Wolves (Ōkami)

Although now extinct, the Japanese wolf originally roamed much of Japan. The Japanese wolf was a mid-sized wolf with white-brown fur. Its coat changed colors in winter and summer.

The last known specimen died in 1905 in Nara Prefecture.

The wolf was revered in Japan as far back as 720 AD appearing in the Nihon Shoki as the Kashikoki Kami (clever kami). The wolf also appears in other compilations from the Nara Period such as descriptions of various regional areas.

8-204The following example is pulled from a piece referenced in the 1967 publication Overview of Japanese Classical Literature volume 2 (日本古典文学大系) .

“Long ago, in the Asuka region there was an old wolf which ate many people. The villagers were afraid and called it the “Great-mouthed kami” The name was assigned to that place and is referenced in various writings as “Origin of the Great-mouthed kami.” (大口の真神原) .

Japanese Wikipedia makes a point of mentioning that this place name also appears in the 8th scroll of the Man’yōshū, which is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after 759 AD. There was a small spat in my house about the meaning of the poetry, so I will just place the original below for your own puzzling. (something about snow which falls in the “origin of the Great-mouthed kami” and not having a house…?)

「大口の まかみの原に ふる雪は いたくなふりそ 家もあらなくに」

The Ainu in Northern Japan also referred to the wolf as “Great-mouthed Kamuy,” “Hunter Kamuy” and the “Howling Kamuy”

(More about Kamuy here, in case you’re interested in Ainu religions. I would like to put some representative Ainu folktales up on this blog eventually.)

Actually, a larger (arguably more impressive) wolf is native to Hokkaido where the Ainu live.

1) Hokkaido Wolf     2) Japanese Wolf      (3) Red Fox    (4) Raccoon Dog

There are many shrines in Chichibu, Saitama which continue to revere wolves as kami and messengers of the kami.

In the old writings I mentioned above, the wolf is called makami (真神), in this case, the character for “ma” means “true.”  I think there could be two meanings for this. One is the obvious, “true kami,” but the other is the belief prevalent in wolf lore in Japan that the wolf can see the “true” human character when it interacts with humans.

The wolf punishes the evil doers and rewards the good. It is also lauded as a prognosticator of calamity. Some people speculate this may be because its howls could warn villagers of forest fires before the villagers could see or smell the fire.

In his article, “On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf” (full reference below) Dr. John Knight writes that “In the high Tamaki mountains north of Hongu there is a giant tree known as “the cypress of dog howls.” Here wolves are said to have howled continuously on the eve of the great flood of 1889, which killed many people in Hongu and nearby areas….The wolf appears as a human ally in the mountains, protecting villagers from the vicissitudes of the natural world around them.”

And finally, although extinct, the Japanese wolf seems to hold a poetic place in the Japanese subconscious and constantly recurs in anime, manga, and video games.

I don’t usually recommend anime on this blog, but I’m making an exception.  I highly recommend the 1999 animated feature Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. The film weaves the little red riding hood German story (Rotkäppchen) into the main narrative of an alternate 1950s Japan. While there is perhaps not a direct link to Japanese folklore, I think one could read a tragic, conflicted overlap in the main character of the Japanese wolf who sees “truth (?)” and the European wolf who must devour.

It will start slowly and bury you in emotional trauma at the end.

If that’s not your pace, a more recent film was the 2012 feature Wolf Children. It is a more lighthearted story that follows the escapades of a woman and her wolf lover and their children (although it touches gently on darker themes of death and the struggle between humans and nature). I know many Japanese people felt this was a truly “Japanese” story.

For your reading enjoyment, I have translated versions of the three main types of stories about wolves in Japanese folktales.

1) Okuri ōkami  — The Guardian Wolf
2) Senbiki ōkami — A Thousand Wolves
3) Ōkami no mayuge — The Wolf’s Eyebrow

Further reading:

  1. Dr. John Knight (Queen’s University, Belfast) wrote an interesting overview of disputed sightings since 1905, including some coverage of the wolf’s benevolent standing in Japanese folklore.
    Knight, John (1997). “On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf”. Asian Folklore Studies. Nanzan University. 56 (1): 129–159. doi:10.2307/1178791. Retrieved January 24, 2014.
    Stable URL: also wrote a book about rural Japanese and their relationship with wildlife entitled, Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of People-Wildlife Relations (1992), which can be easily purchased online by the wolf enthusiast.
  2. A more recent book in English is the The Lost Wolves of Japan (2005) by the Environmental Historian Dr. Brett Walker (Montana State University). Also, easily available online (in e-book and Kindle format! It has also been translated into Japanese.).
  3. Another English language article I used for reference while writing the above post is much older, but available on JSTOR:
    Casal,  U. A. “The Goblin Fox and Badger and Other Witch Animals of Japan.” Folklore Studies, Vol. 18. (1959), pp. 1-93  (wolves are only in pp.78 -84)
  4. In Japanese, many people reference books by the zoologist Yonekichi Hiraiwa.
  5. Ok…I found this book one night and stayed up way too late looking into it entitled “The Japanese wolf is still alive (Nihon Okami wa Ikiteiru)” by Satoshi Nishida, published in 2007. The author believes he spotted a Japanese wolf and took pictures of it in Kyushu in 2000 (note particularly the tail and nose).
    Photo by Satoshi Nishida (西田智 – ニホンオオカミは生きている)

    Although Dr. Imaizumi from the Mammal Society of Japan believed the photos to be authentic before his death in 2007, Mr. Nishida’s photos have not been accepted as evidence by the majority of the scientific community.

    The above book outlines Nishida’s harrowing adventure discussing the matter with various scientific societies and being fraught with conflicting emotions when contacted by a reporter from NHK to do a story. Among other reasons, he was worried that releasing the story to the Japanese mass media could unleash a tide of maniacs tromping around the Kyushu mountains and possibly damaging the habitat of an extremely endangered animal (if it was the Japanese wolf) even further.

    Some people believe Nishida mistook a Shikoku Inu for a wolf (others speculate it is a hybrid wolfdog).

    Shikoku Inu

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