SUPERNATURAL WORLD IN JAPAN: Animal with Supernatural Powers


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According to legend, certain animal are created with supernatural powers. They can transform themselves into anything they desire, and can even acquire other magical abilities. The Japanese raccoon (tanuki) and the fox (kitsune) are the most popular animal attributed with magical powers. They have similar roles in folklore. They are pictured as mischievous rogues who often get themselves into trouble. They can, at times, be frightening creatures, and at other moments be capable of making a negative situation positive. Sometimes they are treated as godly figures and become cultural heroes.

The ‘tanuki’ is sometimes seen as a witch, a cannibal monk, or a one-eyed demon who murders his victims with thunder, lightning or earthquakes. It is depicted as a small hairy animal, and it is believed that he can transform into a frightening creature. Sometimes, it can appear as a Buddhist monk dressed in robes as well.

The fox (kitsune) is frequently a subject in Netsuke figurines. Many strange and uncanny qualities are attributed to the fox. The ‘kitsune’ have the ability to change their shape, but their faces remains fox-like. In folklore, foxes pretend to be humans in order to led men astray.

A black fox is good luck, a white fox is calamity; three foxes together portend disaster. Buddhist legend tells of ‘kitsune’ who disguise themselves as nuns, and wear traditional robes. Fables tell how the fox likes to appear as women. Legends also tell of how ‘kitsune’ can hypnotize people and lead then into perilous situations. To do this, according to the tales, they illuminate the path leading to such disasters, and this illumination is known as a ‘foxflare’ (kitsune bi).

Other creatures in Japanese legend are Dragons (Ryu) and Snakes (Hebi). In ancient Japan, the people believed in the snake-god ‘Orochi’, who lived on the top of mountain. Ryu has many important roles in Japanese ancient legend. It can be the god who ruled the clouds, the rain, and the water. There was also the dragon called ‘Yasha’, the demon-gods who protected Buddhism. All these deities have wide moths, sharp fangs, pointed horns, and all-seeing eyes.

Snakes are often associated with evils. In Japanese folklore, there are tales told of people who turned into snakes after death because of their evil ways and their miserly habits. Women are often associated with snakes as well. Many tales told of them being fierce and too possessive towards their lovers. Snakes can also a symbol of heartbroken or love with no bounds.

Snakes and dragons are also associated with nature. Natural disasters, especially floods, are linked to them. In short, they are believed to be the nature-controlling creatures.

There are four types of dragon in Japanese mythology; the heavenly dragons who guard the palace of the gods, the spiritual dragons who bring the blessed rain, the earth dragons who determine the course of rivers, and the dragons who are the guardians of all earthly treasures.

In many paintings, artists often depict the dragon as the ruler of the waters, the ocean, and the rain.

R. A. Kanya Varistha Devi Puspokusumo, was a Japanese Language and Literature Lecturer of Bandung Yapari-ABA Language Institute in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia (1996-2006). She is now enjoying to be a Writer and a Japanese, English, and French Translator in Indonesia and overseas.


Warner, Rex, Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Octopus Books Ltd. London

Cooper, J.C., An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames and Hudson Ltd. London

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