One of the most curious images associated with Japan is the red, sausage-nosed face of the tengu, a strange and unpredictable creature said to make its home deep in the mountains. Many believe that this bizarre combination of man and bird still haunts remote forests, its unreal wings conveying it great distances in a heartbeat, and its fearsome eyes shining with the mischief it still perpetrates upon unwary humans.

Description Edit

Being shape-shifters, tengu are capable of assuming a variety of forms or casting various illusions to deceive humans, but their essential nature is invariably avian. They hatch from enormous eggs (despite all being male), and make their homes in pine and cryptomeria trees. Tengu in old fairy-tales often take the form of birds of prey - usually kites or kestrels - especially when defeated or tormented, although in modern times they are most often associated with crows (karasu, which in Japanese can refer to any member of genus Corvus).

In traditional art tengu are 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. Some of the more monstrous depictions give them scaled digits or lips, pointed ears, mouths full of sharp teeth, three-toed bird's feet, or somewhat bat-like webbed flight feathers. Like many demons, they are often associated with the color red, although sources differ on whether this applies to their skin, hair, or clothing.

Perhaps via confusion with the similarly-long-nosed Shinto deity Sarutahiko, tengu are also sometimes portrayed with a red face and sans any bird features. This image is particularly common in folk art, like the famous tengu masks that can be found in many Japanese restaurants.

Sometimes this is said to be the image of the daitengu or ootengu (great tengu), who is served by lesser tengu known as kotengu or karasutengu (little or crow tengu).

Closely associated with the tengu are the yamabushi, 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. So universal was this correlation that tengu are almost always depicted wearing the mountain-ascetic's small black cap and pom-pommed sash.

Other items tengu sometimes have on their person include a Buddhist monk's ringed staff (shakujo); feathered or straw cloaks that grant their wearers invisibility; tall, awkward-looking one-toothed geta sandals (nicknamed tengu geta); and magic fans made either of feathers or of the leaf of the Aralia japonica plant, both of which are called hauchiwa. The fan is used either as a device to alter the length of the tengu's nose (making him less obviously inhuman), or to produce a ferocious, hurricane-like wind. The latter use is not surprising, as tengu were supposedly created by the fury of the storm god Susanoo.

Origins Edit


Tengu from 1776 bestiary, depicted as a goblin-kite.

The origins of the tengu are somewhat obscured. According to some they were originally minor deities in the form of the black-eared kite, a gregarious bird Lafcadio Hearn noted for its insolent and brash behavior around humans.

The name tengu is derived from the Chinese tien-kou, and both are written with the same characters. Both are mischievous, mountain-dwelling entities, and while tien-kou means "heavenly dog" (apparently a reference to the fiery tail of a certain meteor), its physical descriptions are various. How much the tengu take from their Chinese namesake is not entirely clear, but at least one source describes a tien-kou with a bird's beak and wings and tangled hair. The tengu's shape may have also been influenced by the Hindu/Buddhist eagle deity Garuda, or the owl-like Chinese thunder god Lei Gong, both of whom they also resemble.

Tengu and Buddhism Edit

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. Later Buddhism and Shintoism resolved their differences, resulting in some amount of syncretism between the native gods and the imported Indian ones. Perhaps via association with the protective deity Karura (Garuda's Japanese name), the tengu's destructive behavior was downgraded to mere mischief, and they were even reputed to protect shrines and temples and help families find their lost offspring. The comically suggestive connotations of the bird-man's long nose may also have taken the edge off the creatures.

Tengu could still be very dangerous to those who threatened their homes or insulted them - as they were extremely arrogant beings by nature. According to some, tengu were the reincarnations of haughty priests or samurai who had misused their power, and in their current life they particularly detested pomposity and pretentiousness in humans.

The Tengu and the Art of War Edit

Along with shape-shifting, tengu are said to be capable of teleporting instantly from one place to another, and of speaking telepathically to humans without moving their mouths or beaks. They are also supposed to be phenomenally-skilled warriors and swordsmen, and became the patron saints of martial arts. Ninja and samurai both claimed tengu as their teachers.

Perhaps the most famous story involving tengu is that of the warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, whose father was murdered during a great feud between the Minamoto and the Taira clans. His mother made a deal allowing him to stay alive, and he was sent to a remote monastery on Mount Kurama, in order to live out his life as a monk. Little Ushiwakamaru (Yoshitsune's boyhood name) had secretly been told the truth by his mother, however, and wanted to learn how to fight and avenge his father's death. The mountain was also inhabited by an extraordinarily powerful tengu named Sojobo, who took pity on the boy and taught him to fight. Many woodblock prints depict Ushiwaka weilding a wooden sword and training with wild-looking beaked tengu, while Sojobo watches in the form of a human priest.


Ushiwaka and the Tengu