Today, Alexandra Seidel on Japanese Fae–or something very like them, anyhow.
Fae From Afar And…Cucumbers?
By Alexandra Seidel
Suppose your average Fae creature were to emigrate, where would they go? This is, of course, a rhetorical question. I will be assuming here that they packed their bags and went for Japan, more or less straight. (With China being so big and perfectly in the way, some decided to take a shortcut. Possibly those same Fae wouldn’t ask for directions and settled somewhere in Wudang or what have you, thus forming Fae outposts in China; this will not be a topic here.)
But Japan, why would there be anything Fae-like in Japan?
Japan is traditionally the home to many deities, gods that were worshipped locally or by certain clans. This is commonly labeled Shinto and considered Japan’s indigenous religion. However, when Buddhism came to the islands in the first millennium A.D., it soon molded together with the old, becoming inseparable and thus practiced almost everywhere alongside Shinto.
The thing that reeks of Fae in all this are the creatures that are neither gods nor ghosts but something other, strange, something in this world but not of it, something quite apart from it. The Japanese term that is mostly used here is youkai (妖怪). It is translated sometimes as monster or demon or devil, but all of the above contain certain Western preconceptions of morals and values that are not quite applicable, so throughout this texts, when speaking of the Others, I will be using youkai instead.
Japan is traditionally the home to many gods. It is not surprising that the varieties of youkai one might run into when out on a stroll should be multifarious as well. I will be looking at a few examples of creatures that share similarities with ‘our’ Fae.
1) The kappa (河童)
The kappa is a popular creature that is documented since medieval times. The name literally means river child. This creature lives in bodies of water all over Japan. A kappa is about the size of a ten-year-old child, but nowhere near as nice. Granted, some ten-year-olds are not exactly nice either, but they wouldn’t drag anyone into their lake to drown them, would they? Kappas are known to drown people, cattle and horses to drain their blood, to steal vegetables from fields, and obviously they enjoy a game of sumou with passersby every now and then. Kappa don’t look nice either. Descriptions vary, but most agree that they are hairy, have webbed fingers and toes and a darkish green complexion. On its head, the kappa carries water from its home in a sort of bowl. This water is the source of its considerable strength, and if you want to win a sumou match against the kappa, you bow to it. According to Japanese custom the bow has to be returned, making the water spill and the kappa weak, sometimes even to the point of immobility. Aren’t you glad that there are manners such as these?
Cucumbers are another issue with the kappa. They love them. In Japan, you really should not eat cucumbers before you go swimming in a kappa infested lake; you know, the kappa might just mistake you for a cucumber. Or it might consider you a nice wrapping for the cucumber, thinking along the lines of exotic sushi. However, feeding the kappa cucumbers with your name carved in it seems to appease it, at least for a time, and you are free to cross rivers without the fear of being drowned by some tiny, monkey like creature that smells like dead fish.
While the kappa is not a pretty horse, the creature does share some traits with the kelpie, of course. The similarity might just tell us how people have always venerated bodies of water to the point of thinking them holy that they could be feared, but thinking in terms of Fae migration just sounds more interesting.
2) The tengu (天狗)
Tengu are mountain dwelling creatures, arrogant and vicious, wild and powerful. They are frequently depicted as bird or crow-like creatures with claws, elongated noses or beaks and red faces, red being the color commonly symbolizing youkai. Probably associated with their ominous bird nature is their command of winds and storms as well as their ability to appear anywhere at will. If a tengu happens to be killed or gravely wounded, they will turn into a bird, often a kestrel or a crow. In some pictures they are also depicted as monk-like creatures, possibly because they have been said to have taught monks and prominent fighters in the ways of martial arts or asceticism.
Like many other youkai, tengu are shape shifters and creators of illusions so powerful that they will cloud the senses of all but the most devout. To play out their pranks, tengu don’t mind getting all close and personal; they will often take on the form of humans to do any sort of mischief. As such, they seem almost harmless, annoying tricksters perhaps, but not that dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Among the youkai, tengu have a reputation for abducting people to their mountain abodes, often children, and holding them for weeks at a time. If the victims are released, they have been found wandering in the mountains, their minds blown to smithereens.
Later in history, tengu would actually help parents find lost children. Along with the idea of them as teachers to warriors and ascetics, tengu were thus not just evil and arrogant, but could show a merciful side, a tendency often found in other Japanese divinities and something that may have come with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan.
The tengu is also known in China, and it may have come to Japan from there.
3) Yuki-onna (雪女)
Yuki-onna is a snow maiden (or literally, snow woman). She is a real beauty, impossibly tall, white haired with skin pale as snow almost to the point of being transparent. She is known to wear a white kimono while she is out wandering in the cold.
Just like the tengu, this lady abducts children to her realm where she keeps them as her own. As if that were not enough, yuki-onna is known to kill travelers (often men) or lead them astray if she feels scorned or for no reason at all. Home invasion that results in turning the inhabitants into icicles is not unheard of either. She may also appear as a woman holding a child that she asks travelers to hold. If they do, the child rapidly grows in size until it crushes the person, or it turns them into frozen corpses. Parents who are looking for their children out in the cold are especially susceptible to this ruse, possibly a way for yuki-onna to ensure that nobody will ever bother her about the children she took.
4) Hyakkiyagyou (百鬼夜行)
This is not one youkai, but many. A hyakkiyagyou is a procession of a hundred demons through the night-time city streets. This was said to happen about once a month on certain dates, which scholars would calculate and note on calendars so people could avoid being out and caught unawares. Alone the sight of a hyakkiyagyou could kill. If not, demons might blind (or do something worse to) a human onlooker for disturbing their festivities, their gathering. Stumbling into this other-world, into this world apart from ours was obviously considered a taboo that had severe consequences.
Of course there are many other youkai, and many of them like the kitsune or the tanuki play tricks on humans or even possess them. Sometimes those same youkai fall in love with a human and take on human form to be with them. The examples above, the kappa with all its similarities to kelpies, the tengu and yuki-onna who abduct people to their realm and create illusions, and then the hyakkiyagyou, a demon parade which is reminiscent of the Wild Hunt or Fae gatherings in general, are the ones that show most closely how Fae and youkai connect in how they interact with the unwary human.
Youkai are not Fae, but they are alike, emigrants or not. So if you are in Japan, don’t be a Yeats, and always be home before dark. And if you want to go for a swim, remember, no cucumbers!
Michael Dylan Foster, Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai, University of California Press 2009
Royall Tyler, Japanese Tales, Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, 1987
The Obakemono Project, http://www.obakemono.com/
[All images link to their source at wikimedia]
Alexandra has never made any acquaintances whatsoever with Fae or youkai or anything the like…unless you count gong fu masters. She writes of the strange though: her poems and stories can be found at
Strange Horizons, The Red Penny Papers, Cabinet des Fées and others and regular reviews of the strange and beautiful want to be read at http://www.fantastique-unfettered.com/. Alexandra is a poetry editor for Fantastique Unfettered and Niteblade, and in between all that, she manages to keep that blog with claws: http://www.tigerinthematchstickbox.blogspot.com