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In Part 1 of this article, we learned some fun facts about three iconic foods so beloved by the Japanese that they, yup, became icons—how an old lady and a samurai gave birth to the first rice cracker; what it means to be called a pudding-head in Japan; and how a classic 1960s manga cemented the way oden would be illustrated for decades to come.

So get ready for Part 2, in which I’ll attempt to sift through millennia of history and get you further acquainted with three more emoticons!

First we’ll look at the mythical tengu, a complex, multifaceted creature that in modern times pops up in things like Digimon and the Mega Man series. Then we’ll check out a New Year’s decoration that may have originated from taketaba, a shield made from bundled bamboo that became necessary once firearms were introduced. To close, we’ll explore the customs and lore surrounding the Tanabata festival, including the romantic legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are both star-crossed lovers and actual stars in the sky.

#1. Tengu (天狗)/tengu mask

Whenever a tengu appears as a pretty boy or girl in an anime series, the fact that its many identities are intertwined with folk religion, Shintō, and Buddhism can be easy to forget. At times a warmongering demon or a punisher of vain priests, at other times a mountain deity high on mushrooms, a skilled swordsman, or a silly mononoke, most likely its characteristics were conveniently molded and changed throughout history by society, to fit in with the needs of both leaders and commoners.

tengu 1

Images: Wikipedia

Literally meaning “celestial dog,” one of the tengu’s roots is the legendary Chinese tiangou. The name was attributed to explosive fireballs and comets that were likened to howling dogs running down from the sky; their descent meant misfortune and war. Though one Japanese text from around 720 AD mentions this heavenly pooch of death, the word “tengu” made little appearance until an anthology of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese tales called Konjaku Monogatari-shū was published before 1077.

By this time, the mountain-dwelling demons are a human-bird hybrid similar to the garuda, with beaks and wings of a black kite. They could fly and abduct children, set houses on fire, transform into a Buddha, and seduce priests by possessing women, to name but a few abilities.

▼ A tengu in Kamakura. The prevailing image of red face, super-long nose (which is thought to have mutated from the beak), and generating wind with a fan probably came into being around the mid-13th century.

Yamabushi tengu in Kamakura, with both wings and nose

Image: Bestiary.Us

Interestingly, tengu were portrayed as both opponents and upholders of the Dharma. As much as they disrupted Buddhism and misled laymen down paths of heresy, the anthology included satirical tales of their cracking down on important and corrupt priests. They were also known for playing tricks both big and small on the arrogant or fame-obsessed, and not even samurai were safe.

Texts from the 14th century onward gave rise to benevolent versions who protected temples, taught priests, and controlled the minor, unruly tengu. As relatively recent as 1860, the tengu were still revered, if not feared. For example, when shogun were planning on making a visit to Nikkō that year, a government official put out notices “to the Tengu and other demons” living in the mountains that “they must remove elsewhere until … the visit is concluded.”

▼ A modern-day festival of Gunma Prefecture that’s held in August, with a mask-shaped portable shrine. Women carry it and pray for a multitude of wishes, including family safety.

Tengu mikoshi

Image: Ameblo

All in all, because tengu themselves seem to think they know what’s best for you, they’ve come to be thought of as an incarnation of self-conceit and their proboscis symbolizes that quality. Now, if someone says during a conversation that so-and-so is becoming a tengu, it means that the person is letting pride go to his or her head; you could also imply this by holding one or two fists in front of your nose (as if you were grabbing the tengu’s).

▼ P&D again! This monster’s leader skill gains another level of meaning when you consider the tengu’s ability to possess people, no?

tengu 4

Image: RocketNews24

#2. Kadomatsu (門松)

This decoration’s name directly translates into “gate pine” and a traditional Japanese New Year would seem positively naked without one. While a mini version could adorn any area of the home to amp up the festivity, the larger, professionally crafted ones that can cost between US$100 to $900 are placed outdoors to grace entryways in pairs. Generally, the male omatsu made with black pine is put on the left (when seen from the front), and the female mematsu made with red pine on the right.

kadomatsu 1

Image: Wikipedia

Styles differ from region to region, but it is thought that the kadomatsu had taken this general shape by the 14th century. Most include branches of plum along with the standard pine and bamboo to complete the ultra-auspicious combo of shōchikubai (pine-bamboo-plum), which turns up in various aspects of Japanese culture and represents vitality, longevity, and prosperity. Though the three stalks of bamboo seem like the most important element due to its sheer presence, the kadomatsu’s other names such as matsukazari and tatematsu underscore the pine’s significance.

▼ A small plastic one with Rilakkuma, and a downloadable paper craft version from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency!

kadomatsu 2

Images: Rakuten Ichiba, RocketNews24

Kadomatsu are used so that when deities visit the earthly realm for New Year’s, they will know where to go and have a place to stay. It makes a great home because the plants involved are believed to be sacred and have mystical powers, since pine and bamboo remain green even in winter, and the plum blooms in February. Households without the temporary dwellings are bypassed, and cannot receive blessings for that year. As for the timing, though the decorations technically can be put out from December 13, it’s generally postponed until after Christmas to keep the red and green decorations from overlapping.

But woe to those who choose the 29th or 31st! The former date is avoided for two reasons; one, the number 29 can be read as nijyūku, which can also mean “double suffering,” and two, the decoration can take on the meaning kumatsu, which can be read as “nine pine” as well as “waiting for suffering.” Meanwhile, the 31st is frowned upon because it’s the day before New Year’s, and to welcome the deities for only one night is, well, way too insincere.

#3. Tanabata (七夕)

tanabata 1

Image: Kyōto Wo Aruku Album

Bamboo takes center stage legitimately in this next holiday-related emoticon. Though you could use it to relay news of your successful trip to Home Depot, it actually depicts an icon of the Tanabata festival that’s generally held on July 7: stalks of bamboo grass hung with tanzaku and other ethereal decorations, similar to the wish tree tradition of other countries. Celebrated in several Asian nations, Tanabata is yet another custom with an involved history that, in Japan, spans at least 1,500 years and visually, it always reminds me of Christmas.

One of Japan’s five important seasonal festivals (called the gosekku), it is thought to be an amalgam of roughly three traditions. The original Tanabata (written 棚機) was a pre-Buddhism purification ceremony held on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunisolar calendar (around August 12). A young girl was chosen to weave fabric on the Tanabata loom as an offering for the gods, to pray for the autumn harvest and to purify those in her community. The second tradition is the Kikōden or Kikkōden, which was brought over from China during the Nara period. Young girls would pray for better skills in weaving and sewing, as well as the performing arts and calligraphy.

Most associated with the holiday today, however, is the bittersweet Chinese folktale of a celestial cowherd and weaver girl. A beautiful, atmospheric rendition of this legend can be seen on this episode of Folktales from Japan.

tanabata 2

Image: Crunchyroll

In the most common version, two hard-working young deities, Orihime (literally “weaving princess” and a manifestation of the star Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair), fall in love and start shirking their duties. Out of anger, the princess’ father forbids them from seeing each other, but after seeing his daughter’s endless tears, he allows them to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. This is when Vega and Altair shine brightly on either side of the Milky Way, or the Heavenly River (written 天の川), and during Tanabata the celebrants wish for clear skies so that Orihime can cross and be with her beloved.

The festival began to spread throughout Japan and be shaped into what we know today during the Edo period. People would pray to the stars for their wishes to come true, while praying for the two lovers’ wishes as well. As mentioned before, bamboo grass is used for its divine properties, and the tanzaku (slips of paper on which the wishes are written) traditionally come in five colors, related to the five elements of wood, fire, water, earth, and metal. These days, hopes can be as “minor” as getting a higher allowance or as practical as acing the next test.

▼Other paper decorations include stars, lanterns, fishing nets, seashells, and representations of the Milky Way, each with their own significance.

tanabata 3

            Image: Fujicco Note

While this article is by no means an exhaustive lesson on history and culture, I hope you learned a few cool tidbits that add some heft to these three common emoticons. Have an icon you’re curious about? A little research may reveal some surprising information!

Sources: Wikipedia 1, 2, 3, Google Books, Takao Tsūshin, Mizu No Kirameki, Yuzawa, Kadomatsu to Osechi, Kyōto Jishujinja
Feature Image: Super Mario Wiki, Kazutyan No Tsubuyaki, Blog De Go