- Japanese: 狼 (Ookami)
Ôkami is the Japanese name for the creature commonly called the Japanese wolf (Canus lupus hodophylax), which became extinct in 1905, though there have been many sightings since, mostly concentrating around the Kii Peninsula. Because of its small size and stature, there is some dispute as to whether it was an actual wolf, the term "wolf-dog" being given as a possible alternate. In fact, the term yama inu (山犬, "mountain dog") is a common Japanese term for the wolf.
Ôkami in Folk Belief
In folklore, the wolf was associated with the mountains (山, yama) and was thought to be both benevolent and malevolent. An anonymous Japanese said that "[no animal] is as frightening as [the wolf] is." (Knight, 136) It is quick and agile, and Yanagita Kunio, the father of Japanese folklore studies, said that "the wolf can hide even where there is only a single reed". In Edo period Japan, the word yama-inu became slang for a rabid dog.
On the other hand, the wolf has a benevolent side as well. At night when travelers are lost in the mountains, the wolf at times will escort them to the doors of their homes. In such capacity, these wolves are known as okuri-ôkami (送り狼, "sending wolf"). In some stories of okuri-ôkami, the wolf is never seen, but its presence is known by the constant chirping of a sparrow at the traveler's side. (Knight, 136). However, the wolf was also said to turn on some travelers as soon as its home was reached, and also that the wolf could judge between the good or bad and would maul the latter if it came upon them in the mountains.
The wolf has largely been seen by peasants as a benevolent animal, and there are many village rites that involve or respond to the wolf. In contrast to the wolf's historical persecution in the West as an evil animal, in Japan if one kills a wolf for whatever reason, that man and his family had reason to fear divine retribution. Also, in certain villages it was a custom to make an offering of sekihan (red rice, used mainly in festivals and rites) whenever a wolf cub was born; and wolves were sometimes known to make return offerings of meat when a village woman gave birth. Wolves also were said to leave certain kills as a gift for the village, though if the villagers did not leave it a portion of the meat as a return gift, the wolf would grow angry. The reason the wolf was so highly regarded is that it was a protector of the rice field against boars, deer, and hares. (Knight, 139-40)
In this capacity as a rice field protector, it is associated with the fox (狐, "kitsune"). In fact, the wolf was thought to be the divine messenger of the mountain deity (山の神, yama no kami), just as the fox was the messenger of the rice field deity (田の神, ta no kami). Farmers all over Japan have traditionally thought that in the winter, after the harvest, the rice field deity acends to the mountain and becomes the mountain deity (Hirayama, 60) giving rise to the idea that the fox and wolf are seasonal permutations of each other (Knight, 13).
The contradicting, equally benign and perilous natures of the wolf are characteristic of some animals in Japanese folklore. The wolf is a guardian when it is properly attended to and cared for, but can develop a grudge toward mankind if slighted or mistreated. Thus, as a moral judge, the wolf's actions mirror humanity's own. As John Knight says, "Japanese wolf lore tells not of good or bad wolves but of good or bad people." (143)
Ôkami in Folktales
The wolf appears in many folktales, of which only a couple are discussed here.
In "Leaky Roof in an Old House", a wolf is listening outside of a house, where a man and a woman are discussing what they feel is the most eerie, spooky thing in the world. The man says "a leaky roof in an old house is something to fear more than a [wolf]." Meanwhile, a thief is also outside, about to break into the house. The wolf, remembering what the man said, thinks that the thief is the thing called "leaky roof in an old house", and runs away. While this story is more about comic misunderstanding than the wolf itself, it is telling that the man uses a wolf to describe just how fearful a leaky roof was to him. (A leaky roof in a ruined house was thought to create a spooky, otherworldly atmosphere.)
In "The Wolf's Eyebrows", a suicidal man goes into the mountains in order to find a wolf to devour him. When he meets one, he falls to his knees, and, shortly after, demands to know why the wolf does not eat him. The wolf replies that they do not eat just anyone; only those who are actually animals disguised as humans. When asked how the wolf distinguishes the two groups when they both look like men, the wolf replies that his eyebrows show him a man's true form, and lends the man an eyebrow hair. The man goes off, and toward nightfall begs for shelter at the nearest house. The old man there is kind, but his old wife refuses. Remembering the eyebrow hair, the man decides to test it, and holds it to his eye: instead of two people, he sees the old man standing next to an old cow. This folktale expresses the notion, again, that wolves are judges of character, and can somehow tell who is a good person and who is a bad person (an animal).
- Knight, John. (1997) "On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf". Asian Folklore Studies.
- Hirayama, Toshijiro. (1963) "Seasonal Rituals Connected with Rice Culture". Studies in Japanese Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson. Indiana University Press.
- Morgan, Susan. "Yama-inu". The Obakemono Project. Retrieved January 1, 2007.
- Yanagita, Kunio. (1960). Japanese Folk Tales, translated by Fanny Hagin Mayer. Tokyo News Service, Ltd.