Japanese folklore has long been inhabited by goblins, specters, boogiemen, and all manner of fantastical creatures from the edges of human imagination. While many of these bizarre beings are understood to be firmly planted in the realm of myth, occasionally there is one that stretches at the curtain between the real and the unreal. In such cases, the line between pure folklore and reality becomes blurred, making it difficult to completely ascertain where one ends and the other begins.
In some cases, we can have a creature which on the face of it may seem to be obviously a purely mythical construct, yet still remain persistently sighted and documented to the point that it seems worthy of investigating further. The human-faced dogs of Japan are one such case.
The, jinmenken, roughly translated as “the human faced dog,” is typically said to be about the size of a medium sized dog, often with matted or dirty looking hair. From a distance, an observer may mistake one for just an ordinary mangy stray dog, yet on closer inspection see that these dogs possess a human face. The eyes are often deep set and sad, and the tail is most commonly between the legs in an apparent gesture of passiveness or cowardice. An even more shocking revelation than the human face is their purported ability to speak. Typically, a jinkenmen will implore those who come across it to leave it alone, but on rare occasions will hold simple conversations.
Jinkenmen are persistent in Japanese folkore, yet there seems to be more to them than that. Throughout the Edo Era, from 1603 to 1868, these human-faced dogs were often encountered and sighted by locals, to the point that they were occasionally featured in the news publications of the time.
In addition to the sightings, jinkenmen were at times allegedly exhibited at misemono, which were a type of Japanese carnival sideshow popular during the Edo Era. These sideshows were somewhat of a cabinet of curiosities, typically featuring menageries of exotic animals, mounted displays or mummified remains of bizarre creatures or monsters, gaffes, mystical artifacts, and all manner of the strange and bizarre.
Taxidermy specimens of jinkenmen were often seen on display at such shows and on occasion even live specimens were shown. In such shows, the jinkenmen would be paraded about for all to see and became quite popular attractions. It is not clear whether these were actual jinkenmen or regular dogs somehow altered to look like such through illusion and trickery, yet the fact remains that there are numerous accounts of these exhibitions and they were certainly observed by many people.
It was not only commoners that marveled at these creatures in such sideshows either. One publication of the time included the testimony of a visiting zoologist, who remarked upon laying his eyes upon one such specimen (translated from the Japanese):
“There cowering and whimpering in the corner of the display booth I saw the hunched over form of what I first took to be a typical shiba inu, although of a somewhat more pungent odor. Then the thing looked up with sad eyes and I could see clearly that it was the face of a human being, albeit with the empty, soulless gaze of an animal. I immediately assumed trickery upon seeing such an aberration, yet if one had forged such a horrific sight then they had done so with such ingenuity and craftsmanship that I was unable to ascertain it as such. If this was some sort of macabre taxidermy of a living thing, then it was done without any visible indication of such. I could see no apparent stitches or artificial connection between human face and dog. I was eager to be on my way from such a ghastly abomination and the thing’s gaze left me with a deep unease long after I had left.”
It is interesting to note the feeling of unease the zoologist experienced. Premonitions of dread or feelings of deep despair are common occurrences in those who see jinkenmen. Reports of jinkenmen hypnotizing onlookers or inducing urges to get away are also not uncommon in accounts.Additionally, jinkenmen are often considered to be portents of doom or disaster.
Sightings of jinkenmen are not merely confined to the rural Japan of the Edo Era. Eyewitness accounts of jinkenmen sightings persist right up to the modern day. There are many reports of eyewitnesses describing coming across what they first take to be dog, only to have it turn around to display its human face. Other reports showcase the jinkenmen’s apparent great speed as they are described as running playfully alongside cars on darkened roads, sometimes screaming or whooping as they do so. These sightings occur mostly at night in rural areas, yet this is not always the case.
During the 1980s, a human faced dog was often sighted rummaging through garbage in the back alleys of Tokyo’s Shibuya District, which is a well-developed, bustling urban shopping area. Other sightings have been reported from other urban areas behind crowded restaurants, in alleyways, or in the darkened parking lots of apartment buildings.
What do we make of these reports? As detached from reality as the notion of human-faced dogs may seem, theories abound as to what could be behind the sightings and stories. These theories range from the somewhat plausible to the downright absurd.
Among the more far out ideas are that the Jinmenken are the spirits of traffic accident victims or dogs possessed by evil spirits. Others say that they are the result of secret biological experiments performed in labs. It has even been suggested that these human-faced dogs are the Chupacabras in Japan.
Perhaps a more realistic candidate for the stories of human-faced dogs in Japan may be found in Japanese macaques. These primates are found all over Japan and in many ways they could resemble a dog under less than favorable sighting conditions, such as at night when most sightings occur. They have faces that could be seen as somewhat human-like, and make a wide range of vocalizations which could possibly be misconstrued as speech by a frightened onlooker.
Japanese macaques are also not confined to wilderness areas. In many locales, these monkeys are extremely bold in venturing into suburban or even urban areas where they roam about and raid garbage bins, one hallmark of many Jinmenken sightings. Could someone not familiar with seeing macaques mistake one for a human-faced dog under the right conditions?
Real or imagined, whatever the jinkemen are, they seem to be something that has crawled out from the confines of mere myth and folklore. Is there something to the stories? Perhaps somewhere out there is some explanation or at the very least something close to an answer for these enigmatic creatures. Until then, if you are ever in Japan, make sure you keep an eye to the dark alleys. You never know what may be peering back at you from the shadows.