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Tengu – the Japanese God & His Cultural Impact

The word ‘Tengu’ comes from the two Chinese words tian and gou which if translated means heaven and dog, thus the name heavenly dog. Tengu are considered as a type of God in the Shinto religion, but mostly they are only thought of as a supernatural creature. Tengu are creatures found in old Japanese folk tales. Even though they are called ‘heavenly dogs’, they are not shaped like dogs at all but actually of a large bird with a human-like head. They were thought to have the characteristics of a bird, with claws, wings and—at first—a beak. However, as time went on, the beak eventually became pictured more as an unnaturally long nose.

To the Chinese, the Tengu creature is thought of as they were originally intended, which are dog-like demons. In more ancient times in Japan, Buddhists thought of Tengu as destructive demons and as signs or premonitions of war. Nowadays, Tengu are considered as protective spirits who live in forests and mountains. In festivals, usually people wear Tengu masks. They are typically in the color red, with long noses and frowning mean looks.

Photo by Patstuart on Wikimedia Commons.


Photo by Amcaja on Wikimedia Commons.

Chinese literature described Tengu as fierce canine monsters that look like a shooting star or comet. When the shooting star or comet hits the ground, it will make an awful loud noise, similar to thunder, and that it will bring war to the land where it falls. It is still yet to be clear the way the Tengu’s description of a dog-meteor shifted into a bird-man.

Tengu Part in Combat

Photo by WolfgangMichel on Wikimedia Commons.

Tengu are mentioned quite a lot in Japanese folk tales, but rather than scary, they are usually portrayed as creatures who are ridiculously gullible and easily confused by humans. In the 14th century, Tengu started to get associated with war. They were told to have great skills in art of combat. It started with the legend about a famous warrior named Minamoto no Yoshitsune. When he was just a boy, his father got assassinated by a clan named Taira. The boy then got exiled from the village and got thrown away to a temple near a forest. In that forest he met a Tengu that taught him the art of swordsmanship so he can have his revenge. Although at first Tengu’s actions are assumed as the demons attempt to create chaos and war, ever since Yoshitsune legend grew, his teacher (the Tengu) became looked upon as sympathetic and honorable. There are also myths saying that ninjas received special training from the Tengu.

Pop Culture References

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Tengu are referenced a lot in manga, anime, films and even video games. One of the most popular video games, Super Mario Bros. 2 has a character named Tweeter that was based on Tengu. The Pokémon series has Shiftry, Digimon has Karatenmon, even One Piece has a character named Usopp.

Tengu has been a part of Japanese life for centuries. Ever since Japan has shared it's culture with the world, the god has shown up in the most unexpected places. If you have ever read a manga, watched an anime, or played a video-game from Japan, you have probably seen some shape or form of this creature. Who knows where he'll show up next?

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