A Guide to Japanese Monsters: Tengu

by Megan Taylor Stephens

What are Tengu?

Tengu (天狗)are Japanese mythological creatures with god-like traits and avian attributes. They have giant noses or beaks, red faces, and feathers or wings. In many legends, they can fly, shape shift, and control the wind. In other fables, they are skilled swordsmen and powerful martial artists. Similar to other Japanese mythical creatures such as the oni (ogre) or the kappa (river creature), tengu are yōkai—monsters bestowed with supernatural powers.

The Japanese tengu goes way back in the cultural psyche, and may even be based on Chinese or Indian legends. In their earliest incarnation, tengu were portrayed as crows, or karasu-tengu. Later, they took on a more human form. Many Japanese monsters evolved over the centuries from being more animal-like to more human-like, perhaps so they would be more imaginable and relatable to the people.

Some myths portray tengu as purely devilish monsters who are reported to be unbearably arrogant. They are said to kidnap or eat people. They also are known to dislike Buddhism and torment monks. Other stories highlight their positive attributes, such as tendency to protect the forest and mountain environment or mentor others in their powerful ways. Like other yō>kai, so many legends have popped up about tengu over the millennia that it’s hard to say whether they are mostly malevolent with a penchant for pranks or mostly mischievous with a demonic flair.

Wherever they originated and however slippery their personalities, tengu persist in the imagination of present-day Japanese. You may have come across tengu-inspired figures while playing Pokémon, such in the characters Nuzleaf or Shiftry. You may have glimpsed a character named Tengu in the anime series and video game, Yo-kai Watch. Other manga and animated movies, including Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, feature Tengu warriors.

Tengu are often associated with good luck and prosperity. In many Japanese celebrations, beans signify good health and longevity and throwing beans drives away evil and misfortune. At tengu festivals and during Setsubun, a spring celebration held at the beginning of February, roasted soybeans are thrown and evil is cast out with the phrase: Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (Devils be gone! Let good fortune in!).

Beans, Beans, the Good Luck Food

Since beans symbolize good luck in Japan, here is a sampling of bean-related food products that will help you cast out misfortune and keep the ornery tengu at bay.

Shun de Riz: Sekihan Instant Red Bean Rice is, as the name suggests, simply red azuki beans and rice. Sekihan is the name for red beans and rice, which is customarily eaten during celebrations like weddings or birthdays. It’s amazing how two main ingredients can come together to form a perfect union! Just two and half minutes in the microwave and you can be eating this chewy steamed rice mixed with tender, flavorful beans.

Shun de Riz: Sekihan Instant Red Bean Rice (1 Cup)

Chestnut Drum Manju are sweet buns filled with white bean paste and roasted chestnut bits. If you haven’t eaten manju, white bean paste, or roasted chestnuts, you haven’t truly experienced the Japanese palate. The soft wheat dough with the lightly sweet and creamy bean paste and the buttery chestnut flavors are a match made in heaven. Just be careful not to eat all 12 pieces at once!

Chestnut Drum Manju

Chocolate Azuki Beans: Uji Matcha are dried sugared red beans dipped into white chocolate and then dusted with green tea leaf powder. The result is a small but mighty morsel of goodness that is difficult to describe but—trust us—worth every bite. Polishing off the package is also nearly guilt-free, considering all the health benefits of beans and matcha.

Chocolate Azuki Beans: Uji Matcha

You can order and eat all these Japanese snacks and more on Bokksu. But watch out--the tengu demon might try to abduct you and steal all your food! As you scarf it down, just remember to say: Oni wa soto! Out with the devil!

By Megan Taylor Stephens

Author Bio

Megan Taylor Stephens interest in the Japanese language, culture, and food goes way back. She was a Japanese exchange student in high school. Then she studied Japanese and linguistics in college, returned to Japan to work through the JET program (Coordinator of International Relations), and was an interpreter and translator for a while. Megan taught English as a Foreign Language in Japan and other countries before getting a Master's degree in ESL and becoming an ESL teacher. She then pivoted to becoming a school-based speech-language pathologist, so still gets to be immersed in the field of applied linguistics and loves working with bilingual students. Megan enjoys writing on the side for companies like Bokksu. A love of language, culture, travel, food, and learning never dies, it only gets more intense--just like cravings for ramen and Pocky!