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The Tengu

Kidomaru and the Tengu – Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In Japanese folklore, many stories include spirits, supernatural creatures, and demons called yokai. And of all the yokai, the tengu is the one that might seem most familiar to a modern Westerner. At first glance, it’s a lot like a superhero: the ability to fly, great physical strength, magical powers, and secret martial arts skills. But the tengu has a long history and deep connections to Japanese culture and religion.

Like the kitsune and tanuki, the tengu started out as animals, but have taken more twists and turns. And like the kitsune’s connection to Shinto, it has a close relationship to another Japanese religion, Buddhism. The relationship is not a happy one, though. Tengu are sworn enemies of the Buddhist faith, and much of their history has been spent trying to lure people away fromthe road to enlightenment.

Tengu are more like minor gods than other trickster yokai – and are expected to be treated accordingly.

You might be familiar with the red-faced long-nosed tengu, but it may surprise you that there are two different types. There is an older one that is considered lesser than the newer yokai.


The Great Tengu or daitengu is an imposing semi-human whose most prominent feature is a long nose and large wings. Usually depicted with a bright red, long-nosed mask that represents the face of the daitengu. They live in deep mountain forests, and these particular mountains are said to be the homes of particular, named daitengu. Some of their powers, like possession, are shared with other yokai, but their special skills include control of wind, swordsmanship, and flight. Daitengu often abduct humans, sometimes to torment them, but other times to teach them magic.


The other type of tengo is called kotengu (lesser tengu). Karasu means crow, but these tengu may also take the form of birds of prey, especially the black kite. They wear monk’s robes, but kotengu are much more animal-like both in their appearance and their behavior. While daitengu contemplate disrupting human society and interfering with religion, the kotengu act at a smaller scale and often eat people. In some folktales, they’re depicted as easy to fool, something you don’t want to try with a daitengu.

Early tengu stories share a lot with other yokai tales. In the 9th and 10th centuries, they’re trickster mountain demons doing regular yokai things: luring people into the woods with the sound of music, throwing pebbles at houses, and appearing as will-o-the-wisp. Tengu possessed illiterate people – which became obvious when they suddenly developed the ability to write kanji. They also enjoyed causing fires.

In the earliest tales, tengu were easy to defeat. One story showcases their shapeshifting powers, as a Buddha appears in a tree surrounded by a bright light and a rain of flowers. The tengu’s power withers and it turns into a kestrel and falls out of the tree with its wings broken.


By the 11th century, many tengu legends developed and are collected in 31 volumes called Konjaku Monogatari (only 28 volumes are still in existence). In these tales, tengu shapeshifting into Buddha deludes monks and the abduction of Buddhist priests was already one of their favorite tricks and steering them away from the real path to enlightenment.

Learning the tengu’s power would not lead to enlightenment, even if they did save the lives of emperors. Disputing Buddhist sects often called the other “tengu” to demonise them and imply their teachings were dangerous or deceptive. By the 12th century, the idea had developed that bad priests become tengu after death.

It’s important to remember most of the vivid visual images of yokai we have today only go back to the Edo period. Most started out as odd phenomena or occurrences and were only personified and visualized later. In the earliest stories, there are few references to the tengu’s appearance. More often than not, they were invisible.

In the 13th century, tengu begin to appear in the guise of yamabushi – ascetic mountain priests. Some of the clothing tengu are depicted wearing is based on the traditionally worn by yamabushi. But unlike these humble hermits, tengu want to be worshipped by humans.

This is also when tengu start to get their reputation for skill in martial arts. Such as the tale that the samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune learned his famed swordsmanship from the tengu Soujoubou. Tengu also abducted children.

At around 14th century, tengu start appearing more humanlike which is when the long-nose version starts to appear.

The change in tengu depiction from birds of prey, men with bird heads, then later also developed bird bills, and finally the bill morphed into a long nose. Images of the other kind of tengu didn’t disappear, though, which is why the belief in more than two kinds. The more human-like tengu is superior.

By the 19th century, there’s more of an emphasis on flying in the tales, which is one of the things that sets tengu apart from other yokai. Stories tell of tengu abductees falling from the sky. Tengu control rain, wind, and thunder – and they cause raging storms when angry or make whirlwinds to carry people up into the air.

There are also stories where tengu are good, or where their anger can be placated. They are guardians of the forests they live in, but woodcutters could supposedly placate them after cutting down trees with offerings of ricecake or fish.

The tengu has developed into such a rich and complicated character, it’s widely used today appearing in countless manga, anime, and games. Pretty much any storyline or setting that involves yokai will throw in at least one, so there are far too many to list.

The three greatest tengu, according to the philosopher Hayashi Razan, were:

1. Soujoubou of Kurama (Kyoto)

2. Taroubou of Atago (Kyoto)

3. Jiroubou of Hira (the Hira Mountains are west of Lake Biwa)

Soujoubou of Kurama is particularly significant. Sometimes called King of the Tengu, he was the tengu who taught swordsmanship to Minamoto no Yoshitsune. There’s also a legend that the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, learned martial arts from this tengu. Tengu Geijutsuron, (The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) by Issai Chozanshi, an eighteenth-century samurai, is a collection of parables presented as the story of a swordsman who converses with a tengu on Mt. Kuruma about the martial arts philosophy.

Soujoubou of Kurama is particularly significant. Sometimes called king of the Tengu, he was the Tengu who taught swordsmanship to Minamoto No Yoshitsune.

1. Atagoya Taroubou – Kyoto: This tengu protects Atago shrine, which is devoted to the deity Izanagi. He was assigned to this job by Buddha about 3,000 years ago and considered the representative of all the other tengu in Japan. He was apparently nameless – or his name wasn’t known for a lot of that time. The name is first mentioned after a big fire in Kyoto in 1177 that people believed he caused, which was called “taroushoubou” (The Tarou Fire).

2. Kuramayama Soujoubou – Kyoto: This is our old friend Soujoubou, King of the Tengu, mentioned above.

3. Hirasan Jiroubou – Shiga: This tengu originally resided on Mt. Hiei and was supposedly as strong as Taroubou, but when powerful monks moved in, he up and moved to Mt. Hira. He appears in a few violent tales in the late Heian period, doing things like attacking a dragon, and grabbing a monk and throwing him into a cave where a dragon lived.

4. Izuna Saburou – Nagano: This tengu is said to boast of more apprentices than Mt. Fuji’s “Fujitarou.” And no surprise, since some useful miracles are attributed to him.

5. Sagami Ooyamahoukibou – Kanagawa: Another tengu who didn’t stick with his original mountain, Ooyamahoukibou originally lived at Houki Daisen mountain in Tottori. The original tengu of Soushu Ooyama mountain was Sagamibou. But, Sagamibou had to move to Shiromine in Kagawa on the Shikoku island to comfort the spirit of the emperor Suutokujoukou, so Ooyamahoukibou moved in as a successor to the post.

6. Hikozan Buzenbou – Fukuoka: He is known as the general manager of Kyushu tengu. He keeps track of who’s naughty and who’s nice, and will send one of his tengu staff to punch out a person for being snobby and greedy. But if you worship tengu yokai properly, they’ll get together and make your dreams come true.

Oomine Zenki – Nara: Zenki and Goki were a married couple of oni (demons) . But they reformed when En no Ozuno, the founder of Shugendou, hid one of their children in an iron pot. From this, they understood the sadness of the parents whose children they had killed. From then on, they protected En no Ozuno, and Zenki later became a tengu.

Shiramine Sagamibou – Kagawa: We’ve already heard of Sagamibou in the story of tengu number 5 – he’s the one who moved to Kagawa on the Shikoku island to comfort the spirit of the emperor Suutokujoukou for all eternity. The emperor died after eight years of exile on Shikoku, longing all the time to return to Kyoto.

Along with shrines on mountains where tengu reside, there are Japanese festivals that feature them.

The popular neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo holds a tengu festival every year. Shimokita Tengu Matsuri includes a tengu parade and takes place at the winter holiday of Setsubun. It’s based at the Shinryuji temple not far from Shimokitazawa Station, where legend says the guardian deity Doryosatta became a tengu to protect this temple.

There is a Mt. Tengu in Otaru. With a name like that, of course you have a tengu festival. Mt. Tengu in Otaru is considered one of the three most beautiful night view spots in Hokkaido (places of scenic beauty are another thing the Japanese have been making lists about for a very long time). On Mt. Tengu there are three main theories about why it’s called that –, one is that tengu live there, but the others are that the mountain looks like a tengu, or that people who moved there from Tohoku thought it looked like the Mt. Tengu in their home town.

In Numata City, Gunma, there’s a festival with a huge mikoshi in the shape of a tengu mask. Only women carry it – it takes 200-300 of them – because it’s supposed to ensure easy childbirth. The town is near Kashouzan Mountain, which is known as a place where tengu live.

At the Donki Festival in Toyokawa city, a fox, a red tengu, and a blue tengu chase after women and children with a donki, which is a stick with paint on it. Getting the paint on you is supposed to ensure good health.

A tengu festival that goes back to the Edo period takes place in Osaka in October. Getting hit by the tengu will help women have good children, and children grow up to be strong and wise.

Furubira in Hokkaido holds two tengu festivals, in the summer and in the fall. Both end with the tengu walking through a bonfire.

Tengu expect offerings. Offerings appease them and encourage good behavior. Woodcutters who fail to make offerings before cutting trees encounter unpleasant accidents. Tengu bless hunters with success if they first promise to share their food. Offerings are traditionally given outside, not too close to buildings. Tengu like sake and rice cakes, but they’ll have some of whatever you’re having.

The fascinating folklore of the tengu also appears in Lian Hearn’s historical fantasy duology “The Tale of Shikanoko”.

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