Tengu: The Legendary Japanese Creature of the Mountain

Tengu — is the legendary creature attached to the mountain or forest in Japan. Tengu is known for its long nose and wings or beak and a sword. Its image has been changed, yet the core factor that they are the sprit of the mountain stays the same and people let Tengu talk what they really think of the social conditions. We will take a look into its possible origin and history, varieties of Tengu.

Tengu: The Legendary Japanese Creature of the Mountain

Tengu with long nose and a fan

Tengu with long nose and a fan (livedoor.blogimg.jp)

Brief History of Tengu

Tengu with a beak and a sword in hand

Tengu with a beak and a sword in hand (livedoor.blogimg.jp)

Tengu is a half-bird, half-human mythical creature in the mountains or forest, which appeared in Japanese folk-beliefs, literature and their pictorial depictions. The word Tengu consists of Chinese characters Tiengou (天狗), which means celestial dog in Chinese. In Chinese folklore, Tiengou are most often described as a fierce and anthropophagous canine monster that resembles a shooting star or comet.

Also, Tengu is related to the winged Buddhist deity Garuda (Karura in Japanese). Furthermore, Tengu is seen as transformations (Keshin in Japanese) of Shinto deities, yama no kami (deities of mountain), mountain guardians often associated with tall trees.

Some of the earliest representations of Tengu appear in Japanese picture scrolls, such as the Tenguzoshi Emaki (天狗草子絵巻), painted in 1296, which parodies high-ranking priests by endowing them the hawk-like beaks of Tengu.

Shugendo and Yamabushi

Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo (blog.livedoor.jp)

In the course of the history, Tengu and Yamabushi came to be intertwined. Beginning in the 13th century, Tengu came to be associated in particular with the Yamabushi, the mountain ascetics who practice Shugendo.

Training under the waterfall

Takigyo — Training under the waterfall (www.toukaiji.com)

Shugendo is Japanese syncretic folk religion which incorporated with Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism. The main focus of Shugendo is the development of spiritual experience and power by hard training in the mountains. En no Gyoja is considered to be the founder of Shugendo who was ascetic and mystic in the 7th century, Shugendo literally means the way to spiritual power through discipline.


Yamabushi (blog-imgs-45.fc2.com)

The association soon found its way into Japanese art, where Tengu are most frequently depicted in the Yamabushi’s distinctive costume, which includes a small black cap and a pom-pommed sash. Due to their priestly aesthetic, they are often shown wielding the Shakujo, a distinct staff used by Buddhist monks.

Yamabushi blowing a conch horn

Yamabushi blowing a conch horn (Hatena Fotolife)

Interestingly enough, we can see many similarities between Yamabushi and Jewish. Both of them put a loose white robe on and a small black cap on each forehead as we’ve seen. The latter is really unique, in Jewish it’s called Phylactery. In addition to that, both of them blow a horn, in Jewish it’s made of goat’s horn and in Shugendo it’s made of conch shell.

Why the Long Nose?

Tengu and children pulling Tengu's long nose by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 月岡 芳年(1839~1892)

Tengu, 東京開化狂画名所 虎ノ門琴平神社 出生天狗 大天狗の鼻 ねじらんとす 明治十四年 月岡 芳年(1839~1892) (www.kodokei.com)

The long nose relates to the Tengu’s hatred of arrogance and prejudice. We still stay a man with the long nose means that man is arrogant. So Tengu shows encounter’s negative side by them having the same feature, the long nose.

Because of its mischievous behavior that Tengu love playing tricks on those they encounter, especially on pretentious and arrogant Buddhist priests and samurai. By the end of Civil War period (around 1500s), Tengu become a major literary vehicle for criticising both establishment and nascent Buddhist sects. Corrupt Buddhist monks and corrupt Buddhist monestaires were in fact a major concern at the time like monks in Enryaku-ji Temple accumulated excessive wealth and military force.

Karasu Tengu

Karasu Tengu

Karasu Tengu (Ross Hawkins)

Karasu Tengu wears the same outfit as Yamabushi, has a beak and fly around freely. It’s also called Ko-tengu or Ao-tengu, too. Although it’s taken as a half crow, its body is covered with feathers like a raptor.

Karasutegu has supernatural powers, he used to come down to the downtown of the capital, did some rampant. Nowadays, we recognize Tengu with his long nose, but before, Tengu’s body had been seen as its of a raptor.

There is a theory that we could trace back Karasu Tengu’s origin to Yatagarasu (Three-legged crow). In Japanese mythology, the appearance of this great bird is construed as evidence of the will of Heaven or divine intervention in human affairs. Yatagarasu is mentioned in a number of places in Shinto and is a symbol specifically of guidance.

Kurama Tengu

Kurama Tengu, Noh, Kawamura

Noh play “Kurama Tengu” (google.com)

Kurama Tengu is one of the Karasu Tengu aka Mt. Kurama Sojobo, who was a skilled slayer with a sword. He is said to be the one who taught Ushiwakamaru (Minamoto no Yoshitsune) the swordplay with a katana sword and often called as “Dai-tengu” (King of Tengu).

There is a popular noh play of Kurama Tengu. One day in early spring, a Yamabushi heard there would be a cherry blossom seeing party, he thought he would check this out. There were a lot of Buddhist monks with a small child enjoying its beautiful scenery.

As soon as they recognized there is a Yamabushi, they ended the party immediately and left a child behind. A left child came talk to Yamabushi while he felt really bad for monks’ behaviors. Yamabushi assumed this young boy would be a son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, who is a person in power. Ushiwakamaru confessed that he had been treated badly while other children of his father had been treated really well. Yamabushi felt sympathy for Ushiwakamaru.

Kurama Tengu and Ushiwakamaru in Nou

Kurama Tengu and Ushiwakamaru in Noh Play “ Kurama Tengu” (www.myjapanesehanga.com)

Yamabushi took Ushiwakamaru to other cherry blossom seeing spots to solace boy’s solitude. Yamabushi finally told Ushiwakamaru who he is, King of Tengu of Mt. Kurama, and told him he would teach him the swordsmanship so Ushiwakamaru could destroy his own arrogant Heishi Family…

This tale shows not just how Buddhist monks were arrogant, but also the exchange of and Yamabushi as Kurama Tengu and lonely Ushiwakamaru.

Tengu has been changed its appearance and attributes to the change of the times, which means it’s a great mirror that reflect social conditions. What attributes would be added on Tengu, we would never know, but sure it’ll survive as long as we keep our forest.


Tengu (Wikipedia)
 TENGU The Slayer of Vanity (www.onmarkproductions.com)
 Tengu: The Legendary Mountain Goblins of Japan (www.seinenkai.com)
 修験道 (Wikipedia)
 烏天狗 (Wikipedia)
 鞍馬天狗(くらまてんぐ) (the能.com)
 烏天狗と八咫烏 (t-maekawa1108.cocolog-nifty.com)
 Three-legged crow (Wikipedia)

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 Noh: Theater, Meaning of Masks of “Yugen” Beauty

Originally published at Johnny Times.

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