actively pursue and create new members and are bound to a single location, the mountains in which they died. They can also be considered as muenbotoke (無縁仏). These are the unworshiped dead and there are special feasts held in order to let the spirits pass on and the hidarugami can usually be taken care of with one ceremony since it is not vey strong. And finally, they can be tied to Buddhism and the Gaki ( 餓鬼), the ghost of hunger from Chinese and Tibetan mythology. These spirits are created from gluttons who are forced to come back as fowl starving creatures that feed on gross things like dead bodies and poop.

Another cool fact is that the Japanese have a different yokai for those who die abandoned on a mountain and others who die in a battle or from a famine and remain unburied. The gashadokuro is a giant skeleton yokai that is born from the fallen soldiers of a battle who are buried in mass graves and/or the victims of famine who also receive poor, if any, funeral rites. They too are born as hungry spirits, driven by pain and hate, turning into a grudge against the living and manifesting in the giant skeleton which is powerful and impossible to kill!

So the moral of these stories are:

  1. Never hike alone
  2. Always carry rice balls/bentos with you
  3. Please remember to properly bury your dead

Heed all of these things and you just might make it out of the woods and home in time for dinner.

Thank you for reading!!


Pictures- Google images


Hidarugami – The Hunger Gods


Tanabata, Death, and Oni


While Group Death has bloodied itself carving through the core of Tanabata intricacies, we have also found other interesting bits to mention that doesn’t fit cleanly into our podcast.

Tanabata is not the only festival in August or July. Another festival called the Obon festival is often mixed up with this holiday. A while back I mentioned how the reading to the kanji for Tanabata should be ‘shichiseki’ but it ended up being called Tanabata to reference a purity tradition. Up until the Edo period many people would put shelves in their houses to perform ancestor worship. However nowadays most people do not perform these rituals, but instead show ancestor worship through the festival of Obon.


藤谷良秀. “Floating Lanterns”,21 August 2011.

The festival lasts around three days. Families visit the places of their ancestors and clean their gravesites. Then, at last, they send candle-lit lanterns down a river. This is similar to tanabata in that strips of paper with wishes written on them are sent down a river. Apparently the original tanabata festival and the Obon festival were like a beginning and end for this sort of festival. Tanabata was a way to say hello to your ancestors, and Obon was a way to say goodbye. Therefore, many people believe the origins of the Obon festival started with the tanabata rituals.

But what does tanabata have to do with youkai?

Good question!

It doesn’t! In the Japanese version of the Star Weaver and the Cowherder there is already a milkyway. However, the main part of the story of Qixi is that a goddess created the milkyway to divide the two. In the Japanese version, the two are just forced to separate on either side of the milkyway. Which begs the question: Where did the Milkyway come from?

There is not much concern for how the milkyway came about and the story of the creation of the milkyway is unpopular and fairly rare. According to You Seihou the Milkyway was created by an oni who, improperly, cut open a melon and its juices flooded the sky, creating the Milkway. There is not much information behind this story, but it is a bit interesting. It brings up many questions, specifically, why does a youkai create a beautiful river of stars in the sky? It’s a mystery that would require a trip to archives in Japan, not something any of us have time for.

Tanabata is a not-so-creepy love story that has a little bit of associations with death, thus it fits nicely into Group Death’s interests.

See you all nice time with other gory details about our podcast!


Works Cited

You Seihou 楊 静芳.中日七夕伝説における天の川の生成に関する比較研究. “A comparison of the creation of the Milky Way in the Chinese and Japanese Tanabata Legend.” Tokyo Gakugei University Repository, 2012.

上江洲, 規子. “実は七夕はお盆と関連が深かった?日本古来の七夕の意外な事実.” 住まいの「本当」と「今」を伝える情報サイト【HOME’S PRESS】. May 23, 2015. Accessed January 17, 2017.

The Rise of a Leader

The Night Parade

There are many different types of Yokai that roam around the Japanese archipelago, from the mighty Oni to the slippery Kappa. With such variety of creatures one can only imagine if there is a leader among the madness. And what a leader it is.

From humble, uncertain beginnings, the Nurarihyon grew to be a prominent figure in the modern day understanding of yokai in Japan. Nurarihyon has an interesting role in both the media as well as social structures. In modern times, nurarihyon is seen as the supreme commander of the yokai and is a prominent figure in manga and anime. In the past, nurarihyon was an obscure figure that was eventually used to depict the social hierarchy of Edo Japan. In this post, I am going to go into his unknown origins, how he “evolved” into the yokai no oyadama, or “leader of Yokai,” and how this image has been shaped by media and politics throughout his history.

But before all that, let me set the stage by delving into the meaning(s) of his name. Michael Dylan Foster, author of The Book of Yokai mentions that “in a standard Japanese dictionary, the word nurarihyon ぬらりひょん is described as being synonymous with nurarikurari, which refers to something (or somebody) with no place to grab onto” (218). For me, this description is interesting both based on the type of yokai Nurarihyon is and the fact that his origin is grasping and mysterious, not really having a set place. The characters of his name are also interesting. They mean “slippery” 滑 “gourd” 瓢 (Nurarihyon). This depiction in characters may be based on his image, which depicts him with a long, bald cranium as well as his behavior which is slippery and hard to pin down. Foster also mentions a Japanese proverb about trying to catch a cat fish, which is often how Nurarihyon is physically compared to as looking like, with a gourd (Foster 218).

The origin stories of Nurarihyon vary and there is no set version. There is another yokai by the name nurarihyon, a spherical object that lives in the ocean and was once thought to be a type of Umi Bozu, an ocean yokai that is said to appear in calm waters and is a sign of a storm or danger to a ship(Davisson). This version of nurarihyon is said to bob in the waves and disappear whenever sailors would reach out to touch it, only to appear again further out of reach. Many people think that this could have been our modern day nurarihyon’s beginnings, evolving into the monk-like figure we have today. And in a way, they’ve got it right.

Some of the first written records and depictions of this yokai begin with Sawaki Sushi’s Hyakkai-zukan in 1737. While there is no record or mention of Nurarihyon’s nature, he is depicted as an old, monk-like figure with an elongated head (Foster 218).

A Folklorist, Fujisawa Morihiko, in 1929 “labeled an image of nurarihyon with the caption “leader of the yokai” (yokai no oyadama) (Foster 218). However, there is no reasoning as to why he gave nurarihyon that title.

By the 1970s, the modern concept of nurarihyon began to finalize with the addition of the Ichiban Kuwashi Nihon Yokai Zukan (Most Detailed Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan’s Yokai). The title given to nurarihyon was that of Yokai Sodaisho, the Supreme Commander of Yokai (Davisson).

Mizuki Shigeru, a modern day manga author and anthropologist, has a comic that includes this yokai. Nurarihyon is said to not only be the leader of the yokai but also will sneak into your house and drink your tea and eat your food before disappearing (Foster 218).

One of the most common stories involving nurarihyon is as follows:

One hectic days when the household is running around with barely a second to think, Nurarihyon slips casually into the house and sits down to a cup of tea acting as if he were the Lord of the Manor. People who see him and the casual ease with which he takes authority assume that he must indeed be the Lord. They fall upon themselves serving him, and don’t realize how they have been deceived until he is gone (Davisson).

Now in modern media,  popular anime and manga series, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan and Nurarihyon no Mago, portrays nurarihyon as the supreme commander of the yokai and the series follows the grandchild of nurarihyon and his yokai and human adventures.

With this history of nurarihyon established, we can now delve deeper into the mystery, both in origin and social implications, behind this yokai. As a potential water yokainurarihyon has had a constant tie to the water, whether through his origins or  through his description as catfish-like. In the Ukiyoe-zushi kosniki Haidokubara there is only one sentence describing nurarihyon: “Nurarihyon looks like a catfish, without eyes or a mouth. It is a spirit of deception” (Davisson). While this image has not stayed with us, the term “catfish-like” and the deceptive nature has stuck with nurarihyon.

There is also some debate in his origin. In Murakami Kenji’s Yokai Dictionary, there is talk about how the modern-day image of nurarihyon is just the fabrication of Toriyama Seiken to match his drawing (Davisson).

It is also this drawing (to the right) in particular that sparks an interesting line of questioning with nurarihyon. The Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedia of Toriyama Sekein is a collection of Sekein’s four works along with modern commentary. This image from the encyclopedia depicts nurarihyon stepping off of a palanquin into a house wearing fancy robes and carrying a single sword. It is these characteristics that suggest the nature of this cartoon as a political one. The palanquin and fancy robes are symbols of wealth or prestige while the single sword defines this figure to be a wealthy townsperson instead of a samurai, in which case he would’ve carried two swords (Sekein).

Historical context of Toriyama Sekein’s drawing is set in the middle of the Edo Period (1615-1868). At this time, there were divisions of classes/people in the sense of honor and function. Samurai were the highest rank, followed by farmers, then artisans and merchants, which were often just thrown into the same category of chonin or “townsmen”. Merchants, however, were looked especially down upon since they themselves made none of the products they sold and their wealth came at the expense of others (Jansen 2000). It is this view of merchants that might have lead to nurarihyon being depicted as one. Jansen describes merchants being thought of as “parasitical, self-interested people” (Jansen 2000). Nurarihyon can be viewed as parasitical, as he takes advantage of a home.  The Japandemonium Illustrated also goes into another source, the Seji Kenbonroku or Things I have Seen and Heard from 1812, that discusses the merchants rising status. “They rise above their status and look down on samurai…” (Sekein). Merchants also get described as loan sharks and more of that imagery can be seen in the picture (above) by the book that is in the house. This concept shows the established social orders were being challenged at the time the image was drawn, around the early 1800s. Merchants made up the lower levels of this social hierarchy, however, it is clear that they tried to rise above this and work to occur more wealth and status (Sekein).

Nurarihyon is not the only example of politics and Yokai being mixed during the Edo Period. After an earthquake in 1855, depictions of a namazu-e, or giant, earthquake causing catfish, began circulating, eventually taking on a life of their own to speak on or against troubles in the political systems (Smits 2006). In his article, Smits focuses on “the political consciousness among Edo commoners in 1855, and argues that they used the namazu-e to express an emerging consciousness of Japanese national identity” (Smits 2006).

Nurarihyon has had an interesting history and political significance through his claim to fame. From a humble beginning as an ocean yokai to an old, monk-like figure with no real purpose to a trickster with a taste for fancy tea and leadership, Nurarihyon has finally found a place to hold onto as a prominent yokai in modern day culture.


Works Cited

Davisson, Zack. 2014. Nurarihyon – The Slippery Gourd. 百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. Accessed January 13, 2017

Foster, Michael Dylan. 2015. The Book of Yokai. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Jansen, Marius B. 2000. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nurarihyon. 2016. Accessed January 13, 2017

Sekien, Toriyama. Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedia of Toriyama Sekein. Courier Dover Publications: 64.

Smits, Gregory. 2006. Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints. Journal of Social History: 1045–1078.

All images from Google Images

Group Naga-Pop Culture

We got a lot of great recording done today and are getting ready to finish up our early draft of the podcast.  Although we are still getting used to recording ourselves and how this project differs from a standard presentation, we are starting to gain some momentum and cover all of the material we wanted to look at, I’m looking forward to tomorrow and having an equally productive day!

In this post I’m going to bring up two pop culture pertinent to our podcast, as a way to see the modern opinion and social importance of snakes and dragons.  To do this, I am looking at the Dragon Shen-long from Dragon Ball Z (a childhood favorite of mine), and Nagini from Harry Potter (a general favorite for many).

Shen-long appears in the Manga for Dragon Ball Z, and is significant in my mind for two reasons.  The first is because he is an impossibly powerful being in that he can grant wishes, and is the purpose for the whole general plot.  The second is because he is actually a Chinese dragon that appears in Japanese media.  This idea isn’t too far fetched as cultural exchange between the two countries often occurs (especially when dragons are involved) and is almost reminiscent of times when dragon lore was being brought in from china hundreds of years ago.  Moving to the TV show, the dragons name was changed to Shenron, and although the original Chinese Shen-long was an immensely powerful water god, common theme for dragons, the Shen long/Shenron in pop culture is seen more on the side of just being immensely powerful.  This fits with the more ancient narrative of powerful dragon gods.

Nagini is a particularly special use of a snake in pop culture, and is perfect for this discussion.  This is because of her name.  If you refer back to an older post that I’ve made, I discuss the Indian dragon kings which are known as Naga.  Heavily resembling cobras, the Naga are then co-opted into Chinese and Japanese lore.  As you may have been able to guess, Nagini is not only based on the term Naga, it is the feminine form of the word.  This is important because of the east Asian association between snakes and women, and often times have a malevolent intent.  In this way Nagini is a perfect representation of east Asian lore in Modern pop culture.

These are just two examples, however their are many more, particularly in Anime.  Modern pop culture has seen a rise in old myths, and has shown that the respectful and inventive use of old mythology can be executed quite well.

-Will Sarros, group Naga


Elgood, Heather (2000). Hinduism and the Religious Arts. London: Cassell. p. 234

Shuker, Karl. (1995). Dragons. A Natural History. Simon & Schuster, New York 1995

Group Heian Update

Hey everybody, Jacob Cooper from Group Heian here again to give you an update on the great progress we’re making in the development of our podcast. For the most part, our script drafts and audio drafts are coming along really well and I believe that in the end we’ll all be satisfied with the end product.

One problem that we’re facing right now is the selection of the audio music that we’ll be using during our podcast. Our group has been relentlessly pouring through the free music files provided to us by the CTL but have yet to really decide on an appropriate song to use during our podcast. Many of the songs we have found feel inauthentic while others simply don’t match the mood we’re trying to set during the Podcast episode. Despite this, I feel very confident that our group will make a decision on the music that will satisfy all members fairly soon. However, I feel that musical selection is very important to the production of the Podcast so we need to take our time when making that decision.

Another problem we’re confronting is the content of the written script. I don’t believe that we are struggling with academic content but rather with making the podcast sound less like a formal essay or presentation. As of right now our script reads like a book and we would prefer it to be a bit more of a conversational style of podcast. One solution we have proposed is using Madison as a host type figure that would make the transitions between sections more fluid but we are unsure if we want to clog up the podcast with material that is not necessarily content-based. As we continue to develop this script, I am confident that the group will find a healthy balance between the two.

All things considered, Group Heian is plowing forward full steam ahead. As we continue to hammer out issues we run up against, we simultaneously make large strides towards producing a great podcast. Hopefully everything works out!

The Forest Spirit and the Kirin: Between Dragons, Unicorns, and Nature Itself

Yes, I know the Forest Spirit looks creepy here, but it's the best picture I could find. The Forest Spirit IS creepy, anyway. Have you SEEN the movie?

Kirin (Left) and the Forest Spirit (Right)


Group Mononoke is hard at work putting the pieces together as to how Studio Ghibli’s film Princess Mononoke  relates to Asian history and mythology, and in the process of analyzing entries about youkai and the like, it became apparent that a particularly crucial figure in the film drew considerably from certain legendary creature. Princess Mononoke‘s central deity in its mythos is the placid yet ominous Forest Spirit, a shapeshifting elk-like being which holds dominion over nature and therefore serves as opposition to all in the film who conspire against nature. As it has multiple forms, it is somewhat an amalgam of different mythological ideas from Asia, with a healthy portion of Studio Ghibli’s originality added in to keep with the stylistic senses of the rest of the film. But even so, the Forest Spirit’s underlying manor bears a striking similarity to an Asian mythological creature of similar status: the Kirin. The Spirit’s likeness to the Kirin isn’t exactly one-to-one, and looking at both creatures might prompt someone to ask if they have any real similarities whatsoever, but what similarities do exist between them are very important to the film, and hearken to myths in a way that requires further study to comprehend. As such, it seems appropriate to give greater attention to this creature and its place in Asian myth, in order to better understand how its inspiration manifests in the film proper.


Origins of the Myth and Historical Context

The Kirin (or Qilin if you want it romanized in Pinyin) is a creature that was first referenced in the old Chinese narrative, the Zuo Zhuan, which was a well-regarded commentary on parts of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China. In it, the creature’s arrival is said to have marked the impending birth and death of Confucius, an event that thenceforth closely associated the Kirin with the concepts of mortality and – following the widespread adoption of Confucianism throughout China in later centuries – good omens. Its connection to life and death eventually earned it the status of a being connected to the gods, or even a divine being itself. It gained a reputation as a beast of purity and justice, able to peer into people’s hearts and judge their moral character, and only punishing the wicked while never harming the innocent. Later Buddhist influence on the creature’s lore went so far as to describe it as never partaking in another creature’s flesh or stepping on greenery for fear harming the plants, and gave it the ability to walk on water or air instead. Today it remains as powerful symbol of morality and respect for nature, which is clearly evident in the Forest Spirit’s role as protector of nature and the veritable linchpin of life or death in the film.


Physical Appearance

As would be expected for a creature that’s existed in human consciousness for over 2000 years, the Kirin’s appearance has seen some changes over time due to inevitable shifts in aesthetic, influence of the appearances of real animals, and intermingling of myths from other cultures. However, there are some features that have remained fairly consistent. The Kirin is almost always depicted as a hooved and horned animal with a body shape similar to that of an ox, horse, or deer. Traditionally it borrows much from the appearance of Chinese dragons by having scales, a fearsome leonine visage with tapering whiskers, and sometimes the ability to manipulate fire. This interpretation persists today, but permutations of it became popular once the Kirin’s name was adapted as a term for a particular real-life animal that was foreign to historic Asia: the giraffe. According to legend, giraffes were to referred to as Kirins once they were brought to Asia from Africa, on the grounds that they were magical creatures not unlike the Kirin itself. As such, their appearance gradually seeped into interpretations of the Kirin as a more mammalian animal, akin to a reptilian steed rather than a draconic beast. This trend was reinforced by the influence of European myths about creatures like the unicorn, which spread to Asia centuries later. The Kirin thusly underwent a “westernization” of sorts to the point where it is now often referred to as “the Chinese unicorn”; it’s quite common to see the creature depicted as an equine or cervine being with a single horn instead of multiple ones. Again, depictions vary, but it goes to show that Kirin is certainly capable of inspiring a creature that may not resemble it clearly, and in time that inspired creature may even become part of the Kirin’s lore.


Thematic Connections to the Forest Spirit

Furthermore, the idea to take away from this is that the Kirin’s inspiration for the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke is less physical and more practical. The Forest Spirit mirrors the Kirin’s legacy accurately by being a divine being which concerns itself intrinsically with the birth and loss of life. Its every footstep grows and then kills plants in its wake, which may be a reference to the Kirin’s aforementioned aversion to stepping on plants for fear of unjustly harming or killing them, and it can also walk on water. It is trusted to be able to judge the purity and content of others’ hearts, just as the Kirin can, and just as it protects life, it takes away life only in situations where innocence is in danger just like the Kirin is said to do. Summarily, while the Forest Spirit is not quite as explicit in its judgement of others’ moral righteousness, its wrath which is incurred on the entire cast by those who wish to harm nature can be seen as a form of punishment not unlike how the Kirin is reputed to punish the wicked. Only an act of bravery and kindness is able to sate its destructive rampage, and once it’s been appeased, it immediately sets things right as a symbol of justice would.

In conclusion, Princess Mononoke‘s forest spirit can be interpreted as another modernized incarnation of the Kirin with some other elements mixed in. This is far from the only instance of correlation between the film and real-life context (historical or mythological), but given the Kirin’s long-standing legacy and the Forest Spirit’s integral part in the movie, it looks like a particularly latent yet profound reference is made.


Works Cited

Alexander, Skye. Unicorns: The Myths, Legends, & Lore. Adams Media Corporation, 2015.

Chan, Joan. East Meets West. Author House, 2009.

Zuo, Qiuming. The Chronicle of Zuo (Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan). JiaHu Books, 2013.