If you’ve ever Googled local sushi or played a role-playing game, you may have heard the name tengu. Tengu are a type of youkai (Japanese monster) most commonly depicted as an avian-human creature, but are capable of shape-shifting into any form. They are able to use telepathy and are thought to be skilled in martial arts. Some legends even claim they trained ninja and samurai in the art of warfare and possessed the founder of aikido. They originated from the Chinese monster tiangou, but have since made quite the name for themselves in Japan. You’ll know you’re looking at a tengu because they have large wings on their backs and either have a long beak, like the Karasu-tengu, or a prominent nose, as seen with the Yamabushi-tengu.
Photo by Tokyobling

In Japanese mythology tengu started out a trouble makers. They would set village aflame or steal children
away, only to return them to their families years later with no memory of their missing time. Over the centuries tengu became associated with Buddhism and the view of them changed to benevolent, yet unpredictable, mountain spirits. Tengu are known for being prideful, but hate to see arrogance and prejudice in humans, so they often play tricks on people to punish them for their wrongdoings.

Famous Tengu:

  • Soujoubou – Tengu king of Mount Kurama
  • Douryou Daigongen – A devout Buddhist monk who vowed to guard his monastery after his death. He changed into a tengu and promised a life free from illness for everyone who followed him.
  • Saburou – A tengu who lives on Mount Iizuna. In times of famine, he would distribute an edible sand to villagers and monks around his mountain.

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Fun Tengu-related phrases:
  • Tengu ni naru (天狗になる)– 'To become a tengu'. This phrase can be used to refer to someone who has become too prideful or full of themselves.
  • Kami kakushi (神隠し) – ‘Hidden by Kami/god’. This refers to mysterious and unexplained disappearances related to a person angering a god.
  • Tengu kakushi (天狗隠し) – ‘Hidden by tengu’. When spirited away by a tengu, people return home with no memory of their journey. Their memory loss is referred to as being hidden by the tengu.

For more tengu information, I'd recommend these links:

Do you have a favorite Japanese myth, god or spirit? I'd love to hear about them!


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