Today’s entry to the dōbutsuen is a creature that you may have seen connected with Japan before. The kame is extremely prevalent in Japan’s modern culture but has, as all the dōbutsuen do, a rich folk history.
Many species of turtle are native to Japan’s shores, and so it is no surprise that they feature so strongly in Japanese culture. The kame has long been an important animal in Asian cultures, first as one of the four symbols of the Chinese constellations, Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ [北方玄武] the Black Tortoise of the North; known in Japan as just Genbu [玄武]. However, the turtle enjoys an extremely unique part of Japanese culture itself.
If there’s an animal the Chinese venerate more than any other, it’s the dragon. In ancient China, only the Emperor could wear such an emblem of supreme power; it was a capital offence even to be found with the symbol of a dragon on your person. In western folklore the dragon is a frightening and dangerous monster; intelligent, but cruel and destructive. In China however, the dragon is a noble creature of the heavens and even kind to humans; as this popular folk tale will tell.
A long time ago when there were no rivers but only the vast eastern sea, where dwelled four great dragons; the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon. The dragons were boisterous creatures and the Jade Emperor had long bade them out of his court. They loved to play among the clouds and paid little attention to the people living far below them, until one day they saw a spiral of fragrant smoke emerge from between the clouds.
So far in the study of the dōbutsuen I’ve covered a variety of mammals; so it’s high time for a creature of the feathered variety. When you talk about birds in Japanese culture, there is one in particular which comes to mind; the tsuru, or crane.
Cranes have been an important feature in Japanese art, clothing, literature and especially folklore, for centuries. Their graceful nature has long captured the Japanese imagination and have taken on many different meanings.
Japan’s native religion, Shinto, has far more than one deity. In fact, the Japanese believe that just about everything in nature has a spirit or kami [神] to protect it. As we’ve seen before with such animals as the kitsune [狐] and the tanuki [狸], living creatures are themselves considered sacred and have strong connotations of luck and good fortune.
You can’t go far in Japan without seeing one of its most popular good luck charms, the maneki neko [招き猫] or ‘lucky cat’. Maneki neko are so well-known that they have become national symbols for Japan and are widely recognised throughout the world.
Some members of the Dōbutsuen are ubiquitous. Wherever you look in Japanese culture, you will find them in one incarnation or another; forming a motif. The chō is one animal that both the Japanese and the Chinese venerate, though it holds a very special place in Japanese folklore.
The chō represents a vast array of concepts and meanings in Japan. Butterflies represent the idea of metamorphosis and transformation, and traditionally, are also the souls of the dead, or carriers of souls from the land of the spirits. They can also be messengers. It is considered lucky to follow a butterfly, because it will lead you to the solution of a problem or mystery you are troubled with.
The culture of Japan was heavily influenced by China in the past, and so it isn’t a surprise that many Japanese spirits borrow their identity from Chinese culture, picking up Japanese characteristics on the way. It is from China that the next Dōbutsuen creature, the shōjō, finds its origin.
The shōjō is a type of spirit which lives near water. It very much resembles human beings, except that it has a red face, red fur and in most depictions, a tail. Shōjō are famed for their great love of alcohol, and in Japan are closely connected to sake [酒] in folk tales.
Some of the members of the Dōbutsuen you will encounter on a mythological tour of Japan are terrifying and should be avoided at all costs. Others, like the humble tanuki, are much more friendly, mischievous and jolly animals… though utterly bizarre!
Tanuki are native Japanese raccoon dogs. They have been a part of Japanese culture since ancient times and remain a very visible and common sight on the streets of Japan. Tanuki are talented at shapeshifting and disguise, though unlike the kitsune [狐] or fox they are quite harmless and gullible creatures who are more likely to steal your lunch than attack you!
One part of Japanese folklore which fascinates me in particular is the symbolic significance of animals in Japan, which I’ll be exploring in the next few posts. I chose the title Dōbutsuen [動物園], which in Japanese means zoo.
The fox, or kitsune, is a prolific animal in Japanese culture and found in many stories. Kitsune are intelligent beings and become wiser and more powerful with age. They are also said to have magical abilities, and at an advanced age, the ability to appear human at will. You can tell how old and powerful a kitsune is by counting its tails; they can have as many as nine!
Picture the scene. It’s the week before Christmas and today is bitterly cold. Even though it’s not yet evening, darkness has well and truly fallen. If you braved the wintry weather tonight, you would soon see the stone walls of a church by the sea. Warm lights shine out invitingly from the windows and make patterns of the churchyard trees on the new-fallen snow.
Then, suddenly, the lights go out. If you went inside right now, you would see people of all ages lining the walls of the church, each holding an orange with a lit candle. The tiny lights show little else but the face of each bearer. And they all begin to sing.