On Tengu: Some Musings

In July, when my parents visited me, we visited Mt. Kurama (鞍馬山) in Kyoto. As I predicted, they were impressed by the huge tengu (天狗) face just outside the station, as I was when I first visited here three years ago.

My mother in front of the tengu of Kurama Station

Me with Fumie at the same site, June 2010

I decided recently to do a bit of research on tengu and write a short essay. It’s been a while since I looked into old Japanese folk-tales of ghosts and monsters, which one could say was how I got my start in studying Japanese, so it seemed appropriate.

I started, of course, by checking Wikipedia. Their article on “tengu” contains what looked like a relatively good bibliography, so I figured I’d look into some of those books. Doing so, I noticed Roald Knutsen’s Tengu – The Shamanic and Esoteric Origins of Japanese Martial Arts. An odd title, I thought, for a book cited in an article on folklore. But then, my hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune did, according to legend, learn his martial skill from the tengu of Mt. Kurama, so maybe it is a folkloric study of the relationship between tengu and the martial arts, which of course peaked my interest.

牛若丸僧正坊隋武術覚圖 "Ushiwaka-maru (Yoshitsune) learns martial arts under Sojobo"

牛若丸僧正坊隋武術覚圖
“Yoshitsune (right) learns martial arts under Sojobo”

(As an aside, the central part of the above image actually appeared on the cover of the copy of Mitford’s famous Tales of Old Japan that I read back in 2006. No one told me that it was an image of the story of Yoshitsune, who as far as I recall doesn’t appear in that old book.)

Anyway, checking the Google Books page for Knutsen’s book proved disappointing. No preview or E-book, and no reviews. Checking Amazon was not much better: not a single review, and apparently if I want to read it I need to import it at the hefty fee of at least 7,600 yen. However, the publisher’s website included an interesting summary. The middle part of this summary (the early discovery that the tengu of the Muromachi period were interacting […] Here were beings […] As this study shows, the part-hidden tengu under review passed on and taught the clearest theory of tactics and strategy to bushi) seems to imply that at least some tengu actually existed and taught their martial skills to the warriors of medieval Japan.

Now I’m more curious than ever about the contents of this book.

The publisher’s “biographical note” on Knutsen describes him as having spent decades studying traditional Japanese martial arts, but the sentence After studying Art and Design he served as a regular in the Intelligence Corps and followed with a successful career in graphic design, choreographing complex medieval combat sequences for a computer film project in England and the USA, and writing interestingly mentions no serious qualifications in Japanese, history or folklore studies.

I studied kendō in Ireland for a few years and I can tell you being a high-ranking kendōka does not automatically grant one a degree of knowledge of the Japanese language or of Japanese history. One does not have to know about Japanese history to be good at kendō, and one does not have to be good at kendō to understand Japanese history. I am sure Knutsen’s books are all good reads, but I am curious about what kind of sources he uses, and if he actually makes the claim that appears to be attributed to him in the summary. I trust Brill not to publish something on the fringe, so I’m really curious.

Has anyone read this book, or otherwise have access to any of Knutsen’s other works?

Anyway, a point mentioned in the Wikipedia article on tengu that I found interesting was that the common Japanese phrase 天狗になる (tengu ni naru, literally “become a tengu”, but meaning “put on airs” or “become arrogant”) comes from the belief that arrogant people become tengu after death. This statement is cited to the writer of GeGeGe no Kitarō (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎), who probably knows what he’s talking about. But I had always assumed that this had something to do with the other Japanese idiom 鼻が高い (hana ga takai, literally “having a high nose”, but meaning “be arrogant”) and the fact that tengu … well, their noses are more “long” than “high”, but still. 😛

I think this is enough musing on the subject of tengu for today. I may return to this subject in the future. It has been fun.

UPDATE: I translated the above into Japanese, which can be viewed here.

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This entry was posted in Blog entries with Japanese translations, Essays, Japanese Mythology and Folklore, Martial Arts, Sightseeing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Tengu: Some Musings

  1. Maria says:

    Your experience is great !!!!!

  2. Pingback: 随想:天狗論 | Japanography

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