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‘Here Comes the Tengu’

by C.B. Liddell

Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History

Closes Oct. 31

Maybe it’s because of the big nose and the red face — like some grotesque characterization of my fellow Europeans and me — or it might just be the aura of a potent figure existing on the margins of a society. Whatever it is, since arriving in Japan, I’ve always felt a strong affinity with the Tengu, the winged goblins of Japanese folklore. Now “Here Comes the Tengu” at the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History allows visitors to take a closer look at these legendary creatures, one of the most colorful folkloric threads running through Japan’s unique cultural history.

With a wealth of materials, the exhibition explores the origins and varied manifestations of these fascinating figures. Originating in China as doglike comet beings (the Chinese characters for Tengu mean “heaven’s dog”) whose arrival portended war, Tengus were soon invested with birdlike attributes of wings and beaks, possibly through conflation with the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, which was introduced to Japan through Buddhism. The beak was later transformed into the characteristic long red nose.

Although all the explanations are in Japanese, there is still much for non-Japanese-speakers to enjoy, from elaborate mandalas and colorful scrolls to bugaku (dance) masks with swinging noses from the 10th century, as well as impressive statues of Tengu and associated figures. These include the aforementioned Garuda and En no Gyoja, a 7th-century hermit and ascetic whose legend became entwined with that of the Tengu.

The history of Tengu is a good example of the Japanese tendency to transform dangerous aspects of nature or the supernatural to something friendlier and cuter. From his origin as a harbinger of war, the Tengu gradually mellowed into a protective mountain spirit and then became a convenient marketing tool for various brands of goods. Having said that, the large Tengu masks at the entrance still have the power to reduce small children to tears.

The Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History is in Yokohama, 1-minute walk from Bashamichi Station on the Tokyoko or Minato Mirai lines; admission ¥300; open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., (Fri. special exhibition open till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information visit ch.kanagawa-museum.jp/tenji/toku/toku.html.