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Traditional representation of tengu.

Tengu (天狗, "heavenly dogs") are mountain and forest goblins or yokai in Japanese mythology, sometimes worshipped as Shinto kami (revered spirits or gods).



The term tengu and the characters used to write it are borrowed from the name of a fierce demon from Chinese folklore called tiangou.


Tengu are usually portrayed as human-like creatures with a bird's beak or a long and beak-like nose, wings and tailfeathers on their backs, and claws on their fingers and toes.

The tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is practically the tengu's defining characteristic in the popular imagination.

The tengu's long nose seems to have been conceived sometime in the 14th century, likely as a humanization of the original bird's bill.[1] Perhaps via confusion with the similarly-long-nosed Shinto deity Sarutahiko, who is described in the Japanese historical text, the Nihon Shoki, with a similar proboscis measuring seven hand-spans in length, tengu are sometimes portrayed with a red face and without any bird features. This image is particularly common in folk art, like the famous tengu masks that can be found in many Japanese restaurants. In village festivals the two figures are often portrayed with identical red, phallic-nosed mask designs.

In Japanese picture scrolls, such as the Tenguzoshi Emaki (天狗草子絵巻), painted ca. 1296, which parodies high-ranking priests by endowing them the hawk-like beaks of tengu demons. Tengu are often pictured as taking the shape of some sort of priest. Beginning in the 13th century, tengu came to be associated in particular with the yamabushi, the mountain ascetics who practice Shugendo.[5] The association soon found its way into Japanese art, where tengu are most frequently depicted in the yamabushi's distinctive costume, which includes a small black cap (頭襟) and a pom-pommed sash (結袈裟).

Tengu are commonly depicted holding magical hauchiwa (羽団扇), fans made of feathers. In folk tales, these fans sometimes have the ability to grow or shrink a person's nose, but usually they are attributed the power to stir up great winds. Various other strange accessories may be associated with tengu, such as a type of tall, one-toothed geta sandal often called tengu-geta.


Tengu are masters in shapeshifting and may appear as humans or other things if they so wish. They also have the ability to speak (telepathically) without moving their mouths or beaks. It is also said that they may enter dreams, which further adds to this theory. They have wings and can fly, but they may also traverse some distance without the use of their wings, through teleportation. This is supposedly limited however, and for longer travel they must either walk or use their wings. Tengu are also famed for their skills in martial arts, and are said to have trained the ninja, taught samurai, schooled famous heroes in kendo and possessed the founder of aikido. Last but not least,it is believed that most tengu enjoy composing and hearing or reading poetry.


Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Sometimes they kidnap people and leave them wandering through the woods in a state of dementia called tengu-kakushi, but sometimes they are called upon to help lost children find their way home.

Closely associated with the tengu are the yamabushi or shugenja, a sect of ascetic warrior-monks who sought power and enlightenment by living in the harsh, unforgiving, and supernaturally-auspicious environment of the mountains. Sharing the tengu's remote home and bad reputation, the yamabushi inevitably became associated with the bird-goblins, and often hold their image sacred. So universal was this correlation that tengu are almost always depicted wearing the mountain-ascetic's small black cap and pom-pommed sash.

Tengu and a Buddhist monk, by Kawanabe Kyōsai. The tengu wears the cap and pom-pommed sash of a follower of Shugendō.


Heavenly dogs

The 23rd chapter of the Nihon Shoki, written in 720, is generally held to contain the first recorded mention of tengu in Japan. In this account a large shooting star appears and is identified by a Buddhist priest as a "heavenly dog", and much like the tiangou of China, the star precedes a military uprising. Although the Chinese characters for tengu are used in the text, accompanying phonetic furigana characters give the reading as amatsukitsune (heavenly fox). M.W. de Visser speculated that the early Japanese tengu may represent a conglomeration of two Chinese spirits: the tiangou and the fox spirits called huli jing.

Tengu as a kite-like monster, from Toriyama Sekien's Gazu Hyakki Yakō

How the tengu was transformed from a dog-meteor into a bird-man is not clear. Some Japanese scholars have supported the theory that the tengu's image derives from that of the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, who was pluralized in Buddhist scripture as one of the major races of non-human beings. Like the tengu, the garuda are often portrayed in a human-like form with wings and a bird's beak. The name tengu seems to be written in place of that of the garuda in a Japanese sutra called the Enmyo Jizo Kyo, but this was likely written in the Edo period, long after the tengu's image was established. At least one early story in the Konjaku Monogatari describes a tengu carrying off a dragon, which is reminiscent of the garuda's feud with the naga serpents. In other respects, however, the tengu's original behavior differs markedly from that of the garuda, which is generally friendly towards Buddhism. De Visser has speculated that the tengu may be descended from an ancient Shinto bird-demon which was syncretized with both the garuda and the tiangou when Buddhism arrived in Japan. However, he found little evidence to support this idea.

A later version of the Kujiki, an ancient Japanese historical text, writes the name of Amanozako, a monstrous female deity born from the god Susanoo's spat-out ferocity, with characters meaning tengu deity. The book describes Amanozako as a raging creature capable of flight, with the body of a human, the head of a beast, a long nose, long ears, and long teeth that can chew through swords. An 18th century book called the Tengu Meigiko suggests that this goddess may be the true predecessor of the tengu, but the date and authenticity of the Kujiki, and of that edition in particular, remain disputed.


The Konjaku Monogatari, a collection of stories published sometime during the late Heian Period, contains some of the earliest tales of tengu, already characterized as they would be for centuries to come. These tengu are the troublesome opponents of Buddhism, who mislead the pious with false images of Buddha, carry off monks and drop them in remote places, possess women in an attempt to seduce holy men, rob temples, and endow those who worship them with unholy power. They often disguise themselves as priests or nuns, but their true form seems to be that of a kite.

Iga no Tsubone confronts the tormented spirit of Sasaki no Kiyotaka, by Yoshitoshi. Sasaki's ghost appears with the wings and claws of a tengu.

Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, accounts continued of tengu attempting to cause trouble in the world. They were now established as the ghosts of angry, vain, or heretical priests who had fallen on the "tengu-road" (???, tengudo). They began to possess people, especially women and girls, and speak through their mouths ( kitsunetsuki). Still the enemies of Buddhism, the demons also turned their attention to the royal family. The Kojidan tells of an Empress who was possessed, and the Okagami reports that Emperor Sanjo was made blind by a tengu, the ghost of a priest who resented the throne.

One notorious tengu from the 12th century was himself the ghost of an emperor. The Hogen Monogatari tells the story of Emperor Sutoku, who was forced by his father to abandon the throne. When he later raised the Hogen Rebellion to take back the country from Emperor Go-Shirakawa, he was defeated and exiled to Sanuki Province on Shikoku. According to legend he died in torment, having sworn to haunt the nation of Japan as a great demon, and thus became a fearsome tengu with long nails and eyes like a kite's.

Great and small demons

In the Genpei Josuiki, written in the late Kamakura period, a god appears to Go-Shirakawa and gives a detailed account of tengu ghosts. He says that they fall onto the tengu road because, as Buddhists, they cannot go to Hell, yet as people with bad principles, they also cannot go to Heaven. He describes the appearance of different types of tengu: the ghosts of priests, nuns, ordinary men, and ordinary women, all of whom in life possessed excessive pride. The god introduces the notion that not all tengu are equal; knowledgeable men become daitengu (???, big tengu, daitengu?), but ignorant ones become kotengu (???, small tengu, kotengu?).

A section of the Tengu Meigikō, later quoted by Inoue Enryō, lists the daitengu in this order:

  • Sōjōbō (僧正坊) of Mount Kurama
  • Tarōbō (太郎坊) of Mount Atago
  • Jirōbō (二郎坊) of the Hira Mountains
  • Sanjakubō (三尺坊) of Mount Akiba
  • Ryūhōbō (笠鋒坊) of Mount Kōmyō
  • Buzenbō (豊前坊) of Mount Hiko
  • Hōkibō (伯耆坊) of Daisen (mountain)
  • Myōgibō (妙義坊) of Mount Ueno (Ueno Park)
  • Sankibō (三鬼坊) of Itsukushima
  • Zenkibō (前鬼坊) of Mount Ōmine
  • Kōtenbō (高天坊) of Katsuragi
  • Tsukuba-hōin (筑波法印) of Hitachi Province
  • Daranibō (陀羅尼坊) of Mount Fuji
  • Naigubu (内供奉, Naigubu?) of Mount Takao
  • Sagamibō (相模坊) of Shiramine
  • Saburō (三郎) of Mount Iizuna
  • Ajari (阿闍梨) of Higo Province

Daitengu are often pictured in a more human-like form than their underlings, and due to their long noses, they may also called hanatakatengu (鼻高天狗). Kotengu may conversely be depicted as more bird-like. They are sometimes called karasu-tengu (烏天狗), or koppa- orkonoha-tengu (木葉天狗, 木の葉天狗). Inoue Enryō described two kinds of tengu in his Tenguron: the great daitengu, and the small, bird-like konoha-tengu who live in Cryptomeria trees. The konoha-tengu are noted in a book from 1746 called the Shokoku Rijin Dan (諸国里人談), as bird-like creatures with wings two meters across which were seen catching fish in the Ōi River, but this name rarely appears in literature otherwise.

Creatures that do not fit the classic bird or yamabushi image are sometimes called tengu. For example, tengu in the guise of wood-spirits may be called guhin (occasionally written kuhin) (狗賓), but this word can also refer to tengu with canine mouths or other features. The people of Kōchi Prefecture on Shikoku believe in a creature called shibaten or shibatengu (シバテン, 芝天狗), but this is a small child-like being who loves sumō wrestling and sometimes dwells in the water, and is generally considered one of the many kinds of kappa. Another water-dwelling tengu is the kawatengu (川天狗) of the Greater Tokyo Area. This creature is rarely seen, but it is believed to create strange fireballs and be a nuisance to fishermen.

Their supernatural powers include shape-shifting into human or animal forms, the ability to speak to humans without moving their mouth, the magic of moving instantly from place to place without using their wings, and the sorcery to appear uninvited in the dreams of the living.

Tengu are depicted in two forms both forms have an essentially human body, the Karsu Tengu whilst having the head of a human has more bird like features with a crow’s beak replacing the nose and mouth. The Yamabushi Tengu on the other hand has more human face with a pronounced nose, akin to that of Pinocchio.

Protective spirits and deities

A tengu mikoshi (portable shrine) in the city of Beppu, Ōita,, on Kyūshū.

The Shasekishū, a book of Buddhist parables from the Kamakura period, makes a point of distinguishing between good and bad tengu. The book explains that the former are in command of the latter and are the protectors, not opponents, of Buddhism - although the flaw of pride or ambition has caused them to fall onto the demon road, they remain the same basically good, dharma-abiding persons they were in life.

The tengu's unpleasant image continued to erode in the 17th century. Some stories now presented them as much less malicious, protecting and blessing Buddhist institutions rather than menacing them or setting them on fire. According to a legend in the 18th-century Kaidan Toshiotoko (怪談登志男), a tengu took the form of a yamabushi and faithfully served the abbot of a Zen monastery until the man guessed his attendant's true form. The tengu's wings and huge nose then reappeared. The tengu requested a piece of wisdom from his master and left, but he continued, unseen, to provide the monastery with miraculous aid.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, tengu came to be feared as the vigilant protectors of certain forests. In the 1764 collection of strange stories Sanshu Kidan (三州奇談), a tale tells of a man who wanders into a deep valley while gathering leaves, only to be faced with a sudden and ferocious hailstorm. A group of peasants later tell him that he was in the valley where the guhin live, and anyone who takes a single leaf from that place will surely die. In the Sōzan Chomon Kishū (想山著聞奇集), written in 1849, the author describes the customs of the wood-cutters of Mino Province, who used a sort of rice cake called kuhin-mochi to placate the tengu, who would otherwise perpetrate all sorts of mischief. In other provinces a special kind of fish called okoze was offered to the tengu by woodsmen and hunters, in exchange for a successful day's work.[28] The people of Ishikawa Prefecture have until recently believed that the tengu loathe mackerel, and have used this fish as a charm against kidnappings and hauntings by the mischievous spirits.

Tengu are worshipped as beneficial kami (gods or revered spirits) in various Japanese religious cults. For example, the tengu Saburō of Izuna is worshipped on that mountain and various others as Izuna Gongen (飯綱権現), one of the primary deities in the Izuna Shugen cult, which also has ties to fox sorcery and the Dakini of Tantric Buddhism. Izuna Gongen is depicted as a beaked, winged figure with snakes wrapped around his limbs, surrounded by a halo of flame, riding on the back of a fox and brandishing a sword. Worshippers of tengu on other sacred mountains have adopted similar images for their deities, such as Sanjakubō (三尺坊) or Akiba Gongen (秋葉権現) of Akiba and Dōryō Gongen (道了権現) of Saijō-ji Temple in Odawara.

In popular folk tales

To Japanese Buddhists tengu were evil beings at first, fond of carrying off and devouring children and bent on leading Buddhist monks down the path to Hell. Numerous stories and picture scrolls told of priests defeating the bird-faced goblins and undoing their deceptive illusions. Sometimes the tengu were destroyed, reverting back to the form of a kite or a kestrel in death, but sometimes they were themselves converted to Buddhism.

The folk hero Kintarō upsets a nest of small tengu.

Tengu appear frequently in the orally-transmitted tales collected by Japanese folklorists. As these stories are often humorous, they tend to portray tengu as ridiculous creatures who are easily tricked or confused by humans. Some common folk tales in which tengu appear include:

  • "The Tengu's Magic Cloak" (天狗の隠れみの): A boy looks through an ordinary piece of bamboo and pretends he can see distant places. A tengu, overwhelmed by curiosity, offers to trade it for a magic straw cloak that renders the wearer invisible. Having duped the tengu, the boy continues his mischief while wearing the cloak.
  • "The Old Man's Lump Removed" (瘤取り爺さん): An old man has a lump or tumor on his face. In the mountains he encounters a band of tengu making merry and joins their dancing. He pleases them so much that they take the lump off his face, thinking that he will want it back and join them the next night. An unpleasant neighbor, who also has a lump, hears of the old man's good fortune and attempts to repeat it. The tengu, however, simply give him the first lump in addition to his own, either to keep their bargain, or because they are disgusted by his bad dancing.
  • "The Tengu's Fan" (天狗の羽団扇) A scoundrel obtains a tengu's magic fan, which can shrink or grow noses. He secretly uses this item to grotesquely extend the nose of a rich man's daughter, and then shrinks it again in exchange for her hand in marriage. Later he accidentally fans himself while he dozes, and his nose grows so long it reaches heaven, resulting in painful misfortune for him.
  • "The Tengu's Gourd" (天狗の瓢箪): A gambler meets a tengu, who asks him what he is most frightened of. The gambler lies, claiming that he is terrified of gold or mochi. The tengu answers truthfully that he is frightened of a kind of plant or some other mundane item. The tengu, thinking he is playing a cruel trick, then causes money or rice cakes to rain down on the gambler. The gambler is of course delighted and proceeds to scare the tengu away with the thing he fears most. The gambler then obtains the tengu's magic gourd (or another treasured item) that was left behind.
  • A tengu bothers a woodcutter, showing off his supernatural abilities by guessing everything the man is thinking. The woodcutter swings his axe, and a splinter of wood hits the tengu on the nose. The tengu flees in terror, exclaiming that humans are dangerous creatures who can do things without thinking about them.

Martial arts

Ushiwaka-maru training with the tengu of Mount Kurama, by Kunitsuna Utagawa. This subject is very common in ukiyo-e.

During the 14th century, the tengu began to trouble the world outside of the Buddhist clergy, and like their ominous ancestors the tiangou, the tengu became creatures associated with war. Legends eventually ascribed to them great knowledge in the art of skilled combat.

This reputation seems to have its origins in a legend surrounding the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. When Yoshitsune was a young boy going by the name of Ushiwaka-maru, his father, Yoshitomo, was assassinated by the Taira clan. Taira no Kiyomori, head of the Taira, allowed the child to survive on the grounds that he be exiled to the temple on Mount Kurama and become a monk. But one day in the Sojo-ga-dani Valley, Ushiwaka encountered the mountain's tengu, Sojobo. This spirit taught the boy the art of swordsmanship so that he might bring vengeance on the Taira.

Originally the actions of this tengu were portrayed as another attempt by demons to throw the world into chaos and war, but as Yoshitsune's renown as a legendary warrior increased, his monstrous teacher came to be depicted in a much more sympathetic and honorable light. In one of the most famous renditions of the story, the Noh play Kurama Tengu, Ushiwaka is the only person from his temple who does not give up an outing in disgust at the sight of a strange yamabushi. Sojobo thus befriends the boy and teaches him out of sympathy for his plight.

Two stories from the 19th century continue this theme: In the Sozan Chomon Kishu, a boy is carried off by a tengu and spends three years with the creature. He comes home with a magic gun that never misses a shot. A story from Inaba Province, related by Inoue Enryo, tells of a girl with poor manual dexterity who is suddenly possessed by a tengu. The spirit wishes to rekindle the declining art of swordsmanship in the world. Soon a young samurai appears to whom the tengu has appeared in a dream, and the possessed girl instructs him as an expert swordsman. Some rumors surrounding the ninja indicate that they were also instructed by the tengu.


Primary Sources

  • de Visser, M. W. (1908). "The Tengu". Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 34 (2): pp. 25-99. Z. P. Maruya & Co..
  • Fister, Pat (1985). "Tengu, the Mountain Goblin", in Stephen Addiss: Japanese Ghosts and Demons. New York: George Braziller, Inc, pp. 103-112. ISBN 0-8076-1126-3.
  • Mizuki, Shigeru (2001). Mizuki Shigeru No Nihon Yōkai Meguri. Japan: JTB, pp. 122-123. ISBN 4-5330-3956-1.
  • Seki, Keigo (1966). "Types of Japanese Folktales". Asian Folklore Studies 25: pp. 1-220. Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan University.
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