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Strange Mystery Beasts of Japan’s Southern Islands

To the south of the main Japanese islands is the the Ryukyu Island chain, which stretches from the island of Kyushu all the way down to Taiwan, and of which the most well-known of which are the Okinawa Islands. Known for their pristine locales, beautiful scenery, and gorgeous beaches, the Ryukyu islands of Japan also have plenty of mysteries, and throughout these islands there have long been said to lurk strange creatures that have so far eluded our understanding. Here among all of the natural beauty of Japan’s Southern islands seem to prowl undiscovered mysterious cryptids that we may never understand.

One of the weirdest mystery creatures said to inhabit the Ryukyu Islands is a type of alleged small, hairy ape-like creature called the Kenmun, or also known as the Kijinuma in more southern areas. The stories originate from Amami Ōshima, which is the largest island in the Amami chain of islands, in the Northern part of the Ryukyu archipelago. The Kenmun, also variously known as the KenmonKunmon, Kunmu, and Nebuzawa, is said to be around 1 to 1.3 meters tall, about the size of a 5 or 6 year old child, but with a stocky, muscular build and covered in kinky, reddish or black hair, that looks mussed, matted and dirty. The Kenmun has a face that is most often described as being like that of an ape or monkey, but also sometimes as dog-like. It is a nocturnal animal, with eyes that supposedly glow red in the dark when light catches them. The creature’s arms are disproportionately long compared to the legs, and it is said to be an agile and powerful climber.

Amami Ōshima

The Kenmun is said to be highly arboreal, making its home primarily in banyan trees, yet it is also supposedly a good swimmer, and is thought to prefer habitat near water, such as rivers, lakes or the sea. Its favorite foods are said to be fish, crab, and octopus, as well as shellfish and snails, and indeed it is thought that a sure sign of a Kenmun’s tree is the shellfish and snail shells littering the area under it. The creature is said to be particularly fond of fish eyes, which it will pop out and eat with relish. They are said to be mostly harmless, although the mostly nocturnal creatures are said to spook people at night with their eyes, which supposedly reflect light like a cat’s.

A prominent feature of the Kenmun is its powerful stench, variously described as smelling like goat, horse, and rotting yams. The smell is believed to instill great fear in animals that come into contact with it, and there have been modern accounts of this. For instance, in 1973, a rancher reported that as he moved his cows to pasture, they suddenly became spooked and refused to move. It was strange since they had never acted this way before. The curious rancher took a look around and didn’t see anything unusual, but he became aware of a thick, pungent stench in the air. It was not until the smell passed that the cows finally regained their composure. Similar effects have often been reported on horses and dogs.

Although mostly considered as harmless, the Kenmun has a somewhat bad reputation nevertheless. In folklore, it was thought to be a trickster as well as a bit headstrong, known to challenge travelers to wrestling matches. In more modern reports, the creatures are said to steal fish or bait from fishermen, and indeed Kenmun are most often seen by fisherman fishing at night. There have even been cases where Kenmun have reportedly aggressively tried to scare fishermen away from their catches. Some more violent behavior include shrieking at passerby and hurling rocks or stones. There have even been accounts of homes being besieged by rock throwing Kenmun. One man told of seeing a small, dark form sitting alone on the beach one evening, which he at first took to be a child. When he called out to it, the figure suddenly whirled around in surprise and the man was astonished to see that it was a hairy creature like a small ape. This creature proceeded to start throwing rocks at the terrified man, even chasing him to his nearby home, where it continued to pelt the dwelling with rocks for some time before leaving the area.

Although the Kenmun has long been sighted by islanders, physical evidence has mostly taken the form of trees with a disproportionate amount of discarded shells under them, and footprints that turn up from time to time. In November, 1986, a man by the name of Isamu Satoyama photographed a series of strange tracks in the sand on a secluded beach. The tracks went on for 500 meters, and measured 10 cm by 30 cm in diameter. Similar trackways have been found time to time in areas the Kenmun are said to inhabit, most often in sand but not always. There was even a plaster cast made of one such print, although it proved to be inconclusive. In more recent years, very few tracks have been found and eyewitness reports are rare.

The Kenmun is not the only type of creature like this to be found in the Ryukyu islands. It is very similar to another type of mysterious creature known as the Kijimuna, which is said to live in the more Southern Okinawa prefecture. What could the Kenmun possibly be? A new type of primate? A hominid or proto-pygmy of some sort? Is this some sort of subspecies of yet another cryptid, the Kappa? Are they just a figment of the imagination? The lack of any new sightings or evidence suggest that if these things ever existed at all, then they may well have already gone extinct or are close to it. If that is the case, then perhaps we will never know what they were or are.

Moving a bit farther south we come into the area of Okinawa, which covers the southernmost portion of the Ryukyu island chain. Here we can find the pristine and unspoiled Iriomote Island, which is the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture. The island has long managed to remain rather isolated, with no airstrip, just a single road, and access limited to those arriving by boat. The sparsely populated island is a land of dense mangrove swamps and unexplored, impenetrable, mist shrouded rain forests. It is easy for one to look upon this landscape and think they are in the deepest parts of the Amazon, or the jungles of Africa rather than in Japan. Due to this remoteness, it is known for its unique wildlife, and is often referred to as the “Galapagos of the East.” The island is already home to one unique enigmatic animal, the rarely seen Iriomote wildcat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis), an indigenous and critically endangered wildcat about the size of a house cat which was discovered in 1965. It is also known for a mysterious much larger big cat said to lurk in the remote wilds here.

Wilderness of Iriomote Island

Although Iriomote island wasn’t inhabited by humans in earnest until after World War II, hunters on the island occasionally brought back stories of encountering mysterious big cats roaming the wilderness long before the smaller known Iriomote wildcat was even discovered. The mystery cats were said to be anywhere from 1 meter (3.3 feet) to up to 2 meters (6.6 feet) in length, and similar in appearance to a leopard or jaguar, with prominent spots covering the body, although some reports describe stripes more like a tiger. A common feature of sightings is the cat’s exceptionally long tail, which is described as being longer than the creature’s body length. The cats were known for being extremely agile climbers, with some accounts describing how they seemed to almost swing from tree to tree like some sort of primate rather than cat. The cats were also said to be powerful jumpers, able to leap up to 5 meters (16.5 feet) from a standing position.

These large cats came to be known by locals as the Yamapikarya, which roughly translates into “the one in the mountain whose eyes shine,” as well as the oo (oh) yamaneko, or “giant mountain cat,” and the yamamaya. In addition to reports of mysterious large cats brought back by hunters before and during the early days of human habitation on the island, soldiers stationed on Iriomote Island during World War II also reported seeing the Yamapikarya on occasion, and there are even accounts of soldiers killing the beasts.

The Yamapikarya is still occasionally sighted into more modern days. One such sighting occurred in the summer of 1978, when a hunter reported seeing a large cat lounging up in a tree. The eyewitness described the cat as having elongated spots that were “oddly shaped,” and a long tail that hung down “like a vine.” After observing the cat for several minutes, the hunter reports that the cat seemed to suddenly realize it was not alone, after which it bounded down the tree and into the forest with what he said was extraordinary speed and agility, seeming to be gone practically within the blink of the eye. The cat reportedly did not make any sound during the entire encounter and was completely silent in its movements.

In 2003, a Mr. Shoichi Shimabukuro, who runs a fishing boat on the island, spotted a Yamapikariya while he was in the mountains setting wild boar traps. According to his report, he was setting the traps and found himself walking along a gravelly open clearing. After walking along this clearing for around 100 meters, he was surprised when a large, spotted cat, estimated at slightly over a meter long and with an exceptionally long tail suddenly leapt down from the top of a large boulder, landing right in front of him before disappearing into the underbrush. The eyewitness explained that the cat was very nimble and easily bounded 3 meters (around 10 feet) as it made its departure.

In September of 2007, the cat was seen by a Mr. Eiyu Aiyoshi, who is a professor at Shimane University in Japan. According to his report, the professor was sitting on a beach on Sakiyama peninsula fishing for a research project when a dark shape appeared from the thick forest just 2.5 meters from where he sat. His first bewildered reaction upon realizing an animal was there was that a wild boar had crept out of the trees, but it became quickly apparent this was a large cat which he described as being a meter in length, with a very long tail and black spots, and looking similar to a clouded leopard. The professor reported how the cat stared right at him before calmly slinking into the shadowy forest once more. The man recalled being very frightened that the cat would attack him.

One of the more recent sightings occurred in 2010, interestingly during preservation efforts on the endemic Iriomote wildcat. A worker was repairing and installing road signs alerting drivers to the wildcats, many of which are hit by cars, when he noticed movement in the nearby underbrush. Again, the movement was at first presumed to be one of the many wild boar found on the island, and the worker thought nothing of it until a large, spotted cat crept from the underbrush and furtively stalked along the road before entering the wilderness once again. In this case, the mystery cat was described as being 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length, with a tail 1.5 times that length. It was said to have orangish coloration and very large spots.

At present, there are at least 47 recorded sightings of these mysterious big cats on the island, with most of the sightings occurring in the 60s. The rarity of more modern sightings is possibly due to the alleged cats moving deeper into the inaccessible inland jungles due to increased tourism on the island. What could the Yamapikarya possibly be? It has been speculated as being perhaps a previously unknown population of clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), which are native to the Asian mainland, but no one really knows.

Clouded leopard

Another giant creature said to inhabit the wilds of Okinawa are mysterious giant bats with wingspans described as being up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) or more. Some reports of such massive and fearsome bats have been quite harrowing indeed, with one report that describes such a giant bat attacking cattle. During World War II, soldiers had their fair share of encounters with the mysterious creatures as well, with soldiers in the remote interior forests reported being startled by giant bats with wingspans of up to six feet. One account even describes a dramatic attack by several of the bats on a terrified squad of soldiers, who were able to drive them away with gunfire.

It must be noted that Okinawa does have a known species of very large bat, the Ryukyu flying fox (Pteropus dasymallus), a megabat that is also found in Taiwan and the Philippines, which typically has a wingspan of 80 to 90 cm (around 3 feet). However, the mystery bats have been much larger, estimated as having wingspans more like around 7 feet, and with more carnivorous appetites as opposed to the strictly vegetarian flying foxes.

What could these cryptid giant bats be? While it is certainly possible that sizes are being misjudged, the flying foxes in Okinawa are well known to the locals and would likely be recognized as such. Perhaps we are dealing with out of place vagrant individuals of a larger bat species. The Ryukyu flying fox has a range that extends to the Philippines, which is also home to some of the largest bat species on Earth. The large flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus), also known as the greater flying fox, can be found here as well as other parts of Southeast Asia. These megabats can achieve wingspans of up to 2 meters (about 7 feet), which is comparable to the sizes reported in Okinawa.

Ryukyu Flying Fox

The Philippines is also home to the Giant golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus), which is also a very large species, with typical wingspans of 1.5–1.7 m (4 ft 10 in–5 ft 7 in). Considering that the Ryukyu flying fox shares its range with these larger species, it seems possible that there is some overlap in habitats, and perhaps these giant bats have a small population in Okinawa as well. It could also be that some vagrant individuals have somehow found there way to the Ryukyu islands from Southeast Asia. Some species of bat are known to wander far and wide, and have wound up far from their native habitat. Could this be the case with the giant bats sighted in Okinawa? Giant bat-like animals are a common type of cryptid throughout the world, so is it possible that these remote islands of Japan also harbored their own version of such a creature?

Another type of strange flying creature was supposedly seen during World War II on Okinawa Island. In this case, troops reported seeing strange humanoid beings the sky, often near military installations. These flying humanoids were mostly sighted around the time of the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945.  these beings were described as having large, leathery wings like a bat yet seeming to be mostly human in other respects. The flying humanoids were mostly solitary, although there was at least one occasion when more than one was spotted together. Whatever the creatures were, they are mostly reported as being silent and shy, keeping their distance and never really coming close enough to see a lot of details. Despite this, it was often reported that the eyewitnesses had the unnerving feeling that they were somehow being observed by the enigmatic creatures.

Besides the jungles and the skies, the islands of Okinawa have had some mysterious sea creatures reported as well. One such bizarre mystery monster also was occasionally reported during World War II, when soldiers stationed on remote islands of the Ryukyu island chain around Okinawa were occasionally startled by what were described as giant crabs roaming around on beaches and in coastal forests. The crabs were said to look like large spiders, with long, spindly legs and small bodies. One horrifying account allegedly occurred in the aftermath of The Battle of Okinawa, a battle that was fought over 82 days in 1945 and is considered to be the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War. A Japanese unit came across a large number of what they described as huge, spider-like crabs feeding on the dead bodies of fallen soldiers on the beach. The crabs in this case were said to have leg spans ranging from 2 to 4 meters.

Japanese giant spider crab

It is generally thought that these accounts are the result of sighting giant Japanese spider crabs that had somehow wandered up onto land.  Japanese spider crabs inhabit the waters of Japan and have the longest leg spans of any arthropod, up to 3.8 meters (12 feet). As their name suggests, they look very much like large, long legged spiders. However, these massive crabs are not known to venture up onto shore and typically live at depths of depths of 50 to 600 meters (160 to 2,000 feet). Could they have been giant spiders instead? It is difficult to say, and with no further reports we will probably never know.

An interesting report I found on a Reddit thread was posted in November of 2007, and the commenter claims that his brother came across something very strange in the waters of Okinawa. The poster says:

My brother actually saw a Gigantic worm like creature in the shores of Okinawa, Japan in the 70’s when he was stationed in the Air Force. He was snorkeling and saw 2 massive tube like creatures (Seemingly leviathans of the deep)

I have not been able to find any other mention of such creatures in either English or Japanese, so it is unclear just what is going on here or what this person saw, if anything. It is just one more lost report that poses questions that will doubtlessly go frustratingly unanswered. Indeed, this seems to be the case with many of the reports we have looked at, and with these strange creatures allegedly inhabiting the remote areas, the islands are not only some of Japan’s most pristine, beautiful places, but also its most mysterious.