Thursday, February 9, 2012

Magic Thursday: Mythical Creatures ~ Japanese Shape-shifting Animals






We continue are our look into Mythical Creatures. Today's feature is brought to us by Peta Crake. Thanks, Peta!

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Ukiyo-e print of Yokai by Kawanabe Kyosai

Japan, the country of funky Shibuya teens, white-faced geishas, cute anime characters and innovative technology. Amongst all the colour and cuteness lurks a darker and seriously weird side. Where else could you find a creature that loves to lick the filth off dirty bathroom walls and fittings (Akaname) or a huge foot that demands to be washed (Ashiarai Yoshiki)? Not to mention the myriad of household items that spring to life on their hundredth birthday (tsukumogami)…hopping umbrella anyone?


Thanks to the mixture of imported monsters that came with Buddhism and Chinese culture and the locally grown variety, which originated in Shinto and animistic traditions, Japan has an unbelievable number of supernatural creatures. As a group they are categorized as Yokai or Obakemono.


Unlike many Western cultures where there is a long history of tales of people changing into beasts, Japan has a lot of creature who shape shift into human form. After living in Japan for almost a decade, some of these mythical creatures seemed as normal to me as a regular dog or cat. In particular, the racoon dogs (the real animals are as cute as their mythical versions) and foxes whose statues could be seen scattered through the cities and countryside. Japanese shape-shifting animals are some of my favourite mythical creatures.


Pottery statue of a tanuki
Tanuki (racoon dogs), whose statues can be found outside temples and restaurants all over Japan, are easily recognizable because of their large stomachs and testicles. They are generally mischievous, happy and a little gullible. Masters of disguise and shape shifting, they are constantly after food, sake and women. The animated movie Pom Poko by Studio Ghibli is a great example of Tanuki and their abilities.


Kitsune (foxes) are another animal that can gain magical abilities. Once they reach the age of one hundred they are able to assume human form and with each century which passes they gain an extra tail. The more tails a kitsune has the more powerful it becomes, with the oldest and wisest having nine tails. The most common stories involve kitsune transforming themselves into beautiful women for devious purposes or for love. In medieval Japan, lone young women encountered at dusk were usually feared to be kitsune. Only their shadows, which can reveal their tails or true form could betray what they really were. They are like the slender, serious older sibling of the Tanuki.

Prince Hanzoku terrorized by a nine-tailed fox.
Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi,, 19th century


North American box art for the
Okami video game
  
Okami (wolves) disappeared from Japan in the early 1900s but still have a strong presence in folklore. Unlike the racoon dog and fox, the wolf is usually honest and compassionate. Seen as a protector of humans, the Okami also have a strong connection with the gods as either a pet or messenger.



North American DVD cover of 
Hyper Police
The main character Natsuki Sasahara 
is half-human, half-nekomata.
Bakeneko (cats) start life as normal domestic moggies then, due to reaching the weight of approximately 3.6kg (8 lb), living for a certain number of years or keeping a long tail they transform. They gain supernatural abilities similar to the Tanuki or Kitsune and can be both good and bad. They can shapeshift into human form and will sometimes devour their owner in order to take their place. Additionally, Bakeneko have the ability to shoot ghostly fireballs and in some cases, reanimate dead bodies. They are not all bad however, and can be associated with good luck. The beckoning cat (manekineko) often seen in restaurants and shops is said to be a form of bakeneko. Those with more than one tail are called nekomata, the more tails they have the wiser, older and more powerful they are.


Jorogumo (spiders) also known as the Prositute Spider or Entwining Bride can change its appearance into a seductive woman. They have the nasty habit of luring men to them, wrapping them up in silk threads and devouring them. Stories about them often involve them invading people’s dreams.

Jorogumo by Toriyama Sekien


With shape-shifting creatures and large rogue feet hopping around the countryside, it is no wonder the Japanese people have a special ceremony each February to remove evil spirits from their houses. Called Setsubun, the festival involves people throwing roasted soybeans around their house and calling for good fortune to enter and evil spirits/demons to leave.

I am not sure I want to come across a shape-shifting spider but the idea of an Akaname taking up residence in my bathroom to keep it clean sounds good to me. What do you think?



References:

Experiencing Japanese Culture, KEK International Exchange and Communication Circle, 1989

The Mythical Creatures Bible, Brenda Rosen, 2008

http://obakemono.com
http://obakemono.com/obake/tanuki/
http://obakemono.com/obake/kitsune/
http://obakemono.com/obake/bakeneko/
http://obakemono.com/obake/okami/
http://obakemono.com/obake/jorogumo/
http://www.mythicalcreaturesguide.com/page/Yokai+-+Animal+Transformations
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Youkai
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanuki
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitsune
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%8Ckami
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyper_Police
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jor%C5%8Dgumo



6 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post! Thanks Peta!

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  2. What rich and fascinating culture the Japanese have. Thanks, Peta. Yes, definitely, a automatic bathroom cleaner would not go astray.

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  3. very interesting! Thanks for the informative post =)

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  4. Absolutely fab blog post, Peta. Loved to learn about beings I've never heard about before.

    E x

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  5. Glad you enjoyed it. The hardest part about looking at Japanese mythology is knowing where to start, they have so many cool creatures and monsters.

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