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The Mysterious Mountain Bird Men of Japan

The world is full of accounts of a myriad of winged monsters that have long captured the imagination of mankind. The far east too had one such creature that has managed to become a curious entity toeing the line between paranormal reality, cryptozoology, and bombastic myth and folklore. The mountains and forests of Japan have long been the domain of a menagerie of bizarre ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and otherworldly creatures, with one of the most well-known being the legendary Tengu, a winged humanoid creature which is one of the most famous and ubiquitous creatures in all of Japanese folklore. The Tengu was a bird-like creature of the sky and trees, and they were seen as a protector of the mountains. Tengu are related to similar folkloric creatures in China, and likely have some influence from the Garuda, a bird-man from Hindu lore that was later adopted by Buddhism as a protector deity, as well as various other winged folkloric creature throughout the world.

Tengu were often seen as mountain gods, but there are many traditions for what they are. They are variously described as being cursed humans, demigods, demons, spirits, or a separate race of living beings. Tengu were said to be hatched from eggs, like birds, and stories abound of travelers coming across Tengu nests filled with their giant eggs high in the remote mountains. One egg was said to be enough to feed an entire family, but few would dare to disturb them for fear of the Tengu’s bloody wrath. They were often said to favor Cryptomeria trees for their nests, which are known for their aromatic wood, so people were especially weary of Tengu when near these particular trees.

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Tengu have been known to possess a wide array of supernatural powers, including teleportation, telepathy, premonition, thought projection (they were thought to be able to invade a person’s mind and drive them insane), and shape shifting. Tengu were said to be able to take the form of a man, woman, or child, but were most fond of taking the shape of a monk or elderly mountain hermit. In some areas, Tengu were thought to be able to take the forms of tanuki (raccoon dogs) and kitsune (foxes), which were also known as shape shifters. It is even suggested in some traditions that foxes and raccoon dogs were not in fact shape shifters themselves, but rather merely alternate forms taken by Tengu.

Tengu translates to “Heaven Dog,” but this name is misleading as the they look nothing like dogs. It is thought that the name “heaven Dog” was derived from a somewhat similar creature in China that was known as the Tiangou, or “celestial hound.” It is not known for sure why these strange Chinese creatures were called this, but one hypothesis holds that they were named after a devastating meteor that hit China somewhere around the 6th century BC. Accounts describe the tail of this falling meteor as looking like the tail of a dog, hence the name “Celestial Hound,” and the powers of destruction that were associated with these creatures. There are various hypotheses proposed for why these Chinese Tiangou became the “Tengu” of Japan, but it seems that at least the name has its origins there.

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The most common modern image of Japanese Tengu is not of a dog at all, but rather that of a humanoid, bird-like creature with a very long nose, a human’s body, arms, and legs, yet possessing wings and feathers. The contemporary Tengu is often depicted as looking more or less like a human warrior monk with wings and an abnormally long nose, a somewhat angry looking face, and frequently with deep, red colored skin. However, in the long histroy of the Tengu, they have undergone somewhat of an evolution in both form and purpose.

The original incarnation of the Tengu was animalistic, more avian than human, and was typically portrayed as looking variously like anything from simply a giant bird of prey, to a vaguely humanoid form covered in feathers, with wings, piercing eyes, a compact head with a prominently beaked face, and heavy, vicious looking talons. They are depicted both with clothing and without. These animal-like beings were known as the Karasu Tengu, or literally “Crow Tengu,” although they could just as often look like eagles or other birds. The Karasu Tengu were known as evil creatures, prone to abducting children, starting fires, and savagely killing anyone foolish enough to do damage to their forest lair. They were even known to slaughter people for no discernible reason at all. These were violent and malicious creatures, said to enjoy ripping travelers limb from limb, and they were thought to be heralds of disaster, war, misfortune, and doom wherever they went.

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A Karasu Tengu

In later times, the Tengu underwent a gradual transformation, becoming increasingly more anthropomorphized over time. The beaks became humanized into long, sometimes hooked noses, and the bodies became more clearly humanoid in form. These more human-like Tengu were often depicted holding feathers in their hand, and wearing a monk’s garb. These later versions became known as the Konoha Tengu or Yamabushi tengu, which means “mountain monk Tengu.”

The Tengu became increasingly known as great warriors, skilled martial artists, and expert weapon smiths. In fact, they were often given the reputation of being the best martial arts instructors. In addition, they were gradually seen as more benign creatures, even helping, or protecting humans. Whereas the more ancient forms of malicious Tengu were said to abduct children or attack travelers, the later, more benevolent Yamabushi Tengu were often enlisted to help find missing children. The Tengu still maintained their love of war and fighting, but their overall evil and sinister reputation was softened somewhat. In some cases, these more intelligent, more civilized Yamabushi Tengu were seen as coexisting with the earlier Karasu Tengu as their leaders.

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Statue of a Yamabushi Tengu

Regardless of how benevolent they were seen to be, all forms of Tengu were known to have a mischievous streak to some extent. They were known for deceiving and playing tricks or pranks on humans, or sometimes kidnapping people only to disorient them and set them loose just to see what would happen. It was said that shoguns would sometimes go so far as to formally request that any Tengu leave the area in advance of important visits in order to reduce the chance of embarrassing incidents and tomfoolery. There is even a scroll at a temple in Shizuoka prefecture which allegedly contains a written apology penned by a Tengu. It is told that the creature was captured in the 17th century by the high priest of the temple and forced to write the apology after relentlessly harassing travelers in the area.

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Other such relics related to Tengu can be found in temples around Japan. For instance, the Hachinohe Museum in Aomori prefecture houses the alleged mummified remains of a Tengu. The skull of these remains is humanoid, while the body is covered with feathers and the feet are like that of a bird. Another temple in Saitama prefecture keeps what is said to be the talon of a Tengu, while still another supposedly has the beaked skull of one. Is there any grain of truth at all behind any of these stories? Does the Tengu have any cryptozoological significance? Of course the sword wielding, magic using, telepathic, winged humanoids seem far fetched, but what of the earlier versions of the Tengu? It seems at least worth considering the cryptozoological possibilities behind this creature’s origins.

When trying to find answers, there seem to be some parallels worth exploring between the story of the Tengu and that of another well known phenomenon, the Mothman, which was made popular in large part due to John A. Keel’s book, The Mothman Prophecies. Not only do the Mothman and Tengu superficially resemble each other in physical appearance, but there are also similarities between the transformation both creatures underwent from earlier to later versions. In the case of the Mothman, there were the original eyewitness reports of a bird-like creature that later became the more humanoid, supernatural creature popularized by Keel. This later transformation into the more humanoid, paranormal, and generally more outlandish Mothman championed by Keel conflicted with the first eyewitness reports of winged creatures that could have been more grounded in cryptozoology. With Mothman, It seems likely that what started out as sightings of a possibly real animal became something more with Keel’s involvement and perhaps further embellishment by later eyewitnesses.

Although the time frames are different, it seems at least possible that a similar process could have been at work in the gradual evolution of the Tengu from its animalistic “Karasu” form to the increasingly more humanized “Yamabushi” forms of later times. Both Mothman and Tengu started out as winged mystery creatures that were more bird-like in their beginnings, and both share the current popular image as flying, winged distinctly humanoid beings.

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It is also worth noting that in addition to the physical similarities between Keel’s Mothman and the humanoid Yamabushi Tengu, even some of the supposed supernatural powers later attributed to Mothman are mirrored in the Tengu. Like the later version of Mothman, Tengu were also at times considered harbingers of disaster. Tengu were at various times credited with ominously foretelling great floods, earthquakes, fires, and landslides.

What about more down to earth, rational explanations for such entities? Could there have been a real animal at the core of the origins of both of these creatures, indeed perhaps even behind many of the other winged humanoids reported around the world? If the story of Mothman could possibly have had its beginnings in sightings of a real animal, could the same not be true of Tengu? These similarities between the transformation of Mothman from winged cryptid to paranormal winged humanoid, and that of Tengu from animalistic versions to more humanized versions, both possessing increasingly vast supernatural powers, seem worthy of consideration.

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Even if the culprit was merely an animal such as a large owl, as is often argued to be the case with Mothman, there could be a similar influence on the early versions of Tengu as well. Japan is home to one of the largest species of owl in the world, the Blakiston’s fish owl, which has a wing span of up to 180 cm (6 feet). Under the right circumstances, an owl this frighteningly large seems like it certainly has the potential to give rise to sightings that, in conjunction with Buddhist folklore and mythology brought over from China, could fuel stories of something like the Tengu. Although the Blackiston’s fish owl is found only in Hokkaido today, perhaps it once enjoyed a larger range in Japan that we are not aware of. There are also other species of owl in Japan, such as the long eared owl, and an exceptionally large specimen could possibly have had something to do with the early accounts of Tengu as well. It seems worth considering that there could have even been some currently unknown species of large bird at work.

In the end, we are left with perplexing questions. Is the Tengu simply pure fabrication, myth, and fantasy, or is there perhaps something more to it? Could a real animal have been at the core of this legend? And what of the more paranormal angles involved? If we truly share this planet with bizarre winged creatures such as the Tengu and Mothman, than what is the relationship between these two, if any? Is there some connection between this creature and other winged apparitions reported throughout the world?

The Tengu has such a prominent place in folklore and traditions in Japan, and is so steeped in supernatural imagery, that it is hard to say where the truth ends and the myth begins. However, considering the possible cryptozoological origins in the case of Mothman, as well as known animals of Japan such as the badger, fox, and raccoon dog, that over time were given a similarly mythical status and fantastical abilities, it certainly is interesting to speculate about.

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Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.
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