s light drains from the evening sky above Tokyo, the face of a stone dog begins to glow. It is being illuminated by a spotlight on the grounds of Oiwa Inari-Tamiya Jinja shrine. In the daylight, Japan’s religious sites are pretty, serene places, but, as darkness descends, they become far eerier. Especially when they’re home, like this particular shrine, to a canine demon.
“Inugami” is the name of that mythical devil, embodied here by a statue. For more than 1,000 years, Japan’s been plagued by these dangerous dogs which, according to Japanese folklore, are believed to possess a person and then make them sick and malicious. Yet humans also have the ability to master the Inugami and exploit their mystical powers.
There are, in fact, two canine spirits with prominent roles in Japanese mythology. Observant tourists can spot statues of the Inugami dog and the Kitsune fox at many temples across Japan. These creatures are part of a group of supernatural monsters known as Yokai in Japanese mythology.
It may escape the attention of most tourists, but Japan has a long, deep relationship with superstition and folklore. For example, every day in Tokyo’s Otemachi financial district, office workers can be seen praying to a beheaded Samurai ghost who some Japanese people blame for triggering everything from earthquakes to economic crises.
That dead warrior, Taira no Masakado, was a real person, a 10th-century Samurai decapitated by his foes. Now he survives as an Onryo, a type of malevolent ghost in Japanese mythology, which occupies the same murky underworld as the Inugami and the Kitsune.
Whereas Onryo are the angry spirits of powerful deceased humans, such as lords or warriors, Yokai spirits like the Inugami and Kitsune are shape-shifting monsters that typically take the form of animals. Some Yokai are believed to be peaceful and benevolent. Others are feared as toxic and disruptive. The Kitsune tend to be relatively harmless whereas the Inugami can be dangerous, depending on how they’re treated by humans.
While accounts of how the Inugami first emerged in Japan vary, it is commonly believed they were first conjured by shaman more than a millennia ago. These men, who claimed to have influence over the supernatural world, had several grim ways of birthing an Inugami.
According to legend, some shaman would bury a live dog with its head sticking out, place food just out of its reach, and then behead the animal and place its remains in an urn. Another ghastly method for creating an Inugami was to starve a dog, and then bury its head beneath the intersection of two roads—a location which, in Japanese folklore, is considered to be a gateway for spirits.
Once the Inugami was summoned, its creator could control it and wield this spirit like a weapon. The ghostly dog would faithfully serve this master, and their family, for as long as they were treated with respect. The Inugami’s owner could instruct them to attack an enemy, possessing the soul of that rival human, and making them ill or insane.
Once infected by this canine ghoul, the victim could then pass this sickness on to their loved ones. Soon, an entire bloodline could be in the devilish grip of a single Inugami. The only way to be rid of this unwanted spiritual passenger is by performing an exorcism.
Tourists would surely be shocked to learn such a grim tale lurks behind the statues of stately dogs positioned in religious complexes throughout Japan. One such Inugami even has a role to play during Tokyo’s annual Azalea Festival.
Each April, that city’s 1,900-year-old Nezu Shrine is embellished by thousands of these brightly-colored flowers. Many visitors stop to pay respects to the Inugami statue within Nezu Shrine before moving on to admire the azaleas that flank its ponds, paths, and prayer halls.
The Kitsune, meanwhile, gets its moment on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That is when, at Oji Inari-jinja Shrine in northern Tokyo, people wear fox masks or paint their faces to look like a fox. They do so to honor the Japanese folk tale that, at this time each year, Kitsunes would meet up to disguise themselves as humans.
Fortunately, Kitsunes are believed to be less devilish than the Inugami dogs. There are some tales of these supernatural foxes possessing humans and stealing their spirits. But Kitsune are more widely-viewed as the earthly messengers of Inari, the Shinto spirit associated with prosperity, and are often portrayed as loyal guardians of humans.
That surely makes them more appealing companions than the COVID-19 of Japan’s spirit world—the infecting Inugami. Look out for these mythical dogs on your next trip to Japan.