Japanese folklore

Last updated

Japanese folklore encompasses the informally learned folk traditions of Japan and the Japanese people as expressed in its oral traditions, customs, and material culture.


In Japanese, the term minkan denshō (民間伝承, "transmissions among the folk") is used to describe folklore. The academic study of folklore is known as minzokugaku (民俗学). Folklorists also employ the term minzoku shiryō (民俗資料) or "folklore material" (民俗資料) to refer to the objects and arts they study.

Folk religion

Men dressed as namahage, wearing ogre-like masks and traditional straw capes ( mino ) make rounds of homes, [1] in an annual ritual of the Oga Peninsula area of the Northeast region. These ogre-men masquerade as kami looking to instill fear in the children who are lazily idling around the fire. This is a particularly colorful example of folk practice still kept alive.

A parallel custom is the secretive Akamata-Kuromata  [ ja ] ritual of the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa which does not allow itself to be photographed. [2] [3]

Many, though increasingly fewer households maintain a kamidana or a small Shinto altar shelf. [4] The Shinto version of the kitchen god is the Kamado kami ( かまど神 ), and the syncretic Buddhist version is the Kōjin, a deity of the hearth enshrined in the kitchen.

Japanese popular cults or ( ) [5] are sometimes devoted to particular deities and buddhas, e.g. the angry Fudō Myōō or the healer Yakushi Nyorai. But many cults centered around paying respects to sacred sites such as the Ise Shrine (Ise-kō or okage-mairi  [ ja ]) or Mount Fuji ( Fuji-kō  [ ja ], by which many local mock-Fuji shrines have been erected). Pilgrimage to these meccas declined after the Edo period. But recently, the Shikoku Pilgrimage of the eighty-eight temple sites (commonly known as ohenro-san) has become fashionable. Popular media and cottage industries now extoll a number of shrines and sacred natural sites as power spots  [ ja ].

There is a long list of practices performed to ward evil (yakuyoke (厄除け)) [6] or expel evil (yakubarai, oharai ( yaku-barai  [ ja ])), e.g. sounding the drums. [6] In some areas it is common to place a small mound of salt outside the house ( morijio  [ ja ]). [7] [8] Salt-scattering is generally considered purifying [7] (it is employed in sumo tournaments, [7] to give a well-known example). A stock routine in period or even contemporary drama involves a master of the house telling his wife to scatter salt after an undesirable visitor has just left. Contrarily, lighting sparks with flint just as a someone is leaving the house was considered lucky.

No one now engages in the silent vigil required by the Kōshin cult, but it might be noted that this cult has been associated with the iconic three See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys. [9]

There are certain vestiges of geomancy introduced into Japan from China through Onmyōdō. The word kimon  [ ja ], "ogre's gate", colloquially refers to anything that a person may have constant ill luck with, but in the original sense designates the northeasterly direction, considered to be unlucky or dangerously inviting of ill-intended spirits [9] (cf. Konjin). There is also a Japanese version of Feng Shui known as kasō  [ ja ] [10] or literally "house physiognomy". Closely connected is the Yin-yang path or Onmyōdō, and its concepts such as katatagae  [ "direction changing" ] also known as kataimi, [11] which was widely practiced by nobles in the Heian period. A widely known taboo ( kitamakura  [ ja ]) advises against sleeping with your head faced north, [12] though it is doubtful if anyone now seriously heeds this prohibition. [12]

In Japanese folklore, pheasants were considered messengers from heaven. However, researchers from Japan’s Graduate University for Advanced Studies and National Institute of Polar Research claimed in March 2020 that red pheasant tails witnessed across the night sky over Japan in 620 A.D., might be a red aurora produced during a magnetic storm. [13]


A raccoon dog half transformed into a cauldron hangs from a jizai kagi hook over an irori hearth (scene from the tale Bunbuku Chagama). (c. 1840s, School of Hokusai) Hokusai tanuki tea kettle.jpg
A raccoon dog half transformed into a cauldron hangs from a jizai kagi hook over an irori hearth (scene from the tale Bunbuku Chagama ). (c. 1840s, School of Hokusai)

As in most developed nations, it is increasingly difficult to find living storytellers of oral tradition. But there is a wealth of folktales collected through the ages. The name mukashi-banashi (tales of "long ago" or from "bygone times") has been applied to the common folktale, since they typically open with the formula "Mukashi..." [14] (akin to "Once upon a time..."). They also close with some set phrase like "dotto harai" [14] (a variant form being Dondo Hare).

These tales had been told in their local dialects, which may be difficult to understand to outsiders, both because of intonation and pronunciation differences, conjugations, and vocabulary. Many folktales collected from the field are actually "translations" into standard Japanese (or more like adaptations, merging several collected versions).

Classic folktales

Classic folktales such as Momotarō , which most Japanese today are familiarized through pictured children's storybooks, manga, or other popularizations, can be traced to picture-books printed in the Edo period, though their prototypical stories may go back much further. The versions retold by children's story author Sazanami Iwaya  [ ja ] (1870–1933) [15] had a strong hand in establishing the forms usually known today.

Animals in folktales

Two creatures are particularly known for their abilities to transform into humans or other beings and objects, the kitsune (fox) and tanuki (the Japanese raccoon dog; pictured). They occur frequently in folktales of humorous nature, such as the tanuki, Bunbuku Chagama, who could shapeshift into a teapot.

Marriages between humans and non-humans (irui konin tan ( 異類婚姻譚 , "tales of heterotype marriages")) comprise a major category or motif in Japanese folklore. Japanese heterotype examples such as the crane story describes a sustained period of married life between the interspecies couple, in contrast to Western examples like Frog Prince or the Leda myth where the supernatural encounter is brief. An unusual pairing occurs in the story of the Hamaguri nyōbo  [ ja ] (蛤女房, "clam wife"), which exist in both a politer written version ( otogi-zōshi ) and in a more rustic and vulgar oral tale. The gender is reversed in the tale of Tanishi chōja  [ ja ] where a bride is wedded to a tiny tanishi (river snail).

Modern renditions

A number of folktales were adapted for stage performance by playwright Junji Kinoshita, notably Yūzuru ( Twilight Crane , 1949), [16] based on the folktale Tsuru no Ongaeshi or "a crane who repaid its gratitude".

In the American television series called The Yokai King , starring by Shin Koyamada, the characters are based on the Japanese folklore creatures.

Fantastic creatures

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, The Ghosts, c. 1850. Kuniyoshi The Ghosts.jpg
Kuniyoshi Utagawa, The Ghosts, c. 1850.

A great deal of interest currently gravitates towards Japanese monsters taken from traditional Japanese sources. Some of the yōkai or strange beings are the stuff of folklore, orally transmitted and propagated among the populace. But one must realize that many beings or stories about them were spun and deliberately invented by professional writers during the Edo Period and earlier, and they are not folkloric in the strict sense.

Folk art and craft

Some well-known craft objects such as netsuke, raccoon dog earthenware (Shigaraki ware), may be classed as traditional Japanese crafts.

A number of articles of daily household use (mingu (民具)), amassed by Keizo Shibusawa, became the Attic Museum collection, now mostly housed in the National Museum of Ethnology in Suita, Osaka. The Mingei movement spearheaded by Yanagi Sōetsu sought to appreciate folk craft from an aesthetic viewpoint.

Representative art



Articles of clothing

Some of the articles below are essential for understanding traditional Japanese culture. The type of material used is also part of folklore.

See also

Related Research Articles

Japanese folktales are an important cultural aspect of Japan. In commonplace usage, they signify a certain set of well-known classic tales, with a vague distinction of whether they fit the rigorous definition of "folktale" or not among various types of folklore. The admixed impostors are literate written pieces, dating back to the Muromachi period or even earlier times in the Middle Ages. These would not normally qualify for the English description "folktales".

<i>Yōkai</i> Supernatural beings from Japanese folklore

Yōkai are a class of supernatural entities and spirits in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is composed of the kanji for "attractive; calamity" and "apparition; mystery; suspicious." Yōkai are also referred to as ayakashi (あやかし), mononoke (物の怪) or mamono (魔物). Yokai are not literally demons in the Western sense of the word, but are instead spirits and entities, whose behaviour can range from malevolent or mischievous to friendly, fortuitous, or helpful to humans.

<i>Oni</i> Kind of yōkai from Japanese folklore, variously translated as demons, devils, ogres, or trolls

An oni is a kind of yōkai, demon, orc, ogre, or troll in Japanese folklore. Oni are mostly known for their fierce and evil nature manifested in their propensity for murder and cannibalism. Not withstanding their evil reputation, oni possess intriguingly complex aspects that cannot be brushed away simply as evil. They are typically portrayed as hulking figures with one or more horns growing out of their heads. Stereotypically, they are conceived of as red, blue, black, yellow, or white-colored, wearing loincloths of tiger pelt, and carrying iron kanabō clubs.A creature instills fear and danger from their grotesque outward appearance to their wild and strange behaviors and dangerous powers.


Ikiryō, also known as shōryō (しょうりょう), seirei (せいれい), or ikisudama (いきすだま), is a disembodied spirit in Japanese popular belief and fiction that leaves the body of a living person and subsequently haunts other people or places, sometimes across great distances. The term(s) are used in contrast to shiryō, which refers to the spirit of those who are already deceased.

Zashiki-warashi, sometimes also called zashiki bokko, are spirit-like beings told about mostly in the Iwate Prefecture. They are said to be yokai that live in parlors or storage rooms, and that perform pranks, and that people who see one would be visited with good fortune. There are also legends of how they would bring fortune to families. They are also known from Kunio Yanagita's Tōno Monogatari, Ishigami Mondō, and stories about them appear in the 17th and 18th chapters of the Tōno Monogatari and the 87th chapter titled "Zashiki-warashi" of the Tōno Monogatari Shūi. In the 17th chapter, it is written "families with whom this spirit dwells become prosperous". In recent years, television programs and magazines have reported about various Iwate Prefecture ryokan where it is said to be possible to see a zashiki-warashi.

Namahage Japanese folklore character associated with new years ritual

The Namahage (生剥) are demonlike beings portrayed by men wearing hefty oni (ogre) masks and traditional straw capes (mino) during a New Year's ritual, in local northern Japanese folklore of the Oga Peninsula area of Akita Prefecture.

Ittan-momen are a yōkai told about in Kōyama, Kimotsuki District, Kagosima Prefecture. They are also called "ittan monme" or "ittan monmen."

Funayūrei Legendary Japanese boat spirits

Funayūrei are spirits (yūrei) that have become vengeful ghosts (onryō) at sea. They have been passed down in the folklore of various areas of Japan. They frequently appear in ghost stories and miscellaneous writings from the Edo Period as well as in modern folk customs. In Yamaguchi Prefecture and Saga Prefecture, they are called Ayakashi.


Shippeitaro or Shippei Taro is the name of a helper dog in the Japanese fairy tale by the same name.

In Japanese mythology and folklore, Somin Shōrai was a poor man who gave food and shelter to a certain god in the guise of a traveler who was looking for a place to stay. As a reward, the god provided Somin Shōrai's family a means to save themselves from an oncoming pestilence that eventually claimed the lives of those who had turned him away earlier. The story of Somin Shōrai is the basis for the Shinto custom of walking through a large ring of twisted miscanthus reeds during the beginning of summer at many Shinto shrines across Japan. Talismans bearing Somin Shōrai's name are also popularly held to ward off disease and misfortune.


Bake-danuki (化け狸) are a kind of yōkai found in the classics and in the folklore and legends of various places in Japan, commonly associated with the Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki.

Kasha (folklore)

The kasha is a Japanese yōkai that steals the corpses of those who have died as a result of accumulating evil deeds.

Atmospheric ghost lights are lights that appear in the atmosphere without an obvious cause. Examples include the onibi, hitodama and will-o'-wisp. They are often seen in humid climates.

Misaki are a collective term for spirit-like existences in Japan like gods, demons and spirits, among other supernatural entities. Their name comes from a kannushi's vanguard.

Shidaidaka (次第高) are a yōkai of the Chūgoku region.

Kanjo Nawa is a Japanese custom of stretching shimenawa, a variety of laid rope, with fetishes hung at the border of a village. Michi Kiri (道切り) is just a similar custom. The term Kanjo Nawa also refers to the rope itself.

Fujiko (religion)

Fujiko (富士講) is a Japanese religious group. One of the popular beliefs established in the Edo period, especially in the Kanto centered on Edo, with a lineage of Kakugyo. The term "Fujikō" is usually used to refer to the religious system and religious movement in general. The term is also sometimes used to refer to Mount Fuji and its divine spirits.

The Snail Son is a character that appears in Japanese folktales, as a type of enchanted husband that becomes disenchanted from his animal form and becomes a handsome man. Some tales are related to the cycle of Animal as Bridegroom or The Search for the Lost Husband.


  1. Bownas & Brown 2004, p.50-2 misidentifies Namahage as a Kyushu ritual. See other sources under namahage article
  2. Ayabe, Tsuneo (1976). "Esoteric Rituals in Japanese Traditional Secret Societeis: A Study of the Death and Rebirth Motif". In Bharati, Agrhananda (ed.). Agents and Audiences. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN   978-3-11-080584-0.
  3. Plutschow 1990, p.60 misplaces as Kagoshima prefecture, probably confusing it with Toshidon  [ ja ] of the Koshikijima Islands which is mentioned by Bocking 1997, p.87 (marebito), p.98 (namahage)
  4. Bestor & Bestor 2011 , p. 69, households with kamidana showed a decline from 62% (1984) to 43.9% (2006); and only 26.4% in metropolitan areas
  5. Takeda, Chōshū (1964). "minkan shinkō" 民間信仰[folk religion]. In Heibonsha (ed.). Sekai hyakka jiten世界百科事典. Vol. 21. p. 442. Mentions such kō as those devoted to Ise Shrine(伊勢講)、Akiba(秋葉講)、Ōmine(大峰講)、kōshin(庚申講)、Koyasu(子安講)、Yama-no-Kami (山ノ神講)、Nenbutsu kō  [ ja ](念仏講), Kannon (観音講)
  6. 1 2 Schnelle 1999, p.325, note 23 "the okoshi daiko as a "ceremony to guard against misfortune" ("yakuyoke no gyōji")"
  7. 1 2 3 Bownas & Brown 2004, p.23, "Salt, the sophistication of ritual sea bathing as a cleanser of contamination, appears today even in many apparently secular uses. The sumō wrestler will sprinkle [salt] across the ring as he advances.. a restaurant frequently has its Fuji-cone of caked salt by the door-jamb, as a means of clearing the defilement left by an unwelcome patron".
  8. Hosking, Richard (1997). A Dictionary of Japanese Food: Ingredients & Culture. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN   978-0-8048-2042-4., p.98, "little piles of salt have been placed at shrines to purify and gain the gods' protective presence"
  9. 1 2 Murakami 1988, p.53
  10. Jeremy, Michael Ernes; Robinson (1989). Ceremony and Symbolism in the Japanese Home. Manchester University Press ND. ISBN   978-0-7190-2506-8., pp.125- goes into a description of kasō in considerable detail.
  11. Kornicki & McMullen 1996 , p. 87; citing Bernard 1958
  12. 1 2 Lock, Margaret M. (1984). East Asian Medicine in Urban Japan: Varieties of Medical Experience. University of California Press. ISBN   978-0-520-05231-4., p.98 her informants do not believe in it, but rather not be seen
  13. "Modern science reveals ancient secret in Japanese literature". phys.org. 30 March 2020.
  14. 1 2 Masuda, Katsumi (1964). "mukashibanashi" 昔話[Japanese tales section]. In Heibonsha (ed.). Sekai hyakka jiten世界百科事典. Vol. 21. pp. 499–502.
  15. Kinoshita, Junji (1974). Hyōronshu (collected criticisms 1956~1957). Vol. 4. Miraisha (未来社). p. 82. 直接民衆の語る物語からではなく)巌谷小波が定型化し、それが国定 教科書によって広く普及されたそういう桃太郎の話
  16. Keene, Donald (1999). Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. Columbia University Press. pp. 482–483. ISBN   978-0-231-11439-4.
  17. "庄内のばんどりコレクション" [Shonai no Bandori Collection]. Cultural Heritage Online (in Japanese). (virtual gallery)
Dictionaries and encyclopedias
Monograms, studies