Unique Japanese Mystical Animals (Podcast Recap! S1E4)

Published February 1st, 2021

If you’re thinking about Nihongo Master Podcast episode 3’s recap, well, we don’t have one. That’s because, for that episode, we interviewed the mastermind behind Nihongo Master himself, Taylor Dondich. If you’re interested in knowing what we chatted about — like what brought him to create Nihongo Master in the first place — then go and have a listen to that! But now, we’re going to briefly recap episode 4 where we talked about Japan’s mystical animals. The country is packed full of interesting creatures, and some of them actually hold quite a bit of mythical significant in the country’s native religion, Shinto. While you may have learned a bit about the importance of these mystical animals in local culture if you’ve watched anime with them in it, in episode 4, I shed some more light on four of them that hold a special spot in Japanese culture, as well as animal-related language throughout.

1. Kitsune

Image Credit: Daniel Ramirez

First on the list of mystical animals, we talked about the kitsune (), the Japanese word for “fox”. This animal is arguably the most popular in folklore, popping up in hundreds of stories, anime, and movies. You’ll see more than a few Shinto shrines with the kitsune being represented as a pair of proud and stately fox statues flanking the entrance. I won’t tell you the reason why — listen to the episode to find out! The oldest kitsune are said to be over 900 years old with 9 tails — one for each century. Sound familiar? That’s because a famous first-gen Pokemon was inspired by the tale. Kitsune are seen as intelligent and magically powerful in Japanese folklore — able to shapeshift into human form, with the shape of a beautiful woman being their favourite. They can be good or evil depending on the individual. Encounters with them typically don’t have happy endings, as the evil kitsune are said to seek out human company to drain the life force out of them, steal their memories, or just plain eat them! If you’re suspicious that some people around you might actually be an evil kitsune, there are a few easy tricks to expose them...and of course, I can’t spill the secret when I already have in the podcast. You have to find out for yourself, so pop Spotify or Apple Podcast on your phone to listen to this episode. In the episode, I also shared a story about famous kitsune legends. What are you waiting for?

2. Kappa

Image Credit: Kurt Komoda

For our second mystical animal, we went down to the riverbank to meet the kappa (カッパ): a reptilian turtle monster. The word “kappa” actually translates to mean “river child”, derived from the Japanese word kawa () to mean river and wappa (わっぱ), stemming from warawa (わらわ), to mean child. Kappa are child-sized, said to have vaguely the same form as a human but with slightly different features — while depicted in various ways, one feature is prominent: the really unfortunate bowl cut hairstyle. In the middle of this haircut they have a flattened bald spot, known as a plate, and these plates are a vital part of their bodies. It’s the source of their life force,so when they venture out onto land, they put a metal helmet on to protect the water on the plate. There’s also a famous Japanese saying that involves the kappa: if someone is doing uncharacteristically bad at something, you might describe them as “kappa no kawa nagare” (河童の川流れ). Wanna know why the saying is like that? Listen to the podcast episode! There are quite a few such legends of the kappa. Some of which see them being outwitted by the people they try to mess with. Some people also use cucumbers to get the kappa to do what they want. Believe it or not, their craving for this flavourless vegetable can override all their violent urges, which is why the Japanese cucumber sushi rolls are called “kappa-maki” (カッパ巻き). In the podcast episode, we told Irish writer and Japan’s earliest expat Lafcadio Hearn’s story called The Child of the River — a story about the kappa.

3. Tengu

Image Credit: Daniel Ramirez

The third mystical animal on our list is the tengu (天狗). The real-world counterpart of this mystical spirit is the kite, specifically the Japanese black kite. How this mystical animal came about is a long story, but in the beginning, the idea came from a Chinese myth first found in Japan in the 8th century, in which a monk saw a shooting star and called it a “heavenly dog” — the literal meaning the kanji in the tengu’s name. Over the following centuries, a process of change occurred in which that distant meteor was transformed into a powerful bird man. Most folklore involves the tengu assisting monks in their holy business. I elaborated more on the history of the tengu in the podcast. That’s not all to the tengu — there are actually two types: the kotengu (小天狗, lesser tengu) which are smalltime tricksters and holy magicians, and the stronger kind, the daitengu (大天狗, great tengu). The latter is usually the ones we see on masks, with red skin and long, bratwurst-like noses which are thought to be a more humanized representation of a bird’s beak. This goes without saying, again, but if you want to know more, the podcast is always there for a quick listen! We also talked about famous tengu stories, and one of them is called “The Man Who Flew”.

4. Tanuki

Image Credit: Meredith Kahn

If you want to catch sight of our fourth mystical animal, you’d probably be better off heading to the pub! That’s a favorite haunt of the tanuki (たぬき). This animal is quite common in Japan, but not very famous outside of the country. In English, they’re known as raccoon dogs, but they’re actually much more closely related to foxes and coyotes. You can easily identify them by the distinctive black stripes of fur under their eyes. Have you ever gone to a restaurant in Japan, and been greeted at the doorway by a wooden statue of a blissed-out bear-like creature with a big smile and gigantic testicles? Yeah, that’s a tanuki. If you’ve seen the Studio Ghibli anime film Pom Poko, you already know that tanuki’s testicles are magical, and you’ve seen them use their inflatable, shapeshifting scrotums as everything from battering rams to parachutes! Want to know the source of tanuki legends — like why there are tanuki statues outside of shops? Listen to our podcast where we explain it all! While tanuki now are seen as cheeky things and all-out pranksters, they used to be guardians. Although, many of the stories from the past few centuries are all about them slacking off and shapeshifting to eat, drink, and seduce their way through the human world. Want to hear some of the stories? We shared a few in the podcast episode!

Vocab Recap

Throughout the episode, there were a few Japanese words we used. Here’s a compiled list of the vocabulary words we shared during the vocab recaps of each section:

Kitsune () — fox Kami () — a god Inari (稲荷) — the god of rice and the harvest O () —tail Mimi () — ears Kappa (カッパ) — the turtle-goblins Kōra (甲羅) – shell Uroko () — scales Yōkai (妖怪) — a wide word encompassing all kinds of spirits, sprites, and demons Tengu (天狗) — the bird-like mystical animal Tobi () — the black kites which tengu are mainly associated with Kuchibashi () — beak umō (羽毛) — plumage Hane () — Wings Tanuki (たぬき) — the racoon dog Jūhi (獣皮) — pelt Kegawa (毛皮) — fur


So that’s an insight to our whistle-stop tour through the natural world of Japan, and its most famous mystical inhabitants! If this brief recap caught your attention, I highly recommend you give the episode a listen — it’s one of the most interesting episodes yet! (Nihongo Master on Apple Podcast and Spotify)