FAQ: Questions about myths and monsters of Japan

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[Editorial comments in boldface text.]


  1. Japanese folklore is something that would be fun sometime to have you explore in Usagi, the whole rich tradition of myth and demonology and stuff that's in Japanese folklore. Are you working with that?
  2. Gen considered an owl which followed him to be a bad omen. What is the significance of the owl in Japanese culture?
  3. Where did you get your idea for the story in "Kumo", was it Sarutobi Sasuké?
  4. Is the Nue, the creature that attacked Usagi in "The Wrath of the Tangled Skein" (UY Vol 3, #3 and UY Book 10), the same kind of creature that terrorized a village in "Village of Fear" (UY Color Special #1 and UY Book 1)?
  5. What is a tanuki (the creature which also attacked that same village in "The Wrath of the Tangled Skein" (UY Vol 3, #3 and UY Book 10)?
  6. Where can I get more information on those two tricksters of Japanese mythology, the tanuki and the kitsuné?
  7. When will Usagi ever meet a tengu?
  8. Is there a creature of Japan like the gryphon?
  9. Is there a western version of the obakéneko of Japan?
  10. How does an obakéneko differ from an obakémono?
  11. What are kami ?
  12. What was "Jishin-Uwo", which caused the earthquake in "Grasscutter" (UY Vol 3, #15 and UY Book 11)?

Japanese folklore is something that would be fun sometime to have you explore in Usagi, the whole rich tradition of myth and demonology and stuff that's in Japanese folklore. Are you working with that?

(Comics Interview #44 Interview, August 1987 FIXME Broken link) As a matter of fact, in the sixth issue of Usagi he meets a kappa, which is a kind of Japanese water sprite, and in other issues he's going to met a few other characters from Japanese folklore -- like the dragon; yuki onna, which is the snow woman, and a tengu, which is a mountain goblin. I'm just going to toss in these bits of mythology every so often just to keep the book more interesting.

Originally, I was going to deal primarily with mythology, but after doing the first story...Usagi's stories just tended to go their own way and it became more a historical piece rather than a fantasy piece.


Gen considered an owl which followed him to be a bad omen. What is the significance of the owl in Japanese culture?

(WWW Board August 2000) As I wrote in Book 7

["The Last Ino Story", UY Vol 1, #38 and UY Book 7]

, It is an unlucky omen and its hoot is an omen of death. Its greatest crime is ingratitude because the young is capable of killing its mother, an unimaginable crime in a land of filial respect. Ungrateful children are called "owls". It is sometimes mistaked for ghosts flying at night -- especially when it screeches. It is also thought to have the evil eye and so in the rare times when it is portrayed in art, their eyes are closed.


Where did you get your idea for the story in "Kumo", was it Sarutobi Sasuké?

(WWW Board January 2001) Sasuké was a legendary ninja who may or may not have actually lived. Whatever, his exploits are wrapped more in folklore and magic than actual fact. I first learned of him in a movie when I was a kid. Again, it's more fantasy than anything else but fun. Osamu Tezuka also did a couple of volumes of this legendary ninja as a boy learning his magic.

(WWW Board June 2000) Most of what I know about Sasuké (the Demon Queller), I remember from the movie made in the late 50's or early 60's.

There would be mention of him in various books but, except for the very fantasized Tezuka volumes, they are rare and far between.

(WWW Board May 2000) The visual for the Kumo-Onna is from my own imagination though it was certainly influence by the legends of the earth-spiders. Given a choice, I would classify it as an obakémono.

(UY Vol 3, #37) --There are two major inspirations for the creation of Sasuké:

--Chung K'uei had vowed to the Chinese Emperor Kao-tsu that he would free the world of demons and monsters. The legend was imported to Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185-1392 A.D.) and was integrated into Japanese folklore as Shoki (the Japanese reading of Chung K'uei's name). Early woodcut prints depict Shoki as a huge, bearded figure dressed as a Chinese scholar with a double-edged sword, subduing demons.

--The other source was Sarutobi Sasuké, a legendary ninja whose exploits are shrouded in mystery and magic. Sasuké, a farmer's son, studied ninjutsu, the art of invisibility, under the mountain hermit Tozawa Hakuunsai. Japanese folklore took the art of invisibility literally and imbued the ninja with magical powers such as transformation, weather manipulation, and, of course, invisibility. Toads and frogs are often associated with these ninja/wizards. They

[the toads]

have the ability to hypnotize and to belch deadly gas from their mouths.


Is the Nue, the creature that attacked Usagi in "The Wrath of the Tangled Skein" (UY Vol 3, #3 and UY Book 10), the same kind of creature that terrorized a village in "Village of Fear" (UY Color Special #1 and UY Book 1)?

(WWW Board May 2000) The nue is different from the beast from the "Village of Fear" story. In that story, Usagi faces a creature like the were-tiger that I had found in Chinese legends (though I can't remember which book it was in).

I found three references to the nue: Yoshitoshi's Thirty-Six Ghosts by John Stevenson, c 1983, published by John Weatherhill, Inc of NY and Tokyo. It doesn't give the origins of the creature but pretty much just relates the story that was told in the story notes. The other book I found nearby is a volume on Japanese folk-animals written in Japanese. The title is something like Parade of Ghosts. This had a drawing of the nue with the same story as above. The nue is also a kind of blackbird in Japan which is active at night and is thus considered a bad omen.

(UY Vol 3, #3) In the summer of 1153 the emperor had fallen ill and complained of noises from the palace roof. The captain of the guards, Minamoto no Yorimasa, and his retainer, Ii no Hayata, were sent to investigate and killed a nue -- a creature with the head of a monkey, a badger's body, a tiger's legs, and a snake for a tail -- which had descended as a black cloud onto the roof. The emperor soon recovered. Nue is also the name of a variety of blackbird that is active at night and is regarded as a sign of ill omen.


What is a tanuki (the creature which also attacked that same village in "The Wrath of the Tangled Skein" (UY Vol 3, #3 and UY Book 10)?

(WWW Board May 2000) Tanuki apparently frequently shape-changes into priests. In the same Yoshitoshi book is a priest with a tanuki head and the story of the tanuki who changes into a teapot in the buddhist temple.

(UY Vol 3, #34) The tanuki is actually a dog (canis viverrinus). It has a furry body, a long fuzzy tail, and dark areas around the eyes that make it resemble a raccoon. It, like the kitsuné (fox), is a shape-changing trickster. In one story, a priest at Morinji Temple was about to hang a teakettle over the fire when it suddenly sprouted a head, tail, and feet. The furry teakettle scampered around the room as more priests rushed in and captured it. The tanuki decided to stay in the temple, sometimes transforming itself into a priest.

Not all tanuki stories end so pleasantly. In another story, a tanuki kills a farmer's wife and tricks her husband into eating her. A friendly rabbit eventually avenges the farmers.

(UY Vol 3, #3) The tanuki is a raccoon-like dog (canis viverrinus nyctereutes or procionides) often mistaken for a badger. It is a trickster in Japanese folktales, though it does have a very dark side, as in the story of "The Tanuki and the Rabbit," in which it tricks a man into eating his wife for supper (a friendly rabbit gets revenge for them). The tanuki is a shape-changer and especially delights in assuming the form of a Buddhist priest (bozu) to lead unsuspecting travelers to their deaths. Statues of tanuki are quite common. They are usually depicted standing, with a lotus leaf for a hat and holding a bill for saké (rice wine).


Where can I get more information on those two tricksters of Japanese mythology, the tanuki and the kitsuné?

When will Usagi ever meet a tengu?

(UY Vol 1, #28) A tengu is a mountain goblin from Japanese folklore. There are two types of tengu: the birdlike crow (karasu) tengu and the longnose tengu. They are generally mischievous creatures but excellent swordsmen. Usagi will be meeting one in the upcoming Color Special

[UY Color Special #2]

.

FIXME Update needed -> Usagi met a tengu in UY vol. 3 #65


Is there a creature of Japan like the gryphon?

WWW Board September 2000) Do you mean composite-type animals?

There is the kirin which came to Japan by way of China. I has the head of a dragon, the body of a deer, scales instead of fur, a ridged breast, the tail of an ox and goat's hooves. It's a gentle creature that produces no sound or footprints and is the swiftest of all animals. Its appearance is an auspicious event heralding a mighty, virtous leader or great teacher.

I've also read another description of the kirin -- one with a long neck like a giraffe's.


Is there a western version of the obakéneko of Japan?

(UY Vol 3, #12) There is no single Western equivalent to this creature.


How does an obakéneko differ from an obakémono?

(WWW Board May 2000) The obakéneko is a specific type of obakémono. It is a cat who takes on human-like characteristics, usually motivated by revenge. I think the cat is killed and it's spirit comes back to exact vengence. A description and references should have been in the story notes of that particular issue

[UY Vol 3, #12 and UY Book 10]

.


What are kami ?

(UY Vol 3, #13) --There is no exact English equivalent to the word kami. Sometimes it's been translated as "god." However, ancestors can also be kami, and the government was once known as okami. I chose to translate it as "deity" or "divinity," though this is still inaccurate. According to The Kojiki, Japan has eight million good kami and ten million evil spirits.

--A note of interest is that the number eight is sacred to the Japanese and is a recurring theme, much like how seven or forty bears significance to Christians.


What was "Jishin-Uwo", which caused the earthquake in "Grasscutter" (UY Vol 3, #15 and UY Book 11)?

(UY Vol 3, #15) Jishin-Uwo (pg. 17) is a giant catfish that lives under Shimofusa and Hitachi Provinces. Its movements are responsible for Japan's many earthquakes. A stone in the temple of Kashima is the exposed part of a sword that the gods used to pin the fish in place.

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FAQ: Questions about myths and monsters of Japan